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
 |  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 !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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Reviews

Language A to Z is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 94.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Couldn't get past "H is for Hobbits" This course might have been OK were it not for the presenter's narrative style. McWhorter fancies himself a very clever writer, but his lectures are filled with ego-serving humor that detracts from the content of the course. His delivery is snooty and condescending, and I just couldn't listen to him tell me how funny he is past the letter H
Date published: 2019-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Langiage a to Z This was great fun to listen to. H'e is a good storyteller and has a great diversity of language stories to share.
Date published: 2019-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from AmA-Zing Course! I love linguistics and Professor John McWhorter is my favorite linguist. His love and fascination for the topic is contagious. He's funny and informative. This A to Z format allows him to creatively explore a variety of interesting linguistic topics. This would be a great introduction for someone new to the topic. My only complaint? The sessions aren't long enough. I expected them to be about 30 minutes and many are closer to 15-20 minutes.
Date published: 2019-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun Course The language AtoZ was fun and easy to follow. It covered several interesting topics.
Date published: 2019-05-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun easily digestible short lessons. I bought this on sale because I have several other classes by Dr. McWhorter that I have enjoyed and I found this course to be just as enjoyable. This lessons are short and touch on a wide variety of topics.
Date published: 2019-04-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Overall a very poor series. I would definitely discourage anyone from buying this course. It is hard for me to organize and catalog the many reasons. First, there is simply very little content. Most of what Dr. McWhorter substantively has to say in any given lecture could be said, clearly and completely, in about five minutes, and often even that is fairly obvious to anyone who is moderately thoughtful. Second, Dr. McWhorter’s speaking style is simply obnoxious. It is unpleasant to listen to him. He is condescending, and his many attempts at humor fail badly. Third, he has a “gee whiz, isn’t that amazing” attitude too often and exaggerates the difficulties about a variety of things common in many languages. One of this reviewer’s pet peeves was his apparent determination to describe noun classes as “irregular,” as if every noun plural has to be uniquely memorized. It is true that languages such as Arabic and the Bantu language Kinyarwanda, and for that matter to some extent German have a variety of patterns for making noun plurals, but that is a far cry from the assertion that every noun plural presents a unique memorization task. Fourth, Dr. McWhorter seems often simply wrong. Where his very unlikely assertions are not wrong, he needs to provide some reference or citation for them. For one example, his etymology of “willy-nilly” appears wrong. For another example, the arguably onomatopoeic ‘wan’ is not the normal, adult Japanese word for “dog,” as Dr. McWhorter claims. That word is ‘inu’ or, in compounds, ‘ken’. ‘wan-wan’ is “bow-wow” and ‘wan-chan’ is baby talk for “doggie.” For a third example, although it is true that Japanese have very many words in their everyday vocabulary that are four syllable words in which the first two syllables are simply repeated, e.g., ‘perapera’, “fluently”, ‘dandan’ “gradually” and ‘dondon’ “soon,” it seems bizarre to characterize these words as onomatopoeic, as these examples show. For another example, his claims about the development of alphabetic writing need, at best, explication. The Phoenician alphabet is considered to have been in some way inspired by Egyptian writing, but few would characterize the phonetic use of hieroglyphs as alphabetic, as Dr. McWhorter seems to do. His uniqueness claim for the allegedly alphabetic use of hieroglyphs seems to ignore Sumerian cuneiform, Japanese ‘kana’, and Korean ‘hangul’, and he further seems groundlessly to characterize syllabic scripts as not true alphabets. Fifth, Dr. McWhorter reveals his own lack of linguistic sophistication and/or his lack of humility, when he ends his lecture on dialects by stating that no, he does not speak a dialect. Of course he does. We all do. In fact, we all speak our own idiolect of the dialect of the language we’re speaking, and as Dr. McWhorter more or less states in his lecture, it is groundless to characterize the “standard” or prestigious or official dialect as “the language” and somehow therefore not a dialect of it, one among many. Sixth, and finally but only for lack of space, Dr. McWhorter’s rather arrogant imputation to his listeners of a bizarre amount of naiveté and linguistic primitivism is insulting. I doubt if anyone listening to his lectures is so foolish as to say, as Dr. McWhorter imputes to us, that only written languages with a literary tradition are “real” languages. I think it is unfortunate that this lecture series is even available from The Great Courses. Some poor consumer may buy it as his first example, take it as typical and never buy another course. Luckily, I had bought several other courses before this one and uniformly found the quality high and the lecturers both pleasant to listen to and obviously very well informed, none of which one can say about this course of Dr. McWhorter’s.
Date published: 2019-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love this course! This course is sheer pleasure! I am a speech and language therapist and bought the audio CD course thinking I could use the information toward accreditation in my field, but even if I did not receive credit I would value the time devoted to this. The course offered insights into language I did not find anywhere in my master's program, delightful, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous. The professor is fluent, knowledgeable and entertaining! I would sign up for anything he has to offer!
Date published: 2019-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a wonderful speaker. The material jumped to life with his great knowledge and use of quaint, tongue and cheek humor.
Date published: 2018-10-25
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