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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (Englisch) Taschenbuch – 7. Januar 2003

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  • Taschenbuch: 352 Seiten
  • Verlag: Harper Perennial; Auflage: Reprint (7. Januar 2003)
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • ISBN-10: 006052085X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060520854
  • Größe und/oder Gewicht: 13,5 x 2 x 20,3 cm
  • Durchschnittliche Kundenbewertung: 5.0 von 5 Sternen  Alle Rezensionen anzeigen (1 Kundenrezension)
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In his enormously ambitious book The Power of Babel, John McWhorter offers an account of the first common language ever spoken by human beings, and proceeds to explore why it then fragmented into the 6,000 languages that are spoken today across the globe. As Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, McWhorter is perfectly qualified to provide a witty and accessible guide to his subject. As he puts it, "the process by which one original language has developed into six thousand is a rich and fascinating one, incorporating not only findings from linguistic theory but also geography, history, sociology. It is this fascinating story that I will share with you in this book."

McWhorter's theory of language draws explicit parallels with Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and the biological theories of Richard Dawkins. The Power of Babel absorbs and uses everything from evolutionary theory to Monopoly and soap operas to offer a dynamic story of language which originally "split into thousands of branches that each have evolved in part to maintain what is necessary to communication but in equal part have evolved just because various semantic spaces, perceivable to and processible by human cognition but nonessential to the needs of speech, were 'there' to be evolved into". For McWhorter, languages do not "evolve"; instead they endlessly transform themselves across and into other languages. As a result, "today's languages are Polaroid snapshots of ever-mutating transformations of the first language in six thousand different directions". He controversially concludes that there is no possibility of ever recovering the original first language, but that "of the languages extant today, the ones that most closely approximate the first language are creoles".

The Power of Babel is a clever and engaging book, never dry or boring, but it sometimes overplays the grandness of its claims, which can sometimes seem rather straightforward. --Jerry Brotton -- Dieser Text bezieht sich auf eine andere Ausgabe: Gebundene Ausgabe .


There are some 6,000 human languages. But how and why are there so many? How do languages evolve over time - and is there some original or ur-language from which they all developed? Is language fundamentally encoded in us when we are born, or completely learned? These and many other related questions are investigated in this intriguing book. McWhorter is an American Professor of Linguistics and speaks many languages. But he wears his learning lightly and wittily, and has managed to make this book both accessible and authoritative. He's especially good at teasing out how English and French are shot through with fragments of other tongues, and reflective of their only partially buried pasts. -- Dieser Text bezieht sich auf eine andere Ausgabe: Gebundene Ausgabe .

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4 von 7 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich Von Pegi am 31. Dezember 2010
Format: Taschenbuch
If you are interested in how language works, this book is for you.
If you need interesting anecdotes for a class or to keep a conversation lively, this book is for you.
If you are interested in reading about different aspects of human development, this book is for you.
If you are interested in little-known aspects of languages, this book is for you.
It is also very funny.
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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 89 Rezensionen
229 von 232 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Why language is silly putty 18. Januar 2002
Von Royce E. Buehler - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
Deserts of scholarly prose aside, good books about language tend to come along in two types. One examines the human capacity for speech from the fertile perspective of Noam Chomsky's theories that transformed linguistics in the 1960s. Stephen Pinker's "The Language Instinct" is the premier example. The other type, over which Richard Lederer currently reigns, diverts us with the endearing foibles of English. The first can be thought of as the molecular biology of language; the second is like Disney nature documentaries.
What's been missing is a good public account of the realm in between, corresponding to serious "natural history", as McWhorter's title has it. Neither so abstract as to be buried in "deep structure" that precedes any concrete language, nor buried up to the neck in the myopic delights of trivia. McWhorter's subject is literal "natural" "history" too - the tale of how languages, left to themselves, die and are born, mutate, divide, and intertwine over time.
So "Power of Babel" is a welcome addition. It's style is lively, even downright breezy. Its numerous examples from languages of every continent but Antarctica are pithy and aptly chosen. Partly because McWhorter makes a series of distinct points, rather than building to a climactic conclusion, the pace may begin to drag halfway through. That's fine; put it down for a while and read the latest Carl Hiassen thriller, or whatever else floats your boat. After a pause, this book ends as refreshingly as it began.
McWhorter notes that the way in which we are generally trained to think of languages has little in common with the way professional linguists think of them. What we take to be "standard" English, or French, or Russian are really anomalies. In each case, a dialect spoken by a very small population near a political center (London, Paris, Kiev and then Moscow) was elevated by fiat and then by the power of the press into "the" way to speak a "language" which had for centuries been a riot of equally correct, ever changing, barely mutually recognizable dialects. Thereafter political consolidation of nation-states based on a "common language", together with literacy in vernaculars presenting schoolchildren with models of proper use of "the" language frozen onto the printed page, slowed the pace of linguistic change to a fraction of its natural rate. This has led laymen to think of the world as neatly divided into "languages", each one spoken in only one proper fashion, almost any change to which amounts to a regrettable corruption.
McWhorter argues effectively to the contrary: that there are no languages, only dialects; that where two dialect communities border on one another, their speechways will mix indiscriminately, and that as long as language is transmitted to the next generation without the aid of recorded materials, major changes in vocabulary, pronunciation, and even grammar are par for the course, even within the space of half a century.
There's also a spirited debunking of the widely reported reconstruction of the "proto-World" language from which all others are supposedly descended. It's a valuable service, but its polemical tone is at odds with the lighter touch of the rest of the book, and McWhorter wisely relegates it to an "Epilogue."
If specific foreign languages have ever fascinated you, whether or not you were any good at learning them (I certainly wasn't), you'll probably get the same kick out of "Power of Babel" that I did.
122 von 127 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Initially fascinating, eventually tedious 9. Januar 2002
Von Ein Kunde - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
Even though I don't have a particular interest in linguistics, I picked up this book, and for the first 200 pages, could not put it down. McWhorter describes the evolution of language with an awe-inspiring array of examples from a larger-than-can-be-believed selection of the world's 6000 languages. His sheer enthusiasm for his topic kept the pages flying through detailed discussions of the development of grammatical quirks in the world's "Berlitz" languages, and the development of entirely new Pidgin and Creole languages. Somewhere around page 200, however, I abruptly lost interest. Perhaps it was the repetiveness of his themes, or the density of the examples, but all of a sudden I just didn't care anymore that (to pick a random quote from the book):
"In Maori, whaka- is the 'makes it change' prefix, as in ako 'learn,' whakaako 'teach'. But then there also cases where you 'just have to know', such as uru 'enter' but whaka-uru 'assist' or tuturi 'kneel' but whakatuturi 'be stubborn'."
The bottom line: McWhorter has a gift for lighting a fire under the non-linguist lay reader, but even his engaging personality and style cannot overcome the tedium that eventually sets in as a result of his admirable refusal to talk down to his audience.
39 von 39 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
I grab people by the lapels and tell them to read this book 17. November 2005
Von R. Kelly Wagner - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Taschenbuch Verifizierter Kauf
Yes, I've really done that. All I needed was a discussion with a fellow community band musician over whether "in excelsis deo" should be pronounced in church Latin or classical Latin, which then led to whether Russian is a dialect of Ukranian or Ukranian is a dialect of Russian (can you tell we are working on music for the Christmas season?) and I realized that here was a person who thinks language is as much fun as I do. So I grabbed his lapels and told him he had to go get this book.

I've recommended it to any number of other people as well. Here's the sorts of people who would like this book: people who have ever tried to learn a foreign language and gotten distracted by cognates, people who not only know what cognates are but go looking for them for fun, people who deliberately try to read the liner notes in their CDs in one of the foreign languages and then check back with the English version to see how far off you were; people who debate whether Shakespeare is early modern English or modern English; people whose idea of a good time is playing word games; people who have ever participated in the User Friendly message boards translating the day's strip into ever-more outlandish languages...

Have you ever read any of the "Asterix" comic strips? Would you like to see how Asterix looks in three different dialects of German?

This book is not as downright serious as some, nor as deeply footnoted as a truly academic book would be. For that, you'd want to read "Empire of the Word" by Nicholas Ostler. It's much more thorough, and more academic, and dryer, and has far less humor. On the other hand, if you want to have FUN reading about language, "The Power of Babel" is the right book. Some other reviewers have referred to the book's "cheesy humor" or other lack of seriousness. I consider that a GOOD thing; this is a book that a person can sit and read, and enjoy, and share bits out loud with someone else in the room, rather than requiring the reader to squint and take notes and study. If it's wrong to appreciate books written for a popular audience rather than a scholarly one, then I don't wanna be right.

One warning: after you read this book, you will have trouble falling asleep for a while because thoughts about the vast connectedness of everything will keep you awake, jumping from topic to topic and word to word. Also, you will annoy many of your friends by repeatedly announcing that "there are no languages, only dialects." So far, none of my friends has hit me over the head for this, so the side effects are safe enough to be worth the read.
70 von 74 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Words, words, words! 25. März 2002
Von Bruce Crocker - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
John McWhorter helped rekindle my lifelong love of language with his excellent book The Power Of Babel (a title pregnant with meaning, and a damned fine pun to boot). As promised by the subtitle, the book is a natural history of language, showing how a hypothesized first language could mutate into all the languages spoken on the Earth today. McWhorter has the chops as a linguist, and shows them throughout the book; he also loves language as a passionately interested human being, and this comes through in the excitement of his words on the pages. He loves a good tangent, but generally restricts them to footnotes (which I read ravenously), and any reader who finds them annoying can avoid reading them. Edwin Newman fans should avoid the book altogether; McWhorter's delight in the plasticity of spoken language and his mild disdain for the rigidity of written language will be a putoff to believers in one true standard version of a language. As a bonus, we get his very rational opinion on reports of recovered words from a Proto-World lanuage as an epilogue. I highly recommend this book to lovers of linguistics, language, words, history, culture, and details.
30 von 31 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
English, Russian and other languages - really great book. 3. August 2005
Von Grettir Strong - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Taschenbuch
As a man whose mother tongue is Russian I feel very happy that English is a language I learnt as foreign one and not the other way around. The reason is that grammatically English language is enormously simpler than Russian and I am a pretty lazy guy. Russian has six cases for nouns - English has none (objective case does not really count due to extreme simplicity). Russian has three genders (male, female and neutral or "middle" as high school teachers call it) - English has none (with couple of grotesque examples like ship referred to as "she"). Russian has intricate rules of how endings are governed depending on plural or single - in English it is always static no matter how complex a sentence is. After the reading of Mr. McWhorter's book I did realize that even with all its complexity Russian is hardly one of the most difficult languages to study.
This book is probably one of the very few on popular science (I guess anybody who read the book will not disagree that linguistics is definitely a science) I would advise to include into the list of mandatory reading parents create for their kids. It has an extremely rich historical background for many languages as well as for language as a mainstream mean of communication. The author is almost encyclopedically knowledgeable in pretty much every aspect of it and it reads very easily. Frequent manifestations of author's sense of humor are also improves readability.
Several things though I guess may need some clarifications.
Author mentions about Russia as about "highly insular nation for most of its history" (page 101). I have to disagree with this statement. Yes, 20th century was marked by insularism due to well-known political processes. But before and after that Russia was and is quite open for its neighbors for mutual interactions and it definitely includes word loaning from other languages. Yes, there are much less Latin loans in Russian language comparing to English. But at the same time there are tons of loans from Turkic family, notably from Tatar. Medieval history of Russia marked by warfare, trade and periods of political dependence from Golden Horde and because of that many basic words like money (den'gi - from tan'ga), cap (kolpak - from kolpak), strongman (bogatir' - from bagatur), chest (soondook - from sundik) to name few are loaned into Russian from Tatar. It would probably fair to say that Golden Horde played for Russian language the role similar to what has been played by Normans after 1066 for English.
In my opinion, Mr. McWhorter oversimplifies the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian, saying "mastering Ukrainian is more a matter of adjustment than precisely learning" (page 72). Yes, those languages are quite close as well as they are close enough to Polish, Serbian and Belarusian but they are far enough to prevent one from good understanding when the other language speaker speaks fast. I remember, when I was a kid in Kyrgyzstan I visited a little village of Poltavka where descendants of Cossacks sent by Tsar in early 19th century to guard outskirts of Russian Empire still speak a strange mix of old Ukrainian and old Russian. Even though I have spent some time there trying to pick up the language it was still not very understandable as a whole despite on some words and even sentences were clear sometimes.
Also, Mr. McWhorter's examples of certain words usage and phrases are somewhat outdated. For example, on the same page a phrase "pokojnoj noci" is described as a way Russian speakers say "Good Night". In fact it is 19th century way of saying good night. If my girlfriend would say to me "pokojnoj noci dorogoi" (Good night honey) my first reaction would be "Why the hell she speaks like Anna Karenina?". The contemporary way of saying good night is "spokojnoj noci" - one additional sound makes a huge difference. The same is applicable to the word "strashyj" (page 24), which may be in days of Nabokov was used exclusively for depicting really frightful things, like let's say grizzly attack. Nowadays it can be used pretty much the same way the English word terrible is used - one can say "strashno dorogo" meaning "terribly costly" and it would be quite normal and understandable.
But in general Mr. McWhorter's observations regarding Russian language are very true. He mentions about articles as a stumbling bloc. After several years of existence in English environment I still make mistakes with proper usage of those as this text I am sure confirms eloquently. Even when I feel I supposed to use "a" or "the" here or there a strange feeling of something unnatural nagging me inside. The thing is articles are perceived as something grotesquely redundant, the same way a letter "d" should be in the word "boulevard" for orthographic correctness. On the other hand I can only guess what English speakers think of all that convolution of Russian grammar with its multiple genders and cases.
Having said that, I feel like we all can consider ourselves lucky due to a mere fact that a mother tongue of Mr. McWhorter is English. Because of that his profoundly enjoyable book is easily available for our comprehension. How would it be if this great book is written and published in, let's say, Mandinka or Evenki? The cruel truth is a writer's talent should always be accompanied by a mother tongue whose market penetration is competitive enough with other 6000 or so counterparts. Only then it can be truly beneficial for readers audience and writer's wellbeing.
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