Dr. McWhorter had come to New York from his home base in Oakland, Calif., to attend a meeting at the Manhattan Institute and to put the final touches on his sixth book, a meditation on the natural history of language. The work, ''The Power of Babel,'' is to be issued in January.
''Languages have been a passion since I was a small child,'' he said. ''I used to teach them to myself as a hobby. I speak three and a bit of Japanese, and can read seven.''
In graduate school at Stanford, Dr. McWhorter became fascinated with the evolution of languages, particularly with the Creole tongues, because he wondered how a phenomenon like Haitian Creole ''could start out as Latin'' and ''become something so different in structure.''