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Review of  The Power of Babel

Reviewer: Angela Bartens
Book Title: The Power of Babel
Book Author: John H McWhorter
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 13.1739

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McWhorter, John H. (2001) The Power of Babel: A Natural History of
Language. Times Books, 327pp, hardback ISBN 0-7167-4473-2, USD 26.00

Angela Bartens, University of Helsinki

After ''Spreading the Word'' and ''Word on the Street'', John McWhorter is now
offering us another volume which aims at making linguistics and language
issues accessible to the general reading public. This is a laudable
undertaking most linguists would shy away from lest they be taken less
serious by academia. The author copes with this threat with the
nonchalance of the brilliant writer and actor he is and even jokes about
not being a ''linguist linguist'', at least not in terms of the present-day
North American academia still caught in the Chomskyan framework (p. 282).
In order to return to the point of why I think that popularizing
linguistics should be important to linguists, I would like to point out
that a broader understanding of language issues is fundamental because
language constitutes the cornerstone culture is built upon and is
transmitted by. At least in the so-called ''developed countries'', the
general public is becoming aware of the loss that vanishing biodiversity
means. Why should they not also be told that the linguicide and the loss
of linguistic diversity is intrinsically connected to the loss of
biodiversity? Over the past nine months, people all over the Western world
have rushed to buy fact books about the Islam. Why should they not also
wish to question the phrase encountered in so many travel guides: ''Besides
the official language, the inhabitants of X also speak patois, a jumble of
words from ...'' (here, we are probably looking at a guide of an Caribbean
island) or ''...several unintelligible dialects which cannot be reduced to
writing'' (some other part of the world). Finally, a strong argument is
countering the widespread idea that ethnic diversity (which goes hand in
hand with linguistic diversity in one way or the other) leads to strife
and warfare.

The subtitle of the book promises ''A Natural History of Language'' and as
McWhorter explicitly states, it ''has been dedicated to an analogy between
biological evolution and human language'' (p. 253). Note, however, that
McWhorter chooses to talk about ''transformations'' rather than ''evolution''
as ''language evolution is not geared toward improvement'' (p.13). Here I
would argue that the improvement of communication and the quest for
expressiveness constitute a driving force behind language change but the
author's statement obviously anticipates some of the arguments developed
in later chapters. At any rate, as not only ''The First Language Morphs
into Six Thousand New Ones'' (the title of the first chapter) but the
argumentation takes its course, it becomes clear that to a very large
extent, it is a history of the multiple situations, forms and outcomes of
language contact. I find this quite natural not only because language
contact is McWhorter's area of particular interest but also because I
definitely share his point of view. In addition, one of the major points
this book tries to bring home to the reader is that they should relativize
their mostly school-inculcated conceptions about the purity of language,
only the European written standard languages being ''real languages'' while
everything else is some kind of patois, etc.

Following evolution theory, it can be assumed that all languages spoken
today go back to one common ancestor which emerged approximately 150 000
years ago in East Africa. It is from this fundamental assumption presented
in the Introduction (pp. 1-14) that McWhorter sets out to tell his story.
As indicated above, Chapter One shows how this first language evolved into
the approximate number of 6 000 languages spoken today by means of sound
change, extensions (analogy), reanalysis and grammaticalization, and
semantic change (pp. 15-52). Lest the reader be lulled into too much
comfort about being able to follow the argument, Chapter Two is devoted to
debunking the notion of language by showing that dialects are really all
there is to it, i.e., that ''languages'' are essentially political
constructs (''The Six Thousand Languages Develop into Clusters of
Sublanguages'', pp. 53-92). In Chapter Three, ''The Thousands of Dialects
Mix with One Another'' (pp. 93-129), that is, McWhorter shows that language
and dialect mixture is the rule, not the exception, and that it can
proceed from the vocabulary level to a state where linguists are speaking
of intertwined languages, a straightforward example being constituted by
Ecuador's Media Lengua where Spanish vocabulary is grafted on Quechua
grammar. Australian Aboriginal languages stand for another kind of extreme
in language contact phenomena: language mixture has been so intense that
it is no longer possible to reconstruct any family affinities.

Chapter Four, ''Some Languages Are Crushed to Powder but Rise Again as New
Ones'' is the story about pidgins and creoles. As a fellow-creolist, it is
apparent to me how McWhorter draws on his thorough knowledge of the field
of study in this chapter (which by no means implies that I wish to
belittle the other ones in any way). Especially for the layman being
introduced to the wonderful world of language contact, a careful
demarcation from language intertwining seems most welcome.

In Chapter Five (''The Thousands of Dialects of Thousands of Languages All
Develop Far Beyond the Call of Duty'', pp. 177-215) the author demonstrates
that over time, languages (and dialects) develop ''frills'' of ''baubles'' not
essential for communication. While the layman naturally expects the
powerful written and standardized (''tall building'') languages to be the
elaborate ones, McWhorter argues that it is rather the ''National
Geographic'' languages which can permit themselves such luxury while
languages like English have undergone quite a bit of levelling in order to
cater to the communicative needs of L2 speakers all over the world.
Creoles have been less prone to ''baroqueification'' but are not completely
free of ''linguistic overgrowth'', either.

An issue already inherently present after the findings of Chapter Two,
i.e., that ''the language/dialect distinction is, in the pure logical
sense, meaningless'' (p. 86), is tackled in Chapter Six where the author
shows that quirks of history seconded by the standardization of European
languages from a certain period onwards as well as the art of printing and
increasingly widespread literacy and access to education have turned the
languages in question into ''lava lamps'' or ''fossils'' (''Some Languages Get
Genetically Altered and Frozen'', pp. 217-251) which most laymen
nevertheless take to be the only ''real'' languages worthy of study,
literary endeavors, etc. Here, pointing out that standardizing and
reducing a language to writing does entail structural changes which with
time will catch on in some spoken registers seems most appropriate
considering that some readers might still have their doubts about the
arbitrariness of the lava lamp industry (to use McWhorter's metaphor).

The spreading of these artificial constructs tends to take on aggressive
forms and the great majority of the languages spoken today face extinction
by the end of this century. In Chapter Seven (''Most of the World's
Languages Went Extinct'', pp. 253-286), McWhorter lucidly discusses both
the mechanisms of language erosion and death and the motives,
possibilities and results to be expected from a. the documentation and b.
the revival of (nearly) extinct or menaced languages.

Finally, in ''Epilogue: 'Extra! Extra! The Language of Adam and Eve''' (pp.
287-303), the author returns to the question of the nature of the first
language that may have left laymen in suspense after reading through the
Introduction (but not linguists, I would dare to claim). While this
Ur-language obviously cannot be reconstructed in any foreseeable future
(nor later), McWhorter concludes that creole languages, especially the
ones which have had little contact with their so-called lexifier language,
are really the closest we will ever get to appreciating the first

I have already stated that I think there definitely is a need for books
like this. When it is highly readable, witty and funny at the same time,
that is even better. However, readers outside the U.S. who are not steeped
in the national (popular) culture may miss some of the jokes and spend
some time wondering about the identity and symbolism of the multitude of
actors, television an cartoon characters, singers, pieces of music, etc.
McWhorter cites. But then, this book must have been intended in the first
place for the U.S. American general public. Second, in spite of efforts to
avoid Anglocentrism, this endeavor has not been entirely successful -- why
else would the quote by William Caxton, Britain's first printer, be dated
''about 1490'' (p. 66) while the quote from Abbe Gregoire (p. 65) is not?
(O.K., a page earlier the author states that linguistic heterogeneity was
not considered a problem in France until the late 1700s). Not even the
notes which, by the way, follow the body of the text (pp. 305-315; as
there is no indication in the text, the reader has to discover them at the
end of the book), give us the name of the German linguist who around 1871
pronounced that there are no mixed languages (p. 122; would a formulation
like ''a German linguist named Max M�ller'' not caution the reader we are
not talking about one of the ''big names''?).

Given the wide scope of the book, some minor inaccuracies are inevitable:
As a native speaker of Finnish, I would argue that there are Finns who
(almost) always speak the standard. More important, I would claim there
are Finns who deliberately try to conceal their regional origin by
changing to a ''vanilla'' accent (cf. pp. 65-66). As a native speaker of
German, too, I would say it is arguable whether German could not do
without Sex-Appeal and Slip (panties; p. 117). I seem to recall newspaper
articles earlier this year reporting on Moldovans protesting for their
right to education precisely in Romanian, not Moldovan (cf. pp. 68-69; all
right, the book under review was published in 2001). I would love to see
the author mention at least converging African (e.g. Bini) morphemes along
with Portuguese ca when discussing the etymology of the Fa d'Ambu
(Annobonese) preverbal marker xa (p. 148) and I insist that Papiamentu is
both Spanish- and Portuguese-based (cf. p. 149). For the time being, I
would not dare to claim that Fronteirizo is an intertwined language
(Spanish-Portuguese; p. 172). Elizaincin, one of the major authorities on
Fronteirizo, speaks of the Portuguese dialects of Uruguay (the graph on p.
173 locates the Spanish variety involved in Argentina, not Uruguay).

And finally, as entertaining as the author's writing is, sometimes it gets
a bit too personal or off the point: Do we need to know the author does
not understand why everybody presumably likes oranges (p. 28)? What
exactly is it that makes him like Occitan uech so much more than the other
Romance cognates for the numeral eight (p. 82)? And, more to the point, do
readers have to know? Is the information that passports were not required
until after World War I really relevant to the history of the genesis of
creole languages (p. 156)?

The bickering of the previous paragraph probably demonstrates that (a) I
have no sense of humor and (b) I had a very hard time finding anything to
criticize in the book. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs
and McWhorter had to break astoundingly few in order to make this book
enjoyable reading not just for laymen but for linguists as well.
Dr.phil. Angela Bartens is Acting chair of Iberoromance Philology at the
University of Helsinki. Her research interests include language contact
including pidgins and creoles, sociolinguistics and applied
sociolinguistics including language planning.