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The Power of Babel

1. John McWhorter presents a fascinating discussion in his book The Power of Babel that outlines how language changes over time. McWhorter uses verbal imagery of clouds to illustrate how quickly and entirely language change can occur. 

The first way that change can occur is through sounds mutating ever so slightly and being passed down through generations: “There is a strong tendency for sounds to erode and disappear over time, especially when the accent does not fall upon them” (18). He calls this tendency “Defining Deviance Downward” and refers to it also as “gradual erosion of a language’s sounds,” but then goes on to say that “But if all that sound change consisted of was erosion, then presumably all language would long ago have worn down into a mouthful of dust. Fortunately, sounds also transform into new ones” (21). I found it fascinating to read McWhorter’s statement that: “the slight difference between the … vowels of one generation and another is largely undetectable  (except to linguists doing painstaking recording and statistical analysis” (22). If that is true, then our language is absolutely changing from generation to generation in ways that are undetectable to most humans. 

Another method of change in language is what McWhorter calls “Extension: Grammar Gets a Virus,” and what he means by that is specific rules of speech that are different depending on the ending of a word get simplified so that it is easier to apply (or spread like a virus) across the board to more parts of speech. The example of nouns going from having different plural forms (the example of mouse to mice and other words like this) versus cat to cats, boot to boots, and so on. The -es or -s ending to pluralize a noun over time became more and more universally used on more nouns. 

A third route of linguistic change, referred to by McWhorter as “The Expressiveness Cycle,” involves exaggeration and creativity in word use that results over time in a gradual watering down of a word’s meaning and intensity: “all languages constantly create expressive usages of words or phrases that gradually wear down in force, like old jokes” (25). I have definitely been guilty of this one, because I am always looking for new ways to use words creatively in order to entertain myself and hopefully get a smirk or chortle of amusement out of those around me. I had no idea that I have been contributing to language mutation! 

The fourth mechanism of language change is what McWhorter calls “Rebracketing” and involves sounds from word combinations drifting from the end of one word to the beginning of the next, or vice versa. The nature or meaning of the word may or may not change, but the very end or beginning of the word will. For example, “Saint Nicholas” over time turned into “Santa Claus.”

The final tendency for language mutation over time is named “Semantic Change” by McWhorter, whereby “...not only expressions but single words undergo processes of narrowing or broadening through the ages…” (31). McWhorter traces the word “silly” through time and shows an astonishing semantic change: “silly came to mean ‘foolish’ -- having begun meaning ‘sanctified by God’!” (32) and changed in meaning many times in between the two through multiple iterations. 


2. McWhorter states that “Dialects follow naturally from the inherently nondiscrete nature of language change” (54). He writes often about how Latin changed and spread throughout Europe, first subtly falling under the category of different dialects, and then transforming into what we know today as separate languages: French, Italian, and Spanish. Likewise, under the umbrella of the Chinese language, there are multiple ‘dialects’ that McWhorter states are so different from each other that they are separate languages, but they are often referred to as simply dialects of each other because they still share the same grammars and thus the writing system works still for all of them. Each separate Chinese “dialect” -- that are so different from each other that we can consider them in actuality as separate languages, are also changing such that there are multiple sub - “dialects.” For example, the text describes how Chinese immigrants to the US that speak Cantonese have a different dialect than those in China speaking Cantonese. To sum up the Chinese language as diverging from different dialects to completely different languages, McWhorter writes “Thus, rather than having ‘eight dialects,’ China actually has several dozen dialects of eight different languages” (74). The English language has similarly changed into so many variations that Shakespearean English vs. modern English spoken in the UK today vs. the many dialects of modern English spoken in the US today are so different that I as an English speaker struggle to understand what is being said in dialects other than my own. 


3. I relate to McWhorter’s analogy of languages and dialects as a family tree or bush growing from one trunk (which represents the very first language) and stemming from there to “the thousands of offshoots of the first language” (94), which we can currently trace and hear today. My dad grew up in Hawaii, which is a small island chain that has seen much migration and thus mixing of cultures and language. In Hawaii, many people continue to speak “Pidgin” (discussed in the text as an example of a “Creole” on p. 151) which is a mixture of words, phrases, and grammar from numerous languages: Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, English, and more. Just as the blood of these races mixed together to form families with ties to multiple countries, the Pidgin dialect formed to reflect that richness and mixture of cultures, and this dialect now allows these families to communicate in a way that unifies cultures and reflects the resultant rich linguistic diversity and the intermingling of people from different countries of origin.  My Grandmother (who is of Native Hawaiian and European descent) did not wish for her children to speak Pidgin because she believed it made them sound uneducated, however, there is no denying that the dialect gives many different people something they share in common and helps them to form a shared Hawaiian identity. There is a sense of local pride amongst people living in Hawaii such that if you speak Pidgin, you are considered a local and not a tourist. To this day, my dad can turn on and off his speaking of Pidgin like a lightswitch.

One dialect that fits well with McWhorter’s stew analogy is Spanglish, the mixture and mashup of English and Spanish into completely new words that take on characteristics of both the parent languages: “Every now and then, you even encounter a piece of something that, covered with liquid and cooked out of its original shape and consistency, you have to work to figure out the original identity of…” (95).


4. I agree with McWhorter’s position that Latin learned as a second language would be helpful for English speakers to understand the foundation and root words that preceded our language. Latin would reinforce our understanding of our vocabulary and the origin of many words, but not all, for in McWhorter’s own words: “Our vocabulary is so shot thoroughly with foreign loanwords on all levels that there is no language whose basic vocabulary is akin to ours” (99). English speakers ought to learn more languages in my opinion. Many of us don’t probably because English is the language that most people in the world desire to speak fluently in order to find professional and financial success, since English is as McWhorter states “a language of learning” (96). One of my best friends in college majored in Latin studies, but she does not speak or write English better than I do, though she would probably make a better lawyer than I would which is irrelevant anyway because we are both teachers instead. I would love to see more languages taught in the US, beginning in elementary school and continuing through college. The difficulty is that language must not only be taught and studied, but lived every day. Culturally in the US, many families do not have the resources required to make the lifestyle change that allows children to absorb multiple languages. This does not yet seem to present a problem for American families, but could possibly in the future as the families and students that are multilingual may have better success and opportunities.

5. English vocabulary words have been incorporated into other languages due most likely to cultural and political influence. Perhaps another reason could be that many languages do not contain an existing word for an idea, so it is easier to adopt a word from a different language that is already widely recognized. My daughter is currently studying Japanese through Duolingo and will take Japanese classes as a freshman in high school this fall, so I know from reading over her shoulder at times that a lot of Japanese words sound like English words with a Japanese spin on them, though I don’t know why other than perhaps Japan’s admiration of America’s cultural influence. McWhorter writes:

“Another example is Japan, traditionally one of the most isolated modern cultures in the world. In the past few decades, it has inhaled so many American English words that grandparents find themselves literally unable to comprehend many modern writings and signs, heavy with words like beisuboru (baseball), T-shatsu (T-shirt), sukii (ski), fakkusu (fax) bouifurendo (boyfriend) and one of my favorites, appurupai (apple pie)” (101-2).


I absolutely witness reciprocity, for Japan is currently culturally and linguistically influencing America as well. The movie Big Hero Six, which I watched many times with my children, takes place in a city called San Fransokyo which looks all the world like San Francisco but with Japanese influences in architecture and culture. Japanese anime and manga (comic books) are like gold to my children, and one of our favorite meals currently is Ramen. I thoroughly enjoy and support my children embracing the Japanese culture and language in our home. My best friend from high school is Japanese (but very Americanized as compared to his parents), and the influx of Japanese culture in my home today brings back good memories of him and also gives me positive associations with Japan as a nation.


6. Many ideas or words that are used for culturally American concepts are adopted into other languages, such as “Happy Hour” used in Spanish but derived from English. Other examples are: in Spanish, the use of the word futbol means soccer, and the words futbol Americano is how Spanish speakers refer to the sport of football. Spanish (and probably other language) speakers say the English word “OK” because it is recognized widely and easy to use. “Spanglish” is an “Americanized dialect” (119) that McWhorter discusses as “a new dialect of Spanish, distinguished from Mexican, Cuban, or Puerto Rican Spanish by how much mixture from English has occurred. This dialect is, after all, an inevitable result of Spanish being spoken with English over generations’ time in this country” (119). I took 5 years of Spanish in middle school and high school, such that I passed the an exam offered at my university to show that I had already fulfilled a language study requirement and did not need to take more language classes towards my undergraduate degree. I then joined a multi-cultural sorority on campus and practiced speaking Spanish with some of my closest friends in the sorority. During my first year of teaching, I was assigned to a Two Way Bilingual Immersion (TWBI) program to teach elementary school music in English (to meet their 10% per day English instruction requirement). I was not allowed to speak English to the teachers in front of our students, so I had many opportunities to practice my Spanish at work! I would sometimes need to use Spanglish to communicate in Spanish to my college friends or during my travels to Mexico, though I could not use it during my time teaching music at the TWBI school. Thus, not only do Spanish speakers absorbing American culture use Spanglish, but so do English speakers trying to become fluent in Spanish. 


Final Project


John McWhorter is one of the more qualified scholars today to analyze and offer valuable social commentary regarding the use of code switching in public speech, which occurred last month when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) spoke to the National Action Network. Critics of AOC took to social media to call her out on the use of Black English by saying that she committed “verbal blackface,” that “she speaks in an accent she never uses,” because “#wedonttalklikethat.” To use pop music code switching, my response to these critiques of AOC’s code switching is to quote-sing Taylor Swift: “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” McWhorter’s Power of Babel makes clear throughout that rather than offensive, “Language universal and inevitable” (121).

Code switching as defined by NPR is a phenomena that occurs upon the merging of cultures in “the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them. In one sense, code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures...many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.” McWorter adds to this idea of code switching back and forth, stating that “speakers regularly alternate between one language and another, often within the same sentence...Code-switching is common among bilinguals worldwide. Generally, code-switchers are fully competent in both languages but switch back and forth according to topic or when a word they are more familiar with in one language comes along and sparks a switch into that word’s language” (Story of Human Language, 122). Thus code-switching occurs when a person has lived in a place with a strong multi-cultural influence and as a result, that person is able to share in a local identity and sound like a member of the community who truly belongs there because she/he talks the talk of locals.

The fact that critics would attempt to point out that a speaker such as AOC is not actually so much a member of the community as she might like to think while code-switching truly comes across as unnecessarily judgemental and uninformed. When a person perceives that someone doesn’t belong to a culture or community based on their physical appearance or anything other factual knowledge, the result is a close-minded assumption. McWhorter’s article eloquently points out that “Ocasio-Cortez, as a Latina, was not using a dialect foreign to her experience. She grew up around it; it would be surprising if she did not have it in her repertoire to some extent. “I am from the Bronx. I act & talk like it,” she tweeted. Anyone who would riposte that she isn’t from the black Bronx in particular would miss that Black English stopped being a black-exclusive dialect in the Bronx decades ago.” I too have been the target of comments made based on my physical appearance that I do or do not belong to a certain culture or community which I do in fact belong to, but we must always be sensitive to the fact that a person can grow up within and belong to a community and culture even when his/her genetics resulted in an overall look that is different from what is considered the local norm. Not labeling people based on their physical appearance is an important life lesson that benefits societies by the more widespread it becomes.


As I digest code switching as discussed in the McWhorter and NPR sources, I see it as very similar to the concept of “local color” that I learned in high school English class. “Local color” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “the customs, manner of speech, dress, or other typical features of a place or period that contribute to its particular character.” Local color adds interest and authenticity to a piece of literature and gives us the experience of absorbing new ways of life in a new place, while also showing the reader that different communities enjoy lifestyles that differ from their own. This understanding leads to open mindedness and a world traveler mentality, which allows us to graciously accept when a woman who looks Latina also speaks like a Black English fluently enough to code-switch.

The NPR source ends with evidence that code-switching is common, relatable, and can be comical: “Welcome to Code Switch. By the way: All this week we'll be looking for your best and worst stories about code-switching. Have stories about secretly learning Farsi so you can eavesdrop on your in-laws? Or maybe in that first year of college, when you had a crush on that dude from Atlanta, you suddenly picked up a real thick drawl you previously didn't have whenever you were around him. Drop your stories in the comments, or share them with us directly. Thanks!” (NPR). Reading this, we begin to think of code-switching in everyday ways that we have all encountered as we navigate relationships and life with a mixture of different people and cultures.

Code-switching provides more evidence to illustrate the theme that runs through McWhorter’s Power of Babel, that “Language is an inherently dynamic, rather than static, living entity...Language is used by living beings and rooted in changing cultures” (12). Code-switching allows humans to connect and soak in a sense of belonging in the presence of their home community, which is more often than not, a mixture of numerous cultures and languages.  




McWhorter, John. “It Wasn’t ‘Verbal Blackface.’ AOC Was Code-Switching.” The Atlantic,


Demby, Gene. “How Code-Switching Explains the World,” April 8, 2013, NPR

McWhorter, John. The Story of Human Language Part 1. Ebook, The Teaching Company

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