The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (Anglais) Relié – 1 novembre 2001
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Revue de presse
"'A frisky observer of the linguistic scene'" (Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail)
"'The breathless tour of linguistic oddities from around the globe has its own empirical delight... McWhorter is a kind of linguistic David Attenborough... The fascination is in his detail, the sheer case-by-case weirdness of languages'" (Guardian) --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.
Présentation de l'éditeur
There are approximately six thousand languages on Earth today, each a descendant of the tongue first spoken by Homo sapiens some 150,000 years ago. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, linguistics professor John McWhorter reminds us of the variety within the species that speaks them, and argues that, contrary to popular perception, language is not immutable and hidebound, but a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment.
Full of humor and imaginative insight, The Power of Babel draws its illustrative examples from languages around the world, including pidgins, Creoles, and nonstandard dialects.--Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
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What's been missing is a good public account of the realm in between, corresponding to serious "natural history", as McWhorter's title has it. Neither so abstract as to be buried in "deep structure" that precedes any concrete language, nor buried up to the neck in the myopic delights of trivia. McWhorter's subject is literal "natural" "history" too - the tale of how languages, left to themselves, die and are born, mutate, divide, and intertwine over time.
So "Power of Babel" is a welcome addition. It's style is lively, even downright breezy. Its numerous examples from languages of every continent but Antarctica are pithy and aptly chosen. Partly because McWhorter makes a series of distinct points, rather than building to a climactic conclusion, the pace may begin to drag halfway through. That's fine; put it down for a while and read the latest Carl Hiassen thriller, or whatever else floats your boat. After a pause, this book ends as refreshingly as it began.
McWhorter notes that the way in which we are generally trained to think of languages has little in common with the way professional linguists think of them. What we take to be "standard" English, or French, or Russian are really anomalies. In each case, a dialect spoken by a very small population near a political center (London, Paris, Kiev and then Moscow) was elevated by fiat and then by the power of the press into "the" way to speak a "language" which had for centuries been a riot of equally correct, ever changing, barely mutually recognizable dialects. Thereafter political consolidation of nation-states based on a "common language", together with literacy in vernaculars presenting schoolchildren with models of proper use of "the" language frozen onto the printed page, slowed the pace of linguistic change to a fraction of its natural rate. This has led laymen to think of the world as neatly divided into "languages", each one spoken in only one proper fashion, almost any change to which amounts to a regrettable corruption.
McWhorter argues effectively to the contrary: that there are no languages, only dialects; that where two dialect communities border on one another, their speechways will mix indiscriminately, and that as long as language is transmitted to the next generation without the aid of recorded materials, major changes in vocabulary, pronunciation, and even grammar are par for the course, even within the space of half a century.
There's also a spirited debunking of the widely reported reconstruction of the "proto-World" language from which all others are supposedly descended. It's a valuable service, but its polemical tone is at odds with the lighter touch of the rest of the book, and McWhorter wisely relegates it to an "Epilogue."
If specific foreign languages have ever fascinated you, whether or not you were any good at learning them (I certainly wasn't), you'll probably get the same kick out of "Power of Babel" that I did.
"In Maori, whaka- is the 'makes it change' prefix, as in ako 'learn,' whakaako 'teach'. But then there also cases where you 'just have to know', such as uru 'enter' but whaka-uru 'assist' or tuturi 'kneel' but whakatuturi 'be stubborn'."
The bottom line: McWhorter has a gift for lighting a fire under the non-linguist lay reader, but even his engaging personality and style cannot overcome the tedium that eventually sets in as a result of his admirable refusal to talk down to his audience.
I've recommended it to any number of other people as well. Here's the sorts of people who would like this book: people who have ever tried to learn a foreign language and gotten distracted by cognates, people who not only know what cognates are but go looking for them for fun, people who deliberately try to read the liner notes in their CDs in one of the foreign languages and then check back with the English version to see how far off you were; people who debate whether Shakespeare is early modern English or modern English; people whose idea of a good time is playing word games; people who have ever participated in the User Friendly message boards translating the day's strip into ever-more outlandish languages...
Have you ever read any of the "Asterix" comic strips? Would you like to see how Asterix looks in three different dialects of German?
This book is not as downright serious as some, nor as deeply footnoted as a truly academic book would be. For that, you'd want to read "Empire of the Word" by Nicholas Ostler. It's much more thorough, and more academic, and dryer, and has far less humor. On the other hand, if you want to have FUN reading about language, "The Power of Babel" is the right book. Some other reviewers have referred to the book's "cheesy humor" or other lack of seriousness. I consider that a GOOD thing; this is a book that a person can sit and read, and enjoy, and share bits out loud with someone else in the room, rather than requiring the reader to squint and take notes and study. If it's wrong to appreciate books written for a popular audience rather than a scholarly one, then I don't wanna be right.
One warning: after you read this book, you will have trouble falling asleep for a while because thoughts about the vast connectedness of everything will keep you awake, jumping from topic to topic and word to word. Also, you will annoy many of your friends by repeatedly announcing that "there are no languages, only dialects." So far, none of my friends has hit me over the head for this, so the side effects are safe enough to be worth the read.
This book is probably one of the very few on popular science (I guess anybody who read the book will not disagree that linguistics is definitely a science) I would advise to include into the list of mandatory reading parents create for their kids. It has an extremely rich historical background for many languages as well as for language as a mainstream mean of communication. The author is almost encyclopedically knowledgeable in pretty much every aspect of it and it reads very easily. Frequent manifestations of author's sense of humor are also improves readability.
Several things though I guess may need some clarifications.
Author mentions about Russia as about "highly insular nation for most of its history" (page 101). I have to disagree with this statement. Yes, 20th century was marked by insularism due to well-known political processes. But before and after that Russia was and is quite open for its neighbors for mutual interactions and it definitely includes word loaning from other languages. Yes, there are much less Latin loans in Russian language comparing to English. But at the same time there are tons of loans from Turkic family, notably from Tatar. Medieval history of Russia marked by warfare, trade and periods of political dependence from Golden Horde and because of that many basic words like money (den'gi - from tan'ga), cap (kolpak - from kolpak), strongman (bogatir' - from bagatur), chest (soondook - from sundik) to name few are loaned into Russian from Tatar. It would probably fair to say that Golden Horde played for Russian language the role similar to what has been played by Normans after 1066 for English.
In my opinion, Mr. McWhorter oversimplifies the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian, saying "mastering Ukrainian is more a matter of adjustment than precisely learning" (page 72). Yes, those languages are quite close as well as they are close enough to Polish, Serbian and Belarusian but they are far enough to prevent one from good understanding when the other language speaker speaks fast. I remember, when I was a kid in Kyrgyzstan I visited a little village of Poltavka where descendants of Cossacks sent by Tsar in early 19th century to guard outskirts of Russian Empire still speak a strange mix of old Ukrainian and old Russian. Even though I have spent some time there trying to pick up the language it was still not very understandable as a whole despite on some words and even sentences were clear sometimes.
Also, Mr. McWhorter's examples of certain words usage and phrases are somewhat outdated. For example, on the same page a phrase "pokojnoj noci" is described as a way Russian speakers say "Good Night". In fact it is 19th century way of saying good night. If my girlfriend would say to me "pokojnoj noci dorogoi" (Good night honey) my first reaction would be "Why the hell she speaks like Anna Karenina?". The contemporary way of saying good night is "spokojnoj noci" - one additional sound makes a huge difference. The same is applicable to the word "strashyj" (page 24), which may be in days of Nabokov was used exclusively for depicting really frightful things, like let's say grizzly attack. Nowadays it can be used pretty much the same way the English word terrible is used - one can say "strashno dorogo" meaning "terribly costly" and it would be quite normal and understandable.
But in general Mr. McWhorter's observations regarding Russian language are very true. He mentions about articles as a stumbling bloc. After several years of existence in English environment I still make mistakes with proper usage of those as this text I am sure confirms eloquently. Even when I feel I supposed to use "a" or "the" here or there a strange feeling of something unnatural nagging me inside. The thing is articles are perceived as something grotesquely redundant, the same way a letter "d" should be in the word "boulevard" for orthographic correctness. On the other hand I can only guess what English speakers think of all that convolution of Russian grammar with its multiple genders and cases.
Having said that, I feel like we all can consider ourselves lucky due to a mere fact that a mother tongue of Mr. McWhorter is English. Because of that his profoundly enjoyable book is easily available for our comprehension. How would it be if this great book is written and published in, let's say, Mandinka or Evenki? The cruel truth is a writer's talent should always be accompanied by a mother tongue whose market penetration is competitive enough with other 6000 or so counterparts. Only then it can be truly beneficial for readers audience and writer's wellbeing.