The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #13 January / February 2015
Book Look
by Erik Zidowecki
January / February 2015 | 

The Power of Babel - A Natural History of Language
by John McWhorter
Language: English
Item Rating:
ISBN-10: 006052085X - ISBN-13: 978-0060520854
Find it on Amazon UK

When opening a book about languages, I tend to immediately put them into one of two categories: a reference guide or a general overview. "The Power of Babel" falls into the latter of these categories. It is not about any particular language, nor is it a straightforward "history" as the title suggests.

History books normally are full of dates and events which have a generally universal acceptance as truth. This is not as possible with languages, since they change slowly over long expanses of time in subtle ways. Only a few events in language history can truly be dated, like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

Nor can theories of language change truly be proven, since we can only observe what has happened and attempt to trace the reasons.

This is the realm in which "Power of Babel" lives. The book looks at the many ways in which languages have developed over time and the probable causes for those changes. In fact, the author argues that no real "languages" exist, but rather just "dominant dialects" of several related dialects.

The Power of Babel The book is extremely well written, and it is quickly noticeable the scope of linguistic knowledge that the author draws from in the discussions. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, this isn't a reference book. It is more of a free flowing walk through language theories, discussions, and concepts.

McWhorter writes for the layperson. The book is very easy to read, although sometimes it does get a little bogged down into pop cultural references which may not make sense to all readers. Another aspect which may disturb some readers is how the book can be very abstract at some points, then shift into very detailed analysis at others. It's almost as if the author is struggling to keep the book on one level, then unknowingly changing to another.

"The Power of Babel" makes for excellent reading, and I would suggest it for anyone that truly has an interest in languages and linguistics as a whole.

A History of Writing
by Steven Roger Fischer
Language: English
Item Rating:
ISBN-10: 1861891016 - ISBN-13: 978-1861891013
Find it on Amazon UK

Language learners are often also interested in alphabets, like an alphabet's history and usage. But how did writing itself come into being? "A History of Writing" digs into this mystery, and begins with the basic methods of encoding language into the physical world. Some of the methods discussed here are knots, notches, and pictography. The history continues on to talk in-depth about the way that cuneiform arose from those earlier methods and expanded into the numerous hieroglyphic systems, then later into the more formalized "alphabets".

The book goes into great detail about the modern alphabets, focusing not only on the basic history of each, but also into the finer points of how and why things were created in the way they were. The future of writing is also discussed, pointing out the qualities that dictate whether a writing system succeeds or fails.

"A History of Writing" isn't a simple reference book for those that want to study a specific alphabet or syllabary, although it is very thorough in it's explanations. It looks at the evolution of writing not as a series of unrelated systems but rather as a vivid painting that has been created over time by many brushes and colors and layers.

The writing style of the book itself is straightforward; it neither talks down to the reader, nor attempts to lecture them. It manages to be entertaining as well, without resorting to pop culture references or clever anecdotes. Perhaps this is due to its British heritage. It is one in a series of books called "Globalities". This series is designed to "reinterpret world history in a concise yet thoughtful way". "A History of Writing" manages to do exactly that.

Book Look
Writer: Erik Zidowecki

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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