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 239.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive and Well Presented For anyone interested in linguistics, Dr. McWhorter is an excellent professor, knowledgable of his topic and gentle with his presentation. I especially appreciate his ever-so-subtle humor, which nearly always seems to accent what he is presenting.
Date published: 2016-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The instructor presents fascinating details of many world languages - languages I've never even heard of! I'm now listening to the words chosen by other people in a way that I never was before - the evolution of our language is exciting - even down to the words chosen to write this review - course is very relevant to anyone who speaks or writes!
Date published: 2016-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent, just like his other linguistics course Several months ago, my wife and I watched Understanding Linguistics, Prof McWhorter's other course for the Teaching Company. We enjoyed that one so much that we decided to try The Story of Human Language. We liked this course equally well. There is little overlap between the two courses: you can enjoy both without feeling that you are repeating a lot of material. We have no complaints at all. not with the course content, or with Prof McWhorter's presentation of it. He deserves the many good reviews found here..
Date published: 2015-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots to learn about human language! This course is excellent. Who would have thought that 36 lectures on the history of language would be so informative, fascinating and fun. John McWhorter is outstanding as a teacher. He makes the subject lucid, easy to digest and interesting. He is low key, conversational and very funny. My friends and I often laughed out loud at his droll wit, which totally made facts memorable. I have taken a lot of Great Courses and they are all well done, but this one is truly memorable. We want more McWhorter!
Date published: 2015-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course Yet A must-have course for all fans of language, its nuances, and its origins. Dr. McWhorter is a fantastic and tremendously knowledgeable lecturer who keeps your ears glued to the speakers throughout the whole course. Put this course on your wish list.
Date published: 2015-11-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Rambling & slow pace There are many interesting topics: language is a mark of humans; easy to learn a language before age 5, much harder later; languages families discussion, what dialects are, Black English, etc. But the presentation is slow & repetative, the same info could be given in half the time. He rarely looks into the camera, as tho we are not here, his looking to the side is annoying. his speech is as tho he has a marble in his cheeks, graphics are very limited - only to lists of words, no graphics as such to help convey the ideas. The course was made in 2005 & is missing many recent concepts. I expected more & better.
Date published: 2015-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Fun Other reviewers have already done a wonderful job of describing the course content/structure and Professor McWhorter's engaging style and command of the subject matter. I absolutely loved the course and have watched it more than once. It convinced me to purchase another of his courses on the myths about language, which was also a delight. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2015-07-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I love it ... mostly I absolutely, thoroughly enjoyed this course. Professor McWhorter introduces the topic of language and linguistics with abundant easy-to-understand examples and fascinating insights. It is difficult for trained linguists to avoid lapsing into jargon and terminology opaque to the layman, and certainly McWhorter lets a few technical terms slip through. But overall, this is a very accessible - I would even say fun - introduction to human language. There is, of course, the occasional oops. I was dismayed that McWhorter perpetuated the myth of German as a verb-final language, when in fact it is only secondary verbs that go to the end in German. And I was disappointed that he let himself be frightened off from Cantonese by the amused reactions of natives. You can speak perfect Cantonese (or Mandarin) and natives will still laugh at you and tell you it's wrong. That's just because there's a cultural expectation that westerners cannot possibly learn their language properly. On the subject of Cantonese, I kept waiting for McWhorter, in his excellent explanation of emphatic final particles, to explain that the reason those particles are necessary is because the voice inflections we would use to express surprise, dismay, emphasis, etc. are already spoken for as tones. You can't change the inflection without changing the meaning of the words. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him. There is one hole of disappointment with this course, and it is a gaping one. It is roughly equivalent to an otherwise excellent professor of astrophysics complaining that astrology is not taken more seriously, or a course on evolution delving into Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. It has to do with efforts to prove a "proto-world" language from which all modern languages supposedly descend. McWhorter devotes two lectures to the idea, one supposedly presenting each side of the issue. It's false balance: he badly mischaracterizes the arguments against and grossly inflates the arguments for. To listen to Prof. McWhorter, you’d think the case against Proto-World consists entirely of cranky tenured professors feeling the status quo threatened by brilliant and innovative concepts. In reality, the issue has never been whether all languages descend from a common source - most linguists even believe it's likely they did. It’s whether it can be proven. And that’s precisely the issue with people like Merritt Ruhlen, whom Prof. McWhorter almost seems to fawn over. McWhorter quotes with approval Ruhlen’s complaint that if evolutionary biologists had to prove every historical step without conjecture, they could never establish the kinship of modern mammals. Good point, says McWhorter. Well, of course it isn't. Unlike historical linguists, biologists have a fossil record, tangible evidence going back millions of years. New discoveries are constantly coming to light, allowing connections to be made and theories to be refined. There is no equivalent in historical linguistics. Language evidence goes back only as far as our oldest written records, and even that gets sketchy as soon as you get beyond voice recordings. Everything in prehistoric linguistics is guesswork. Sure, you can take educated guesses back several leaps and still have a plausible theory. That's why experts may quibble over details, but no one seriously questions the existence of a common ancestor language to English, French, Russian and Hindi. But Ruhlen takes it back farther and farther to the very dawn of human speech. He piles conjecture upon conjecture upon conjecture upon conjecture, irresponsibly redefining each stage as if it were a solid basis for a new leap into the unknown, on and on until it's all indistinguishable from fantasy. It’s not that Ruhlen’s arguments are so difficult for the establishment to answer; it’s precisely because they’re so easy. The entire case against the Proto-World proponents, which McWhorter never came close to mentioning let alone addressing, is one of methodology and rigor. The case against Proto-World is that its advocates play very fast and loose in establishing connections between unrelated languages. To illustrate, if I ignore and bend the rules of golf as needed (tee off five feet from the green; unlimited mulligans; allow dropping the ball in the cup by hand), I can play a perfect game of golf every time. That’s what the Proto-World people are doing, and that is why the academic community doesn’t take them seriously. This, not ivory tower elitism, is the backbone of the criticism McWhorter derides: people like Ruhlen bend the methodology so far that literally anything can be “genetically” tied to anything. Ironically, McWhorter even accidentally acknowledges the fatal flaw in this school, but then invokes the fallacy of Special Pleading. It is impossible (McWhorter rightly declares) ever to accumulate sufficient workable data. But then he asks if that means the theories are not worth considering. Well, yes, Professor, it does. Permanent absence of sufficient data is pretty much the working definition of an untestable hypothesis. Suggesting it is worth considering is like acknowledging that I can’t walk through solid objects but asking why that indisputable fact should stop me from running into walls as if I can. It's a disappointing, unacademic lapse in an otherwise excellent course. I do not agree with the critics who find McWhorter disorganized or hard to listen to. He has a conversational style and his humor - yes, it's geeky, like all linguist humor - is pleasant and friendly. Fascinating tidbits and insights abound. Two bad lectures out of 36 don't negate that.
Date published: 2015-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from ABSOLUTELY GREAT! Let me start off by pointing out that my undergrad major was foreign languages and I spent a year in a PhD program studying Linguistics and Germanic languages. (It was a direct BA-to-PhD program, so I don't have a Masters. I subsequently switched to law.) Over the years I've studied about 8 languages, as well as a good deal of linguistics per se. I was amazed at how much totally new information I learned about areas of linguistics I had little or no background in, such as Creoles. A few commenters complain about Dr. McWhorter's sense of humor, but I found it particularly enjoyable. I bought the video, but frankly it's from 2005 when The Teaching Company used a LOT fewer graphics. Pretty much ALL the graphics were either maps showing ROUGHLY the geographical area of a particular language or language family, or were simply foreign language examples spelled out in the Latin alphabet. I don't think you would really lose anything listening to this on audio only. (Except Dr. McWhorter's sense of humor might come across a little less enjoyable. But I digress ...) Don't be concerned that the lectures are 10 years old. Although linguistics continues to advance, the advances are at the graduate-degree level. I didn't run across ANYTHING in the lectures that is considered obsolete or disproved or no longer relevant because of things like Google Translate, texting, social media, or other changes in communication techniques since 2005.
Date published: 2015-06-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Just So So This was the first 'TGC' course that I watched from beginning to end. It started out well, but I tired of it quickly. The professor was very knowledgeable but he talked too much in a rambling sort of way. The course could have much shorter. If you're a real language buff and want lots of information, then you can't go wrong with this course. However, if you like structure and concise presentations, I'd check out other options. On balance though, for me, this course was miles better than watching most TV programs.
Date published: 2015-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Need more! This is a great course and already well reviewed. If you have any interest in words or language, you should get it! I think we need more courses from Professor McWhorter.
Date published: 2015-05-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fantastic, but please drop the funny voices I ordered the audio version of this course to listen to on my drives to and from work. The course is hugely interesting and true to its name in that it does not dwell overly much on English but really surveys the principles of language evolution with reference many examples from around the world. Professor McWhorter has a very agreeable and engaging style (except when he doesn't -- read on), and is unquestionably a true scholar in his field. So why did I give the course an overall rating of 4 stars instead of 5? Prof McWhorter has a few verbal mannerisms which, after several lectures, become seriously irritating. At the top of this list is his strong tendency to slip into funny voices when he is play acting, something he does frequently. This became absolutely unbearable in the lecture in which he explains that the French word "nous", meaning "we", is not used in everyday speech. Over and over and over again when he says, "nous", he does so in a high-pitched whiny voice that I suppose is meant to sound prissy, but which is more obnoxious and painful than screeching chalk on a blackboard. I swear I almost turned off the lecture. I just couldn't bear it. And when I thought he was finally done with his "nous" torture, he managed to sneak it in again once or twice. I was exhausted before my day even started. This leads me to a couple of other minor points. I speak a fair bit of French, have French friends and my wife is a fluent French speaker having lived in Geneva for many years. Prof McWhorter is absolutely flat out wrong that native French speakers do not use "nous" in everyday conversation, and I really don't know where he gets this idea from. He conveys another bewildering misconception, this time concerning English, when he states that saying "fruits and vegetables" instead of "fruit and vegetables" is a clear sign that one is not a native English speaker. This is just preposterous. Still with Prof McWhorter's verbal ticks, he is positively addicted to hyperbolic asides, frequently illustrating the subject at hand (or getting briefly lost in an aside) with comparisons that are intentionally outlandish and ultimately unhelpful and tiring. Saying something like, "I had a girlfriend, like, 3,000 years ago..." is fine now and then, but the lectures are peppered with such exaggerations. And is it really necessary to make use of the awkward construction, "What it is, is..." quite so often? Last, in a lecture that compared the constructions of speech patterns versus the written word, he makes the bizarre decision to present a sermon by Adam Clayton Powell as an example of normal speech. This decision is truly mystifying. The passage we listen to is a powerful example of a highly structured and rhetorically wrought oration that only appears to be simple. Certainly it has precious little to do with ordinary speech, and I just can't understand why it was chosen -- though I am delighted to have been introduced to the good pastor. Although I have spilled more ink (pixels) on aspects of these lectures that got on my nerves, I must stress again that I don't regret a penny of the money I spent on the course, It's an absolute goldmine for anyone with an interest in language. And if you didn't think you were interested in language, this course may change your mind.
Date published: 2015-05-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointed I had high hopes for this one, loving as I do the "Story of English" page at the beginning of dictionaries, and David Foster Wallace's essay on syntax, and Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. Professor McWhorter has a likable voice and presence. But too often he seemed to say everything three or more times, like "Languages go extinct. They die. No one speaks them anymore. It only takes a generation and they are dead. No longer available to us." I could go on, but then I would try your patience as McWhorter tried mine. And, all the while, really interesting puppies remained unpicked up. Like, if the Bronx accent has disappeared, is that a loss, or just natural, or both? What if black English died out? Is black English one dialect, or a cluster of dialects, and, if the latter, what are some differences? Is English a creole? It has the markers (stripped down grammar, no gender, etc.) or is the word "creole" so deeply associated with the European colonial endeavor--the big house; the cash crop; the vernacular tongued overseer--that it just doesn't apply to Europe and the deeper past? Or, have media brought High German into use as a vernacular tongue, with predictable wearing away of grammar, as suggested by the droll German series "Der Dative is dem Genativ sein Tod"? That said, there are some gems here, like certain words having cognates all around the Mediterranean, despite the north and south shores belonging to entirely different language trees. I think the professor could improve his course a lot by editing out all sentences that repeat points made more than twice in the previous five minutes, which would allow him to go deeper into his topic.
Date published: 2015-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly Recommended I listened to this course on my commute and found it to be enjoyable, engaging, interesting and informative. I learned all kinds of things about human language I didn't know before. Now, I even know what a pidgin is and creoles, which hint at what the first language may have been like. I liked thinking about how the word "silly" originated from a word meaning "blessed" and how this evolved into it's current meaning, the origins of "nickname", and much more. I enjoyed this course so much, that I feel motivated to write this, my first review. The professor has a very likeable personality. Thank you Dr. McWhorter!
Date published: 2015-03-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Information I found this series surprisingly fascinating since linguistics wasn't a subject I was particularly interested in. Dr. McWhorter is extremely knowledgeable, with a great pronunciation of foreign languages. If you want to know what language is and why we speak the way we do, I highly recommend this course. The evolution of language, just as evolution itself, is wonderful and captivating.
Date published: 2015-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An unexpected treasure Science and History are generally the type of courses that tend to be of most interest to me. I was unexpectedly drawn to “The Story of Human Language”, by a strange mixture of price, description, and reviews. The course has been a delightful surprise. My expectation of how and why we find such a diversity of languages was basically met, but not quite in the manner expected. But as the course progressed I found myself drawn into the subject matter and the methods used to make such determinations. McWhorter’s dry and unexpected sense of humor was just right when the going got a bit heavy. His willingness to take a reasoned stance on areas of dispute was refreshing. The course is a welcome addition to my library.
Date published: 2015-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If you want to know the story of language... If you want to know the story of language, then this really is the course. When I first got this course I was surprised that the professor would actually need 36 lectures to get through it. But Professor McWhorter does a simply outstanding job keeping your interest all the way through the course. The professor's course material is very well organized and builds on the previous lectures. He explains the concepts he wants us to understand in an easy manner and always in a very interesting way. In addition, the professor has a great sense of humor throughout the course; not distasteful but light and again done in a way to keep it interesting. There really isn't a negative to purchasing this course. if you are interested in languages, enjoy learning languages, like history or all of the above, then you will love this course and I highly recommend it. I purchased the audio version of this course and never felt like I needed the video version.
Date published: 2015-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unexpectedly Great Course Don't let the crazy low price mislead you, this course is among the best offered. Presentation and content are both spot on.
Date published: 2015-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course I've Seen To Date I'm fascinated by the history of the universe, our planet, and humanity and many of the initial courses I've viewed explored those subjects. I learned about this course from the previous course I viewed on "Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity." I expected to learn interesting things, and did, but not expect to enjoy the course as much as I did. All of the professors chosen for the Great Courses are very knowledgable in their fields, and, as one would expect, there are differences in their presentation skills. Professor McWhorter is far and away the most enjoyable of the presenters I've seen to date. He explains a very complex topic in a very accessible and light-hearted way. I really enjoy his sense of humor and wish I could have a direct conversation with him to explore this subject further.
Date published: 2014-11-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good introduction to languages, not linguistics Professor McWhorter provides a comprehensive introduction to human language from earliest forms to modern "artificial languages." This is a great series if you're interested in learning about the broad strokes of language development with plenty of detailed examples from modern and ancient languages. To be clear, this is not an introduction to linguistics (I believe The Teaching Company offers a series from the same professor on that topic). You will learn some linguistic principles and you'll be introduced to a very small amount of linguistic jargon (English is an "SVO" language because our typical word order is Subject-Verb-Object). If you're interested in serious linguistics, this series will do little more than whet your appetite. It's also worth noting that Prof. McWhorter clearly feels that spoken language is the true language of any people, and written language is only useful when the spoken version can't be accessed (i.e., dead languages). He rails repeatedly against language teaching in school, whether it's studying one's own language (at least as far as enforcing what he sees as archaic rules goes--and it appears any rule you don't naturally follow in spoken language is archaic in his view) but especially for studying a foreign language (which apparently one can only learn at a young age and by living among native speakers). I have to say I was put off by a number of times when he speaks in absolute terms about things he's not quite right about. According to Prof. McWhorter, no one ever uses "nous" (we) anymore, despite what's being taught in your high school French class. I find that odd, since I heard "nous" quite a bit when I lived there. He would be better served to point out that "nous" is often replaced by "on", especially in spoken language. I suspect some of his other examples used to decry language teaching may be similarly overstated. Finally, he seems to have a strong interest in making sure the listener comes to regard "Black English" as a "non-standard, but not sub-standard dialect of English." One lecture is devoted to this topic and a number of references pop up in other lectures in the series. Overall, an enjoyable and informative series, especially if you are willing to accept (or ignore) his point of view on spoken vs written, the inefficacy of teaching languages in classrooms, and a few other subjects.
Date published: 2014-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course Highly-skilled instructor provides an amazing account of the history of human language.
Date published: 2014-09-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from rambling My bent is more scientific than liberal arts, but I agree with those who found McWhorter long winded, rambling, and repetitive.I think he has a poor sense of humor and would do better with fewer jokes and fewer repetitive examples. . This course could have been presented in half as many lectures. I am grateful for the strict English and French grammarians who taught me in public school in my primary and high school years. On the positive side, this course did make me reexamine these teachings and make me realize that our English language can change, over time as did other foreign languages, and that there are other "lower" forms of English and Spanglish which may become more acceptable in time.
Date published: 2014-09-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Regardless of content, just a joy to listen to. As something of an amateur cultural anthropologist and having worked in West Africa and with several Canadian First Nations groups, I had expected a more etymological, "language as culture" orientation to the course. And when Prof. McWhorter disabused me of this idea -- early and on no uncertain terms -- I was rather disappointed. 18 hours of technical linguistics? How interesting could that be. Well, as it turns out, pretty darned interesting. I confess that at time some of the more technical elements of language shift became a tad tedious, and -- even though I realize creole languages are the professor's primary interest -- two hours on why creole is a real language and not a mere pidgin conglomerate (made more entertaining by MCWhorter's musing as to why we never see baby pigeons) got just a bit much, I think I could listen to him read the phone book and find it entertaining. This guy is just a great professor. His cadence is perfect, his organization clear, and his use of humour and personal references (occasionally to girlfriends past) makes each lecture seem fresh and personable. It's one of those GC courses where the professor is so compelling and the listener becomes so engrossed you want to raise your hand at the end of each lecture and ask a question! This is not to say the material itself isn't fascinating, because it is. I thought I knew a little about linguistics, but I was somewhat embarrassed to discover just how little. He confronts head on aspects that always bugged me -- such as why the Chinese (among others, it turns out) thought it would be a swell idea to change the meanings of words by adding specific tones. I always thought it was some sort of diabolical conspiracy to confound non-Chinese speakers ("Ha! That'll get 'em." Disclosure: I flunked Mandarin in university), but McWhorter provides a sensible, rational explanation that, in the process, ties all languages together in major patterns of language evolution. His oblique political references to Chomsky and Herrnstein give his political shadings an intriguing note of ambiguity (despite writing for the New Republic), which is kind of fun, and his references to his cat and throwing a dog overboard are just plain funny. He has that extraordinary ability to take a deep, challenging subject and make the journey a real pleasure. On the other hand, having worked in First Nations communities that are quickly losing their languages -- and the attitudes, values and human relations embedded in them, I am not willing to accept McWhorter's contention that the loss of language diversity is of little real social consequence. I share the dismay of another reviewer, who wrote, " I was convinced that each lost language was the loss of a way of looking at the world. He does explain that this is in error. The Sapir Whorf hypothesis does not hold, that languages do not convey a cultural viewpoint." (To be fair, that is a bit of an exaggeration since McWhorter grudgingly concedes there may be some irretrievable cultural losses). But I would contend that his understanding of what is truly lost with the passing of a language is incomplete, certainly far more than a particular pattern of sounds, grammars, word orders and uses (or not, as it turns out) of articles that he suggests.. But that is not Professor McWhorter's area of primary concern, as he makes very clear from the outset. Perhaps the cultural-linguistic elements of language could be covered in a new course.
Date published: 2014-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from He Knows of What He Speaks. When you come away from a worthwhile course, you know your viewpoint has changed. You know that when you look at even something familiar, you will have an inkling that you are only seeing the shell and there is deeper stuff within. Dr. McWhorter's course, “The Story of Human Language,” is one of these. As a somewhat literate American, with a couple of years of a foreign language behind me, and who uses “language” daily in my speech and even a little writing, I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing. I expected Dr. McWhorter's course to discuss such things as derivations of words, how modern English differs from previous usage (specifically “Old English”), and maybe just a little on how languages borrow words from each other. All in all, a naive and ignorant viewpoint. The topic is much richer. The varieties of sounds, grammatical structures, syntactic formations, and vocabularies are hard to comprehend. When I grew up, I knew speakers of English, French, Spanish, the Russian couple down the block that spoke a couple of Slavic languages, and even one man who spoke Urdu. I won't steal Doctor McWhorter's thunder by revealing his count, but one could say that my estimate of 40, 50 or maybe even a hundred langauges was a bit short. The most important change in my thinking was in picking up the knowledge that a language, any language, is an evolving system. They aren't static. It's not as simple as “in Greece, they speak Greek. In Italy, they speak Italian.” Languages are born, they mature and they die. We usually encounter them at a fairly mature stage in their lifecycles, but he furnishes many examples of the evolution of new languages such as pidgins, creoles and dialects, and what social conditions lead to each of these. Geographical isolation enables unique usages and independent development. I now wonder if modern travel and communication patterns will change the way languages progress? This course changed my view of even my own language in several ways. Most important, when I grew up English was English. You never said “ain't,” you didn't split infinitives, and all non-standard English language speakers were deficient in education and probably other ways. If it couldn't be found in a standard grammar, it was wrong. His lesson that a grammar is a snapshot of a language in time and space, that what's included has an arbitrary component, does demonstrate that this earlier opinion was bigoted, at best. Language progression is relentless. How could you evem write a grammar for a moving target? He speaks of the languages of primitive peoples, emphatically not “primitive languages.” I knew of the Khoi-San languages, for example, which incorporate clicks into their word formation. I wasn't aware of the variety of clicks. And my little exposure to Chinese made me aware of the difficulty of differentiating tonal differences in a vocabulary with only four tones. That Cantonese has nine tones makes it sound formidable. His revelation that there are tonal languages which introduce tonal variation into the clicks was mind bending. There are languages which adults will never be able to learn. He speaks of the death of languages, the point at which there are not enough speakers to pass on the knowledge. When I had learned of this earlier, I was convinced that each lost language was the loss of a way of looking at the world. He does explain that this is in error. The Sapir Whorf hypothesus does not hold, that languages do not convey a cultural viewpoint. I guess I'm not really comfortable with this, since it seems to disagree with Searle's work on the social construction of reality, but I'm certainly not as sure of my interpretation as I was before I took the course. I almost passed this treasure up. What convinced me to look into it was Dr. Zender's recommendation during his course, “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity,” another course I recommend highly. Dr. McWhorter's presentation is not the dull, dusty stuff of the classroom. It is very much like listening to a very knowledgeable and well-traveled friend with a vast store of knowledge and a quick, sometimes subtle wit. His lectures evoke the dynamism of language development and transition, and sometimes you'll find yourself smiling and have to think back as to just what he said that brought that smile on.
Date published: 2014-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Favorite course so far This is my favorite course. I knew nothing about linguistics when I ordered it. It is an amazing treat. Dr. McWhorter is interesting, thoughtful, and even funny. I have ended up with what feels like a decent amateur understanding of the science of linguistics. Possibly the whole point of the course is this: 'correct' language is what people actually speak, not what grammarians prescribe; and what people actually speak changes over time. The course goes deep - but not too deep - into language development, with interesting examples and comparisons of different languages. This course is a great introduction to one of humanity's defining characteristics.
Date published: 2014-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent This was my first Great Courses product. It inspired me to continue learning via CD and DVD. This is a serious yet engaging and enjoyable survey and strongly recommended.
Date published: 2014-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating & Fun I have been interested in languages since I was in grade school. I double majored in college and didn't have time to delve as deeply into linguistics as I would have liked. This course is easy to understand yet challenges the mind. It answered many questions I've had throughout the years about words and their meanings as well as their relationship to each other across many languages. The professor is very pleasant to listen to. He is funny and delivers the information in a warm and witty manner. I highly recommend this course to anyone with an interest in human language.
Date published: 2014-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another great linguistics course Another wonderful course by Dr. McWhorter. He is a tremendously fun and entertaining lecturer, as well as being knowledgeable. I would definitely recommend this course to all you "language heads" out there.
Date published: 2014-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting information in an engaging package Professor McWhorter has both a wealth of knowledge about linguistics, and an engaging presentation style---a winning combination. I'm an ESL teacher and pronunciation coach to Japanese people, and I sought the course to have a better understanding of reasons for some of the issues that plague non-native speakers of English (the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation, for example). I got some of the answers I was looking for, and lots of foundational information about human language.
Date published: 2014-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In a Word: Delightful! When I began this course, I could not imagine 36 lectures on the story of human language. As the course progressed, I wanted more. Dr.McWhorter presents in an urbane, humorous, sophisticated way with interspersions of song, mimic and dialect. He holds the listener's attention with his expansive knowledge of many languages. He posits the hypothesis (not original with him) of a common, ancestral language: Proto-Indo-European. This hypothesis is supported by similarities of certain Asian, European, Semitic, Uralic and Aleutian words. From this, he describes the birth, development, growth and death of languages by means of assimilation from several languages, changes in pronunciation, shrinking speaking peoples--and in the case of written languages--changes in spelling. I had no idea of the existence of over 6,000 languages, with only a few written languages. Spoken languages are more apt to change, whereas written languages are more change-resistant. All of this information is fascinating. As a result of this course, I have become a more careful listener for inflections, pronunciations, dialects, pidgins, creoles and word order. Delightful!!
Date published: 2013-12-17
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