Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review–The Power of Babel

Normally, my reading pattern is balanced by alternating between fiction and non-fiction.  A little bit of learning, a little bit of escaping into a magical wonderland.  But @NSQE had recommend this book so heartily that I picked it up immediately after finishing Applied Economics.

I’ve always found languages fascinating.  Maybe because Daddy used to yell at us in German and we had really random books in other languages lying around the house.  At one point in college, I thought it’d be fun to study linguistics.  Then I found out my school didn’t have any linguistics classes. So, that was the end of that idea.  I’ve studied German, French and Greek.  I learned some Spanish when I worked in landscapping, learned lots of Tonga in the Peace Corps (plus a wee bit of Bemba, Nyanja and Kaonde), and have dealt with more languages than you can shake a stick at while working at Creative Commons.  Languages are fun. 

My particular favorite “foreign” language to learn is other versions of English.  (My encounters with Nigerian English here.)  I love the puzzle of how languages change and why.  And that’s exactly what The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Languages by John McWhorter is all about.

The book discusses how languages meet and combine and turn into pidgins, which then fly away into their own languages.  It covers how word meaning shifts – my particular favorite is how silly went from meaning innocent to foolish – and how there really is no “standard” version of any language.  And the book does it all in an easy to read prose without a lot of jargon and with fun, memorable anecdotes.

McWhorter also dismisses the notion that languages are influenced by culture or surroundings.  I don’t completely agree with this, but I did appreciate his comments on the common example of ‘Eskimos have so many number of words for snow.’  So does English.  Think about it.  Snow, blizzard, sleet, flurries, powder, slush, etc.  All different forms of snow.

I really liked that the book did not focus only on Romance or even Western languages.  It included a lot of examples from Pacific Islands, Native American languages and even a few examples out of Africa.  Personally, I’d love a similar book focused on Bantu languages, but I have a feeling the only way I’ll get that is if I write it myself.

Highly Recommend.


Jeannie said...

bring it with you if you can - sounds interesting, and I think daddy might like to read it, too.

goldenrail said...

I was going to take it to Wendy, but she probably wouldn't mind a bit of a delay.
(and you got your name to show up!)