I enjoyed The Power of Babel so much that when I saw that John McWhorter had a new pop-linguistics book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, I put it at the top of my Christmas list. This is much less dense than Babel, but seems to be carefully argued as best I can tell, and is still an enjoyable read.
McWhorter argues that the traditional story of English’s evolution is much less interesting and complex than the real thing, which in his telling has two under-recognized components. First, because English co-existed with Celtic languages for centuries, weird things happened to English’s grammar like having to use “do” in questions and negative sentences. Second, because the Vikings showed up and learned English as a second language, they knocked a lot of the embellishments off of English, leaving it the least complex of the Germanic languages. (And even Proto-Germanic, McWhorter argues, is less complex than other languages descended from Proto-Indo-European. He hypothesizes that this may have been because Phoenicians learned it as a second language, but notes that so far this is just a hypothesis.)
After these two under-recognized components of English’s history, McWhorter draws broader lessons about language. English’s bastard grammar shows that, from a linguistics point of view, there’s no such thing as “errors”; arbitrary rules are just that, arbitrary. And from the reduced complexity of English after the Vikings got through with it, McWhorter argues that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language strongly channels thought) has to be wrong, because we aren’t less able to deal with complexity today than Anglo-Saxon villagers were.
None of this will be hugely surprising to those who’ve listened to his lecture series on historical linguistics, but the additional detail and the handy print nature of the book nevertheless make it worth reading. Just don’t expect anything as detailed as Babel, and you’ll be all set.