"The Power of Babel" by John McWhorter

Review by Borodutch

I spent most conscious years of my life before 18 in a linguistic school and thought I knew a lot about languages. Then I read John's book and realized I still know nearly nothing about the topic. I'm disappointed that "The Power of Babel" is only available in print, as I'd want way more people to go through it — even if it's in an audio format. Maybe we'd get fewer "grammar-nazis" pointing out unnecessarily the "mistakes" one makes when speaking or writing if this title was more accessible.

Books rarely surprise me anymore, but John somehow made me say "wow" repeatedly. Here're some of the things I've learned from the book:

  • There is no distinct line between a language and a dialect. Some dialects are so different they could be a separate language, and some languages are so similar they could be dialects.
  • The quirks of different languages (e.g., endings or tones) came from merging multiple words. For instance, four tones in Chinese for the same word could be four separate words in the past.
  • Most of the quirks that make languages difficult (e.g., exceptions in spelling) are there for no reason, and tongues could've lost nothing if we dropped them.
  • Most of the time, earlier languages are more complicated than modern ones, as opposed to the hypothesis that a more complex world calls for more complicated tongues. Try learning French or a primitive hunter-gatherer language with all the cases, exceptions, tones, and markers, and you will agree.
  • "Tok Pisin" started as a pidgin. It's so stupid that I never made this connection — it has it in the name: "Talk pidgin."
  • Dialects are not "lesser" forms of accepted general language but a different way of communicating. Some (if not most) "correct" forms of language (e.g., double negatives in English) are arbitrary and serve no reason but segregation of economic classes.

Not every idea of the author survived the test of time, though. For instance, it was cringe when John voiced his opinions on Ukraine and Russia. However, mostly the title is so breathtaking you won't want to put it down. Or maybe it was just me, having an uneasy passion for languages and the unknown. Anyway, if you can still stand reading books in print, "The Power of Babel" can make a few of your evenings, so I suggest trying it!