LINGUIST List 13.1739

Wed Jun 19 2002

Review: General Ling: McWhorter (2001) Power of Babel

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  • Angela Bartens, McWhorter, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

    Message 1: McWhorter, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

    Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2002 12:23:55 +0300
    From: Angela Bartens <>
    Subject: McWhorter, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

    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

    [This book has not (yet) been announced on the Linguist List. --Eds.]

    INTRODUCTION 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.

    SYNOPSIS 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 language.

    CRITICAL EVALUATION 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´┐Żller" 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.

    ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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.