John McWhorter’s playful allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel reflects both his colloquial and humorous style and his basic assumption about human language: The first human language emerged on the East African savannas about 150,000 years ago and evolved into the six thousand languages spoken in the world today. The “natural history” subtitle emphasizes the pervading biological context of The Power of Babel, in which evolution serves to explain how human language has changed over time. From the start, however, McWhorter cautions that the comparison between biological and linguistic evolution is not perfect. Biological evolution is strongly affected by environment. Linguistic change is more haphazard and reveals very little about the psyche and culture.
Despite his academic background, McWhorter manages to gear his tour of the natural history of language to the general reader. He avoids scholarly jargon and integrates into his discussion examples from modern pop culture, especially books, television, and cinema. He refers to Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) to discuss the fact that fifteenth century Romanian differs from the language spoken in the twenty-first century. To illustrate variant forms of German, he uses the Asterix comic book series. In reference to the conservatism of written language, McWhorter notes that Mickey Mouse has always worn gloves because gloves are easier to draw than hands and because early cartoonists drew speaking animals with gloves by convention. McWhorter’s love for popular American music of all sorts emerges in his use of the song “I Say a Little Prayer,” first sung by Dionne Warwick and later, in a slightly different form, by Aretha Franklin, to argue that there is no “definitive” Ur-text of a language. Such comparisons pervade The Power of Babel and make McWhorter’s linguistic study readily accessible.
McWhorter begins his search for the original language with an examination of linguistic changes in sound, grammar, and meaning. He explains why some English speakers say “Shaddap” instead of “Shut up,” why the English language lost the terror in “terrible,” and why the meaning of “silly” moves from “blessed” in Old English, to “innocent” in Middle English, to “weak” in the seventeenth century, to the current meaning of “foolish.” Changes in other languages include the transition from multiple subject endings for Latin nouns (-es in sorores, -ae in feminae, and -i in filii) to only -s in French words (soeurs, femmes, and fils).
For McWhorter, the relationship between standard language and dialect is important in the understanding of language and its history. Standard language is an accident of geography, politics, culture, and power: Paris, London, and Moscow set language norms as well as political rules. Dialects are a more basic feature of spoken language, which really only exists in its variants. Thus, first century c.e. Latin was probably spoken in several dialects, which McWhorter calls Fratin in France, Spatin in Spain, and Latalian in Italy.
The distinction between “language” and “dialect” is often a political question. Ukranian is close enough to Russian to have been considered, in its early history, almost the standard form of Russian. During Russian domination, Ukranian became a mere peasant form of Russian. Today, citizens of independent Ukraine claim to speak a separate language. Another example is found on the Indian subcontinent, where the Hindi of India and the Urdu of Pakistan are variants of the same language. Conversely, Mandarin and Cantonese are so different from each other that their speakers often communicate only with difficulty. Yet, for political purposes, Mandarin and Cantonese are considered dialects of the same Chinese language.
McWhorter suggests that a coherent “language” does not really exist and that the line between a language and a dialect is difficult to determine. Languages are actually bundles of variants and overlap with each other, adapting and changing from region to region. McWhorter shows how one word in the Balkans changes in spelling, sound, and meaning as it moves from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, through Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and western Bulgaria, to southeastern Bulgaria. In Croatia the word vridan means “industrious.” By the time it reaches southeastern Bulgaria, vraedan means “harmful.” While the sounds of this word would probably be mutually recognizable in both Croatia and Bulgaria, its meaning would not.
Consequently, McWhorter rejects the traditional model of a language tree to illustrate the relationship between languages. Instead he talks about a language “stew” in which languages mingle with each other. English has several layers of loan words and phrases. Starting with...
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