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Dialect Is All There Is

John H. McWhorter's The Power of Babel

There's an old joke among linguists that goes: "What separates a language from a dialect? An army and a navy." The point the joke makes, that the distinction between language and dialect relies more on geopolitics than science, is a central idea behind John McWhorter's new paperback, The Power of Babel. In his book, McWhorter explains how the first language, spoken 150,000 years ago, transformed into the 6,000 languages spoken today.

McWhorter begins his book by explaining how it is that languages transform. His examples are very thoroughly explained and McWhorter is adept at using creative metaphors to illustrate his points. For example, McWhorter likens the transformation of a language to the various reinterpretations of Dionne Warwick's "I Say a Little Prayer." Although there are several recordings of "I Say a Little Prayer" there is no "correct" recording of that song. Similarly, although languages undergo transformations and form different dialects, no one dialect can be more correct than another.

After explaining the various ways in which languages transform, McWhorter explains how, through pidginization, languages can be born. Pidgins are scaled down, functional mishmashes of two or more languages and they generally sprout wherever groups of people that speak different languages must coexist. Since pidgins are often created to facilitate trade or fulfill some niche, they need not develop the full expressive capabilities a complete language. For example, a pidgin called Russenorsk consists of only a few hundred words and has a fraction of the grammatical rules found in other languages.

Pidgins sometimes expand past their niche and develop all the trappings of a full language. When this happens the pidgin has become a creole. McWhorter explains how creoles acquire more expressive, more subtle words, a complete grammar, and, interestingly, quirks, such as irregular verbs.

After discussing how language are born and transform, McWhorter concludes by examining how languages die. In the first form of language death, McWhorter shows how writing, nationalization, and increased ease of communication have "frozen" the development of some languages by preserving and elevating a certain dialect. For example, McWhorter explains that, in the early 1800s, "you was" was perfectly acceptable in certain English dialects until stylistic handbooks stamped it out, elevating you were to national prominence and making you was bad English.

In the second form of language death, McWhorter explains how the expansion of certain cultures and the purposeful destruction of others has caused many languages to simply no longer be spoken. Currently, ninety-six percent of the world speaks one of the "top twenty" languages, and estimates suggest that the proliferation of the "top twenty" will whittle down our 6,000 languages to around 500 by the year 2100. McWhorter argues that a language, once lost, is a cultural jewel forever stolen, and supports worldwide attempts to stop the further loss of languages.

The Power of Babel is a thorough look at the development of language. Although McWhorter's prose can at times be dense and some examples seemed unnecessarily pedantic, the book was generally engaging. The main caveat is that Babel does not so much tread new ground as explain well-accepted elements of linguistic theory, so readers that are already well grounded in linguistics may want to read something else. But for those who wonder where the world's languages came from, Babel is an educational, entertaining read.

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
by John H. McWhorter
Perennial; ISBN 006052085X
Paperback: 352 pages (January 2003)

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