Story of Human Language

Course No. 1600
Professor John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
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Course No. 1600
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Course Overview

I never met a person who is not interested in language, wrote the bestselling author and psychologist Steven Pinker. There are good reasons that language fascinates us so. It not only defines humans as a species, placing us head and shoulders above even the most proficient animal communicators, but it also beguiles us with its endless mysteries. For example:

  • How did different languages come to be?
  • Why isn't there just a single language?
  • How does a language change, and when it does, is that change indicative of decay or growth?
  • How does a language become extinct?
Dr. John McWhorter, one of America's leading linguists and a frequent commentator on network television and National Public Radio, addresses these and other questions as he takes you on an in-depth, 36-lecture tour of the development of human language, showing how a single tongue spoken 300,000 years ago has evolved into the estimated 7,000 languages used around the world today.

An accomplished scholar, Professor McWhorter is also a skilled popularizer, whose book The Power of Babel was called "startling, provocative, and remarkably entertaining," by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The London Times called him "a born teacher." And Steven Pinker, best known as the author of The Language Instinct, offered this praise for the book: "McWhorter's arguments are sharply reasoned, refreshingly honest, and thoroughly original."

Discover How Linguists Think

For the past century linguistics has been one of the most exciting and productive fields in the social sciences. In the process of telling the story of language, Professor McWhorter introduces you to some of the current controversies in the discipline:

  • Noam Chomsky has famously argued that the ability to use language is innately specified in the human brain. What is the evidence for and against this hypothesis?
  • The popular media have widely reported that words from the world's first language have been reconstructed. Professor McWhorter looks at the reasoning behind this work and the objections to it.
  • One of the most enticing ideas of 20th-century linguistics is that language determines the way we perceive the world. But is this really true?
  • The Ebonics debate of the mid-1990s focused attention on Black English. What is the nature of this dialect? Where did it come from?
Professor McWhorter also briefs you on the recent connection made between an obscure language of Nepal and the language family of Papua New Guinea, which may represent the oldest documentable historical relationship between words, extending back as far as 75,000 years.

In discovering how linguists think, you will begin to see language in an entirely new way. You will learn that everything about a language is eternally and inherently changeable, from its word order and grammar to the very sound and meaning of basic words.

That's why Professor McWhorter describes language as "like one of those lava lamps from the 1970s. It's not marching toward an ideal, and it's not slowly going to the dogs. It's always just variations of the same thing—endless morphings."

A Wealth of Examples from a Teacher Passionate about Language

In an interview with the New York Times, Professor McWhorter said: "Languages have been a passion since I was a small child. I used to teach them to myself as a hobby. I speak three and a bit of Japanese, and can read seven."

In this course, he includes these languages and many more as examples. Anyone who has ever studied a language will surely find it discussed—along with Albanian, Armenian, Turkish, Sanskrit, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Korean, Tagalog, Maori, Fijian, Samoan, Gullah, Hopi, Mohawk, Navajo, Yupik Eskimo, Quechua, and Welsh, as well as Latin, Greek, German, Russian, French, Spanish, Swedish, and many others.

It's remarkable how much light one language sheds on another. For example, the ancestor language of English is Proto-Germanic, and the ancestor of that is Proto-Indo-European. A curious transformation took place in the consonants of Proto-Germanic, in which Proto-Indo-European p became f; d became t; and so on with other consonant pairs. So Latin pater is English father, and Latin decem is English ten. This rule is called Grimm's Law after its discoverer—the same Jacob Grimm who collected folk tales.

Such patterns make relationships among different languages clear and make learning these languages much easier.

What You Will Learn

Language basics. In Lecture 1, you start by comparing human language to animal communication and ask, how valid are claims that animals such as chimpanzees have rudimentary language skills? Then you look at intriguing evidence that links a specific gene to the ability to use language. The first appearance of this gene in humans has been calculated and gives a surprisingly early date for the birth of language.

Chomsky's revolution. In Lecture 2, Professor McWhorter notes that linguists are often mistakenly thought to be translators or experts on word histories. But their work takes them far deeper into language. For example, Noam Chomsky and his coworkers have been searching for the grammatical properties common to all languages—an effort that has revolutionized linguistics, though not without controversy.

Change is the norm. In Lectures 3–7, you learn the specific mechanisms responsible for language change, from phenomena such as the tone system in Chinese to the gradual shift in the meanings of words over time. You will find that even the parts of Shakespeare you believe you understand may not mean what you think.

Beginnings. In Lectures 8–13, you explore language families, starting with Indo-European, comprising languages from India to Ireland including English. Other language families discussed are Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, Bantu, and Native American. You also look at the heated debate over the first language.

Dialects. In Lectures 14–19, you cover dialects. Often one dialect is chosen as the standard, and when it is used in writing, it changes more slowly than the dialects that are just spoken. One consequence is that people who speak written languages are often taught that the constructions they produce spontaneously are errors.

Mixing it up. In Lectures 20–22, you study the phenomenon of language mixture. The first language's 7,000 branches have not only diverged into dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another on all levels: vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and usage. As a result, English comprises a vocabulary of largely borrowed terms.

How English got that way. In Lectures 23–25, you learn how processes of change lead some languages to develop more grammatical machinery than they need, while others become streamlined, shedding such complexities. English is an interesting example of the latter tendency.

Prisoner of grammar? In Lecture 26, you examine the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that features of our grammars channel how we think.

New languages from old. In Lectures 27–32, Professor McWhorter focuses on pidgins and creoles. When people learn a language quickly without being explicitly taught, they develop a pidgin version of it. Then if they need to use this pidgin on an everyday basis it becomes a real language, a creole. Some people argue that Black English is a creole, and Professor McWhorter devotes a lecture to this issue.

Extinction. In Lectures 33 and 34, you come full circle. Having explored the processes that give birth to new languages, you now learn how languages become extinct and what can be done to preserve them.

Conclusion. In Lectures 35 and 36, you explore artificial languages, including Esperanto and sign languages for the deaf, and conclude by examining a single English sentence etymologically. In the process, you learn how word histories reflect the phenomena of language change and mixture worldwide.

The Armory of the Mind

Professor McWhorter covers a wealth of material, enlivened with wit and personal observations:

  • Concerning Shakespeare's language, he points out that the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz sings Juliet's line "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" in a cadence that suggests "where" as the meaning of wherefore. But in Elizabethan usage, wherefore means "why."
  • Discussing the concept of language as a continuum, he recalls getting into an elevator with two Guyanese linguists. The Guyanese were speaking English in the lobby, but as they ascended they started introducing more and more of their native creole, so by the time they exited, their conversation was incomprehensible to Dr. McWhorter.
  • On the subject of sound change, he observes that the written syllable aw is pronounced ah by an increasing number of Americans, a phenomenon he first noticed in California. "Sushi is ‘raw' fish," he says. "But more and more people are saying, ‘rah' fish."
  • A devotee of the classic British comedy series Are You Being Served?, he enthusiastically recommends it for its generous sampling of nonstandard British accents.
Language is indeed a powerful tool—"the armory of the human mind" in the words of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. With this course, you will be richly rewarded in investigating what linguists have learned about the origin and evolution of the marvelous gift of speech.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    What Is Language?
    Professor John McWhorter introduces the course by exploring two questions: What distinguishes the language ability of humans from the signaling system of animals, and when did humans first acquire language? x
  • 2
    When Language Began
    We look at evidence that language is an innate ability of the human brain, an idea linked to Noam Chomsky. But many linguists and psychologists see language as one facet of cognition rather than as a separate ability. x
  • 3
    How Language Changes—Sound Change
    The first of five lectures on language change examines how sounds evolve, exemplified by the Great Vowel Shift in English and the complex tone system in Chinese. x
  • 4
    How Language Changes—Building New Material
    Language change is not just sound erosion and morphing, but the building of new words and constructions. This lecture shows how such developments lead to novel grammatical features. x
  • 5
    How Language Changes—Meaning and Order
    The meaning of a word changes over time. Silly first meant "blessed" and acquired its current sense through a series of gradual steps. Word order also changes: In Old English, the verb usually came at the end of a sentence. x
  • 6
    How Language Changes—Many Directions
    The first language has evolved into 6,000 because language change takes place in many directions. Latin split in this way into the Romance languages as changes proceeded differently in each area where the Romans brought Latin. x
  • 7
    How Language Changes—Modern English
    As recently as Shakespeare, English words had meanings different enough to interfere with our understanding of his language today. Even by the 1800s, Jane Austen's work is full of sentences that would now be considered errors. x
  • 8
    Language Families—Indo-European
    The first of four lectures on language families introduces Indo-European, which probably began in the southern steppes of Russia around 4000 B.C. and then spread westward to most of Europe and eastward to Iran and India. x
  • 9
    Language Families—Tracing Indo-European
    Linguists have reconstructed the proto-language of the Indo-Europeans by comparing the modern languages. Applying this process, we learn the Proto-Indo-European word for sister-in-law that was spoken 6,000 years ago. x
  • 10
    Language Families—Diversity of Structures
    Semitic languages assign basic meanings to three-consonant sequences and create words by altering the vowels around them. In Sino-Tibetan languages, a sentence tends to leave more to context than we often imagine possible. x
  • 11
    Language Families—Clues to the Past
    The distribution of language families shows how humans have spread through migration. We trace the Austronesian language family to its origins on Formosa. Similar work sheds light on the history of Africa and North America. x
  • 12
    The Case Against the World’s First Language
    A few linguists have claimed to reconstruct words from the world's first language, but this work is extremely controversial. Professor McWhorter presents the case against this theory, called the "Proto-World" hypothesis. x
  • 13
    The Case For the World’s First Language
    Despite the hostility of most linguists to the Proto-World hypothesis, there is increasing evidence that many of the world's language families do trace to "mega-ancestors," even if evidence for a Proto-World remains lacking. x
  • 14
    Dialects—Subspecies of Species
    The first of five lectures on dialects probes the nature of these "languages within languages." Dialects are variations on a common theme, rather than bastardizations of a "legitimate" standard variety. x
  • 15
    Dialects—Where Do You Draw the Line?
    Dialects of one language can be called languages simply because they are spoken in different countries, such as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. The reverse is also true: The Chinese "dialects" are distinctly different languages. x
  • 16
    Dialects—Two Tongues in One Mouth
    Diglossia is the sociological division of labor in many societies between two languages, with a "high" one used in formal contexts and a "low" one used in casual ones—as in High German and Swiss German in Switzerland. x
  • 17
    Dialects—The Standard as Token of the Past
    When a dialect of a language is used widely in writing and literacy is high, the normal pace of change is artificially slowed, as people come to see "the language" as on the page and inviolable. This helps create diglossia. x
  • 18
    Dialects—Spoken Style, Written Style
    We often see the written style of language as how it really "is" or "should be." But in fact, writing allows uses of language that are impossible when a language is only a spoken one. x
  • 19
    Dialects—The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar
    Understanding language change and how languages differ helps us see that what is often labeled "wrong" about people's speech is, in fact, a misanalysis. x
  • 20
    Language Mixture—Words
    The first language's 6,000 branches have not only diverged into dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another on all levels. The first of three lectures on language mixture looks at how this process applies to words. x
  • 21
    Language Mixture—Grammar
    Languages also mix their grammars. For example, Yiddish is a dialect of German, but it has many grammatical features from Slavic languages like Polish. There are no languages without some signs of grammar mixture. x
  • 22
    Language Mixture—Language Areas
    When unrelated or distantly related languages are spoken in the same area for long periods, they tend to become more grammatically similar because of widespread bilingualism. x
  • 23
    Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty
    A great deal of a language's grammar is a kind of overgrowth, marking nuances that many or most languages do without. Even the gender marking of European languages is a frill, absent in thousands of other languages. x
  • 24
    Language Interrupted
    Generally, a language spoken by a small, isolated group will be much more complicated than English. Languages are "streamlined" in this way when history leads them to be learned more as second languages than as first ones. x
  • 25
    A New Perspective on the Story of English
    We trace English back to its earliest discernible roots in Proto-Indo-European and follow its fascinating development, including an ancient encounter with a language possibly related to Arabic and Hebrew. x
  • 26
    Does Culture Drive Language Change?
    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that features of our grammars channel how we think. Professor McWhorter discusses the evidence for and against this controversial but widely held view. x
  • 27
    Language Starts Over—Pidgins
    This lecture is the first of five on how human ingenuity spins new languages out of old through the creation of pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a stripped-down version of a language suitable for passing, utilitarian use. x
  • 28
    Language Starts Over—Creoles I
    Creoles emerge when pidgin speakers use the pidgin as an everyday language. Creoles are spoken throughout the world, wherever history has forced people to expand a pidgin into a full language. x
  • 29
    Language Starts Over—Creoles II
    As new languages, creoles don't have as many frills as older languages, but they do have complexities. Like real languages, creoles change over time, have dialects, and mix with other languages. x
  • 30
    Language Starts Over—Signs of the New
    Creoles are the only languages that lack or have very little of the grammatical traits that emerge over time. In this, creole grammars are the closest to what the grammar of the first language was probably like. x
  • 31
    Language Starts Over—The Creole Continuum
    Just as one dialect shades into another, "creoleness" is a continuum concept. Once we know this, we are in a position to put the finishing touches on our conception of how speech varieties are distributed across the globe. x
  • 32
    What Is Black English?
    Using insights developed in the course to this point, Professor McWhorter takes a fresh look at Black English, tracing its roots to regional English spoken in Britain and Ireland several centuries ago. x
  • 33
    Language Death—The Problem
    Just as there is an extinction crisis among many of the world's animals and plants, it is estimated that 5,500 of the world's languages will no longer be spoken in 2100. x
  • 34
    Language Death—Prognosis
    There are many movements to revive dying languages. We explore the reasons that success is so elusive. For one, people often see their unwritten native language as less "legitimate" than written ones used in popular media. x
  • 35
    Artificial Languages
    There have been many attempts to create languages for use by the whole world. The most successful is Esperanto. Sign languages for the deaf are also artificial languages, though ones fully equipped with grammar, nuance, and dialects. x
  • 36
    Finale—Master Class
    Professor McWhorter concludes with an etymological sampling of the English language, tracing the origin of every word in the sentence: While the snow fell, she arrived to ask about their fee. 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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Story of Human Language is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 242.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Can't get enough of this guy I could listen to John all day. He's methodical, articulate, and interesting. I love the dry wit thrown in there every once in a while.
Date published: 2019-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Most Interesting This is a fun read and has nothing to do with the Tower of Babel (which I already knew)
Date published: 2019-06-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too Many Chapters With the Same Information Mr. McWhorter certainly has his subject in hand but may have been pushed into too many chapters that cover, basically, the similar material. Cut the course in half. Condense it. It gets boring after a while listening to the same stuff in differing contexts.
Date published: 2019-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Vast breadth of study about languages Surely the subject of language intrigues us all and has since our childhood. Professor McWhorter delivers information that helps us address our many questions and stimulates new ones. He summarizes the development of language from its supposed earliest beginning among modern humans about 300,000 years ago to the present; in the process he offers a quick overview of human history -- a much appreciated bonus! Adding to the course's value is his exploration of many language-related issues, such as the question of whether one's language affects one's thoughts.
Date published: 2019-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A GREAT and fascinating course! This is a fascinating study of the languages off earth, how they change, and how they relate to each other. Professor McWhorter keeps each lecture interesting and keeps the listener wanting more.
Date published: 2019-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Grad level course presented as Language 101 Excellent review of language development presented in an an easy to follow format. Emphasis on the history of the development of English but a great deal of content directed at world languages.
Date published: 2019-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Series McWhorter really has a knack of putting together interesting material in a most entertaining way. I bought several copies for gifts.
Date published: 2019-01-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Glad I watched it but much too long As someone who grew speaking one of the non standard American English dialects I was interested in this course. Glad to see him stress that the standard is just a lucky dialect. It was good for my purpose but much too long. This material should be no more than 12 lectures.
Date published: 2019-01-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An interesting story! A very good course on human language. Professor McWhorter's lecturers were clear, well organized and entertaining, However, I wish that the course had included more lectures or that he would do another course-- "The story of language, continued".
Date published: 2018-09-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Favorite lectures The lecturer is a great talker---natural, entertaining, personal and articulate. I learned a lot from the course but it never felt difficult to understand.
Date published: 2018-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting, and well told. We borrowed it from the library several years ago before a family vacation with lots of driving. We enjoyed it greatly. I know bought it as a birthday present for a friend.
Date published: 2018-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating History and Balanced Presentation Prof. McWorter is an enthusiastic teacher, and his love for his subject is infectious. Having studied graduate-level linguistics, I had an advantage in understanding the principles presented, but Prof. McWorter makes things clear enough for an intelligent layman to understand.
Date published: 2018-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Casual, Joyful Attitude by Prof = Natural Teacher Learning grammar seems a waste of time in 4th grade. Then you learn another language and the rules of the new language (using terms like "nominative," "prefix," "object") are compared with English. The rules pay off! Then you discover cognates. Are cognates just dumb luck? You hear that Latin helps your English, but English is not a Romance language. What is going on? How did English get words from so many places? And where did the grammar come from? Prof McWhorter explains it all. The great vowel shift in English explains the seemingly inane English peelings of double vowels (food) and silent "e" (name). What kid hasn't wondered why these are so? "Paternal" is Latin and "padre" is Spanish, but German is "vater" and English is "father." These words are somehow related, almost cognates, as you suspect in high school. And there are other words which begin with "p" in Spanish and "f" in English. Dumb luck? McWhorter shows that this is a case of Grimm's Law, along with "d" in Romance languages becoming "t." There is an emphasis on European languages because that's what most Great Courses customers would be interested in, but McWhorter often gives examples from around the world. His point: all languages change according to similar principles. He often cites Chinese, but mentions native American languages and obscure languages from the Pacific islands and Africa. I listened first on Audible playing at 1.5x, now I am half way through the video. The one glaring omission is the lack of a chart (language tree) in the course book for the relationships of the Indo-European languages. But these graphics are easy to find on the Internet. I suggest downloading one before you begin the course. The professor's casual attitude and silly humor make him seem friendly. The course was created in 2005 and follows an earlier (and better, in my opinion) style. The professor doesn't look into the camera but scans the room. Unseen students sometimes (rarely) chuckle at a joke. It seems very natural, as if you were in a classroom. I swear he is talking by simply glancing at his notes and not reading a teleprompter. Which is very impressive. Where was McWhorter (or at least the field of linguistics) when I had all these suspicions as a young person? I might have spent more time in the humanities instead of math and physics!
Date published: 2018-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and well done This is the second course I have taken given by Professor McWhorter, the first being “language from A to Z”. I liked the content in that course a lot and felt that it provided a good introduction to the field of linguistics. It was extremely well taught but the Professor gave a distinct feeling of self-satisfaction that was a little unpleasant. His mastery of the subject, however, was indisputable so I decided to take this course as the natural next step. This course touches on many of the aspects that are of interest in the science of modern linguistics: almost all of it has to do with how languages are born, how they become extinct, and how they evolve. It is quite in depth and asks many subtle questions such as: what can associating different languages into language families and tracking their divergences in time and space tell us about the historical past? Was there a first language on earth? What are the different roles of spoken languages vs written languages? The content was fascinating and, for the most part, nontrivial and thought provoking. All in all, I felt that it provided to me a good perspective of what this body of knowledge is interested in researching, and why it is of importance. In this course I had a much easier time with the Professor. He did not seem to try to overdo himself in being entertaining as he did in the other course, and the lectures were simply interesting and full of insight. Overall I am very happy I chose to take the time to hear it. It was time well spent…
Date published: 2018-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Simply Outstanding I took this on DVDs a year or two ago and it was fantastic. The prof is just great and the delivery is masterful. It was so good, I am going to do it again on the digital library.
Date published: 2017-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Everyone should watch this course! I find myself deeply regretting not having this course available when I was first being exposed to learning a foreign language and was already an enthusiastic student of the nuances of English. Going in, I would have considered myself very knowledgeable about this topic, but realized very quickly how little I really knew. Professor McWhorter does an outstanding job of providing context and coherence to language in a way that was eye opening and fun. He lifts the fog surrounding why English is the way it is, how it has changed, what those changes imply about usage, grammar, and spelling, as well as the relationship of English to its progenitors and to other languages. I believe knowing these things would make learning English and any other language easier, more relevant, and vastly more understandable. This course is exactly what the Great Courses is all about.
Date published: 2017-12-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Insights This course is, as the title says, the story of human language. Professor McWhorter provides a great overview of the fields of linguistics which analyze language in its myriad modern forms, along with the strange and wonderful transformations that occur in all languages with time. His discussion of the reconstruction of proto-languages, and how linguists can trace the development of modern languages from them is fascinating. As an aside, this particular course meshes very well with another Great Course, “Writing and Civilization,” by Prof. Marc Zender. Professor Zender also explains in great detail how understanding the development of spoken language is essential to the decipherment of ancient scripts. Prof. McWhorter clearly explains the differences among standard languages, dialects, pidgins, and creoles. In so doing, he shows how mastery of any language requires constant exposure early in life, which also explains how languages can die within a generation if they are not passed on natively. I think this course might be a bit unsettling for someone who has learned too well standard English, and believes that it is indeed the only correct way to express oneself. Prof. McWhorter dispels the myth that dialects and other language forms are in some way substandard. This, in itself, was one of my favorite take-away points. Prof. McWhorter has a delightfully dry sense of humor, and uses hyperbole extremely well when talking about, for example, languages with very few speakers. He is also self-effacing, referring to his passion for languages at a young age as a marker of being clinically insane. A delightful, informative, thought-provoking course for anyone who has an interest in language, and how it came to be so confusing and inconsistent!
Date published: 2017-08-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fascinating and stimulating course. Agreed, this presenter's sense of humor is a bit quirky, and his fondness for cat-related analogies goes a bit further than necessary. However, his command of the subject matter and ability to present it in an engaging way is outstanding. I was often frustrated by the inability to interrupt with questions, and I am a person who likes questions better than answers. I am looking forward to taking more of this man's courses.
Date published: 2017-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Proto Indo-European—Is it Real? TTC has many outstanding lecturers: Robert Greenberg, Dorsey Armstrong, Elizabeth Vandiver, Kenneth Harl, Richard Wolfson, William Kloss, Teofilo Ruiz, Philip Daileader, Gary Gallagher, Seth Lerer and Edwin Barnhart among many others. To this list should be added Professor John McWhorter whose course on human language is simply outstanding. The lecturers’ style and delivery varies quite dramatically among them. Some are quiet, a few are loud, many pace restlessly, others prefer to stand behind a lectern, most have a delightful sense of humor (that is as variable as their speaking style), but all have a deep knowledge of their subject and are able to convey their knowledge passionately, clearly and coherently to their audience. Here Dr. McWhorter shines. I knew almost nothing about linguistics and very little about languages before taking this course, but my lack of prior knowledge was no hindrance, as the clear, logical progression of the course, from what language is and how it began to the prognosis of the life and death of languages. I learned a great deal, and was especially interested in the detailing of how (and why) language changes. There was one (for me) revaluation after another. Although I had some vague idea as to the movement of English from Chaucer to today, the details were completely outside my knowledge. Professor McWhorter used specific examples showing many of those changes. What I found most surprising was that linguists are reconstructing lost languages, especially Proto Indo-European”. Who knew that was even possible? I was also fascinated in the differences between Creole languages and Pidgins, distinctions that I had never made. As indicated, I loved the style and delivery of Professor McWhorter. True enough he did not move beyond the lectern very much, even making the point early in one lecture by moving to one side of the lectern, saying he had been told that he did not move around enough, so he had moved. He stood to the side for a few sentences and then moved back to the podium where he remained for the rest of the course. He always spoke clearly and distinctly, often adding personal notes, such as using his cat to make a point. Some reviewers thought that he was smug or haughty, a view that I do not share, but can understand that his style could be seen that way. I thought that he was quite funny, in an understated, wry way. I’ll purchase his other courses and likely one of his books.
Date published: 2017-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Got better and better. When I first started listening to this course I thought it was going to be rather average.The professor seemed a bit low key. But by about the 3rd lecture I become more and more interested in the material and I found the professor to be more and more charming and engaging. By the end I became an enthusiastic fan.
Date published: 2017-07-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative This is a useful and informative course. The instructor knows his topic, not surprisingly. The first 27 lectures (out of 36) are excellent. For some reason, lectures 28-32 focus on black English, and I found this a bit distracting from the thematic content overall. The remaining lectures track with the course theme. I agree with other reviewers about the instructors odd sense of humor. Many of his attempts at humor were distracting.
Date published: 2017-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging presenter! Prof. McWhorter is one of the most engaging professors in an audio setting. Often with audio files lecturers turn monotonous and it is easy to lose attention. Prof. McWhorter is funny, sometimes just plain weird, but it is through the weird and the funny that he manages to hammer every single concept into my memory. I not only learned a lot about linguistics, I learned how to give engaging good lectures, and I am also hoping to use some of his presentation techniques with my students! Had a great time listening to these lectures.
Date published: 2017-05-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A delight to listen to. Dr. McWhorter specializes in how creole languages form, and it's an absolutely fabulous lens to view human language. I did undergrad majors in linguistics and German, and I would say that this class skims a lot of the cream off 20 or so classes and gives you just the fun and insight.
Date published: 2017-03-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Dr. McWhorter is one of the best public speakers I have ever listened to and is either a natural at it or has so internalized all those rules for good public speaking that it seems natural. His wry and sometimes subtle sense of humor is a delight. In every lecture there were fascinating tidbits about things I never expected to hear in the course. But it took all of that to sustain my listening through all 36 lectures. This course would have greatly benefited from the discipline imposed by having only 24 lectures. There was much that could have been left out for a first course and that would leave most people wanting more. Instead i had had more than enough linguistics by lecture 28 and it was really his personality and way of speaking that made me want to finish the course. I also feel that I don't have any sort of structure or firm understanding to enable me to understand things related to linguistics I may run across in the future. That's ok, you can only get so much out of an introductory course anyway. For those of you like me who were fascinated by how words & phrases change as they move from language to language or culture to culture there is lots to enjoy. If you hope to have the famous "Tree of human language" traced back to the root of all tongues (my main interest when I bought the course) you will be disappointed to learn that pretty image is largely fantasy and we can't trace all languages back to a single first language. I certainly have a better appreciation for creole languages and it's now clear to me that Louisiana Creole is not just poorly learned French. I would have liked more detail on artificial languages and at least a comment or two on how well or badly 'Klingon' approximates a real language (you can't get more artificial than making up a language for a tv show!). I bought another course by Dr. McWhorter after hearing just 3 lectures from this one. I'm glad because after a week or two I started to miss his jokes and story telling. For pure enjoyment of listening, he comes in third behind Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell, my all time favorites.
Date published: 2016-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. McWhorter did an excellent job of making the subject matter interesting. He clearly has a mastery of the topic, and I appreciated his injection of humor into what could have been a very dry presentation. Although I expected to learn a lot from the course, I was pleasantly surprised that I found it so engaging.
Date published: 2016-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Quirky but Informative The subject is right up my street. In view of some of the adverse reviews, I bought the transcript only. I don't regret it. The lectures were a pleasure to read. I do take issue with some of the lecturers views. For example I would say 'am I not' rather than 'aren't I' in conversation without feeling that I needed therapy. Another illustrative imagined conversational statement that the lecturer might think good: "And, 'and in 'and, Andy and Anne Orr legged it", would as well as being a normal speaking form for me, be better expressed in conversation thus: "Andy Orr, together with wife Anne, briskly took their leave, whilst holding hands" . If anything is to blame for my condition it would be the Grammar Schools of Northern Ireland in the 1950's, I did hugely enjoy reading the transcript and would thoroughly recommend it.
Date published: 2016-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course This course is educational, fascinating and very edifying. Well organized, well presented and highly informative. I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2016-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A deep, fascinating look at language I'm stunned by how much I've learned over the course of these lectures. To be honest, I've always had a love of languages, and that's why I decided to buy this set. But I've also spent many years being a language snob. While I'm not one of those people who go around correcting people's grammar, pronunciation, or usage, I was aware, and I did tend to think a bit less of them for their (perceived) mistakes. Professor McWhorter's lectures broke me of that in fairly short order. Once I began to understand how language develops, and what the changes were likely to be, what causes them, and so on, I stopped worrying about what was or wasn't correct, and began to enjoy English more for being alive and lively, mutable and oh-so-flexible. Some of the best lectures, in my opinion, anyway, are about pidgin and creole, and black English. Learning about the process by which creole languages form and the origins of American black English has been fascinating. If you love language, or simply want to learn more about how language developed, you couldn't do better than to buy this set.
Date published: 2016-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I'm the kind of guy who likes to know as much as I can. If I have a problem with any courses it is because I either already knew most of the material or the material was not useful or interesting in any way. This course has copious amounts of new information and it was all very interesting. In addition the professor is likable and he manages to make the course even better,
Date published: 2016-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great in-depth information about language evolutio I really enjoyed this course. McWhorter has a keen understanding and is adept at presenting the information. WItty, thoughtful and very enlightening. I've learned a lot about language evolution and have a different understanding of what "language" is and how arbitrary the term is. Recommended for anyone who is truly curious about the origins of speech, what we "know", theories, and the intricacies of linguistics.
Date published: 2016-08-11
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