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John McWhorter. Walmart Book Format: Paperback. Pickup not available.
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Add to List. Add to Registry. There are approximately 6, languages on Earth today, each a descendant of the tongue first spoken by Homo sapiens some , years ago. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, a noted linguistics professor argues that language is a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment. Customer Review Snapshot Average rating: 4 out of 5 stars, based on 16 reviews 16 ratings. Most helpful positive review. Average rating: 4 out of 5 stars, based on 0 reviews.
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Please enter a valid email address. Walmart Services. The breathless tour of linguistic oddities from around the globe has its own empirical delight. Where Steven Pinker's bestselling The Language Instinct was somewhat austerely dedicated to language in its most general aspects, The Power of Babel is about languages in the plural: their eccentricities and "baroque" complexities. The illustrations are chosen to denaturalise one's assumptions about language.
We find the languages of "primitive" peoples with ineffably complex grammatical rules, and are shown languages happily doing without any of the features that we might think vital to communication. There are languages of New Guinea that have no tenses; Australian languages with only three verbs. McWhorter is a kind of linguistic David Attenborough, observing with an awed enthusiasm all the strange varieties and ingenious adaptations of the 6, or so human languages supposedly being spoken on the planet at this moment.
The fascination is in his detail, the sheer case-by-case weirdness of languages. Anyone who has sweated over Latin or Ancient Greek in school will have had a much easier time than if certain North American indigenous languages, with their dizzying inflections, had been set for GCSEs. Everywhere language grows into curlicues of complication.
The Power of Babel : A Natural History of Language
There are the impossibly unpredictable plurals of the Luo language of Kenya, and the pedantic "evidential markers" of Tuyuca spoken in the Amazon rainforest a statement has to be accompanied by a grammatical indication as to how one came by the information. Where there are not inflections, there are almost unlearnable sound-markers of grammatical function: the clicks of Southern African languages or the six-toned sound varieties of Cantonese.
For McWhorter, this variety is God's plenty. He particularly relishes the phenomenon that most nettles linguistic opinionists: language change. We usually see only the smallest hints of great, slow changes that are happening all the time. We hear the rise of slang, and sometimes its transformation into a standard part of the language. Occasionally we detect some grammatical element that is dying to groans from the punctilious or being born.
Yet these are tiny things when measured against the continental shifts in language that happen over stretches longer than any single lifetime. Palaeontologists have fossils; linguists have creoles.
Unlike life-forms, new languages are, now and then, "created". First of all, "pidgin" versions of languages are developed when new speakers need to reduce a language to its most basic elements. A creole is what happens when a pidgin starts coming to life, developing its own inflections. Linguists can study the process, the unfolding of which is one of McWhorter's most intriguing subjects. He takes the case of "Tok Pisin" of Papua New Guinea: English "crushed to powder" and reborn according to Melanesian grammatical habits.
Book Review: The Power of Babel – A Natural History of Language
Knowing that self-transformation is a "natural" condition for speech, professors of linguistics always find it easy to condescend to those who fret about language change. He talks frequently of the "evolution" of languages, but sometimes seems uncertain about this metaphor. On the one hand, all the incredibly various languages of the world are taken to have evolved from a single progenitor.
There was, probably , years ago, an Ur-language, some of whose characteristics linguists can guess at. Out of it grew everything. On the other hand, languages do not necessarily change from the simple to the more complex. Is French a more "developed" language than the Latin from which it grew?