Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Power Of Babel - Review

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Languages by John McWhorter
In earliest French, there was only one negative marker, ne: Il ne marche “He is not walking.” However, you could reinforce the negation with various expressions conveying the meaning “not one bit,” such as:
“drop” Il ne boit goutte “He doesn’t drink a drop.”

Mie “crumb” Il ne mange mie “He doesn’t eat a crumb”

Along these lines, for walking, you would use pas, the word for “step”:

Pas “step” il ne marche pas He doesn’t walk a step.” (not un pas because indefinite articles had not yet become obligatory).

As time passed, these expression began to lose their snap,…and most of these double-stuff negations fell out of use…With pas no longer contributing any force to the negation, the original sense of pas “step” no longer had any connection with the meaning of such sentences. For this reason, speakers gradually ceased processing pas in these sentences as connoting any concrete concept at all, instead reinterpreting it as just something one must use when negating a sentence involving movement…

People think of linguists in two stereotypes: people who speak a lot of languages, or people who are grammarians. Linguists are much more concerned with how languages change, and how language, brain, and thinking interact. McWhorter focuses on the former. How did Latin turn into French, Spanish, and Italian? Could it have gone differently? Where’s the boundary between a dialect and a language, or between a creole and a pidgin? Where do languages get all those exceptions and extra junk that make them impossible to learn? I learned French in school and can read Proust – what the heck is it that they speak in Paris?

McWhorter’s plan is to illustrate language growth and development with concepts from biological evolution, because we are more familiar with those. It’s not a perfect match, but you can go a long way into unfamiliar territory with the analogies. There are languages we can show are related that look as different as mice and giraffes. There are languages as extinct as a wooly mammoth, which we know only from reconstructed specimens in museums. Hunks of words get worn away, so languages go and borrows hunks of other stuff to put in: tones, conjugations, tenses.

Why do other languages allow double negatives, but English doesn’t?

What is the “nick” in “nickname,” anyway? Who’s “Nick?

There are over six thousand languages – more, if you are a splitter rather than a lumper. Few are written languages, and 96% of humanity speaks one of the 20 largest languages. A hundred years from now, most current languages will likely be extinct or spoken only in stripped-down versions as home languages or preserved regional languages. To McWhorter, this is a great tragedy, as it is to all linguists. The marvelous and fascinating diversity of expression deserves to be preserved for its own sake, they think. As interesting as it all is, I don’t see why. People abandon languages, even ones they speak fluently, because so few people speak it, and those few don’t provide jobs or TV shows. A language you speak only with your parents and their friends, which your spouse speaks less well or not at all, is not one you will pass on to your children very well. And that’s your choice. However much the ancestral language may seem a treasure, place after place, generation after generation, people decide that being able to speak a language that gets you even a crummy job is worth more.

Ignore Chapter Five (of seven). Just because I forced my way through on the hopes there would be something interesting doesn’t mean you have to. If it’s more linguistics than I want, I’m sure it’s more than you want. Also, bail on Chapter Six after a few pages if you don’t like that sort of thing. Don’t skip the Epilogue, however.


terri said...

losing languages....There is an intimate tie between language and culture; some would even say that they are the same thing.

Time and again culture clashes erupt over what language should be an official language, and how that language should be enforced. It happens in Spain with the Basques, Quebec with the separtists, and throughout the Americas in regards to native speech vs. Spanish(or English in this country.

There is such a definitive link between culture and language, that it shows up everywhere.

I you know if different languages affect different parts of the language centers in the brain? For instance....If you imaged people's brain activity, from dramatically different language groups, would there be any noticeable differences?

I'm just wondering aloud. I'm sure you'll let me know if the premise is silly.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Great question. I will post on it soon.

Anonymous said...

Found in a blog post about learning Chinese and learning Latin:

"Latin’s cool and worthwhile too, for different reasons. Studying Latin was a completely different experience from studying Chinese. It felt as if they used completely different parts of the brain."