Sunday, November 27, 2005

Book Review: The Power of Babel - A Natural History of Language

Today's book review is The Power of Babel - A Natural History of Language, by John McWhorter. I've never noticed it in a bookshop, but a friend bought it for me, and I'm very glad she did.

My foreign language ability is pitiful (I did three years each of french and german at school) but I've always wished I could speak another language, and I've been fascinated by language differences for as long as I can remember. In fact, perhaps the starting reason I enjoyed this book is the anecdote at the beginning of the author, as a four year old, discovering for the first time that there were other languages when his four year old soulmate speaks in Hebrew to her parents.

Unlike me, John McWhorter goes on to learn as many languages as he can cram into his head, but he retains a fascination with what makes languages different, how they change over time, and what makes something a dialect rather than a language.

McWhorter is a lover of languages for their own sake, which shines through in the description of the many weird and wonderful grammatical flourishes that languages manage to have. This is at its most enjoyable when he systematically demolishes the myth that "primitive" societies have primitive languages.

In fact, as he shows, it's the reverse - the longer a language has been spoken without the preservation of writing, or the sandpaper of many non native speakers, the more baroque grammatical flourishes it is likely to have preserved, and the harder it is for a non native speaker to learn it. So grammatically and structural (if not in vocabulary) English is one of the simpler ones around.

The book is a fast clip through information about what seems like every language in the world, illustrating the way in which languages change and mutate - what makes it happen, how grammar is far more important in the process than vocabulary, but we generally notice vocabulary far more, all the while with fascinating examples and little cultural diversions.

He ends with a plea for more linguists to study and at least record all of the fast disappearing languages around the world; not because he believes you will preserve some wonderful understanding of the universe, but because they are worth preserving for their beauty and flourishes.

If you are at all fascinated with language, and the amazingly varied ways in which human beings choose to express themselves, you will enjoy this book.


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