Language A to Z

Course No. 2291
Professor John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
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Course No. 2291
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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
 |  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 !X-õ, 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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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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Language A to Z is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 80.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lot's of quick knowlegde The professor presents a lot of information in an interesting format and delivery style making it fun to keep listening.
Date published: 2018-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fine presentation of a fascinating subject What a speaker - reminds me of the great orators of the '60's - John Kennedy and Martin Luther King - no mistakes, no "ummm" - words, sentences and even paragraphs well constructed and chosen. And hip, funny. with it. The subject and content are the best of the courses I have heard so far. 1. I was totally ignorant of the topic, now I do not feel that way. 2. More than any course I can imagine - this topic is global, world unifying. we are all in it together. 3. With every culture on earth, our ancestors shared the huge problem - what will we call this thing, this emotion. this action. Bravo your company and the Professor
Date published: 2018-05-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Even When He's Wrong, He's Entertaning Dr. McWhorter has created a wonderful and entertaining course on language in general, with an overall focus on English. His presentation is swift and impressive, and his observations are by and large shrewd and well-researched. Like other modern linguists (including Dr. Anne Curzan, featured in TGC's "The Secret Life of Words"), Dr. McWhorter bypasses the occasional use of common sense and practicality in favor of a view that emphasizes an acceptance of virtually any collection of sounds as "words" that belong in a dictionary. Apart from this, Dr. McWhorter (as does Dr. Curzan) provides a highly diverting series of brief lectures that will open the door to any number of discussions and challenges regarding his subjects. Recommended as a fine check-up on one's own vocabulary, usage, and sensibility. I respect the good doctor's series and look forward to clashing academic swords with him. En garde, m'sieur!
Date published: 2018-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love the short bites full of fun info I recently became a customer of Great Courses and I have to say this has been one of the more enjoyable lectures we've tried. My kids and I listen to these in the car which makes the short length perfect for a trip to lessons or whatever. The lessons are so full of information that I didn't know told in a fun way. I truly am enjoying learning little bits of etymology. Another reviewer mentioned that this lecture wasn't as rigorous as others, but I think I enjoy the fun delivery much more than the serious recitation of facts with almost no anecdotes that I've heard in some other lectures. Truly fun and definitely worth buying when it's on sale!
Date published: 2018-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable, A to Z! Listening to the 15 min talks to & from work, my ride is so enjoyable with this course. I plan on listening again A to Z as I’m sure to have missed some of the this jam packed gem. It was especially fun, having already completed the prof’s History of Langage course!
Date published: 2018-03-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Insight. Presenter a bit conceited... This my first course in general linguistics, though before it I have taken a few TGC courses on specific aspects of linguistics such as “Language and Society” and “English in America”. These did not provide a general perspective of linguistics (nor did they presume to). It seemed, just be looking at the title, that this course is not an in-depth course but more of a survey in which every lecture sort of stands independently and is not connected very rigidly to the others. This is why I decided to take this course as my first concentrated effort at understanding linguistics. In fact, I found that my initial hunch was to a large degree correct. Although the selection of subjects is provocatively arbitrary (purposefully so) – having to adhere to exactly one subject per one letter – I felt that the course did provide a good overview of what this subfield of anthropology is interested in exploring and researching today, and what it is not so interested in (or no longer interested). I found Professor McWhorter to be very insightful, and often very entertaining. He is obviously in very good command of the material, in fact he seems to be a bit of a virtuoso. This is also the problem: I found him to be a little bit too self-satisfied and to give a bit of an air of conceit. His humor, though much of it was in good taste and indeed entertaining, was at times very associative – as if he was trying to enjoy his own private humor instead of allowing the audience to be involved in it. Through this was mildly annoying, the course was still very insightful and entertaining. I feel that it provided for me a good understanding of the issues that this body of research is interested in investigating.
Date published: 2017-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exactly what I hoped it would be This is a great little course, interesting & informative, fast-paced & riveting. I bought this one to give myself a break between a couple of harder philosophy courses. It's exactly what I needed. Just don't go into it thinking you're taking a comprehensive course on linguistics. That's not what this one is designed to be. It's absolutely worth your time though.
Date published: 2017-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Language Lessons in Bite-Size Morsels In these twenty-four lessons of only fifteen minutes each, Professor McWhorter pursues several important themes in language development. First, there is historical linguistics. English, like most other European languages, goes back to an unwritten and extinct ancestor called Proto-Indo-European, which scholars have partly reconstructed by comparing words and grammar from Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and others. Words for five (fünf in German, cinque in Latin and pente in Greek) all derive from PIE “penque.” Non-European languages have their families and ancestors too. Languages borrow freely from one another; our phrases “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” and “hickory, dickory, dock” come from Welsh forms of counting. Maltese is a form of Arabic, but it often looks like a Romance language because about half its vocabulary comes from Italian. Second, language in the absence of writing and standardization is far more complicated than commonly written languages like English or Spanish. One group of Khoisan languages in southern Africa has a mass of irregular plurals and another has nine noun classes or “genders” (compared to only two in Romance languages and three in German). Dinka in South Sudan, with 2.5 million speakers, also has irregular plurals, formed by lengthening or shortening vowels. Ket, a Siberian language, makes its conjugations, which are mostly uniform in English, vary from one verb to another. Furthermore, there is in reality no clear distinction between “language” and “dialect.” Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all mutually intelligible. Between French and Italian there is Occitan, which has no national status but neatly bridges the two. For example French for “sing” and “life” are “chanter” and “vie,” Italian has “cantare” and “vita,” and Occitan “chantar” and “via.” Third, all languages undergo constant change. Slang phrases like “What’s Up Doc?” gain currency and then disappear again. Sounds wear down and drop off, like Rs at the end of British English or in the middle of American Southern (“bust” instead of “burst”). At the same time people create new words as compounds (“blackbird” is not just a black bird) or add prefixes or suffixes that were once full words in their own right, like “dom” (i.e. doom--judgment or condition) in “freedom” and “kingdom.” Many languages of small groups like Ket or !Xoo are dying out, yet new languages also emerge where different language communities mingle, as people create pidgins that sometimes because entirely new creoles that children learn from infancy. Fourth, grammarians, at least in English, wage constant warfare against historic and entirely logical popular speech and make wrong-headed “corrections” to spelling based on their reverence for Latin. It’s why we’re not supposed to use double negatives and why we must spell “island” with an S (supposedly from Latin “insula”) that was never there. The same is true of the B in “debt” and the G in “foreign.” I give this series a strong recommendation. Professor McWhorter is a good lecturer, though occasionally he goes too far in pursuing entertaining digressions; at one point he goes on and on about little water bottles that people now like to carry instead of cigarette packs. If you enjoy this course, you might also want to buy his earlier Story of Human Language, which is available on video as well as audio. He covers much of the same ground, but in much greater depth and often with different examples.
Date published: 2017-05-15
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