Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage

Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage
Course Trailer
Alarm over the Decay of English
1: Alarm over the Decay of English

Is English going to the dogs? Embark on an exploration of myths and controversies about our native tongue-where it came from, where it's going, and its unusual place among the world's 6,000 languages. Begin your investigation by looking at the purported epidemic of English abuse....

31 min
Surprises in the Ancestry of Old English
2: Surprises in the Ancestry of Old English

Trace the evidence that English derives from a language that was incompletely learned by invaders of northern Europe more than 2,000 years ago. Where were these people from? An analysis of sound changes in their language, Proto-Germanic, leads to an intriguing hypothesis....

30 min
Not Exactly Anglo-Saxon
3: Not Exactly Anglo-Saxon

How did Old English develop from Proto-Germanic? And why did people in Britain end up speaking the language of the Germanic invaders? Discover that the traditional explanation that English was brought to England by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the 5th century A.D. is vastly oversimplified....

30 min
Don't Forget the Celtic Connection
4: Don't Forget the Celtic Connection

English has a more interesting history after the Anglo-Saxon period than was previously thought. See how the evidence is in grammatical constructions you use every day. For example, the reason you say "I'm building a house" rather than "I build house" traces to Celtic influences....

30 min
From Insider Language to Lingua Franca
5: From Insider Language to Lingua Franca

Explore the general properties of human language to learn the place of English in the broad spectrum of different tongues. In the process, discover how to distinguish a language spoken by a limited number of people from one used by hundreds of millions around the globe....

30 min
English as Easy German
6: English as Easy German

Starting with a simple sentence in German, peel away layers of complexity that don't exist in English. Then uncover more evidence that English is unusual in the simplicity of many of its grammatical features, showing that something happened to pare it down....

28 min
The Viking Conquest of English
7: The Viking Conquest of English

Trace the events that explain why Old English lost much of its complexity in the transition to Middle English. The agents of change were not the Norman French, who arrived in 1066, but the already established Vikings, whose Old Norse fused with Old English to create an abbreviated new language....

27 min
How the Words of Modern English Emerged
8: How the Words of Modern English Emerged

Starting with Celtic contributions to English vocabulary, explore the borrowings from Old Norse, French, and Latin. These have enriched English with a wealth of synonyms, allowing speakers to choose between alternatives such as the Anglo-Saxon hide versus the Latinate conceal....

31 min
Black English-The Streamlining Continues
9: Black English-The Streamlining Continues

Having seen that Proto-Germanic was streamlined into Old English, which was streamlined into Modern English, discover that Black English takes this process a step further. What some regard as bad grammar is language evolution, analogous to the shift from biblical Hebrew to modern Hebrew....

29 min
Honored Conceits of Blackboard Grammar
10: Honored Conceits of Blackboard Grammar

Begin a new section of the course that focuses on your own relationship with language. In this lecture, trace the origin of "correct" usage to Robert Lowth, an 18th-century bishop who wrote an influential textbook on grammar that is the leading source of prescriptivist rules still promoted today....

31 min
Pronoun Fashions Come and Go
11: Pronoun Fashions Come and Go

In a sentence such as "Tell each student to hand in their paper," no ambiguity arises, but prescriptivists insist that the singular form of the pronoun be used: his, her, or his or her. Ponder that pronouns' behavior is unpredictable and ever-changing in all languages....

30 min
Wrong Then, Proper Now-and Vice Versa
12: Wrong Then, Proper Now-and Vice Versa

Turn back the clock to a time when proper forms of speech seem ungrammatical now, and what were considered blatant errors sound perfectly correct today. Among the authors you examine are the American colonial poet Anne Bradstreet and Charles Dickens....

29 min
A Procession of Accidents and Fossils
13: A Procession of Accidents and Fossils

Roll up your sleeves for some language archaeology, tracing the origin of seemingly nonsensical features in English that once had a function. An example: the initial N in the nicknames Ned and Nan is the fossil of mine, the archaic form of my, as in "mine Ed."...

30 min
The Pursuit of Logic in Language
14: The Pursuit of Logic in Language

Consider the role of logic in language and why double negatives are the default in French, Russian, and many other languages, including every dialect of English except the standard form. Dangling participles pose a similar problem of seeming illogical while being rarely misunderstood....

29 min
Clarity as the Logic of Language
15: Clarity as the Logic of Language

Investigate the illogicality of English by looking at everything from the use of the definite article, the, which is difficult to teach to nonnative speakers, to the blatantly ungrammatical "aren't I," which is the contraction for "are not I" and is preferred over the more logical "ain't I."...

30 min
20th-Century Fashions from Strunk & White
16: 20th-Century Fashions from Strunk & White

Delve into two influential works that prescribe how English should be used: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Both mix astute advice with overly fussy personal opinions. How do you decide which is which?...

31 min
The Kinds of Grammar You Don't Hear About
17: The Kinds of Grammar You Don't Hear About

Explore features of the language that are off the beaten track of conventional grammar. For example, handbooks often decry the use of the passive voice, but it can be a powerful tool-as in passive expressions using got, which acts as a marker of misfortune....

30 min
Linguists Uncovering Grammar We All Use
18: Linguists Uncovering Grammar We All Use

Focus on fascinating discoveries about grammar in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, an authoritative guide to usage written by linguists. Learn that English doesn't have a future tense, and analyze the peculiar function of up in such expressions as "clean up."...

31 min
Speech versus Writing-Different Languages
19: Speech versus Writing-Different Languages

Many languages have a huge gap between the spoken, colloquial form and what's considered appropriate for formal or written communication. Trace the evolution of that gap in English by comparing how people actually talked in the past with how they expressed themselves on the page....

32 min
Speechmaking-From Oratory to Plain Speaking
20: Speechmaking-From Oratory to Plain Speaking

Public speaking in English is currently trending toward a more informal style. Contrast speeches given in the old oratorical style with the more colloquial approach that took hold in the 1960s. Paradoxically, this loss of rhetorical polish has not meant a loss of eloquence....

33 min
The Old and New Styles of Writing
21: The Old and New Styles of Writing

See how writing styles have changed by comparing typical school reading assignments in the United States from the beginning and end of the 20th century. Then search out the reasons for this marked shift. One clue is that Americans in the past often spoke of a fine style as "good English."...

32 min
Got Poetry? Language with Spice
22: Got Poetry? Language with Spice

Until recently, poetry had a central role in American culture. Why has this distinctive form of elevated language declined, and how has poetry itself changed? Chart this transformation in poets from Longfellow and Edna St. Vincent Millay to Billy Collins and Kurt Cobain....

34 min
Why Texting Is Misunderstood
23: Why Texting Is Misunderstood

Do the shortcuts and informality of e-mail and text messages represent bad writing? Probe this controversy in light of the unique niche filled by these new forms of expression. Until the advent of e-mail and texting, there was no truly conversational form of writing analogous to conversational speech....

30 min
The Living Past and Future of English
24: The Living Past and Future of English

Drawing on what you have learned about the history of English, look ahead to its possible future course. Some things will stay the same; others will change radically. Close by analyzing a famous 20th-century sentence to chart the curious pathways to our modern tongue....

34 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.

ALMA MATER

Stanford University

INSTITUTION

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.

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