Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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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

Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 79.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not Even Bad This is not a course. It is primarily a cross between a vaudeville act and a one-sided dinner table conversation, neither of which are successful. There are indeed some facts about English thrown in here and there, mostly in support of Professor McWhorter's view (with which I generally agree) that the "grammar Nazis" who insist we obey rules such as "don't split infinitives" and "don't end a sentence with a preposition" are ignorant and self-important fools who understand nothing about the development of language. (There is insufficient consideration given, however, to the question of what should be taught as rules, what rules should be disregarded, and how we are to make such judgments; a language without any rules ceases to be capable of communication.) There is also evidence provided for the reasonable claims that English is not deteriorating but simply changing, that Black English in particular is not a degenerate language but a fully realized dialect, that our language has no right to consider itself in any way superior just because it has become the world's lingua franca, and that all languages are capable of expressing what needs to be expressed, albeit they do this in very different ways. And some points are actually interesting, such as the discussion of "the meaningless 'do'", the relationship of "ask" and "aks", considerations regarding the double negative, and the story of how "men" became the plural of "man." However - The legitimate, worthwhile content of these 24 lectures could, without exaggeration, have been provided in 8. The rest is padding and irrelevant rambling, with much personal reflection having nothing to do with the topic, and many lame attempts at amusement with which the professor cracks himself up, plus frequent and frequently annoying uses, mostly for no good reason, of various unnatural voices, including atrocious imitations of Loony Tunes characters and John F. Kennedy. All of this is leavened, or rather burdened, by occasional snatches of song. The padding consists of beating many dead horses, making the same points numbingly often, and multiplying examples far past the point of full soporific effect. The very nature of this problem makes it impractical to give a convincing example here, but it occurs repeatedly in almost every lecture. The irrelevant rambling is equally off-putting, and equally frequent. Here, as just one of many, many examples, is the opening of Lecture 14: “I was in Ottowa, it was 1995, and it was hot. I was at a wedding, and I had one of those experiences that you never forget, and I can guarantee you it was not the wedding. It was that it happened to be someone’s birthday. So somewhere in the middle of the wedding they sang “Happy Birthday” to this individual. Many of the people at the wedding, for reasons I forget now, were from France, and it happened to be these people who sang “Happy Birthday.” And this is something I had never thought about. It made perfect sense once I did have this experience, but I had never thought about it. The song they sang for “Happy Birthday” was not the one that we’re used to. I am gonna refrain from singing any of our “Happy Birthday” song, ‘cause I hear it’s under copyright, and that might be true of the French one too. But I remember it was one that I found quite unsatisfying in comparison to our harmonically rich and fascinating “Happy Birthday” song. It began with “[sings a few words in French]”. And they sang the whole thing as lustily as we sing our “Happy Birthday” song. So this means that everywhere in the world they don’t sing “Happy Birthday to You” with that song that we have. As far as I was concerned you could go into the rain forest and a bunch of people who have never been outside of the rain forest, once it’s somebody’s birthday, they would be singing in English that song that we know. But that is not the way it goes. There are many different ways of singing “Happy Birthday.” And in the same way, there are a lot of kinds of logic, and what I mean by that is that we naturally suppose that there’s an ideal state that a language has . . .” A perhaps minor point: Professor McWhorter is sometimes borderline offensive. For example, in Lecture 11 he states "the island of New Guinea is about the size of your living room." (This is ignorant as well as offensive; New Guinea is larger than Texas, and larger than any European country other than Russia.) And in Lecture 36, while explaining how "America" got its name from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, our professor informs us that "'Amerigo' was the pasta way of saying. . ." The Course Guidebook, because it contains the worthwhile information while avoiding these distractions, is actually a far better way to spend your time than the course itself. Finally, I hasten to add - lest anyone think I have a personal vendetta against Professor McWhorter - that this is the third of Professor McWhorter's four Great Courses which I have taken and reviewed, and I highly praised and still strongly recommend the first two: "Story of Human Language" and "Understanding Linguistics." The current course, however, is a huge step down. Obviously, I cannot recommend it to anyone.
Date published: 2015-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lecturer Good course although the material can sometimes get a bit stale. However, the lecturer is so great at what he does that the course remained for me interesting throughout.
Date published: 2014-09-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-07-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Hesitant to buy but the course was very good I really liked McWhorter's first two courses but had put off getting this one, as hearing examples of how supposedly bad grammar and usage are actually OK sounded a bit tedious. I finally gave it a chance, though, and am glad I did. The course begins with an interesting run through the beginnings of English, one that was more interesting than the actual history of English course from the Great Courses. The emphasis on how changes then affect us now made it all relevant. After that there were lectures covering the main point of the course, explaining how a lot of the grammatical rules were based on Latin, a different kind of language and not always relevant to English. This was the part I was dreading but the lectures turned out to be pretty good, and I learned some more things about English. Finally, there was some filler at the end, with lectures on things like oratory, poetry, and texting. I understand why they were there because they show other ways that English has changed, but I wouldn't have missed them if they weren't there. McWhorter is a good teacher and has an interesting way of talking so my mind doesn't wander off during his lectures. I enjoyed these lectures and plowed through it in just a few weeks, a sign of a good course.
Date published: 2014-01-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Another Interesting and Entertaining Series I really like listening to John McWhorter -- sometimes he's a bit arrogant, but his presentation style and manner keeps me listening and learning. Indeed, I eagerly await each new course from him. One caveat I would insert is that he's got his views of language development, and that's what he presents. Not all linguists agree with him, but unlike some presenters who will give you a "head's up" that their view isn't gospel, McWhorter just barrels though as though his conclusions or views #for example, on how texting may or may not influence language# are the only ones.
Date published: 2013-09-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from I Guess It's a Matter of Taste... Obviously, a lot of customers who have reviewed this course found the professor's lecturing style amusing and engaging. I found it cringe-worthy and almost didn't finish the series as a result. Almost a third of each lecture consists of personal anecdotes and not-too-funny jokes. I now know, for example, that Professor McWhorter had an Israeli friend when he was a child (whom he'd like to call him if she hears the lectures), that he has mild synesthesia, that he really likes Chrysler PT Cruisers and wishes they were still being manufactured, and that if he eats more than ten cherries at a time he gets diarrhea. (The cherry episode was alluded to at least twice.) I could list literally dozens more of these pointless digressions. Oddly, he claims in one lecture that he doesn't want to use a lot of topical references, because it will "date" the course—then goes on to lard each lecture with extremely dated references to specific cartoons, singers, etc. Some of these allusions are supposed to make enlightening connections to the course material, but anyone under age 40 wouldn't understand half of them. I hope for the sake of his students that his classroom allusions are more current. I did find something of interest in each lecture, but I agree with another reviewer who thought the course was mis-titled. It's more like a history of English combined with an overview of certain linguistic patterns common to languages in general. That was definitely interesting, but there was only the barest connection to the actual title of the course. When I listen to a wonderful Great Courses lecture, I can't wait to share what I've learned with my family. Every time I finished one of these lectures, however, I ended up ranting to them about how he feels compelled to speak Italian in falsetto or about why he seems to feel that his dietary preferences are relevant to linguistics.
Date published: 2013-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fascinating Tour of Our Linguistic Heritage Professor McWhorter is the most entertaining lecturer I have encountered in the Great Courses series. Presenting his complex subject without notes or a teleprompter, his speaking style is astoundingly fluid, almost glib, perhaps not too surprising for a professional linguist who frequently appears on TV. While the course content emphasis is in on the English language and the evolution of its grammar and vocabulary over time, he cites numerous examples of specific linguistic oddities drawn from many other languages, both familiar European ones and little-known tongues from obscure ethnic cultures. Among the myths he exposes is the notion that such “primitive” languages must be simplistic and virtually void of grammar, as compared to the sophisticated languages of the West and Asia. On the contrary, he describes the extreme complexity of the grammar used by many native peoples, citing Navaho in particular. Such languages learned as children tend to remain complex and change little over time, while modern “exoteric” languages like English that are often learned by many people as adults tend to be more conducive to “streamlining” and simplification. This may lead to what many consider language corruption through slang and “bad” grammar, but Dr. McWhorter offers at least a partial defense; slang words may fall into disuse as fashions change, but the widespread cutting of grammatical corners sometimes leads to eventual acceptance. One example he cites is the “singular they”, in common use today when the gender of the singular pronoun is unknown, and where stating “he or she” on each occasion is considered cumbersome, the vaguer “they” being much easier, even if inelegant. While this grates on the ears of grammar-conscious English speakers, Dr. McWhorter is more tolerant, pointing out as a relevant precedent that the pronoun “you” was once used only in the plural (you all), the earlier singular forms being “thou, thee and thy”. This singular form still exists in many languages, e.g. the French “tu” as opposed to the more formal and plural “vous”. Thus given the example of the versatile English “you”, why not the “singular they”? While lectures on linguistics may seem a dry subject to some, Dr. McWhorter really makes it fun. Most Americans may be amazed to learn that there are over 6,000 languages in the world today, reportedly 800 alone on the South Pacific island of Papua New Guinea. The lecturer supplements his informal but analytical discourse with amusing asides drawn from past personal experience, even offering an occasional culinary tip. He introduces us to the term “skeuomorphic”, describing archaic words of obscure ancient origin that are retained in modern parlance more for decoration than for meaning. More importantly, he discusses in detail the differences between formal and informal speech and parallel differences in writing styles. A full lecture is devoted to the newest, most informal and innovative form of writing, i.e. “texting”. This course is both enjoyable and a valuable resource to anyone with a serious interest in language use, grammar and effective oral and written communication.
Date published: 2013-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating I have just finished listening to this course for the second time, and I think I enjoyed it more this time than the first. Having studied (and spoken) Spanish and Portuguese, and a little French), many years ago and being more or less familiar with grammar in those languages, there were always so many questions I had about English. English may be a Germanic language, but it has always seemed a lot further from German than Spanish from Portuguese, Italian or even French. Now I know a lot of the reasons--or some good hypotheses why...and why English has its share of problems, such as its non behaving pronouns, and strange verbs like "to be able to"--which is just bizarre when you think about it and wonder what it must be like to have to learn it for the first time from another language. I gained a great deal of appreciation for English, its uniqueness, and how silly some of the prescriptivists are in trying to corral something that always is in flux and changing. My private hope is that the advent of texting will someday trigger the downfall of some of the more hideous spellings in written English, such as "through" and "though". And that we will finally come up with a good word for "you all"--that is a pretty big gaping hole in the language that claims to have more words than any other language on earth. I could listen to (and did listen to) McWhorter talk for hours without getting bored or tired...
Date published: 2013-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and Edifying John McWhorter is one of the three finest lecturers featured in the Great Courses. He's up there with Greenberg and Ken Harl. While their styles differ widely, McWhorter is their equal in charm with a persona that is warm, somewhat dry, and endearingly geeky. He knows and enjoys the subject and he conveys the material to the listener in an extraordinarily accessible manner.
Date published: 2013-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Watch out Robin Williams! Professor McWhorter's delightful course on language usage made me laugh out loud repeatedly. His style of presentation, while some might find it off-putting (as he does monkeys), kept my interest and attention while getting across some interesting insights into how language is used, and how different languages handle grammar and structure. While humor can be very subjective, I found his pop culture references funny and (mostly) pertinent to the points he was making. Though if, as he ponders, someone is listening to this course 300 years from now, I doubt they will understand any of these references. They will likely not know of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, much less the episode that gave us "pronoun trouble." Though for baby boomers such as myself, it bordered on comedic genius. He also used stories and examples from his personal life, and those might be more relatable and less culture and time sensitive. His different voices and rapid pace of presentation reminded me of Robin Williams. In short, if you prefer courses that are serious and unenthusiastically presented, this course would not be for you. For everyone else I recommend it highly.
Date published: 2013-05-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Quite Good, but Mis-named and Overly Long [Audio] I found the first 10 lectures, covering the development of English, to be the most interesting. I'd give that portion of the course 5 stars. The rest of the course could have been condensed. Actually, I'll condense it now: "Most "rules" of grammar that you remember being drilled in at school are logically rather flimsy, and really fall into the category of aesthetics rather than grammar/logic." There. It's reasuring to hear this from a bona fide linguist, but it didn't need to take up an extra 14 lectures. Also, it seems to me that the course title might have been an afterthought - it wasn't obvious to me when listening to each lecture which particular myth Prof. McWhorter was trying to bust. This was only revealed to me when I looked in the course booklet. The Professor is very clear and pretty amusing for the most part, although I eventually came to wish there were a few less cute jokey asides.
Date published: 2013-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mythbustin’ adventures DVD review. ©2012. Guidebook 147 pages. Although last year I said I’d never get any more of McWhorter’s DVDs, I relented and picked up his newest course. But you know what? I loved it and have no regrets/complaints this time around. The course offers a plain vanilla set and there are not many fancy graphics to speak of. Indeed, it’s all very bland, but somehow McWhorter kept me entertained and engaged the entire time. Time went by really fast. There’s just something about him--and of course the content--that’s interesting. The organizing principle behind each lecture is a popularly held myth about language. Certainly not all TGC customers hold these myths to be true, but I think we can assume that for much of the general public, these myths or stereotypes carry considerable weight. For the most part, these lectures are arranged chronologically, beginning with the ancestry of English and ending with musings on the habits of today’s generation of smartphone texters and finally the future of English. On that note, according to many articles/editorials, it is likely that our future lingua Franca will be Chinese (due to its economic ascendancy as a financial world leader). But Professor McWhorter disagrees, predicting that English will retain its supremacy; he argues his case persuasively. Now there is some overlap or redundancy on issues already covered in his other courses, but that’s okay. I still enjoyed the lectures. In fact, the whole course is filled with interesting factoids about language use past & present. For me it’s one of those courses I’ll probably listen to again because it’s fun and interesting.
Date published: 2012-09-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Funny and informative Very articulate, entertaining, full of clear explanations and specific examples that one can relate to.
Date published: 2012-09-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I seem to be a loner among reviewers of this course, but it is the only Teaching Company course among the 12 or 15 I've done that was disappointing to me. Basically, I found it overly long for the information it conveys. I think I probably knew that English grammar, syntax, and usage has changed over time, that what was "right" yesterday is not today, and that what is proper today will not likely remain so in the future. In any case, I didn't need to be told this over and over and over, with repeated and redundant examples. Nor did I need protracted examples from obscure languages, as though the goal is to make me into a linguist. Another characteristic that prolongs the presentations unnecessarily is Professor McWhorter's repetitive injections and asides, a few relevant but most irrelevant. I foudn this especially annoying and if he were ever to see a verbatim transcript of his lectures, I bet (at least I hope) he would be appalled. All in all, I found it a poor investment of my time.
Date published: 2012-09-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "Fish don't know that they're wet" The title comes from a frequent refrain that we hear in Prof. John McWhorter's course, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of English Usage". The idea is that, just as fish don't know that they're wet because their native state is in the water, English speakers don't know that they're immersed in grammar because that, too, is our native state. We don't perceive the English grammar around us, because we're wet all the time. Prof. McWhorter takes us on what feels like a personal disquisition (I had to look it up, too) on the topic of English grammar. He covers the history of the English language (lectures 1-8), grammar conceits in English (lectures 10-18, whence the course gets its title), and a series of lectures on formality vs. informality in English (in an way I'd never thought about) (lectures 19-23). As an added bonus you get a lecture on black English (lecture 9 - very interesting) and on poetry (lecture 22 - bleah). Prof. McWhorter seems to have consciously rejected a strict organization in favor of a much looser, more informal "conversation" with his listeners. It's more formal than a spoken conversation, but less formal than a written work. Since we're getting four lectures on the nature of formality in English, I suspect this tone is not accidental. As part of that, several reviewers have complained about a lack of organization in the lectures. I think that is an intentional byproduct of Prof. McWhorter's choice of formality level. And he pitches the subject of the lectures at a level that is served by the tone. He's not trying to convey a complex rule set that we listeners need to memorize before marching forth into the world. Instead, he's telling us a series of anecdotes to allow us to appreciate the water in which we swim every day. As always, and as most other reviewers have noted, Prof. McWhorter is an engaging and lively speaker. He's a pleasure to listen to, and these courses are a blast. I have also listened to his course "The Story of Human Language" and I loved that course as well. Overall, I would say this is a better course to start with. It is less in depth and less detail oriented, though Prof. McWhorter's anecdotes give you plenty of individual details to savor. It serves very well as an introduction to the issues that Prof. McWhorter wants to talk about, and his "Story of Human Language" course picks up on a lot of the same material, but goes into more depth. I can't recommend this course highly enough! It is a fun foray into the oddities of our native waters, and an excellent introduction to the subject.
Date published: 2012-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Laugh while you learn. A great impulse buy! No question: this is the most fun and entertaining course of the 60 I've bought from TGC. Prof McWhorter shows great skill in teaching linguistic ideas. He very briefly describes an overall principle, even so briefly that he acknowledges you won't get it at first. But then he gives >gobs< of fascinating and memorable examples. All of the while, he's peppering his ideas with little tidbits that make you smile and laugh. It makes one smile just thinking back on the course! He does an excellent job of describing how English has changed and continues to... and that we don't have to be so horrified by split infinitives, misuse of subject and object pronouns, verbing of words, new words, ebonics, or texting. You'll understand, for example, why English (happily) doesn't have the difficult verb conjugations as other languages do. And why Navajo was an excellent choice for WWII codes, since it's nearly impossible for an adult to learn. Very interesting. This course is fun and memorable. If you're thinking of buying this on an impulse, you will be glad you did!
Date published: 2012-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining! I found this to be a delightful and interesting course that didn't require too much concentration and thought. It wasn't necessarily the most organized series of lectures, but Prof. McWhorter made his points and actually persuaded me to agree with him regarding his evaluation of language change over time.
Date published: 2012-06-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Lots of details, but worth it! [Audio version] Having previously listened to Dr. McWhorter’s ‘Story of Human Language’ course, I wasn’t sure I really wanted another detail-packed set of his lectures. I took a chance and ordered his new course anyway. Granted, this professor is funny, lively, and clever, but once again I soon felt I was drowning in details, especially for the first eight lectures. I kept looking for a lifeline, a thread, but McWhorter was simply all over the place. I admit I am a traditionalist. I was fascinated by Lecture 9, on Black English. McWhorter asserts Black English ‘is not bad grammar, it’s different grammar.’ I think he makes an interesting case, but not a wholly compelling case. This topic by itself might be worth an entire course. I found it ironic that the professor often asks us to be nonjudgmental about the constantly evolving English language with its myriad rules of grammar and style, but when he reviews Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style,’ he treats ‘Elements’ like a smorgasbord. He picks and chooses; we can keep this rule, but forget that one, etc. Near the end of the course, I felt McWhorter almost implies we should simply drop all the rules and nonjudgmentally embrace the wonderful anarchy and chaos of the English language. I admit it sounds tempting. Finally, we learn ‘there was no truly conversational form of writing analogous to conversational speech’ until we got texting. But ... its prolly 2 L8 4 me. i m 2 ol-fashnd. r u ?
Date published: 2012-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best McWhorter course to chose first [Video] McWhorter is a specialist in language change, and the author of several books. He is the kind of author that sits down to write everyday, so his writing and Teaching Company lectures will tend to infused with what he is working on at the moment. This course has a lot of material from his recent 'What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be', which I have read. They are more like a series of essays than a traditional survey course. They are more personal, and quirky than most Teaching Company courses. I am a fan, and have the other two McWhorter courses. Although the other two courses are among my favorites, this one is the best one to chose first because it is unapologetic in it’s style. There is a light structure, and the lectures could be conceivably be watched out of order. These lectures are more fun than the other two courses in that he is less worried about comprehensiveness and technical detail. I am certain that there are some that would enjoy this course even if they were to find that the other two courses were a bit too much of a good thing. He has gotten a bit of a reputation for shedding light on English’s quirks of grammar as historical curiosities. A good example is ‘whom’. As he argues, we don’t feel that English is incomplete without ‘wham’, so why are we so worried about a decline in the use of ‘whom’? I found his lecture on texting to be a highlight. Who else would be reminded of the Maya when they think of texting? He has tackled these issues of English’s perceived decline before, but since these issues take center stage in this course, he is even more convincing. Another thread is the history of English, and I found the story of Welsh’s influence on English to be fascinating. I read his argument in his book, but I found the lectures to be even better than the book. I am not a fan of the new studio, but McWhorter is in his element. He is very natural in that environment. He is no stranger to a TV studio, which almost certainly helps. I imagine that audio would work just fine, but I enjoy seeing the text on screen when he is pronouncing foreign words. I am glad that I have the video.
Date published: 2012-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from BEST LANGUAGE PROFESSOR Every moment of these lectures was packed with information on usage...with historical facts from other languages and times. Truly amazing spectrum of knowledge that Professor John McWhorter displays in an entertaining and engaging format.
Date published: 2012-06-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Content controversial I am currently a graduate student in linguistics and I disagree with some of what Professor Mc Whorter states in this course. Historical linguistics is not my specialty, but much of this is covered in the early lectures. Many of the basics are uncontroversial, but I don't agree with the part where he says that language mistakes are (at least part of) the reason language changes. That's pure speculation. What about native speakers? Are we led to believe that we make mistakes from what we learn from our parents and peers? Also, I think people should be clear on what the difference is between a linguist and a traditional grammarian (the people who write prescriptive rules of grammar like The Chicago Manual of Style for instance). A linguist (who follows the modern tradition) will never tell people what people should say. They simply ask native speakers if such and such sentence sounds acceptable, so a lot of the talk about saying X is OK should really be qualified. A linguist's job really is to describe what he or she hears, not to decide if that data is correct or not (only a native speaker can do that). And it's curious that he comments on written texts because linguists rarely (if ever) use written language as data, so most of his commentary is pure speculation not really based on science (though sometimes interesting). There are some things in there though that many linguists would agree with (lack of future tense in English for example). I understand why he chose these topics though. A lot of the stuff linguists talk about in conferences are very arcane and boring for most audiences. The bottom line: I would advise not to take everything the professor says as more than personal opinion, and some of it is not even really based on scientific evidence.
Date published: 2012-05-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing I really enjoyed Prof McWhorter's Story of Human Language course. As before, his lecturing style is smooth and engaging. However, this course was nowhere near the same standard. What are these myths, lies and half-truths? They're mentioned in the study guide, but they are NOT mentioned in the lectures. And really, the course isn't about that at all (serious mis-advertising on TTC's part). Lectures 2-9 are a (rather poorly organized) history of the English language. With lectures 9 and 10, Prof McWhorter starts his crusade against prescriptivist grammar (some of which we heard in his earlier course). He argues that the rule that we should not use the objective pronoun (in "Bobby and me went to the store") is not a valid rule because "I and Bobby went to the store" is just as wrong is silly. That second sentence is wrong because it violates a different rule; that doesn't have any relevance to the validity of the objective/nominative pronoun rule. He also argues that the rule not to end sentences with propositions is meaningless in English and was just borrowed from Latin where a preposition "has to" preceed the object. Why does it "have to"? What makes the rule arbitrary in English but valid in Latin? As a Spanish speaker, I noticed that his explanation of the progressive in Spanish is completely wrong. In Spanish you DO say "estoy escribiendo una carta" (same as in English) and you do NOT say "escribo una carta" as he claims. If he's wrong about such a basic point, I don't know how much of his other points I can take at face value. I would not recommend this course.
Date published: 2012-05-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating story told with wit and passion The first TC course that I took was McWhorter's "Story of Human Language", which is terrific. I have also read his recent books. Taking this new course had the feeling of being back in the company of an old friend who amazed and delighted me through 24 lectures. This new course dives much deeper into English. I think it is good value either as a follow-on his other courses, or standalone. He weaves in enough material about human language in general to set the context, and does a masterful job of describing the many influences that led to the language we speak today. Prof. McWhorter is a very engaging speaker. The material, such as the details or the origin or modern words, is generally extremely interesting; I wish I coud remember and repeat 1/10th of what I hear in the lectures. Prof. McWhorter comes across as more casual in this course, throwing out numerous side observations and jokes. I did find Lecture 1 a bit odd in that as I heard it from the start I had the feeling that I had missed the introduction to the course -- it felt like I started with lecture 2 or 3. But the remaining lectures have clear themes and there's a logical progression throughout the course.
Date published: 2012-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magnificent Audio CD. Dr. John McWhorter is one of the best speakers in the whole TTC stable of excellent speakers. His speaking style is conversational. In contrast to some, even other TTC speakers, he is clearly speaking, often ad libbing, rather than reading. He is just fun to listen to. The course is not an arc or a systematic treatment of language. Rather, it is a potpourri of oddities of the English language. At one level, this is enjoyable. However, on another language, it is thought-provoking, causing the student to reconsider how they speak and write. (Relax. Dr. McWhorter gives permission to use the third person plural pronoun with the third person singular verb.) Of 6,000 languages, what percentage conjugate regular verbs in the present tense by adding a marker at the end of the third person singular while keeping all other forms unchanged? (Zero. English is the only one.) Of 6,000 languages, what percentage have a word like “the”? (Zero. English is the only one. Other languages have a definite article, but they are all different in an important respect.) Dr. McWhorter clearly had fun giving the course. You’ll have fun taking it.
Date published: 2012-04-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Hybrid Course for a Hybrid Tongue This course incorporates material from four of McWhorter's published books—What Language Is, Our Magnificent B*stard Tongue (the profanity filter won't let me put the whole word), The Power of Babel, Word on the Street. As they've already been vetted for an original publishing process, his insights here are well-honed. He offers concise explanations of: (1) historical lingustics, especially the history of English, including the influence of Celtic languages and the Saxon Shore hypothesis (2) the difference between an "insider"/esoteric language and a lingua franca such as English (3) Black English as a dialect with its own grammar and as a model of language change (4) the prescriptivist/descriptivist debates, including an in-depth look at Fowler and Strunk & White, and their critics (5) the complex and fascinating interplay of spoken and written language registers and their ongoing evolution McWhorter does a yeoman's work synthesizing these eclectic topics into a twelve-hour course. Unforuntately, this breadth of coverage is also one of the course's principal weaknesses. Its overarching themes seem, at times, loosely and even haphazardly tied together; this is true both on the level of the course as a whole and (sometimes) within individual lectures. A few lectures are little more than anecdotes or examples loosely arranged around a main point. Some could be organized more tightly and efficiently. Lecture 13, for example, includes a lengthy account of McWhorter playing Monopoly with his father, the main point of which is, apparently, that just as the future value of a given property in Monopoly is hard to predict, language change is also hard to predict. (Perhaps the analogy held greater insight; if so, I didn't catch it.) In addition, the course is rather mis-titled as "Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage," as language usage is but one of the several topics covered. (To be fair, there was probably no title that could have accurately delineated the content in its entirety.) Indeed, it is odd that while the accompanying course guide structures each lecture outline around a language myth (e.g., "Myth #19: Real language is writing"), McWhorter himself never (or almost never) discusses these "myths" explicitly in the lectures. I'm not sure whether McWhorter wrote the guide himself or if one of the Great Courses producers imposed the "24 myths" structure after the fact to more easily distinguish it from some of their other offerings. McWhorter is a confident lecturerer and exudes a contagious enthusiasm for his subject that makes listening to him enjoyable. He also has a quirky sense of humor and does lots of silly "voices" that, while entertaining at first, can ultimately feel a little distracting. (Your mileage may vary.) He also has a tendency to segue into his conclusions with the phrase "all of which is to say"—which is truly nit-picky of me to mention, but he said it frequently enough that I noticed. I recommend the course to anyone interested in language(s) or linguistics, or to those who enjoy McWhorter's books or other TC courses. Despite its flaws, it offers a lot at a good value.
Date published: 2012-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging Course This review concerns the DVD version: Ever since I took Dr. McWhorter's first TTC course on "The Story of Human Language," I have really considered myself a huge fan of his. He is entertaining in his own special way, and his subtle, somewhat dry humor is a great tool to help hold interest. My biggest "complaints," if I can use that term, are two fold: One is the title. I'm not sure that the title, "Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage," really fits the content of the course. In the Guidebook, it does mention these myths, and then presents the truths that help defray these perceived myths. I'm not sure what better title could be chosen, but I did notice that the professor rarely uses the word,"myth," but he does a great job in telling us how things used to be, how they got to where the usage is now, and perhaps what the current trends are. Second of all, I found the lamps, or chandaliers used on the set, to be somewhat distracting. After having viewed several courses from the new TTC studio, I can't recall any other course in which these white-lamp-fixtures have been used. It is often annoying, that these lamps are sometimes larger in proportion to Dr. McWhorter's head. At other times, the scene shown violates one of the first rules of photography: Don't allow 'trees' to grow from a subject's head. There are many times when the lamps are directly over his head. When this course is re-done-please- get rid of the lamps! There are ways to suspend lamps like these out of the view of the camara, (if more on-the-set lighting is desired or needed) I found this to be visually de-tracting from the otherwise excellent production I have come to expect from the Teaching Company. With that being said, I cannot say enough great things about this course! First of all, the subject is very fascinating. I have always been fascinated by language, and I could well relate to his recitation of when he was learning German. I was 'forced' by my parents to take Spanish in high school; however, I wasn't interested in that language-I was interested in German, due to my ancestory. My folks thought it would be too difficult for me. When the professor was reciting his experiences with the use of German in Germany, I could well appreciate his difficulty. Textbook langauge and real language are often at a disconnect point. Also, ironically, I now use Spanish every day at work, and the subject that I learned is quite different form the, "reality" language. So, I found his explanations and examples from other languages extremely interesting. I might add, that, although it is not necessary to have studied another language, it certainly helps. I later was able to take German in school, before the optimal langage learning age of about about 15. So, I found his examples easy to follow. Some of his material is a repeat from his other courses, but I found the explanations of the language families to be very helpful. Second of all, the best part of the course is when he gets to the real 'meat-and-potatos' part: Good 'ole English. Although sometimes the complicated process of how how the langauage, that we speak came to be, he explains it so well. Next, I feel that lectures 12 ( "Wrong Then, but Proper Now"), 16 ( "Strunk & White") and the final two lectures, ("Texting" and, "The Living Past and Future of English") to be the strongest ones of the entire course. Finally, I would recommend that one consider purchasing the video version of this course, since the visual aids are excellent, as I have come to appreciate, especially in later TTC courses. I feel they greatly aid in understanding his examples being presented, regardless of the issue given above about the lamps. Although I haven't yet taken Dr. McWhorter's course on Linguistics, I certainly can't wait to get that one as well.
Date published: 2012-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A win Departing from all the general principles of linguistics discussed in other courses, McWhorter now discusses the particularities of them as they appear in English. The book is filled with facts, one right after another, that make you want to go and tell the nearest person "Did you know that..." or "Isn't it cool that..." It is about learning how our language is special in ways that we can't understand without a bit of analysis- like how McWhorter would say: "Fish don't know they are wet." There are enough fun facts in here to fascinate people who didn't know they cared about languages at all. It has been particularly interesting to me since I'm an aspiring writer and have suffered from the frozen grammar and style advice that is handed down from literary folk generally unquestioned and without the context of English as a language among other languages. The changing attitudes toward language over the centuries are fascinating as well. The points he makes as he picks his way through the various topics can really be quite dramatic, especially as he demolishes so many misconceptions along the way. It would be hard to think of English the same way again. Of the Teaching Company's courses on literature and language, I think this is one of the most important ones to help understand what English should mean to us.
Date published: 2012-04-04
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