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Story of Human Language

Story of Human Language

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Story of Human Language

Course No. 1600
Professor John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
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Course No. 1600
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  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring a variety of visuals designed to aid in your understanding of the course material. These include portraits of famous linguists such as Noam Chomsky, graphics illustrating the evolution of grammar and spelling, and charts covering the ways language branches off into different dialects (such as High German and Swiss German).
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Course Overview

I never met a person who is not interested in language, wrote the bestselling author and psychologist Steven Pinker. There are good reasons that language fascinates us so. It not only defines humans as a species, placing us head and shoulders above even the most proficient animal communicators, but it also beguiles us with its endless mysteries. For example:

  • How did different languages come to be?
  • Why isn't there just a single language?
  • How does a language change, and when it does, is that change indicative of decay or growth?
  • How does a language become extinct?
Dr. John McWhorter, one of America's leading linguists and a frequent commentator on network television and National Public Radio, addresses these and other questions as he takes you on an in-depth, 36-lecture tour of the development of human language, showing how a single tongue spoken 150,000 years ago has evolved into the estimated 6,000 languages used around the world today.

An accomplished scholar, Professor McWhorter is also a skilled popularizer, whose book The Power of Babel was called "startling, provocative, and remarkably entertaining," by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The London Times called him "a born teacher." And Steven Pinker, best known as the author of The Language Instinct, offered this praise for the book: "McWhorter's arguments are sharply reasoned, refreshingly honest, and thoroughly original."

Discover How Linguists Think

For the past century linguistics has been one of the most exciting and productive fields in the social sciences. In the process of telling the story of language, Professor McWhorter introduces you to some of the current controversies in the discipline:

  • Noam Chomsky has famously argued that the ability to use language is innately specified in the human brain. What is the evidence for and against this hypothesis?
  • The popular media have widely reported that words from the world's first language have been reconstructed. Professor McWhorter looks at the reasoning behind this work and the objections to it.
  • One of the most enticing ideas of 20th-century linguistics is that language determines the way we perceive the world. But is this really true?
  • The Ebonics debate of the mid-1990s focused attention on Black English. What is the nature of this dialect? Where did it come from?
Professor McWhorter also briefs you on the recent connection made between an obscure language of Nepal and the language family of Papua New Guinea, which may represent the oldest documentable historical relationship between words, extending back as far as 75,000 years.

In discovering how linguists think, you will begin to see language in an entirely new way. You will learn that everything about a language is eternally and inherently changeable, from its word order and grammar to the very sound and meaning of basic words.

That's why Professor McWhorter describes language as "like one of those lava lamps from the 1970s. It's not marching toward an ideal, and it's not slowly going to the dogs. It's always just variations of the same thing—endless morphings."

A Wealth of Examples from a Teacher Passionate about Language

In an interview with the New York Times, Professor McWhorter said: "Languages have been a passion since I was a small child. I used to teach them to myself as a hobby. I speak three and a bit of Japanese, and can read seven."

In this course, he includes these languages and many more as examples. Anyone who has ever studied a language will surely find it discussed—along with Albanian, Armenian, Turkish, Sanskrit, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Korean, Tagalog, Maori, Fijian, Samoan, Gullah, Hopi, Mohawk, Navajo, Yupik Eskimo, Quechua, and Welsh, as well as Latin, Greek, German, Russian, French, Spanish, Swedish, and many others.

It's remarkable how much light one language sheds on another. For example, the ancestor language of English is Proto-Germanic, and the ancestor of that is Proto-Indo-European. A curious transformation took place in the consonants of Proto-Germanic, in which Proto-Indo-European p became f; d became t; and so on with other consonant pairs. So Latin pater is English father, and Latin decem is English ten. This rule is called Grimm's Law after its discoverer—the same Jacob Grimm who collected folk tales.

Such patterns make relationships among different languages clear and make learning these languages much easier.

What You Will Learn

Language basics. In Lecture 1, you start by comparing human language to animal communication and ask, how valid are claims that animals such as chimpanzees have rudimentary language skills? Then you look at intriguing evidence that links a specific gene to the ability to use language. The first appearance of this gene in humans has been calculated and gives a surprisingly early date for the birth of language.

Chomsky's revolution. In Lecture 2, Professor McWhorter notes that linguists are often mistakenly thought to be translators or experts on word histories. But their work takes them far deeper into language. For example, Noam Chomsky and his coworkers have been searching for the grammatical properties common to all languages—an effort that has revolutionized linguistics, though not without controversy.

Change is the norm. In Lectures 3–7, you learn the specific mechanisms responsible for language change, from phenomena such as the tone system in Chinese to the gradual shift in the meanings of words over time. You will find that even the parts of Shakespeare you believe you understand may not mean what you think.

Beginnings. In Lectures 8–13, you explore language families, starting with Indo-European, comprising languages from India to Ireland including English. Other language families discussed are Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, Bantu, and Native American. You also look at the heated debate over the first language.

Dialects. In Lectures 14–19, you cover dialects. Often one dialect is chosen as the standard, and when it is used in writing, it changes more slowly than the dialects that are just spoken. One consequence is that people who speak written languages are often taught that the constructions they produce spontaneously are errors.

Mixing it up. In Lectures 20–22, you study the phenomenon of language mixture. The first language's 6,000 branches have not only diverged into dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another on all levels: vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and usage. As a result, English comprises a vocabulary of largely borrowed terms.

How English got that way. In Lectures 23–25, you learn how processes of change lead some languages to develop more grammatical machinery than they need, while others become streamlined, shedding such complexities. English is an interesting example of the latter tendency.

Prisoner of grammar? In Lecture 26, you examine the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that features of our grammars channel how we think.

New languages from old. In Lectures 27–32, Professor McWhorter focuses on pidgins and creoles. When people learn a language quickly without being explicitly taught, they develop a pidgin version of it. Then if they need to use this pidgin on an everyday basis it becomes a real language, a creole. Some people argue that Black English is a creole, and Professor McWhorter devotes a lecture to this issue.

Extinction. In Lectures 33 and 34, you come full circle. Having explored the processes that give birth to new languages, you now learn how languages become extinct and what can be done to preserve them.

Conclusion. In Lectures 35 and 36, you explore artificial languages, including Esperanto and sign languages for the deaf, and conclude by examining a single English sentence etymologically. In the process, you learn how word histories reflect the phenomena of language change and mixture worldwide.

The Armory of the Mind

Professor McWhorter covers a wealth of material, enlivened with wit and personal observations:

  • Concerning Shakespeare's language, he points out that the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz sings Juliet's line "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" in a cadence that suggests "where" as the meaning of wherefore. But in Elizabethan usage, wherefore means "why."
  • Discussing the concept of language as a continuum, he recalls getting into an elevator with two Guyanese linguists. The Guyanese were speaking English in the lobby, but as they ascended they started introducing more and more of their native creole, so by the time they exited, their conversation was incomprehensible to Dr. McWhorter.
  • On the subject of sound change, he observes that the written syllable aw is pronounced ah by an increasing number of Americans, a phenomenon he first noticed in California. "Sushi is ‘raw' fish," he says. "But more and more people are saying, ‘rah' fish."
  • A devotee of the classic British comedy series Are You Being Served?, he enthusiastically recommends it for its generous sampling of nonstandard British accents.
Language is indeed a powerful tool—"the armory of the human mind" in the words of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. With this course, you will be richly rewarded in investigating what linguists have learned about the origin and evolution of the marvelous gift of speech.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2004
  • 1
    What Is Language?
    Professor John McWhorter introduces the course by exploring two questions: What distinguishes the language ability of humans from the signaling system of animals, and when did humans first acquire language? x
  • 2
    When Language Began
    We look at evidence that language is an innate ability of the human brain, an idea linked to Noam Chomsky. But many linguists and psychologists see language as one facet of cognition rather than as a separate ability. x
  • 3
    How Language Changes—Sound Change
    The first of five lectures on language change examines how sounds evolve, exemplified by the Great Vowel Shift in English and the complex tone system in Chinese. x
  • 4
    How Language Changes—Building New Material
    Language change is not just sound erosion and morphing, but the building of new words and constructions. This lecture shows how such developments lead to novel grammatical features. x
  • 5
    How Language Changes—Meaning and Order
    The meaning of a word changes over time. Silly first meant "blessed" and acquired its current sense through a series of gradual steps. Word order also changes: In Old English, the verb usually came at the end of a sentence. x
  • 6
    How Language Changes—Many Directions
    The first language has evolved into 6,000 because language change takes place in many directions. Latin split in this way into the Romance languages as changes proceeded differently in each area where the Romans brought Latin. x
  • 7
    How Language Changes—Modern English
    As recently as Shakespeare, English words had meanings different enough to interfere with our understanding of his language today. Even by the 1800s, Jane Austen's work is full of sentences that would now be considered errors. x
  • 8
    Language Families—Indo-European
    The first of four lectures on language families introduces Indo-European, which probably began in the southern steppes of Russia around 4000 B.C. and then spread westward to most of Europe and eastward to Iran and India. x
  • 9
    Language Families—Tracing Indo-European
    Linguists have reconstructed the proto-language of the Indo-Europeans by comparing the modern languages. Applying this process, we learn the Proto-Indo-European word for sister-in-law that was spoken 6,000 years ago. x
  • 10
    Language Families—Diversity of Structures
    Semitic languages assign basic meanings to three-consonant sequences and create words by altering the vowels around them. In Sino-Tibetan languages, a sentence tends to leave more to context than we often imagine possible. x
  • 11
    Language Families—Clues to the Past
    The distribution of language families shows how humans have spread through migration. We trace the Austronesian language family to its origins on Formosa. Similar work sheds light on the history of Africa and North America. x
  • 12
    The Case Against the World’s First Language
    A few linguists have claimed to reconstruct words from the world's first language, but this work is extremely controversial. Professor McWhorter presents the case against this theory, called the "Proto-World" hypothesis. x
  • 13
    The Case For the World’s First Language
    Despite the hostility of most linguists to the Proto-World hypothesis, there is increasing evidence that many of the world's language families do trace to "mega-ancestors," even if evidence for a Proto-World remains lacking. x
  • 14
    Dialects—Subspecies of Species
    The first of five lectures on dialects probes the nature of these "languages within languages." Dialects are variations on a common theme, rather than bastardizations of a "legitimate" standard variety. x
  • 15
    Dialects—Where Do You Draw the Line?
    Dialects of one language can be called languages simply because they are spoken in different countries, such as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. The reverse is also true: The Chinese "dialects" are distinctly different languages. x
  • 16
    Dialects—Two Tongues in One Mouth
    Diglossia is the sociological division of labor in many societies between two languages, with a "high" one used in formal contexts and a "low" one used in casual ones—as in High German and Swiss German in Switzerland. x
  • 17
    Dialects—The Standard as Token of the Past
    When a dialect of a language is used widely in writing and literacy is high, the normal pace of change is artificially slowed, as people come to see "the language" as on the page and inviolable. This helps create diglossia. x
  • 18
    Dialects—Spoken Style, Written Style
    We often see the written style of language as how it really "is" or "should be." But in fact, writing allows uses of language that are impossible when a language is only a spoken one. x
  • 19
    Dialects—The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar
    Understanding language change and how languages differ helps us see that what is often labeled "wrong" about people's speech is, in fact, a misanalysis. x
  • 20
    Language Mixture—Words
    The first language's 6,000 branches have not only diverged into dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another on all levels. The first of three lectures on language mixture looks at how this process applies to words. x
  • 21
    Language Mixture—Grammar
    Languages also mix their grammars. For example, Yiddish is a dialect of German, but it has many grammatical features from Slavic languages like Polish. There are no languages without some signs of grammar mixture. x
  • 22
    Language Mixture—Language Areas
    When unrelated or distantly related languages are spoken in the same area for long periods, they tend to become more grammatically similar because of widespread bilingualism. x
  • 23
    Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty
    A great deal of a language's grammar is a kind of overgrowth, marking nuances that many or most languages do without. Even the gender marking of European languages is a frill, absent in thousands of other languages. x
  • 24
    Language Interrupted
    Generally, a language spoken by a small, isolated group will be much more complicated than English. Languages are "streamlined" in this way when history leads them to be learned more as second languages than as first ones. x
  • 25
    A New Perspective on the Story of English
    We trace English back to its earliest discernible roots in Proto-Indo-European and follow its fascinating development, including an ancient encounter with a language possibly related to Arabic and Hebrew. x
  • 26
    Does Culture Drive Language Change?
    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that features of our grammars channel how we think. Professor McWhorter discusses the evidence for and against this controversial but widely held view. x
  • 27
    Language Starts Over—Pidgins
    This lecture is the first of five on how human ingenuity spins new languages out of old through the creation of pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a stripped-down version of a language suitable for passing, utilitarian use. x
  • 28
    Language Starts Over—Creoles I
    Creoles emerge when pidgin speakers use the pidgin as an everyday language. Creoles are spoken throughout the world, wherever history has forced people to expand a pidgin into a full language. x
  • 29
    Language Starts Over—Creoles II
    As new languages, creoles don't have as many frills as older languages, but they do have complexities. Like real languages, creoles change over time, have dialects, and mix with other languages. x
  • 30
    Language Starts Over—Signs of the New
    Creoles are the only languages that lack or have very little of the grammatical traits that emerge over time. In this, creole grammars are the closest to what the grammar of the first language was probably like. x
  • 31
    Language Starts Over—The Creole Continuum
    Just as one dialect shades into another, "creoleness" is a continuum concept. Once we know this, we are in a position to put the finishing touches on our conception of how speech varieties are distributed across the globe. x
  • 32
    What Is Black English?
    Using insights developed in the course to this point, Professor McWhorter takes a fresh look at Black English, tracing its roots to regional English spoken in Britain and Ireland several centuries ago. x
  • 33
    Language Death—The Problem
    Just as there is an extinction crisis among many of the world's animals and plants, it is estimated that 5,500 of the world's languages will no longer be spoken in 2100. x
  • 34
    Language Death—Prognosis
    There are many movements to revive dying languages. We explore the reasons that success is so elusive. For one, people often see their unwritten native language as less "legitimate" than written ones used in popular media. x
  • 35
    Artificial Languages
    There have been many attempts to create languages for use by the whole world. The most successful is Esperanto. Sign languages for the deaf are also artificial languages, though ones fully equipped with grammar, nuance, and dialects. x
  • 36
    Finale—Master Class
    Professor McWhorter concludes with an etymological sampling of the English language, tracing the origin of every word in the sentence: While the snow fell, she arrived to ask about their fee. x

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John McWhorter

About Your Professor

John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
Dr. John McWhorter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He previously was Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Professor McWhorter specializes in language change and language contact. He is the author of...
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