The Power of Babel
John McWhorter
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Buy *The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language* online

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
John McWhorter
352 pages
January 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Remember the classic shaggy dog story in which for years the owner of a lost canine waits for any response to an ad which reads "Lost: Shaggy dog." Finally a knock is heard upon the door and there stands before him a man with a very shaggy dog. The punch line is "Not that shaggy!"

This is how I felt when towards the end of John McWhorter's totally entertaining book, a sugarcoated antidote to scholarly linguistic falderal - and here, I'm sure, Mcwhorter would digress to explore the derivation of the word "falderal" - the author poo-poos the cherished notion of "adamspeak", an original first language.

By the time he has blasted this theory to bits like a kid aiming a BB gun at his teddy bear in a sad but necessary rite of passage, we are prepared for it. McWhorter has shown us by stacks of examples, a glut one could say, that language is continually being created and dying, changing and refusing to change. He makes of us linguistic Buddhists, ready to accept the mutability of all words and to pursue our own verbal salvation by playing diligently and joyfully with our mother tongues.

McWhorter reveals that at age four, in frustration at not being able to fully communicate with a playmate, "I learned to sound out Hebrew (I was that kind of a kid)." For fun he picks up some Polish so he can order lunch in a favorite diner. His knowledge of French is possibly suspect in these parlous times...and his ability to tweak a sentence and make it mean what he wants it to turns his book into an elaborate crossword puzzler's mother lode.

I'm no linguist, though the wonder of words has always drawn me with a lusty siren song. I can't therefore say that Mcwhorter's book would satisfy a truly scholarly nature. But it satisfied me, a rather average reader, because it kept the ball rolling and gathered a lot of moss along the way.

My favorite bit, that which I'll carry off and nourish with care, was McWhorter's revelation that Native Americans really used to talk pretty much like Tonto, inventing a serviceable pidgin that aped the dominant lingo of the time.

"...this was all that was necessary for someone still rooted in his native culture and only needing English for trade and brief interactions. Native Americans across the country really did say heap for a lot and squaw for a woman."
Now that takes me back to the thrilling days of yesteryear!

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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