The Story of Human Language

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Topic I am about 20 episodes in and it is incredible. The lecturer is engaging and has a phenomenal depth of knowledge. I will definitely watch Dr. McWhorter's other courses. Outstanding lecturer, which is probably why they picked him.
Date published: 2020-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from McWhorter is brilliant & an acquired taste—love it McWhorter is kind of an odd dude, but I love this series. He knows that he's a bit different, and is completely happy poking a bit of fun at himself. His speech is very formal for a guy who promotes the idea that any utterance that comes from a human mouth is "correct" speech. He's clearly a descriptivist but holds himself to very high standards in his own discourse. His descriptions of the oddities of human language are fascinating and I have learned a great deal as an armchair linguist.
Date published: 2020-08-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My most recent purchase, The Story of Human Language, by Professor John McWhorter is my third Great Courses adventure offered by Professor McWhorter. The other Great Courses that I have learned form by Professor McWhorter are: The Story of Human Language, and Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language. The fundamental information presented in these detailed courses have been a great a great aide in my study of the of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.
Date published: 2020-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I am facinated with languages and this course added to that facination.
Date published: 2020-07-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wouldn’t change it Incredible, inspirational, informative, entertaining; clearly opens a whole new world I was unaware of
Date published: 2020-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favoriets I've watched this series twice, and just bought it as a gift for my sister. The professor is clear, charming, accessible, knowledgeable, and just quirky enough to be utterly engagine. I've watched all Dr. McWorter's courses and each was a brain-expanding delight. I view language in an entirely different way now, and can't recommend this highly enough.
Date published: 2020-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Professor While there is not a lot of visual content in this course Professor McWhorter’s engaging style and command of the subject matter makes this a fascinating and informative course.
Date published: 2020-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course! We were very impressed with Professor McWhorter. He is so knowledgeable and entertaining. He is obviously quite knowledgeable about many, many subjects and made this one so much more interesting and entertaining than one would expect!
Date published: 2019-10-06
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What Is Language?
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?

29 min
When Language Began
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.

30 min
How Language Changes-Sound Change
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.

30 min
How Language Changes-Building New Material
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.

30 min
How Language Changes-Meaning and Order
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.

31 min
How Language Changes-Many Directions
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.

30 min
How Language Changes-Modern English
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.

30 min
Language Families-Indo-European
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.

30 min
Language Families-Tracing Indo-European
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.

30 min
Language Families-Diversity of Structures
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.

30 min
Language Families-Clues to the Past
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.

30 min
The Case Against the World's First Language
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.

31 min
The Case For the World's First Language
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.

30 min
Dialects-Subspecies of Species
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.

30 min
Dialects-Where Do You Draw the Line?
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.

30 min
Dialects-Two Tongues in One Mouth
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.

30 min
Dialects-The Standard as Token of the Past
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.

30 min
Dialects-Spoken Style, Written Style
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.

31 min
Dialects-The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar
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.

30 min
Language Mixture-Words
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.

30 min
Language Mixture-Grammar
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.

29 min
Language Mixture-Language Areas
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.

30 min
Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty
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.

31 min
Language Interrupted
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.

30 min
A New Perspective on the Story of English
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.

30 min
Does Culture Drive Language Change?
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.

30 min
Language Starts Over-Pidgins
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.

30 min
Language Starts Over-Creoles I
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.

31 min
Language Starts Over-Creoles II
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.

31 min
Language Starts Over-Signs of the New
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.

30 min
Language Starts Over-The Creole Continuum
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.

30 min
What Is Black English?
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.

30 min
Language Death-The Problem
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.

31 min
Language Death-Prognosis
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.

30 min
Artificial Languages
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.

30 min
Finale-Master Class
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.

31 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.

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