The Power of Babel: Dialects are all there is

March 19, 2013

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.


Babel – a new language magazine

November 28, 2012

A brief post to direct your attention to Babel – The language magazine, a new popular-linguistics publication from the University of Huddersfield in the UK. There are to be four issues a year. From the introduction by editors Lesley Jeffries and Dan McIntyre:

One of the reasons that language is so fascinating is that it’s something we all share. And just as everyone uses language, so too does everyone have an opinion about it. But if we want real answers to questions about language then we need the insights of linguistics. Babel aims to provide these.

Babel promises to address “issues relating to many different human languages”, and will have regular items such as feature articles of general interest, biographies of influential thinkers, explanations of technical terms, and more.

Issue one, which is available for free download (PDF, 3.11 MB), has features on forensic speech science (a branch of forensic linguistics), the problems and possibilities of intergalactic communication, politeness practices in Chinese, and how the norms of English as a global lingua franca are changing.

There are also book reviews, games, short news items, a biography of H. Paul Grice, and a glossary of linguistics under ‘A’ (including anaphora, happily). I’ve only browsed it so far, but I’ll read it from cover to cover before the weekend.

Via David Crystal, who, in more good news, is the magazine’s linguistic consultant.


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