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Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage

Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage

Professor John McWhorter Ph.D.
Columbia University
Course No.  2212
Course No.  2212
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Is English broken? Do bad grammar, slang, and illogical constructions signal a decline in standards of usage? Do e-mail and text messages corrupt the art of writing? In short, is our language going to the dogs?

It's easy to think so, just as it's easy to listen to people speaking a foreign language and think that they're doing something more complicated and interesting than we're doing in speaking English. But English is complicated and interesting too. Consider the real truth behind these widespread beliefs:

  • English is in crisis: False. English has been undergoing fundamental change for centuries. Novelty and caprice have created not just slang but the very foundations of what we think of as the best parts of English.
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Is English broken? Do bad grammar, slang, and illogical constructions signal a decline in standards of usage? Do e-mail and text messages corrupt the art of writing? In short, is our language going to the dogs?

It's easy to think so, just as it's easy to listen to people speaking a foreign language and think that they're doing something more complicated and interesting than we're doing in speaking English. But English is complicated and interesting too. Consider the real truth behind these widespread beliefs:

  • English is in crisis: False. English has been undergoing fundamental change for centuries. Novelty and caprice have created not just slang but the very foundations of what we think of as the best parts of English.
  • Latin is more perfect than modern languages: False. By historical accident, Latin became the standard for grammatical rigor. But countless languages, including English, are Latin's equal in precision and expressive power.
  • Grammar should be logical: False. A double negative is unacceptable in standard English because it implies a positive. But many languages use it without misunderstanding, along with other constructions that defy strict logic.
  • Texting degrades writing: False. Text messages and e-mail are not crowding out other forms of language. Instead, they fill an important niche—informal writing—that until now had no adequate outlet.

The modern attitude toward English is filled with such misconceptions that obscure the true picture of what a marvelous language it is. Far from being a language in decline, English is the product of surprisingly varied linguistic forces, some of which have only recently come to light. And these forces continue to push English in new directions—in defiance of those who long for an age of formal perfection that never existed.

Taught by acclaimed linguist, author, and Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage dispels the cloud of confusion that clings to English, giving you a crystal-clear view of why we use it the way we do and where it fits into the diverse languages of the world. After completing these 24 lectures, you will think about how you use English in a new way, listen to others with discernment and fascination, and take joy in speaking such a wonderfully idiosyncratic tongue.

Dig beneath the Surface of English

Like an archaeologist sifting through clues to a vanished civilization, Professor McWhorter highlights the many features of English that sound normal to a native speaker but that linguists find puzzling and also revealing:

  • Meaningless do: The only languages that use do in the way English does (as in "do not walk") are the Celtic languages such as Welsh, which were spoken by people who lived among the early English and influenced their language in many subtle ways.
  • Fossilized mistakes: The little green legume often eaten with carrots was formerly called pease in the singular. The word was gradually misinterpreted as plural because of the final s sound, and a new singular form was assumed to exist: pea.
  • "Heritage" Old English: One of the mysteries of Modern English is that it resembles a heritage version of Old English. A heritage language is one learned imperfectly at home, typically by immigrant children who acquire a different dominant language.



Hear English with New Ears

In the first part of the course, you address historical mysteries about English. Your investigation begins 2,500 years ago with Proto-Germanic, the language that gave birth to the Germanic languages. From there, you trace the shifting path that eventually led to English—a Germanic language like no other—which lacks grammatical gender and practically all case endings and conjugation markers. "Something happened to English," says Professor McWhorter, and by the end of Lecture 9 you will have pieced together evidence from many different languages that explain our tongue's unique evolution.

In the second part of Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage, you focus on modern controversies about how English is used, which take on new clarity in light of the historical background covered earlier in the course.

These lectures give you a fresh perspective on the language, allowing you to understand it more fully:

  • Pronoun problems: "Billy and me went to the store" is considered incorrect, because the subject form, I, should be used instead of me. But then why does "Me and Billy went to the store" sound so much more fluent than "I and Billy went to the store"?
  • Lie/lay confusion: Lie and lay exemplify an old pattern in English, in which the vowel is altered to make an intransitive verb transitive. But as with another such pair, drink and drench (where drench originally meant "to force to drink"), the traditional lie/lay distinction is irreversibly withering away.
  • Dangling participles: "Driving through town, the crowds looked ominous" is deemed ungrammatical, because it suggests the crowds were doing the driving. But what about "Judging from her appearance, she was quite tired," which has the same construction but is widely accepted?
  • Terminal prepositions: The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is largely the work of 18th-century clergyman Robert Lowth, who had so internalized the rhythms of Latin that he wished to impose a similar structure on English, which has a much more flexible relationship with prepositions.

A History of Defying Rules

These examples and many more in the course represent a few of the flash points in English's long history of defying rules, a process that occurs in all languages. In a vivid analogy, Professor McWhorter says that the effort to keep English the way it used to be is like trying to dry off the beach with a towel. One of the jobs of linguists is to pull back the camera and take in the big picture to see how languages naturally evolve, and to predict where they're going next.

As you discover in Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage, the evidence is all around you: in the speech you hear in public places and on television, in the always-innovative slang of the young, on the printed page and Internet, and in your own mouth. "Part of being a healthy society is being proud of one's language," says Professor McWhorter. In this exciting course, he gives you every reason to be a proud, informed, and more self-aware speaker of English.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Alarm over the Decay of English
    Is English going to the dogs? Embark on an exploration of myths and controversies about our native tongue—where it came from, where it’s going, and its unusual place among the world’s 6,000 languages. Begin your investigation by looking at the purported epidemic of English abuse. x
  • 2
    Surprises in the Ancestry of Old English
    Trace the evidence that English derives from a language that was incompletely learned by invaders of northern Europe more than 2,000 years ago. Where were these people from? An analysis of sound changes in their language, Proto-Germanic, leads to an intriguing hypothesis. x
  • 3
    Not Exactly Anglo-Saxon
    How did Old English develop from Proto-Germanic? And why did people in Britain end up speaking the language of the Germanic invaders? Discover that the traditional explanation that English was brought to England by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the 5th century A.D. is vastly oversimplified. x
  • 4
    Don’t Forget the Celtic Connection
    English has a more interesting history after the Anglo-Saxon period than was previously thought. See how the evidence is in grammatical constructions you use every day. For example, the reason you say “I’m building a house” rather than “I build house” traces to Celtic influences. x
  • 5
    From Insider Language to Lingua Franca
    Explore the general properties of human language to learn the place of English in the broad spectrum of different tongues. In the process, discover how to distinguish a language spoken by a limited number of people from one used by hundreds of millions around the globe. x
  • 6
    English as Easy German
    Starting with a simple sentence in German, peel away layers of complexity that don’t exist in English. Then uncover more evidence that English is unusual in the simplicity of many of its grammatical features, showing that something happened to pare it down. x
  • 7
    The Viking Conquest of English
    Trace the events that explain why Old English lost much of its complexity in the transition to Middle English. The agents of change were not the Norman French, who arrived in 1066, but the already established Vikings, whose Old Norse fused with Old English to create an abbreviated new language. x
  • 8
    How the Words of Modern English Emerged
    Starting with Celtic contributions to English vocabulary, explore the borrowings from Old Norse, French, and Latin. These have enriched English with a wealth of synonyms, allowing speakers to choose between alternatives such as the Anglo-Saxon hide versus the Latinate conceal. x
  • 9
    Black English—The Streamlining Continues
    Having seen that Proto-Germanic was streamlined into Old English, which was streamlined into Modern English, discover that Black English takes this process a step further. What some regard as bad grammar is language evolution, analogous to the shift from biblical Hebrew to modern Hebrew. x
  • 10
    Honored Conceits of Blackboard Grammar
    Begin a new section of the course that focuses on your own relationship with language. In this lecture, trace the origin of “correct” usage to Robert Lowth, an 18th-century bishop who wrote an influential textbook on grammar that is the leading source of prescriptivist rules still promoted today. x
  • 11
    Pronoun Fashions Come and Go
    In a sentence such as “Tell each student to hand in their paper,” no ambiguity arises, but prescriptivists insist that the singular form of the pronoun be used: his, her, or his or her. Ponder that pronouns’ behavior is unpredictable and ever-changing in all languages. x
  • 12
    Wrong Then, Proper Now—and Vice Versa
    Turn back the clock to a time when proper forms of speech seem ungrammatical now, and what were considered blatant errors sound perfectly correct today. Among the authors you examine are the American colonial poet Anne Bradstreet and Charles Dickens. x
  • 13
    A Procession of Accidents and Fossils
    Roll up your sleeves for some language archaeology, tracing the origin of seemingly nonsensical features in English that once had a function. An example: the initial N in the nicknames Ned and Nan is the fossil of mine, the archaic form of my, as in “mine Ed.” x
  • 14
    The Pursuit of Logic in Language
    Consider the role of logic in language and why double negatives are the default in French, Russian, and many other languages, including every dialect of English except the standard form. Dangling participles pose a similar problem of seeming illogical while being rarely misunderstood. x
  • 15
    Clarity as the Logic of Language
    Investigate the illogicality of English by looking at everything from the use of the definite article, the, which is difficult to teach to nonnative speakers, to the blatantly ungrammatical “aren’t I,” which is the contraction for “are not I” and is preferred over the more logical “ain’t I.” x
  • 16
    20th-Century Fashions from Strunk & White
    Delve into two influential works that prescribe how English should be used: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Both mix astute advice with overly fussy personal opinions. How do you decide which is which? x
  • 17
    The Kinds of Grammar You Don’t Hear About
    Explore features of the language that are off the beaten track of conventional grammar. For example, handbooks often decry the use of the passive voice, but it can be a powerful tool—as in passive expressions using got, which acts as a marker of misfortune. x
  • 18
    Linguists Uncovering Grammar We All Use
    Focus on fascinating discoveries about grammar in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, an authoritative guide to usage written by linguists. Learn that English doesn’t have a future tense, and analyze the peculiar function of up in such expressions as “clean up.” x
  • 19
    Speech versus Writing—Different Languages
    Many languages have a huge gap between the spoken, colloquial form and what’s considered appropriate for formal or written communication. Trace the evolution of that gap in English by comparing how people actually talked in the past with how they expressed themselves on the page. x
  • 20
    Speechmaking—From Oratory to Plain Speaking
    Public speaking in English is currently trending toward a more informal style. Contrast speeches given in the old oratorical style with the more colloquial approach that took hold in the 1960s. Paradoxically, this loss of rhetorical polish has not meant a loss of eloquence. x
  • 21
    The Old and New Styles of Writing
    See how writing styles have changed by comparing typical school reading assignments in the United States from the beginning and end of the 20th century. Then search out the reasons for this marked shift. One clue is that Americans in the past often spoke of a fine style as “good English.” x
  • 22
    Got Poetry? Language with Spice
    Until recently, poetry had a central role in American culture. Why has this distinctive form of elevated language declined, and how has poetry itself changed? Chart this transformation in poets from Longfellow and Edna St. Vincent Millay to Billy Collins and Kurt Cobain. x
  • 23
    Why Texting Is Misunderstood
    Do the shortcuts and informality of e-mail and text messages represent bad writing? Probe this controversy in light of the unique niche filled by these new forms of expression. Until the advent of e-mail and texting, there was no truly conversational form of writing analogous to conversational speech. x
  • 24
    The Living Past and Future of English
    Drawing on what you have learned about the history of English, look ahead to its possible future course. Some things will stay the same; others will change radically. Close by analyzing a famous 20th-century sentence to chart the curious pathways to our modern tongue. x

Lecture Titles

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John McWhorter
Ph.D. John McWhorter
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 The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language; The Word on the Street, a book on dialects and Black English; and Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music in America and Why We Should, Like, Care. A Contributing Editor at The New Republic, he has also been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Time, and The New Yorker. Frequently sought after by the media, Professor McWhorter has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, Talk of the Nation, Today, Good Morning America, The Jim Lehrer NewsHour, Up with Chris Hayes, and Fresh Air.
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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 36 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Fun Listening John McWhorter is a hoot to listen to! While this is not an academic course in the study of language it does present some of the problems involved in the practice of linguistics. July 10, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Highly Entertaining, But Not What I Expected First off, Professor McWhorter is a fantastic lecturer. He has a gift for public speaking. He seemed completely at ease, and his presentation never felt stilted or scripted. I can't speak as highly of the class content. I think he made several excellent points about the way English has blended with other languages and has changed over time to become what it is today. He also made several great points about how it is still changing and that these changes shouldn't be seen as bad. However, I disagreed with several of his examples. He seems to have a narrow sense of what is considered normal English today. For example, he mocked the idea that anyone would say "It is I" or "It is he" in this day and age. I still hear young educated people say "It is I" and "It is he" all the time. I think he cut sloppy English a little too much slack. I certainly agree that changes in English are coming due to new forms of communication - especially texting - but he seemed more focused on defending black English. It appears that this is his focus of study, which is fine, but the course wasn't billeted as such. I bought the video version of this course. If I had to do it over again I would have saved the money and just bought the audio. The visual version just had words occasionally printed on the screen, which was sometimes helpful, but wasn't as important as it has been in other courses I've purchased. July 1, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Not to Worry! AUDIO DOWNLOAD This is a thoroughly enjoyable course. From the first, realizing how much I enjoyed Professor McWhorter’s presentation style, I extended my daily walks so I could add an extra lecture. The downside of this, however, is that the course ended too soon! If you are like me and are apprehensive about the changes in our written and spoken language, this is the course for you. Who knows, it may help to lower your blood pressure in situations where you think sacred rules of expression are being violated or deliberately ignored. Professor McWhorter repeatedly “pull[s] the camera back”, providing us with a wider context within which to assess those supposed rules. Moreover, he discusses the often strange ways in which these rules came about, and how they and other developments in English, historical and contemporary, stack up with other languages. There is so much that I enjoyed in this course. Looking back, I am surprised at how much Professor McWhorter packed into each lecture, and it was done in such an easy-going and quite often humorous way that one does not realize that he is talking about matters that are usually boring. I now not only have a better idea about how my language developed and the changes that are in process, but also how this fits in with the wider human community. I now also know, thanks to Professor McWhorter, that much of the changes going on around me are not so arbitrary and anarchic as I tended to think, though I doubt I will be fully comfortable with them. :-) The last lecture is great, following up on Professor McWhorter’s defense and, indeed, championing of e-mailing and tweeting, with a good course overview and predictions about the future of the English language. This is an all-round great course that I highly recommend. June 3, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Should be required for everyone I'll try to be brief: Presentation: excellent all around. Very easy to follow, entertaining, packs a lot of knowledge into every lecture. Incidentally, if you think he's too slow, get a media player with variable playback speed (like VLC on your computer or Astro Player on your phone). Every speaker has an optimal speed and i like to play McWhorter at 1.2 to 1.3 times his natural speed. Content: Basically, English is taught in an oversimplified, rigid, and antiquated right-vs-wrong style that imparts in people a lot of insecurities about how they write and especially speak. McWhorter refutes all of these oversimplifications point by point and teaches you to enjoy language in all of its intricate complexity. Can't recommend it highly enough. I listened to this course twice. March 11, 2014
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