Language Families of the World

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb lecturer, humorous, engaging Expanded my knowledge beyond Indoeuropean languages. I looked forward to every lecture. Stimulating.
Date published: 2020-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this course It often takes me the first lecture to get into the professor and the rhythm of the course, but my husband and I enjoyed the one from the first. Some people may have objected to McWhorter's inclusion of personal asides, but we thought they were fun. I had no idea of the many ways that language can be expressed (not just subject, verb, object/ lacking in whole parts of speech/ click languages, etc.) and how writing is not necessarily tied to a specific language. We were not looking for a very technical presentation of the subject, and we found this one to be just right.
Date published: 2020-11-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Professor bias Mr McWhorter courses are well designed but he tends to denigrate America under a former of moral relativism.English is no better way of communicating scientific ideas than that of a small tribe in the Amazon jungle.
Date published: 2020-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Truly excellent Grand Tour of Language. I am but an amateur linguist, a Pathologist in my vocation but I still love languages as an avocation. I couldn't help but enjoy these lectures thoroughly. Do I think Japanese is an Austroasiatic language? Hell yes, I do! Ichi, isi, masa, me. I think there are enough parallels to explore the idea. And when he talked about Etruscan plurals I couldn't help but think of the Celtic languages... Irish almost certainly borrowed some of their plural rules from a language like Etruscan. In short, if you love languages, you will find much to love in this lecture series.
Date published: 2020-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous Journey Professor McWhorter was stupendous. He covered this vast, complex world of sounds and made it spell binding. As a speaker he is top notch, able to insert humor, side information as well as entertaining us with unlimited accents. Every chapter is captivating and they are the fastest half hour you can spend! If you like languages or are interested in other countries and their cultures, you will love this course.
Date published: 2020-09-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Very disappointing--in any language Having absorbed Dr. McWhorter's "The Story of Human Language" back c. 2005, I found Language Families very disappointing. Whereas the earlier Great Course was well structured and informative, Language Families is burdened by his apparent decision to approach the material as a sort of linguistic Mr. Rogers. Every lecture, it seems, has one or more silly aside or sophomoric simile that distract more than illuminate. There is no effort to summarize what is quite complex material, and the subtitles occasionally obstruct the on-screen text. Dr. McWhorter is obviously a successful and knowledgeable scholar--which makes the experience of this course even more disconcerting.
Date published: 2020-09-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining Learning My initial interest in taking this series really was not to learn about linguistics, but rather to learn how languages could help me understand more about human migration. Instead of trudging through what I thought was something that was going to be pretty dull, I found myself looking forward to the next lecture. Dr. McWhorter's style of teaching - combining humor with clear expertise - resonated with my style of learning. I did not want to become an expert in linguistics. I just wanted an introduction to it. I got exactly what I wanted and more - i.e., I have a better sense for how languages can be used (and not) to better understand human migration. But, I have a great new appreciation for how languages touch on other elements such as reflecting the different way people think or view things. I highly recommend this course if you are seeking an introduction to this field.
Date published: 2020-08-31
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Editorial Failure I enjoyed some of Professor McWhorter’s earlier linguistic lectures and online writing, but The Great Courses seems to have neglected its editorial responsibility for this course. I was only able to endure the lectures on the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman subfamilies; that the lectures are in that order itself indicates an organizational failure, as it meant there was virtually no information presented on the Sino-Tibetan family as a whole.     I’m afraid I have to agree with BGZRedix’ estimate of a signal-to-noise ratio of about 1:3. In Professor McWhorter’s explanation of the crucial concept of ergativity, for instance, he spent more time on an irrelevant metaphor of a cat eating a cockroach than on his woefully incomplete and belated definition of the term. (That the term was not defined at the beginning of the course also indicates an abdication of editorial responsibility.) His anecdotes are sometimes informative as well as amusing, for instance his stories about ordering ducks, though he neglected to provide the actual linguistic information behind the laughter. But in the crucial part of the lecture on the Sinitic subfamily, he failed to provide any information at all on most of the sub-sub-families he lists in no systematic order. He instead spent his time riffing on an extended metaphor (about putting every person in the world into a lottery ball) glossing the straightforward non-linguistic concept of “one person in seven.” Much of his lecture is like this, which should have been cut from the rough draft. One favorable review here likened Professor McWhorter’s lecturing style to cocktail party conversation, which I’m afraid is all too apt, and highlights the need for the sober editorial supervision which we pay The Great Course for.
Date published: 2020-08-14
  • y_2020, m_11, d_25, h_17
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_3.0.12
  • cp_1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_12, tr_93
  • loc_en_CA, sid_2235, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.1
  • CLOUD, getReviews, 3.83ms
Language Families of the World
Course Trailer
Why Are There So Many Languages?
1: Why Are There So Many Languages?

There are over 7,000 languages in the world and many linguists believe they likely all developed from a single source language in the distant past. Get an introduction to the concept of language families, understand how languages change over time, and discover what linguistics can teach us about our own history.

30 min
The First Family Discovered: Indo-European
2: The First Family Discovered: Indo-European

While the Indo-European family of languages was not the first group to be identified as related, it is the family that has received much of the research and classification that became the basis of modern linguistics. Uncover what defines Indo-European languages, which include Latin, English, French, Armenian, Latvian, Sanskrit, and many more.

28 min
Indo-European Languages in Europe
3: Indo-European Languages in Europe

Begin a deep dive into the earliest roots of Indo-European languages with a look at Germanic, Romance, Balto-Slavic, Greek, Albanian, and Celtic languages. See how Indo-European languages contradict common notions about how language works and uncover some of the mysteries that are yet to be solved.

29 min
Indo-European Languages in Asia
4: Indo-European Languages in Asia

One-fifth to one-sixth of the world speaks one of the Indo-European languages of India. Trace back to the branching of the Indo-European tree, when the European languages split from the Indo-Aryan varieties like Sanskrit that would become Hindi and others. Explore many variations that evolved and see why it can be so difficult to differentiate between a language and a dialect.

28 min
The Click Languages
5: The Click Languages

Shift from Indo-European to some of the most endangered languages in the world: the “click” languages, formally known as Khoisan. Spoken in southern Africa, these endangered languages share a distinctive profile, and yet likely did not all come from a single family. Explore where they may have begun and how they work.

24 min
Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa I
6: Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa I

The Niger-Congo family consists of anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 different languages. While they are part of the same family, they do not adhere to an identified pattern like Indo-European. What links this immense family together? What is the essence of the Niger-Congo? What can these languages tell us about migration patterns? Explore these questions and more.

29 min
Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa II
7: Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa II

Look closer at some of the unique aspects of the Niger-Congo family, including the use of tone, and see how different languages can spring from the same original materials. Since the work of classifying languages is on-going, you may be surprised to see how many can develop in proximity and share words but be part of different groups altogether.

30 min
Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond I
8: Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond I

Follow the migration of peoples from Africa to the Middle East by looking at the language family that developed in the Fertile Crescent: Afro-Asiatic. This first look at this family focuses on the widely known Semitic branch, which includes Arabic and Hebrew. Examine what defines this group of languages and uncover the roots of the first alphabets.

30 min
Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond II
9: Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond II

Move beyond the Semitic languages to look at other subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic, including what some call the “Berber” subfamily and several other subfamilies spoken south of the Sahara, and see what they can teach us about the nature of language. Close with a look at Somali oral poetry and its complex use of alliteration.

28 min
Nilo-Saharan: Africa’s Hardest Languages?
10: Nilo-Saharan: Africa’s Hardest Languages?

Afro-Asiatic languages are prevalent in the north of the African continent, and Niger-Congo in the south, with a narrow band of a third family running between: Nilo-Saharan. The Nilo-Saharan languages are immensely different from each other, so how do linguists know they are related? Examine the unique features of this family.

26 min
Is the Indo-European Family Alone in Europe?
11: Is the Indo-European Family Alone in Europe?

Meet the other family of languages in Europe: Uralic, which includes Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian. Eccentric and tidy at the same time, this family stretches across the north of Europe and into Russia and parts of Asia. See why Turkish was once thought to be part of this family and how Uralic languages differ from Indo-European and others.

27 min
How to Identify a Language Family
12: How to Identify a Language Family

How do linguists establish connections between languages and determine their common roots when it is nearly impossible to see a language change in real time? Take a look at the languages of Polynesia to see how changes can be followed backwards to reveal connections between different languages, then turn to the Indo-European and Uralic families.

29 min
What Is a Caucasian Language?
13: What Is a Caucasian Language?

Named for the Caucasus mountains where they originate, the Caucasian languages are actually three different families: Northwestern, Northeastern, and a Southern one that includes Georgian. Explore these grammatically complex languages to better understand how they work and how so many different varieties can spring from a relatively small area.

26 min
Indian Languages That Aren’t Indo-European
14: Indian Languages That Aren’t Indo-European

The “Big Four” languages (and many others) of southern India are not part of the Indo-European family but rather the Dravidian. Look at what the distribution of Dravidian languages says about where they come from and how they got where they are now—including some languages on the brink of extinction—and explore some of their unique features.

27 min
Languages of the Silk Road and Beyond
15: Languages of the Silk Road and Beyond

The languages called Altaic are spoken across Asia, from Turkey through Mongolia and to northeastern regions of Asia. Understand why there is some debate among linguists as to whether they comprise one family or are made of three separate ones as you look at how these languages function, including nuances like a mood known as “evidentiality.”

28 min
Japanese and Korean: Alike yet Unrelated
16: Japanese and Korean: Alike yet Unrelated

Are Japanese and Korean part of the Altaic family? They share some features of the other Altaic languages, yet some linguists believe they are separate. Take a brief foray through the fascinating Japanese writing system as you look deeper into the language. Then, turn to Korean, comparing and contrasting it with Japanese and other Asian languages.

29 min
The Languages We Call Chinese
17: The Languages We Call Chinese

Explore the Asian languages beyond Japanese and Korean, looking into several families along the way. See why Mandarin and Cantonese, though both considered Chinese, are a classic example of two different languages being mistaken for dialects—thanks in part to a shared writing system and cultural proximity.

29 min
Chinese’s Family Circle: Sino-Tibetan
18: Chinese’s Family Circle: Sino-Tibetan

Chinese is one branch of the Sino-Tibetan family and the other branch, Tibeto-Burman, consists of around 400 languages spoken in southern China, northeastern India, and Burma. Look at features of languages from both branches and see what linguists can assume about the proto-language from which they may have sprung.

28 min
Southeast Asian Languages: The Sinosphere
19: Southeast Asian Languages: The Sinosphere

How can languages that have very different origins still seem to be structurally related? To find out, look at the concept of a Sprachbrund and understand why contact is just as influential as origin when it comes to resemblances between otherwise unrelated languages—in this case, the influence of Chinese on other Asian languages.

25 min
Languages of the South Seas I
20: Languages of the South Seas I

Journey to the South Seas to begin an investigation into Austronesian, one of the world’s largest and most widespread language families. See what connects Austronesian languages to other families, as well as how they differ from European languages, and trace the way Austronesian languages have spread across far-flung locations.

26 min
Languages of the South Seas II
21: Languages of the South Seas II

The languages of Polynesia are estimated to be some of the newest languages in the world, emerging only in the last millenium. Look back to the earliest cultures of the Polynesian islands to see how the languages likely originated and were disseminated, branching into separate sub-groups like Oceanic and the three that are all spoken on the small island of Formosa.

27 min
Siberia and Beyond: Language Isolates
22: Siberia and Beyond: Language Isolates

How do some languages end up isolated amidst other, unrelated families? Look at pockets of language in Siberia, Spain, and Japan that are not related to those that surround them and better understand what the nature of language—and human migration and settlement patterns—can tell us about these unique places.

27 min
Creole Languages
23: Creole Languages

Since all languages come from one original language, technically no one language is older than another. However, when two languages are forced into proximity, often a makeshift fusion of the two can emerge as a new language, known as a creole. Learn how a hierarchical, stopgap form of communication can become a true language.

33 min
Why Are There So Many Languages in New Guinea?
24: Why Are There So Many Languages in New Guinea?

Turn your attention to one of the most linguistically rich places on Earth: the island of New Guinea, and discover why, thanks to its history and isolating terrain, it is home to hundreds of languages in a relatively small area. See how pronouns allow linguists to find connections between these languages, and explore some of their unusual traits.

29 min
The Languages of Australia I
25: The Languages of Australia I

Once the home of over 250 languages, Australia now only has about a dozen languages that will be passed to sizable generations of children. Take a look at some of the over two dozen language families in Australia and better understand how both separation from a common ancestor and proximity to a different language will cause a language to change in different ways.

25 min
The Languages of Australia II
26: The Languages of Australia II

Continue your examination of the languages of Australia, including the first Australian language to be documented by Europeans. Many of these languages present a case study in language obsolescence (as English dominates the continent) and language mixture (the emergence of creole languages due to European contact).

29 min
The Original American Languages I
27: The Original American Languages I

Like Australia, North America was home to at least 300 distinct languages before English became dominant. Professor McWhorter takes you through some of the theories linguists have regarding the relationship of various Native American languages and the origins of humans and their varieties of speech on the North American continent.

30 min
The Original American Languages II
28: The Original American Languages II

Zoom in on some of the larger families of North America and gain valuable insight into what they can tell us about language in general. You will get the chance to examine languages that are on the brink of extinction today, see which languages have contributed words currently used in American English, and more.

26 min
The Original American Languages III
29: The Original American Languages III

Continue your journey through the languages of North America, including a language that uses no sounds that require the lips to touch. As you look at the unique grammatical features of languages across the continent, you will also consider what happens when languages die out and their complexities are lost to future generations.

28 min
The Original American Languages IV
30: The Original American Languages IV

Follow Native American migrations to encounter the language families that moved south to take root in Central and South America. From a language variety that incorporates whistling to some with object-subject-verb word order—and even one that resulted from a mass kidnapping—you will experience a range of fascinating linguistic developments.

29 min
Languages Caught between Families
31: Languages Caught between Families

The line between different language families is often blurred. Languages from different families that have been brought together can create a hybrid that belongs to both, and every combination happens in different ways and to varying degrees. Look at several examples of this phenomenon (which even includes English).

28 min
How Far Back Can We Trace Languages?
32: How Far Back Can We Trace Languages?

Embark on a quest that some believe may be impossible: tracing the relationships between the macro language families. See how the pursuit of evidence connecting the language families is complicated by time, accidental similarities, lost languages, and more, as you also look at several plausible theories that could offer solutions.

28 min
What Do Genes Say about Language Families?
33: What Do Genes Say about Language Families?

The idiosyncrasies that show up in DNA allow us to trace back to common ancestors, much like language traits allow us to chart language-family relationships. Take a look at the concept of glottochronology and see what linguistic theories have been confirmed by genetics in places like Europe, India, and Polynesia—as well as some surprises.

30 min
Language Families and Writing Systems
34: Language Families and Writing Systems

What do writing systems tell us about language? Better understand why writing actually tells us more about human ingenuity in communication than it tells us about spoken language. Close with a consideration of the cultural importance of language, its preservation and loss, and the realities of a more linguistically homogeneous future.

32 min
John McWhorter

Far from being a language in decline, we have reason to believe that English, with all its beauty and quirks and illogicities, will be carried far into the future.


Stanford University


Columbia University

About John McWhorter

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 The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language; The Word on the Street, a book on dialects and Black English; and Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music in America and Why We Should, Like, Care. A Contributing Editor at The New Republic, he has also been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Time, and The New Yorker. Frequently sought after by the media, Professor McWhorter has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, Talk of the Nation, Today, Good Morning America, The Jim Lehrer NewsHour, Up with Chris Hayes, and Fresh Air.

Also By This Professor