Language A to Z

Course No. 20010
Professor John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
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Course No. 20010
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Uncover the quirky and intriguing ways in which human language works
  • numbers Ponder the intriguing scientific, historical, and sociological puzzles behind the inner workings of language
  • numbers Get a better understanding of how human language works

Course Overview

With more than 6,000 languages spoken around the world, it’s no wonder that linguistics, the study of language, has a reputation for being complex and inaccessible. But here’s a secret: There’s a lot that’s quirky and intriguing about how human language works—and much of it is downright fun to learn about.

Every day, linguists ponder and try to solve some of the most intriguing scientific, historical, and sociological puzzles behind the inner workings of language—how it emerged, how it evolved, how it’s used, and where it’s going in the future.

  • What’s the deal with slang like “baby mama” and “LOL”— where does it come from and can it actually be OK to use?
  • Why don’t English speakers use words like “thou” and “thee” anymore?
  • What makes “mama” and “papa” the first words spoken by children in many languages?

These and other curious questions (and their surprising answers) are all part of what makes linguistics a field of study that’s anything but dry and dull. But with so many languages and so many potential avenues of exploration, it can often seem daunting to try to understand it. Where does one even start?

Look no further than Language A to Z, in which acclaimed linguist and celebrated Great Courses professor John McWhorter of Columbia University creates a delightful way to get accessible, bite-sized introductions to language. These twenty-four 15-minute lectures by one of the best-known popularizers of language use the English alphabet as a unique, offbeat way to let you hopscotch through some of the field’s major topics, hot-button issues, curious factoids, and more. Filled with humor, whimsy, and no shortage of insights, this course is a fast-paced tour of the same territory linguists tread each and every day.

An Entertaining Way to Probe Linguistic Mysteries

Language, according to Professor McWhorter, is a highly diverse subject, covering so many areas of inquiry that one can easily become confused. But Language A to Z’s alphabetical approach provides you with a clear and more entertaining way to probe the mysteries of language—from Aramaic and English to Maltese and French to Ket and !Xóõ—without being overwhelmed. In fact, you’re likely to find yourself more easily drawn into subjects you normally wouldn’t think could be so much fun.

  • Vocabulary: Is the size of a language’s vocabulary truly a testament to its greatness? How do we even begin to consider which words to include and which to discard?
  • Pronouns: Professor McWhorter uses the word “she” as a way to explore some of the strange aspects of the development of English pronouns, revealing just how conservative English is.
  • Double negatives: A restriction on double negatives isn’t the norm outside of English; languages like French and Russian regularly employ double negatives such as “I don’t see nothing.” Where did this Standard English attitude toward double negatives come from?
  • Slang: Is there more slang today than in the past? “Zoo,” “What’s up, Doc?” and “LOL” are just three of the many examples of slang usage you’ll take a closer look at while learning that slang isn’t a 20th-century development—it’s been with us for centuries.

Eye-Opening Insights from A to Z

You’ll be amazed at just how much there is to learn about language—and that much of it runs counter to what you may have been taught in school. Every lecture is packed with information that will give you a more accurate view of what people speak and why they speak it that way.

  • “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe” and “Hickory, dickory, doc” are derived from the words for numbers in an early relative of Welsh, and were once used by English speakers in England for games and counting farm animals.
  • The reason “like” is here to stay in common American speech has much to do with an increased sociological openness to alternative opinions and, like, an avoidance of assertiveness.
  • While humans have the genetic capacity for oral language, there’s no genetic endowment for written language—just as how we aren’t genetically developed to drive, but many of us do it daily.

These lectures are all delivered in Professor McWhorter’s light-hearted yet informative teaching style, which makes Language A to Z essential for anyone looking for a welcoming window into the quirks, curiosities, and intricacies of how language works.

A master instructor who’s contributed his knowledge to dozens of media outlets, including NPR, Good Morning America, Meet the Press, and The New York Times, Professor McWhorter will constantly keep you captivated, informed, and, above all, entertained. You may even find yourself laughing out loud at some points (or rather, “LOL’ing”).

So join him for a chance to finally get some answers—some of which may surprise you, all of which will fascinate you—to the perplexing questions linguists are asked all the time.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 15 minutes each
  • 1
    A for Aramaic
    After a brief introduction on why an alphabetic approach makes an engaging way to explore human language, Professor McWhorter provides a close look at one of the ancient world's most influential languages: Aramaic. How did it achieve such prominence? What led to its decline? Where can you hear it today? x
  • 2
    B for Baby Mama
    Explore how the common expression baby mama" reflects the grammar behind what linguists refer to as African-American Vernacular English (or Ebonics). Along the way, you'll discover how Ebonics emerged as an intriguing mash-up of assorted British regional dialects-along with a sprinkle of grammatical streamlining any language could benefit from." x
  • 3
    C for Compounds
    We can actually change a word's part of speech simply by moving the accent up front (loudspeaker versus loud speaker). Welcome to the world of compounds, one of the fundamental elements of speaking English. And knowing how they work can also help you determine historical pronunciations of words you weren't around to hear. x
  • 4
    D for Double Negatives
    Americans have been taught that double negatives are a grammatical no-no. But they're actually used in most of the world's languages. So who's right? And does the substitute "any" (e.g., "not going anywhere" versus "not going nowhere") solve the problem, or just make it more awkward? Find out here. x
  • 5
    E for Etymology
    Learn more about etymology, the tool linguists use to decipher the fascinating (and mundane) backstories of words and phrases. For example, you'll explore why "eeny, meeny, miney, moe" is really about sheep in Great Britain; why "quaint" originally meant "crafty"; and why we drink punches as well as throw them. x
  • 6
    F for First Words
    "Mama" and "papa" are some of the first words spoken in a majority of the world's languages. Why these first words and not others? As you explore this intriguing subject, you'll also probe some of the theories behind how language starts (involving everything from anatomy to music to mimicked animal calls). x
  • 7
    G for Greek Alphabet
    It's easy to miss just how deeply peculiar an alphabet is. It provides a transcription of language based not on pictures but written representations of sounds. Here, Professor McWhorter takes you back to ancient Greece on an investigation of how the alphabet was invented and (slowly) settled into our consciousness. x
  • 8
    H for Hobbits
    What can hobbits teach us about the actual science involved in linguistics? Find out in this eye-opening lecture that introduces you to Homo floresiensis, "little people," on the island of Flores, with their own strangely simplified language that some scientists believe was spoken until just a few centuries ago. x
  • 9
    I for Island
    Use the intriguing backstory of the "word island" as a gateway for exploring why English spelling can be such a mess. Two specific reasons you'll focus on: the "sacred" linguistic nature of Latin and Greek, and the ramifications of the Great Vowel Shift, which dramatically altered the pronunciation of many English words. x
  • 10
    J for Jamaican
    Delve into the world of Jamaican patois, which developed among African slaves in the 1600s as they quickly adopted English. You'll discover that languages vary not just in how they're put together, but according to diverse factors such as socioeconomics and the audience one is speaking to. x
  • 11
    K for Ket
    Get an introduction to Ket: one of the world's 6,000 languages you're highly unlikely to hear about beyond Siberia, where it's spoken by just several hundred people (as compared to, say, the 125 million who speak Japanese). It's a fascinating look at just how complex even the tiniest of languages can be. x
  • 12
    L for Like
    Turn now to a topic linguists get asked about a lot: the use of "like" in conversation among young people. As Professor McWhorter reveals, this popular pet peeve is actually a highly ritualized form of acting and a perfect example of pragmatic particles, which convey attitudes toward what's being said. x
  • 13
    M for Maltese
    See how Maltese, the only Arabic language variety spoken within the European Union, reflects the idea that visual maps of languages aren't always as clear-cut as they seem. In fact, as Professor McWhorter reveals, the classification of languages and dialects can be quite frustrating—and even impossible. x
  • 14
    N for Native American English
    Delve into the world of pidgin languages: handy linguistic tools that consist of a few hundred words with little grammar. Focus on the Native American Pidgin English that emerged in the 1600s and helped bridge basic communication gaps (without relying on sign language) between English speakers and Native Americans. x
  • 15
    O for Oldsters in Cartoons
    There's a lot to learn about language from cartoons. In this lecture, find out how depictions of older people in American cartoons used to reflect the distinction between how people speak in the country versus the city. Also, hear this idea at work through a 1960s study about local accents on Martha's Vineyard. x
  • 16
    P for Plurals, Q for Quiz
    Plurals pop up in some languages, while other languages don't care how many things there are. How did we start marking plurals, and how is it possible for languages to work without them? Discover the intriguing answers, and then learn about the possible origins of the odd word quiz. x
  • 17
    R for R-lessness
    One of the strange things about language: To a large extent, we use it subconsciously. Professor McWhorter offers a panoramic sense of this idea by zeroing in on just one sound, "R," and its growing disappearance in British and American English (e.g., pronouncing corner not as "cor-ner" but "caw-nuh"). x
  • 18
    S for She
    Investigate the stories behind pronouns that we currently use or that have fallen out of favor, including "she," "he," "thou," "thee," and "they." The general story you'll uncover is the same you see with plurals around the world: excessive words that end up being more than we need to communicate. x
  • 19
    T for Tone
    Just as important as the word you're saying is the tone in which you're saying it. But some languages depend on tone much more heavily than English does. Why? How did they emerge, and why did they only cluster in certain places? x
  • 20
    U for Understand
    "Ask." "Reveal." "Understand." These are just three examples of the habit of turning bare verbs into nouns instead of using an already existing noun with a suffix. Learn why this slangy, sometimes dramatic linguistic habit stems from a logical human quest for order through language maintenance. x
  • 21
    V for Vocabulary
    Figuring out what words are, and which ones we want to count as part of our language, is a slippery task that you'll make more sense of here. Specifically, focus on why discussions about vocabulary size mistakenly deal exclusively with written languages—of which there are only about a hundred worldwide. x
  • 22
    W for What's Up, Doc?
    Professor McWhorter provides a closer look at slang and its place in language. How did English slang evolve over the centuries, and why does it keep changing? Why do we seem to be using it now more than ever? And what does texting say about the importance of slang today? x
  • 23
    X for !Xoo, Y for Yiddish
    Take a quick trip to southern Africa on an investigation of one of a whole group of click languages called the Khoi-San family that could very well be one of Earth's first languages. Then, follow the odd story of the "death" of a language that actually isn't dying at all: Yiddish. x
  • 24
    Z for Zed
    Conclude the course with a tribute to the letter Z and the accompanying sound it makes. By exploring the evolution of Z—from ancient Phoenicia to medieval England to 19th-century America-—you'll discover why this strange, often underappreciated letter is more a part of us than you think. x

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Video DVD
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  • Ability to download 24 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

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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Reviews

Language A to Z is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 10.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love the cartoons I have watched all of Dr. McWhorter's courses and find them entertaining and informative. I thought the cartoons illustrated exactly what he was saying and made it easier to understand his fast paced lectures.
Date published: 2020-11-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too many busy cartoons I love McWhorter, but I dislike all the cartoons and graphics. It is overdone. 50% cartoons and 50% McWhorter would be OK, but this is distracting and rather childish.
Date published: 2020-11-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Brain candy This is a delightful confection of oddities, idiosyncrasies and enigmas of the world's thousands of languages, spiced with humor and delivered with intelligence and sassiness. So why do I give it only four stars? Because visually it's annoying and frustrating. I buy the video versions because I like to see instructors as well as listen to them. The Great Courses has decided not to show Dr. McWhorter at all, instead filling the screen with cutesy graphics and irrelevant photos. I also didn't notice that the lectures were just 15 minutes each. So be forewarned: unless you like cute pictures of koala bears and native peoples standing around, I would advise getting the audio version.
Date published: 2020-11-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and informative This is an excellent course providing short, sharp insights into language use and development. He packs a lot into each session, and the use of graphics and illustrations is very good.
Date published: 2020-11-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Good and Bad I am a fan of Professor McWhorter and have all of his Great Courses offerings. So I bought this series as a matter of course. Alas, I am disappointed. McWhorter is sparkling as always, but you never actually get to see him. And this is the problem with the course. I admit it was my fault that I missed the small note that these were but 15 minute lectures which was disappointing enough. But the Teaching Company is marketing this as having two versions, video and audio. That is deceptive at best. I always buy the video versions because seeing the professor and his/her body language enhances the experience and improves the communication; it adds nuance. Also seeing charts, maps, artifacts, and bullet points on screen etc. enhances the lectures. This so-called video is only a collection of mediocre cartoons and stock photos. Save your money and buy the audio only version.
Date published: 2020-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pure joy John McWhorter is a national treasure There, I said it. Not sure when this course was released but it is by far the best synthesis of McWhorter's rat-a-tat Dennis-Miller-gets-a-PhD style and the School House Rock gayglo graphics of a fondly remembered youth. Kind of a Proustian romp for America's most eclectic public intellectual (...or possibly America's only public intellectual in this benighted age) McWhorter at his very very best. It simply is AWESOME listening. Thank you for doing it.
Date published: 2020-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and thought provoking Professor McWhorter is always an entertaining speaker and this series of short lectures gives him the opportunity to talk about odd topics and quirky aspects of language which don't fit into a formal course. As a language teacher myself, I am fascinated by some of the differences between American and British English, which he hasn't mentioned yet (I have only listened to the first 3 lectures). There is no such word as "disputation" in British English, and what on earth is a "pizza pie"? Does it bear any resemblance to the staple food of peasants in Southern Italy? As for compound nouns - the Germans (who gave us quite a lot of our language) have been making them up since time immemorial. I would love to meet the professor and discuss some of these topics. So don't expect to discover any great insights into language or linguistics in this course, but if, like me, you love languages, just enjoy these quarter hours of informal chat from a fellow enthusiast.
Date published: 2020-10-10
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