Book Review: Power of Babel

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at the University of California Berkeley, has authored The Power of Babel, an overview of linguistic change. The book is aimed at the layperson and attempts to convey linguistic “truths” and smash popular myths about the nature of language and how it changes.

McWhorter does a superb job of taking what should be an impossibly broad topic, the history of language—all language—and distilling it down into a small number of discrete principles of change. Humans have been speaking languages for 150,000 years. There have been tens of thousands of languages throughout the millennia. Yet they all share common features and they change in patterned, if unpredictable, ways.

The Power of Babel frequently turns commonly held beliefs and perspectives on their head. For example, most people would accept that written language is “standard” and that spoken language is a poorer cousin. Actually, the opposite is true. We have been speaking for some 150,000 years, but writing for only 6,000. The oral properties of language are dominant and tend to drive change, with written language lagging behind and struggling to keep up. Writing, or more specifically printing, has had an impact on the pace of language change though. Just compare the difference in two centuries of change between Chaucer and Shakespeare with the four centuries between Shakespeare and today. The pace of change has slowed considerably since printing press came into widespread use. This is not just true of English, but also of other languages. The codification of grammar and spelling that comes with printing retards, but does not stop, language change.

Another widely held misperception is that the languages of primitive peoples are also simple and primitive compared to the languages of technologically advanced societies. Actually, the opposite is usually true. Grammatically, the languages of hunter-gatherers tend to be far more complex than modern European languages. McWhorter gives the example of the West African Fula language, which has some sixteen different grammatical genders (grammatical gender has only a tangential relation, at best, to sexual gender). Furthermore, within each gender the markers vary arbitrarily among the nouns, and there can be as many as four different variants for each marker. Fula makes one long for those days in 8th grade English when the teacher tried in vain to instruct us in the proper use of the subjunctive case.

Perhaps the most disturbing myth for many will be the fact that there is no “proper” way to speak or write. There are endless grammatical options and none is inherently superior to another. It doesn’t matter if you designate syntax through markers or through position in the sentence; both are equally effective. There may be social consequences and communications problems for individuals who speak in a non-standard fashion, but linguistically there is no good or bad and changes in grammatical patterns don’t mean a “dumbing down” or degradation of a language.

Each of his seven chapters and the epilogue address a particular aspect of language change. The first chapter deals with specific forms of linguistic change. McWhorter identifies six different types of linguistic change that are common to all language. The second chapter addresses dialects and how the concept of individual “languages” is a false one—there are only dialects. The third chapter deals with how languages mix and borrow—not just words but also linguistic concepts—from one another. And so on.

The book does suffer somewhat from the lack of a central organizing theory of language change. There is a unifying topic, language change, and some metaphors that are used consistently throughout, such as comparing language change to biological evolution. But he provides no central theory for historical change that unites the chapters. Perhaps though, this is too much to ask for. The individual chapters stand on their own. Essentially, the book comprises eight independent, but topically related, essays on linguistic change.

McWhorter writes in a readable and entertaining style. He peppers the text with references to popular culture, Asterus & Obelix cartoons, jokes, and personal reminiscences.

Still, The Power of Babel is not a casual read. Despite the non-academic style and references to The Simpsons, it is at its core a serious book. It is filled with examples of linguistic concepts and changes from a staggering number of different languages: English, Hindi, Fula, French, Zulu, Cheyenne, Turkish, Japanese, and many others. While these are interesting and compelling examples and the variety of languages represented contributes to the richness of McWhorter’s arguments, the continual examples in foreign languages disrupt the narrative flow. The book is better for the examples; it’s just that sometimes the reader is in for some heavy slogging in the middle of the chapters.

For the academically trained linguist, The Power of Babel offers little that is new. But for the layperson it is a (mostly) readable overview of how languages change and why. It dispels some common myths and provides insight and perspective on the one thing that makes humans unique in the animal kingdom, language.

Hardcover, 384 pp., W.H. Freeman & Co., Feb. 2002, $26.00.

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