Critical Review and Chapter by Chapter Summary of The Power of Babel by John McWhorter
The Power of Babel
McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. Harper Perennial, 2003.
John McWhorter, the author of The Power of Babel, is attempting to give a brief yet functional history of human languages. The title of this book is aptly named after the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. The story tells of the people who, having survived the great flood, had only one language. They decided to build a giant tower into the sky. God then decided to give the people all different languages. This is seen as the religious etiology of different cultures and languages. While McWhorter gives a secular and scientific view of how languages came to be, he does believe that all different languages stem from one single language hundreds of thousands of years ago.
McWhorter’s book is broken down into seven main chapters and an epilogue. In the first chapter entitled “The First Language Morphs into Six Thousand New Ones” (McWhorter does not exercise any brevity in the naming of his chapters) deals with the question: “What happened to the first language?” (16). The next chapter is the chronological progression of the first entitled “The Six Thousand Languages Develop into Clusters of Sublanguages” which deals with how there really is no single language that is what we would call “English” or “German” or “Spanish”, but each language is really just a bunch of sublanguages that are all just similar enough to be grouped together under one name (53). The third chapter of the book is another progression of the last two entitled “The Thousands of Dialects Mix with One Another”. The next chapter is entitled “Some Languages Are Crushed to Powder but Rise again as New Ones.” The final three chapters deal with current languages and the dialects we use. They also deal with exactly how languages get altered and go extinct over time. The epilogue is a speculative piece over what language Adam and Eve, or any of the first language users, would have spoken.
In the first and largest chapter of the book, McWhorter attempts to tackle the history of the very first language. He begins with a brief analogy describing language change to changes in mountains. We may be able to see only very small changes in our lifetimes – inches of rock eroding, new expressions becoming popular – but we have to recognize that there have been enormous changes within the thousands of years languages have been around (16-17). He shows how languages have changed between two-thousand years from Latin to French. He uses this as a Launchpad to show just how easy it is for a language to evolve and remove “unnecessary” parts of words to become a whole new language. He goes on to describe how people will take certain “rules” that languages use and apply them to all words rather than single circumstances. He goes on to give several other cases of how languages change (articles getting smashed into main words and meanings of a word drifting aimlessly through time). The next set of ideas is that difference within the same language (dialects) draw lines that are mere conveniences at best (35). Change is so gradual it is hard to draw distinct differences in dialect for linguists. He ends the first chapter by admitting we may never know what the first language would have sounded like, but its roots are ever present in all 6,000 or so languages present today.
The next chapter of the book continues on to describe how the 6,000 languages we have today have split into thousands of sublanguages. McWhorter explains that dialects arise from the “inherently nondiscreet nature of language change” (54). He argues that different dialects are not “corrupted” or “incorrect” forms of a language, simply variations and evolutions in different areas. He continues on to say that there never was once a “correct” dialect, it happens to become the standard dialect through its use by the people who happen to be in power when the country came together politically (64). The rest of the chapter seems devoted to discerning where exactly the line lies between a distant dialect and a new language.
The third chapter describes how languages aren’t really all that separate from one another. Languages mix in three distinct ways. Languages intertwine words, and entire language systems. McWhorter admits that the “tree” analogy doesn’t really work with languages like linguists used to think it did. He relates languages more to a stew. One ingredient in the stew discernible from the next, however, infused with flavor from all of the other pieces (94). He says that we don’t really need to look at foreign languages to see how this works, as English has a “bastard vocabulary” (94). McWhorter claims that 99% of the Oxford English Dictionary contains words that have come from other lHowever, the very few words that trace back to Old English are the 62% most used words. Languages don’t only change but mix, and each dialect undergoes its own separate mixing with other languages. The final stage of language mixture is entire languages being the products of two separate languages (Cree [French-English] Cajun, Spanglish etc.). He says that trying to fight these language mixtures is futile as language evolution is not only unstoppable; it is needed for better understanding in areas where it is changing rapidly.
The next chapter discusses pidgins and creoles in depth. McWhorter describes pidgins as a language system that is just enough to get by in communication (132). He describes a few examples of pidgins (Russian/Norsk, early Native American/English, French/Congo) and how they were used by the people to “get along” well enough to do what they needed to do. Many times pidgins will be used and then fade as they are needed. However, McWhorter continues on to say that when a pidgin is what people use as their main form of communication it becomes a Creole. Creoles develop into languages that can do more than convey very simple and surface meanings as pidgins do. They can express deeper thought and meaning.
McWhorter’s next description of history of languages is exactly how languages develop into specific uses. What I mean is that languages differ from one another not only by words, but grammars. English has articles that most languages leave out (‘the’ and ‘a’ for example) and other languages have many different genders that they apply to their nouns. These differences arise because languages evolve. This is the same reason given to all other language changes. We utilize language to better make sense of the world and these specific grammars are no different.
Chapters 6 & 7
The final two chapters deal with languages becoming frozen, genetically altered, and how most languages have gone extinct. Languages, currently, have slowed down their modifications partly due to written language (standard writing changes very slowly) and wide spread literacy. Most languages have become extinct. This is due to languages becoming different languages (Latin turning into the romance languages, for example) and many languages have no written form. The languages that have no written form are bound for a quick extinction (225).
The short epilogue deals with the language that the first people may have spoken. McWhorter suggests some words and phrases are very similar across all languages. He thinks that some of these words may be remnants of the very first proto-language (303).
Critical Analysis & Conclusion
This book has a ton of information in it. It is a wonderful book that anybody interested in just how our language came to be should read. Each chapter not only tells what has happened from the beginning, but also uses tons of examples to show exactly why the changes happened. For instance, in the first chapter when explaining how words came to be shortened he gives several examples from English. The word “nickname” has really nothing to do with a nick. The word came from, according to McWhorter, the word ekename (apparently ‘eke’ meant also a long time ago) and the article “an” becoming smashed together - anekename. It slowly became transformed from spelling and pronunciation mutations to eventually become nickname. He gives very in depth examples for many changes in language throughout this book, not only just for the English language either. His book deals with the over 6,000 languages that are still used around the world.
While this book is very good, there are a few downsides. His examples sometimes become a little confusing and convoluted, especially when they are examples of languages that I can neither speak nor read at all. He attempts to put a little humor into the book, sometimes successfully and sometimes it comes off as a bit hackneyed. He also lacks a lot of scientific evidence it seems. I never knew if what he was saying was backed by research or if it was just what he felt like writing at the time because those are the conclusions he has come to. The notes section which is his sort of bibliography is a bit confusing and there are no asterisks or any marks to note which works he is tying to what he is saying, only page numbers and titles of articles.
This book is full of relevant and useful information. I found chapter two to be especially interesting. When discussing Black English, McWhorter says:
“Black English, America’s most controversial dialect, which even the most well intentioned people often see as ‘bad grammar run wild’ developed through the same processes of change as those of any other dialect and thus stands equal to any other in the qualitative sense.” (60).
He continues on to relate how Black English is no different from any other form or dialect of English, and how it really isn’t a strain to understand. A little farther along in chapter two McWhorter then discusses that “standard” dialects usually come about for political reasons, and not because they are any easier or more useful than any other dialect. This issue – Black English vs. ‘Standard English – I feel, is one that people don’t even really think about before they say what they feel. Why would a language become “lazy” or “broken” on its own? They are simply different dialects that have different ways of using the same language.
All-in-all, this is a very useful and informative book for anyone who wants to learn more about where languages came from and how they work in our society. The book is written in a way that makes the information as accessible to a college student studying the field to non-academics who just want to learn more about the languages that we use. It is a very truthful and honest book that gives the cold hard facts about the history of our languages.
McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. Harper Perennial, 2003.