27 September 2009

The Power of Babel

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
I enjoyed this book about language by John McWhorter. I didn't like everything about it, but it's an easy-to-read overview of how languages change and evolve. It's pretty basic, since I was familiar with a lot of what he said, but what I liked best were the interesting examples from languages all around the world he has throughout the book to help explain what he's getting at. Too many books I've read about language are heavy on examples from familiar languages, or just briefly mention the "exotic" ones.

Unfortunately, the book feels a little dated already, and it was only published in the early 2000s. There are many, many references to popular American culture, which can make it more enjoyable to read in some ways, but I think overall, it was a little much.

The best thing about this book is that it neatly clears up a lot of myths and misunderstandings about how language changes- things like dialects, non-standard forms of a language, etc. I also thought the chapter on language death and the practical realities surrounding it were good. It's a great book for people who aren't linguists to understand. And since too many linguists seem to have a problem making themselves understood by the general population, that's a good thing.

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