The Power of Babel: Dialects are all there is

In my recent post on the evolution of LOL, I included a video of John McWhorter, who has been studying this feature of language. One of his books, The Power of Babel, finally reached the top of my to-read mountain (more of a range, really), and I recommend it highly.

The Power of Babel is a beautifully written and soundly researched history of language that conveys expertly how language changes and what pressures (internal and external) induce that change. Its focus, refreshingly, is not on English – or on any particular language – while pidgins and creoles get prominent coverage.

We get a strong sense from Babel of how artificial are the boundaries we tend to place around and within languages; better to think of it all as a big stew, or a self-pollinating net, its elements mixing all the time to varying degrees and at varying rates. The fun chapter titles give a rough indication of the book’s contents:

John McWhorter - Power of Babel - chapter titles

McWhorter has a talent for drawing clarity out of complication, leading to such nuggets as: “Dialects are all there is: the ‘language’ part is just politics.” (He makes a long, persuasive case for the truth of this proposition.) And I liked this line on grammar and social acceptability:

Any given language chooses from an infinite array of possible grammatical configurations, on which notions of respectability are arbitrarily superimposed, meaningless to people speaking the language or even dialect next door.

One last excerpt: a fine summary paragraph on the “ineluctable imperatives” that impel language transformation (McWhorter prefers this term to evolution in the context of language change):

Once it hits the ground, a human language must and will change. Because change can proceed in various directions, once a language is spoken by separate populations, it must and will diverge into dialects. Juxtaposed with other languages, human languages must and will mix. Torn down to its bare essentials, if needed as a medium of full communication, a human language must and will rise again as a new one.

For more information on the book’s contents and style, see Angela Bartens’s review at Linguist List.

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12 Responses to The Power of Babel: Dialects are all there is

  1. Barrie says:

    It’s good to see a restatement of the truth appropriated by Max Weinreich that ‘a language is a dialect with an army and navy’.

  2. Looks like a great read!

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    A language is a dialect with an army and a navy … and an Academy to standardise its orthography and usage.

  4. Stan says:

    Barrie: It’s a deservedly celebrated description.

    Claire: It is: the subject matter is extremely interesting, and McWhorter’s coverage and style are superb.

    Peter: An academy may help standardise a language, but it’s not a necessary element.

  5. John Cowan says:

    In particular, English has no academy and never did. What it has is a recursive process whereby lexicographers scour what publishers publish to collect current written usage, and publishers look to lexicographers to specify what current written usage is. Fortunately, this process converges fairly quickly on a stable result (or several results, one for the U.S. and one or more for the rest of the world).

  6. “Dialects are all there is: the ‘language’ part is just politics.”

    Fascinating!! After all, who decided that ‘book’ means book and why should that be any different to ‘libro’, as it is in Italian? It is just a sound, after all. The meaning is a totally abstract concept. Ah a new perspective on words – I love it!

    Thank you for posting this! I shall be hunting down that libro sometime soon….

    Deanna, Little Blonde Lionheart

  7. [...] came across a post by Stan Carey on his blog Sentence first. Due to my attraction to the Hitchhikker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the ungodly miracle which is the Babel Fish, the title was all it took to suck me in and [...]

  8. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Thanks for the heads up. Amazon just got richer. McWhorter has the ability to talk the talk; a refreshing change from much of the language babble in books and on the Internet. “Ineluctable” is one of my favorite words. I first came across it in James Joyce, where the author, through his protagonist, comments on the “ineluctable modality of woman” (that’s from memory – it may be “women, but I think not.

  9. Stan says:

    John: A nice summary, and worth adding that modern lexicographers also mine corpora that include more informal usage than was traditionally the case.

    Deanna: You’re very welcome. Saussure put it concisely: “there is no aspect of the sign which is a necessary property”.

    Marc: A fine word indeed. The phrase you want is “Ineluctable modality of the visible”; it opens the Proteus passage in Ulysses. I know it’s customary to link to Amazon when one is praising a book as I did, but I prefer not to, and the publisher (Random House) had only the ebook available. Delighted you bought it, though – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  10. Carla Condemi de Felice says:

    L’ha ribloggato su Fantastic translationse ha commentato:
    “The Power of Babel is a beautifully written and soundly researched history of language that conveys expertly how language changes and what pressures (internal and external) induce that change. Its focus, refreshingly, is not on English – or on any particular language – while pidgins and creoles get prominent coverage.”

  11. […] more plausible form of the phenomenon appears in John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, in which the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the […]

  12. Marc Leavitt, the line from Joyce’s “Ulysses” you’re thinking of is actually, “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.”

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