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.

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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.
  • Interesting! Nice post.

  • Thanks for your comments! This book is part of my “to read” list. If you liked this one, you might want to check out the one I’m currently reading, I bet you would enjoy it:


  • History of languages is one of the most interesting topics in linguistics, even if it’s over-academic and you have to take an exam later 🙂

    It’s great that there are people who write about it in a popular and easy-to-digest way. Most people are not aware how fascinating the changes are, and their reasons.

    For example, in Russian we have an amazing book “A Word about Words” by Lev Uspensky ( written in a language suitable even for children to comprehend. When I was a boy the book was fascinating. I still have it somewhere 🙂

    • I wish more people would learn about the history of languages too – I think it would help them to not be so judgmental about other languages (such as calling pidgins or creoles a broken or simplified form of another language.) Most people never really learn about linguistics or languages in general though (especially in the US) and it’s a shame.

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  • Thanks Silvina, I will check out that book.