The Power of Babel by John McWhorter

June 2004

This was a thoroughly enjoyable popular linguistics book - kind of a historical linguistics counterpart to The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (another great, highly amusing book on linguistics). Historical linguistics and language change is really where my passion lies, so I devoured chapter after chapter on the evolution and spread of language(s); on dialects, pidgins and creoles; on the futile search for the original, "pre-Babel" language; and, of course, on language extinction. Great stuff.

Books like this also serve as a powerful reminder that all languages and all dialects are created equal. The standard dialects which we consider the only "proper" ones today are no more sophisticated or correct than the plethora of non-standard dialects to be found in every language around the world. Standard dialects are merely the product of geopolitical chance - i.e., they are the dialects that happen to have been spoken by the ruling classes when it was decided that a standard was needed. That's an important thing for people (myself included) to recall before they start bemoaning the inability of the unwashed masses to speak "properly"...

Further reading…