2002-04-24: The Power of Babel

The Power of Babel

A Natural History of Language (2001)

by John McWhorter (1965-)

McWhorter is a linguist, apparently interested in pidgins and creoles. His book describes the linguistic principles by which languages change. Indeed his primary thesis is that there are no languages, only bundles of more-or-less mutually comprehensible dialects; a so-called language is simply a dialect with prestige.

He states that there are approximately 6,000 languages on earth today, down from perhaps 100,000 in earlier times. By the end of this century, 95% of these will be extinct. (I presume that a few new creoles will appear along the way.)

An entertaining aspect of the book is McWhorter’s use of the Asterix comics, and their translations into several languages, as examples of certain points. He also reproduces a McDonalds tray-paper from Germany as an example of a joke too near truth to be really funny.

In the first chapter he identifies five processes that lead to language change. This is the first time I have seen these described.

Sound Change – this is the process by which people take shortcuts in pronunciation, either shortening words, or contracting them. Typically teens use this approach to distinguish their speech from their parents’. Then when they have children, their children hear the shortened form as standard and apply the same process to another “generation” of sound changes. In this way the Latin femina became the French femme (ignore the spelling); parabulare became parler; canem became chien.

Extension – the tendency for some-time patterns to become standard rules. For example, as the distinctive gender endings of Latin wore away, the -s plural marker became extended to all genders. Similarly, special cases in English plurals became more standard: tungan became tongues; waeter (same as singular) became waters; bec became books.

The Expressiveness Cycle – A word like terrible originally meant something terrifying. With overuse it became less expressive, meaning just something bad. Words and phrases “wear down”, and require new words or phrases to express the original meaning. This is the case in definite articles. Latin had none, but French requires le chien or la femme. The articles originally meant that, and were more definite than merely the, something like Bill Clinton’s “that woman”. McWhorter goes into a lot of detail concerning the French use of two negatives for emphasis (ne and pas), apparently because just one is not expressive enough.

Rebracketing – He mentions a childhood anecdote: mistaking the hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” for a story about a cross-eyed bear named Gladly. The mistake is hearing the adjective cross-eyed instead of cross I’d and the animal bear instead of the verb bear. Similarly, the nick in nickname is a rebracketing from an ekename to a nickname, where eke meant also. Similarly a napron (from the French naperron for “napkin”) became an apron.

Semantic Change – he refers to the incident I noticed in the 1935 movie Top Hat where Ginger Rogers tells her friend that Fred Astaire “made love to me in the park”, meaning something entirely different than we imagine nowadays. Similarly he describes how silly evolved from meaning blessed in Old English (seli martirdom in 1225) through incorporating the notion of innocence (seli children in 1290) to meaning innocent by about 1400. One who is innocent deserves compassion (Sely Scotland, that of helpe has gret neide. in 1470), which can imply weakness (Thou onely art The mightie God, but I a sillie worm. in 1633). Then a short step to simple or ignorant, and then to foolish.

I found the book interesting. His interest in pidgins and creoles is evident in his extended examples, and how he holds them up as examples of what original undecorated language might have been like. In addition, in the notes he identifies a 1997 textbook Pidgins and Creoles as being so good it caused him to abandon plans to write one himself.


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