The Power of Babel by John McWhorter

The Power of Babel is a book about the natural history of language that I read recently while getting over my Christmas cold. (As you have probably noticed from the lack of website updates, I’m still recovering and not doing much besides sleeping and reading.) The book is rather inexpensive at Amazon though it is not available for Kindle, which unfortunately seems to be the case for many language and linguistics books.

Click image for Amazon.com page

Since I found the book to be rather entertaining and insightful, here are some interesting factoids from a few chapters.

  • The future tense in Romance languages derives from combining the main verb plus the conjugated forms of have in Latin. I will love was amare habeo in Latin and it transformed into amerò in Italian. So having to learn various endings for all six person and tense combinations in Italian, French, Spanish, etc? Thanks Latin!  Inflections are transformed this way in many languages, but thankfully English had a simpler process with fewer endings overall (did became -ed for all six, for example.)
  • Much like inflections, tones developed over time from sound changes to distinguish meaning between words. In Vietnamese, for example, tones did not originally exist but then final consonants wore off of many words, changing the sound of the preceding vowel. Now it is these tones that distinguish the differences in meanings instead of the final consonant.  Inflections and tones were not present in the earliest forms of language and they are not necessary to human communication. They are merely accidental changes of words and sounds that produced a more complicated form of the language.
  • The Normans who invaded England in 1066 did not speak a standardized or Parisian French that many people think of, but rather the Norman dialect. The “French” words borrowed at that time were actually the Norman pronunciations, where Norman had k and ei but Parisian had sh and oi (compare carbon/aveir and charbon/avoir). This is also why Montréal is not Montroyal – it was settled by people from Northwestern France rather than Paris.
  • Most people know that double negatives used to be grammatically correct in English, but there are other features of contemporary non-standard dialects that are in fact closer to early modern English than today’s English. Even though thou went out of fashion by 1700, the singular you did not and its corresponding verb conjugation for be in the past tense was, in fact, was.  Letters written by educated people in the 1800′s indicate that “you was” was the standard and it was only because prescriptive grammarians decided that it didn’t sound correct that they stamped it out of modern English by rewriting grammar books.
  • One of the few examples of Scots that still exists, or at least is recognizable, in modern-day English is auld lang syne, literally old long since or “days of yore.”
  • The human proto-language (if you believe that there was one) was very similar to today’s creoles in that the grammar was much simpler – no inflections or tones, or even relative clauses, because these complex features developed due to sound changes and the fact that most language became written instead of only spoken.
  • And of course, my favorite part: the acknowledgement that French is actually two languages: written and spoken. McWhorter mentions a few of the parallels (nous vs. on, ne…pas vs. pas, est vs. c’est) and how textbooks do not do a very good job of informing the learner that the gap between these two is wider than for most other languages.  Written French was codified centuries ago and rarely changes, but the spoken form is highly dynamic, even for non-colloquial speech by the educated. It should be no wonder that c’est was the basis for is instead of est in French-based creoles - se in Haitian creole - because that is what the people always heard in everyday speech.

Namke Learn Quebec French: Canadian French made in Quebec

I have previously mentioned the Namke Learn Quebec French site because they offer the wonderful software KitQC2 which includes 4,500 mp3s of Quebecois French. Lately they’ve been updating their Learn Quebec French blog more and more (filling in the void left by the demise of learncanadianfrench.com) with more useful tips and resources on learning the […]

Full Story »

The Joys of Travelling in Winter

Even the mighty NY blizzard couldn’t prevent me from coming back to France after Christmas. I got back at 2:15pm Tuesday – only 7 hours later than originally planned – because I was lucky enough to change my flight to Lufthansa that didn’t require any layovers in the Northeast. My original Continental flight on Monday […]

Full Story »

Christmas Wonderland in Michigan’s Little Bavaria

Every time I come back to Michigan, whether it’s in December or not, I have to go to Frankenmuth and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. Originally settled by Lutheran immigrants from Franconia, Frankenmuth today is nicknamed Little Bavaria and is probably Michigan’s most popular tourist attraction. The city itself is rather small (2.8 square miles with 4,600 […]

Full Story »

Home for the Holidays

My Christmas secret is out! I came back to Michigan yesterday as a surprise for my parents and will be home for the next two weeks. I had been planning this for months and even though all of my friends knew, everyone was able to keep the secret and my mom was indeed surprised. I […]

Full Story »

Tastes and Tours of the French Alps

The following is a guest post by Cynthia Caughey Annet, an American who also lives in Chambéry. She is the author of american-in-france.com, a blog full of great videos, photos, recipes, travel tips, and observations on expat life in France and the French Alps. Looking for unique gifts this holiday season? Does your spouse, best friend or […]

Full Story »

Dr. Paul Nation & Survival Travel Vocabulary

Anyone who has done research on vocabulary acquisition has come across Dr. Paul Nation’s articles and books. His 1990 book, Teaching & Learning Vocabulary, as well as his 2001 book, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, are the basis of most vocabulary acquisition classes at universities today.  He favors frequency lists, extensive reading, and the lexical approach to […]

Full Story »

Education Systems, Creativity, Motivation and Results-Only Environments

Being snowed in for a week meant watching a lot of TED talks online, and a few that really interested me focus on certain established environments and how they are not very conducive to education, creativity or motivation. Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity and the need for a “learning revolution” throughout the […]

Full Story »

My two year-old niece will help you learn spoken French [New informal French video]

My two year-old niece was recently talking to David on the phone, and she asked t’es au boulot ? Are you at work? However, books will tell you to say es-tu au travail ? instead - or actually it’s more likely they will insist on êtes-vous au travail ? because foreigners never need to use the […]

Full Story »

The best language hack? Speak it!

My name is Benny Lewis, an Irish lad that at 21 would never imagine speaking any language other than English to be possible for me. I took German in school and did quite poorly, and when I visited Munich I couldn’t even order a train ticket – a frustrating place to be after five years […]

Full Story »

Search this Site

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In January 2010, I started focusing more on teaching and learning languages in general. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at the university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling (though now my trips are usually in Australia) and being an American abroad.

Stay Connected

Facebook

Buy My French Books

My Say it in French phrasebook and Great French Short Stories dual-language book (both published by Dover Publications) are available at Amazon.com.

The 2nd edition of French Language Tutorial is now available as a PDF book. It has been updated with much more vocabulary, sample sentences, and cultural information, plus extended vocabulary lists, cross-referenced topics, and an alphabetical index.

Visit the Store to buy the PDF e-book for $14.95 or paperback book for $29.95.

Languages

     

Google Ads