A good book is thought-provoking in such a way that it promotes the reader to extend the author’s argument outside the confines of the author’s subject. John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel fits precisely into this definition of a good book. McWhorter’s main argument is that languages have been in a constant evolutionary flux since the first humans began speaking approximately 150,000 years ago. Using the analogy of evolution, McWhorter demonstrates how the diversity of spoken languages have developed, grown, mutated, and cross-polinated within each other across the distinct niches of cultural and geographical distribution.
Often looked down upon by academic or learned orators, the dialects, pidgins, and creoles that sound low-brow are actually the hallmarks of the continuous development of a mutually distinct language. Following the analogy of evolution, McWhorter provides a compelling argument that explains how languages become extinct victims through the passage of time: these dead unspoken languages are casualties to the global agriculturalization, colonization and commercialization that has been spreading across the globe for the past 10-11,000 years. Currently there are approximately 6,000 languages spoken on this planet, however 99% of the worlds population speaks 1 of only 20 languages and the remaining 1% of the global population speaks the remaining 5,980 languages. However, as more and more of the world’s rural and undeveloped peoples become encroached upon by humanity’s never ending thirst for resources and expansion, the younger generations of rural peoples lose the historical identify of their ancestor’s language as they choose to speak the languages of economy, power and survival.
In true linguistic style, McWhorter provides a myriad of examples displaying the transitive nature of language to support his theories. Some of these examples such as the revelation that the phrase “bye” to indicate a farewell salutation originated from the phrase “God be with you,” which morphed to “goodbye” and then eventually just “bye.” The drawback to the The Power of Babel is that although interesting at times (as noted above) McWhorter uses far too many examples to drive his point home and I found myself glossing over 95% of the non-English examples he uses. However, the end effect is informative and this reader was able to appreciate the ideas behind McWhorter’s arguments without fretting over the minutiae of the linguistic details.
Now, getting back to my opening statement: this is a good book because in reading I found myself reflecting on language as identity. As a 21st century English-centric American I have been spoon-fed the subjective philosophy that this country is united through its one language and my own familial lineage prides itself on assimilating towards English as the primary language. I have some regrets that I speak not one word of the German that my mother grew up hearing her parents converse with her grandparents, yet the loss of this cultural connection was considered in her family as a necessary sacrifice. This story is hardly unique and neither is the seemingly American attitude that a single language is required to unify the people. Throughout history every nation has effortlessly struggled to preserve what is the “true” language of the people but the truth is that there is no true language. Language is in constant flux. Consider that Portuguese and Spanish, both distinct languages can be considered separate dialects of a much older Latin. The dialects of today can become the language of tomorrow and since language is essential in communicating who we are to each other – the essence of that communication and the essence of the identity of ourselves is and always has been changing.