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An Effusion of Tongues
By Gene Mirabelli

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
By John McWhorter, Henry Holt & Company, 327 pages, $26

We read in Genesis that at one time there was only one race, whose people all spoke the same language; that is, till the day when God noticed they were building a tower whose top would reach to heaven. Then God, acting in his usual way, immediately confounded their speech so they couldn’t understand one another and couldn’t cooperate on the tower, or on anything else, and for good measure he scattered these multitudes and their different languages over the face of the Earth. John McWhorter believes only part of this story.

In his sparkling and knowledgeable book, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, McWhorter postulates that at the beginning of human time there was, in fact, only one language. He surmises that Homo sapiens arose in only one place, probably Africa, and spread out from there. As to when our ancestors began speaking, it may have been right at the start, 150,000 years ago, or maybe 115,000 years later when our species really took off. No matter. The Power of Babel is the lively story of the development of that single language into the bewildering variety we see on Earth today.

John McWhorter’s style is breezy and simple. This book is written for the non-specialist, and all you need to enjoy it is a knowledge of English and an ordinary amount of curiosity. Indeed, if you know any language in addition to the one you learned at home, you may find the early pages a bit too simple. But persist and you’ll find it gets engagingly complex. The author begins by showing how Latin changed over millennia into Italian, French, and Spanish. And change, he delights in pointing out, happens to all languages all the time.

Language changes because we’re naturally lazy. We carelessly mush words together, so that “eke name” (“also name”) becomes “nickname,” or we take them apart, as when “napron” is separated to “an apron.” And we casually shift a word’s meaning—“silly” used to mean innocent, then it meant simple, and now it means foolish. And we get in the habit of using a word as a piece of grammar, as we now use “have” as a way to indicate the past tense—“I have washed my car.” McWhorter is a professor, but not a finicky one, and he chooses his samples from musical-comedy lyrics, TV cartoons, or from topical figures like Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky.

Some of the most interesting linguistic developments occur when one language bumps into another. Russians and Norwegians working together in the fiords developed a special speech all their own, sharing words from both languages. But usually, says McWhorter, “one group has its foot on the other’s neck, and the subordinate group is compelled to make do as best it can with the dominant group’s language.” The result is a reduced form of the dominant language, something called pidgin.

Pidgin can be wonderfully vivid, as in this passage of pidgin English from a native American woman dissing a white suitor: “You silly. You weak. You baby-hands. No catch horse. No kill buffalo. No good but for sit still—read book.” Speakers use pidgin mostly as a tool for passing exchanges, for it isn’t capable of expressing complex thought, and at the end of the day the speakers go home and speak their native language. But when pidgin takes on a larger role, when children learn to speak pidgin as their native tongue, then we can witness the development of Creole. And at that point, McWhorter says, “we come closest to witnessing the birth of a human language.” And one of the things we witness is how languages can grow amazingly complex, far more complex than necessary, just exuberantly fancy.

For example, the way you possess your head is personal and far more intimate than the way you possess, say, your umbrella. That’s a distinction our English doesn’t make—it’s simply “her umbrella” and “her milk.” But in Navaho, you can distinguish “her breast milk” from “her milk from the store.” A tribe in the Amazon rain forest has a system for indicating the level of evidence supporting a statement. If you heard somebody chopping a tree, you’d say, “He’s chopping a tree”; thus, “Kiti-gi tiigi.” But if you actually had seen somebody chopping, you’d say, “Kiti-gi tii-i,” and if you merely had reason to suppose that he or she was chopping, you say the “tiigi” part yet another way, and so on. This zealous or even rococo kind of elaboration is a characteristic of language, and one that McWhorter clearly loves.

The author is emphatic in pointing out that these different shapes of language do not mirror the contours of the speaker’s culture or way of life. The Eskimo do not have 16 different words for snow. Fula has 16 “genders,” but there is no connection between that kind of linguistic excess and the culture of the West Africans who speak it. Or, to put it another way, studying Pashtoon will not give you insight into the nature of Afghanis.

John McWhorter alludes to contemporary theories of language and tips his hat to the eminent Noam Chomsky, but his true interest is the evolution of language, a natural history that he records with energy and wit. The Power of Babel is a sunny book about the wonderful diversity of languages, its only shadow is the sad fact of their passing.

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