The Power of Babel – A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter

I have always loved language – learning foreign languages, the use of language in writing, writing systems and symbols, how language is constructed, how sound and ways of expression in speech differ and resemble each other over the world’s many languages. Not only is language for me a constant fascination but I’m of the belief that a deeper understanding of the general aspects of language can help in approaching foreign language studies. Therefor, I was very excited to dig into John McWhorter’s book on linguistic history. I’ve been reading this since July, and unfortunately the time it took mirrors my decreasing interest in it. I’ll go on to describe some of my problems with the book – but first, I’ll touch on the valuable points I found in The Power of Babel.

One of the first things one realises as one starts to read this book is that language isn’t exactly straightforward in definition. There are many definitions out there, none are entirely free from dispute. John McWhorter talks about language as really being clusters of dialect, certain dialects being chosen as the standardized ‘version’ of the language in question. A language such as modern French really only reflects the ‘standard’ French, there are many more forms of the language; some being quite different from what many would consider “French” to be. He gives examples from German (and other languages) – how some dialects within a cluster are seemingly further from each other in resemblance than some related languages are. He gives the example of the Nordic languages like Swedish, Danish and Norwegian – as different languages that are fairly similar, even though they are seen as separate languages while some dialects are not considered as such. That’s not to say people from these countries can easily understand each other, speaking as a native Swedish speaker I can attest to that. But his point is that it’s not an impossible task while as some dialects of the ‘same’ language are so different that communication (in speech) is completely out of the question.

The first part of the book mainly focuses on the historical perspective of language; how languages have changed over time, how language change is an in-built mechanism that only a few things can alter. He gives examples of some changes and how they are linked with history – time and place, to illustrate his points. One of the things that also becomes evident as you’re reading this book is how much colonization has affected the world’s languages – from minority languages dying, to the “top twenty” languages taking over the world (such as French, English, Spanish, etc.), how different versions of English that are not the “standard” dialects have been seen as bad and/or incorrect versions of English. There is a lot of talk about creole, pidgins, and once again – what the differences between these earlier forms of language and a fully perceived language are.

There is talk of the similarities between different languages. One of the sections for instance, focuses on loan words – and as is possibly a well known fact (I knew it was much but not quite how much) modern English is made up of something like 90-95% (can’t remember the exact number) loan words. He further delves into some of the pros and cons of this fact when one is approaching other languages; for me, knowing English has been a definite pro to learning different languages because of so many words already being familiar to me through English and its many loan words. It’s not just the loan words that are touched upon, but the origins of the world’s languages and what a sort of language family tree would look like, etc.

There are many fascinating parts and sections in this book, and McWhorter goes into several aspects of linguistics – from the history, the contextual importance, the definitions, language change, grammar, languages dying, creole and pidgins, similarities and differences, etc. – but what I liked best was his way of challenging the readers preconceptions in regard to language. I felt this to be a red thread throughout the book; you think you know what a language is? Think again. You think your language is the best/most beautiful/etc.? Well, not quite. You think dying languages don’t matter? I beg to differ. I personally really appreciated having my thoughts of language and everything to do with it being thrown upside down, shaken up a bit, and looking at it as a subject in new ways (although I find the beauty of language to be more subjective than what McWhorter seems to believe).

Now comes my problems with the book. First of all, The Power of Babel is filled with examples from different languages, illustrating certain points in each section. Now, illustrative examples being included is a good thing – but this book was drowned in them. It’s so example-heavy that it becomes incredibly tedious to read. I think the book could’ve been clearer had the examples been cut severely from the text, with a few here and there but for the remaining ones to be either taken out completely or perhaps included in an appendix at the end. As it was I had to start skim reading to keep going, about halfway through the book. I think having the examples (or some examples) in the appendix would’ve been much better, then one could look up specific examples that interested him/her, perhaps on languages or points that needed that clearness while other points just didn’t need it, I thought. Even having the examples as footnotes would’ve been better than how it was done, so that one could easily skip over the parts that wasn’t necessary to follow the reasoning. 

I felt like much of the writing was also too repetitive – he has a few main points he is trying to make, and he returns to them again and again throughout the book – more or less in every chapter. While the points were interesting, they lost some of their fascination when one is hit over the head with them so frequently. I think perhaps one of the reasons it was done so repetitively is that the book lacked structure or a clearer organisation – I would’ve preferred topics to be a bit more clearly divided. I understand the difficulty in separating certain topics – them being interlinked and affecting each other, but I feel like it could’ve been done a bit more orderly than this. I think the book could’ve been more helpful, had it had more of a structure. Another thing linked to this problem is the index – I haven’t looked at it closely, but I already know it’s not as inclusive or well-done as I expect from any nonfiction work I read. “Japanese” is included in the index, and yet each mention of Japanese isn’t included for page reference in the index. I don’t understand why that is – was this a simple mistake? Did I spot the only mistake in the index or is this a systematic problem? I don’t know, I’ll leave that up to others to find out.

There were other points to the writing that I wasn’t personally on board with – while personal anecdotes can be fun, they serve better in a memoir/essay style type of book – which I didn’t perceive this book as, but I’m going to end this with a different sort of point.

In the last section of the book where McWhorter is wrapping up the book, also looking at the future and talking of the dying languages – and what we can do about it, he mentions something along the lines of how the topics in this book are, by other linguistics, considered “perhaps interesting, in a passing way, but generally not considered ‘real linguistics’”. This also seems to be along the lines of his own thinking as he goes on to talk of a linguistics duty. I felt like what McWhorter really wanted to write was not this book on the history of “linguistics” or even these “passingly interesting” phenomena of language all over the world but the question of language extinction – which in itself is an interesting topic, and he writes interestingly on the topic in the last two or so chapters. For the purpose of this book I would’ve preferred if this condescension towards the reader (is how I felt about it anyway) would’ve been left out, or else write an entire book on the topic separately.

To wrap this up, while there are many fascinating – and also useful – points in this book, many of which I know will help me in my language studies but also in understanding of language as a whole, the book is in my opinion flawed in its structure, writing and expression of these points. If you’re a person who is studying foreign languages it might be worthwhile nevertheless.

Until next time, happy reading!

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