Mar 3, 2010

The Power of Babel

A Natural History of Language
by John McWhorter

This book looks at how languages have evolved and changed over the centuries. I found particularly interesting some explanations of where odd phrases come from, that have lost their original meaning and come to be used for something quite different. (Not all things were easily explained. For example, this quote regarding a nursery rhyme that when you think about it, makes little sense:
“... Jack Horner pulling a plum out of a pie-- why did he stick his thumb in rather than his pointer finger? Presumably just in order to rhyme with plum-- but then what was a plum pie and how good could that have been? And why did dismembering the pie make him a good boy?” )
Sometimes the writing got a bit convoluted and I would have to read a sentence several times to figure out what it meant. Other times the author wanders off into a side-topic for pages- but those were usually interesting too, so I didn't mind too much. For the most part, it was easy to read, made me think about all sorts of things and kept me laughing, especially the author's footnotes and asides. That's a sure way to make me read a book to the end, even when it's dry or confusing in parts- make me laugh, and spark my curiosity. A pretty good book, if you're interested in the evolution and structure of languages, or the original meanings of words.

I noticed this title while browsing in a bookstore, and then found it at the public library.

Rating: 3/5 ....... 112 pages, 2001

More opinions at:
The Book of Merle
The Ignoramus Blog
Writers of Color 50 Book Challenge


  1. This looks like fun.

  2. Sounds so interesting! I love love love reading books about language. I'm actually sort of surprised I haven't read more of them lately. But I want to get this one!

  3. Sounds interesting. Sometimes those obscure facts can be quite entertaining.

  4. Oh, I actually added this to my wishlist the other day! I think amazon suggested it when I was looking at something else. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it :)

  5. Bybee- it is!

    Jenny- I like books about language, too, but I haven't read nearly enough of them!

    BlackSheep- the funny bits are the best part

    Nymeth- I think you'd really like it!

  6. I love word books. I need to look out for this one!


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