The Power of Babel: a Natural History of Language Pdf

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The Power of Babel is a book by John McWhorter. In this book he discusses the history and development of linguistic diversity, which is the lack of a universal language.

McWhorter first talks about how diverse languages are in the world today. Then he discusses whether there was ever a universal language spoken before. Finally, he talks about how and why languages go extinct.

This book is helpful because it gives insight into human behavior and how we communicate with each other, as well as how we have communicated with each other throughout history.

About The Power of Babel: a Natural History of Language Pdf

For some strange reason, I am fascinated by the study of linguistics. I have read all the books by Stephen Pinker, as well as books by a few other authors on the subject. This book, by linguist John McWhorter, is also fascinating, although his perspective is totally different from that of Pinker.

The theme of this book is that languages seem to be analogous to animal and plant evolution. While animals and plants are continuously evolving, there is no “direction”. Living species are not becoming more advanced–they are simply changing in response to their environments. Likewise, languages evolve, they split into sub-varieties, they hybridize, the revivify, they evolve functionless features, and they can even be genetically altered. And, languages can go extinct.

Most of the world’s six thousand languages will go extinct over time. Languages, like biological species, seem to split off from their parents when they are physically isolated from their neighbors. But, with the globalization of trade and cultures, languages nowadays are becoming extinct faster than new ones can develop.

One of the points that McWhorter tries to make, is that there actually is no such thing as a true language, only dialects. Each language is made of multiple dialects. As an example, a particular dialect may be spoken in Town A, and residents of Town A can easily converse with speakers of a related dialect in Town B. And, people in Town B can talk with Town C and Town C can talk with Town D. But, people in Towns A and D are totally unable to talk with one another; their dialects are just too dissimilar to be able to converse. So, where is the boundary between dialect and language?

McWhorter describes an analogy from the famous Peanuts comic strip. The main character, Charlie Brown, is only six years old, but–he is bald! The question is why? I would not have guessed the reason, which is that in the 1950’s, when the comic strip began, baldness was a symbol of dopiness. But since then, the symbolism has been lost. Likewise, original meanings and nuances in languages change over time, until we no longer recognize them.

Another main theme in this book is the decorative clutter that builds up in old languages. When you are learning a foreign language, you encounter these Dammit realizations; how are you ever going to learn all these confabulating declensions, cases, tenses, and conjugations! In fact, how can a native-born child ever learn all of this! And, interestingly, the more “primitive” hunter gatherer societies speak languages that are the most complex of all! And why must all this complexity exist? Do languages even need this complexity? The answer is simply, no, this is just the accretion of decorative clutter. But, when the people of two languages meet each other, and a third utilitarian language starts up, a pidgin or a creole language, it is relatively free of all this clutter; this new language contains just enough complexity to be understandable, and no more.

For example, there is a pidgin language spoken in Melanesia named Tok Pisin; it sounds like baby-talk English, in that it uses a simple, distorted English as its vocabulary foundation. It has only a single preposition. The future tense is constructed simply by saying “bye and bye”. But it is a real language with a real grammar, simple as it is. It is too new to have decorative clutter. If the language does not disappear, it will eventually accumulate decorative clutter.

This book is fascinating! It is filled with mild humor and it resonates with examples from today’s popular culture. I highly recommend it.

Very well written popular science book on linguistics, never got too technical and was always interesting. The author did an excellent job of explaining things with just the right amount of humor and pop culture references while still being scholarly but not dry.

In a nutshell, the author’s purpose in writing this book is to show the “process by which one original language has developed into six thousand” languages, the story “incorporating not only findings from linguistic theory but also geography, history, and sociology.” Basically if you want to understand why language changes at all, even in our lifetimes, the author has written a very readable book with a lot to say on the subject.

The book is divided into an introduction, seven numbered chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction lays out the purpose of the book, the author discussing the fundamentally very changeable and constantly changing nature of language, that language has an “inherently transitory nature” (comparing it to a cloud, always changing though not with any intent or purpose, but often quite randomly; the author later likens language change as watching blobs in a lava lamp form and split apart). Chapter 1 laid out the five principal forces at work in language change; sound change (“there is a strong tendency for sounds to erode and disappear over time, especially when the accent does not fall upon them” as well as “a general instability in vowels – in all languages, they tend to gradually mutate into different ones as time goes by”), extension (“a tendency for some-time patterns in a grammar to generalize into exceptionless across-the-board rules,” such as how in English adding an s to form the plural of words became the norm instead of such examples of mouse/mice), the evolution of concrete words into pieces of grammar (“all languages constantly create expressive usages of words or phrases that gradually wear down in force, like old jokes”), rebracketing (the process where one word can be created out of two or more basically, such as how Sant Heer Niclaes evolved into Santerclaes and then Santa Claus), and semantic change (essentially how words can come to have broader meanings, narrower meanings, or its meaning can seem to simply drift aimlessly). McWhorter stressed towards the end of the chapter that cultural elements often have a very limited role in language change, that changes to language are more often owed to factors “stemming from the inherent randomness of general language change,” and that traits inherent to certain languages may have no relation whatsoever to culture (such as the German, Japanese, Hindi, Amharic in Ethiopia, and Mongolian tendency to place verbs at the end of the sentence is well known, but it “would be hard to identify what “cultural” factors all these people could have in common from Tokyo to the Gobi Desert to Addis Ababa to Berlin that would explain this similarity”).

Chapter 2 was a fascinating chapter, really driving home the point that there is no language “surrounded by variations called dialects,” but that “dialects is all there is.” To me this chapter was worth the price of admission so to speak (though it was not the central thrust of the book), but really opened my eyes to the fact that no dialect is really decayed, rotten, or decadent, there isn’t really bad grammar in a dialect, but what becomes standard is one dialect picked from several, perhaps many, the dialect spoken by the elite and by those who print books. I could write for a while how good this chapter is, with excellent examples of politics’ role in defining languages and dialects (such as with French, Provencal, and Occitan, and with Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian) and a great discussion of how the differences between languages often isn’t sharp but can vary along a continuum, a dialect continuum, that can show when say someone analyzes various separate “languages,” that for instance “Standard Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian are as different as Spanish and Italian but are linked by a procession of dialects – and even a whole “language” – falling on a continuum linking them in a kind of living exhibit of one morphing into another in space just as languages morph into one another in time.”

Chapter 3 continued the dialect continuum concept and notes the existence of Sprachbunds, of how languages that exist in a given region, even if unrelated (such as say the Romance language Romanian and the Slavic language Bulgarian) can influence one another in the case where languages end up “sharing the same mouths,” that regions where people are bilingual or multilingual often import linguistic traits from one language into other languages (such as how Romanian speakers of Bulgarian have imported articles, something other Slavic languages lack). Sprachbunds can be huge, such as the European Sprachbund; even though the languages of Europe belong to different families they have “commonalities [that] have risen through geographical proximity rather than family relationships.”

Chapter 4 was a fascinating discussion of pidgins and creoles, how they arise, what constitutes a pidgin and a creole, and again like with dialect continuums and Sprachbunds, “the extent to which a language is pidginized before it becomes a full language again is a matter of degree rather than stark metrical distinctions.” In addition to pidgins and creoles there are also semicreoles, with overall the chapter filled with many fascinating examples the world over of all three types.

Chapter 5 was a discussion of something I never knew about, that the world’s languages all to one degree or another have a “benign overgrowth,” a sort of “linguistic sludge” that over time any language accumulates that while necessary to speak that language, on the whole strictly speaking isn’t essential for a language to have. Examples include things like gender marking of inanimate objects and concepts (“there are few better examples than Fula of West Africa of how astoundingly baroque, arbitrary, and utterly useless in communication a language’s grammar can become” than the sixteen “genders” of Fula), evidential markers (the source of information about an action, such as hearsay versus direct observation, requiring special markers grammatically), and the existence of definite and indefinite articles (“All languages have some way of distinguishing the definite from the indefinite, but most do not do so overtly as consistently as English”: “Russian, for instance, has no articles at all”).

Chapter 6 discussed why the rate in change of languages has slowed down a lot, largely having to do with the advent of widespread acceptance of a standard dialect and widespread literacy, with the author discussing at length how writing itself can arrest language change (or greatly slow it down); “writing is a slow, conscious, controlled endeavor, of a sort that lends itself to conservatism: the ingraining of habits and in-house customs simply because that’s the way it was done before.” Also an interesting discussion of how spoken language may have been influenced by writing (for instance subordinate clauses seems to be largely arising from conventions of written languages, that “heavy use of relative and subordinate clauses is largely an artificial decoration on “natural” human speech, which largely uses them sparingly”), though McWhorter is quick to point out that languages that are primarily spoken are by no means “backward” and can and do clearly contain wit and art and be enormously complex.

Chapter 7 was a necessary, well-written, and sad chapter on how and why languages die, with most of the reason for language death from dominant culture interference, whether overt and intentional (actively suppressing indigenous and minority languages through laws and education policies) or by subtle means perhaps and unintentional (such as people perceiving greater economic and social advantages by speaking the language of the dominant culture, a “coolness factor” with the minority language only seen as spoken by parents or grandparents, and the fact kids tend to pick up the majority language in a culture and that even if parents go to very great pains to keep kids fluent in a language, the chance that their kids will do the same – of two people getting together raised the same way, speaking the same language – is rather small). Also an interesting discussion of how a language over time can become a pidgin of its former self as it dies due to such factors as atrophying vocabulary and genericization of the language (“Just as pidgins strip away aspects of languages not necessary to basic communication, dying languages are marked by a tendency to let drop many of the accreted “frills” languages drift into developing through time”). Also a good and balanced discussion of the feasibility of preserving of so many of the world’s minority languages as living, spoken tongues and even the ethics of doing so.

The epilogue had a fascinating commentary on the likelihood that linguists have constructed a first language, a mother tongue, using analysis of words and grammar from all the world’s languages (the author doesn’t believe it is possible and goes into great detail as to why this isn’t possible). He does admit though we can make a lot of educated guesses as to what the first language would be like based on what we know of linguistic change through time, such as for instance that the first language would not have inflections (“Inflections almost always begin as free words; even in the cases where they do not, they arise through sound erosion and change”) and would lack such “bells and whistles” as evidential makers and indefinite and definite articles. In the end, the world’s first language was probably a lot like a creole, that it “not had much time to meander into areas decorative to the needs of human communication.”

A really good read, it closes with notes and a thorough index.

About John Mcwhorter the Power of Babel Pdf Author

John Hamilton McWhorter (Professor McWhorter uses neither his title nor his middle initial as an author) is an American academic and linguist who is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

A popular writer, McWhorter has written for Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Politico, Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News, City Journal, The New Yorker, among others; he is also contributing editor at The Atlantic and hosts Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcas

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