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The Story of Human Language

Discover the fascinating history of human language-from its beginning as a single tongue spoken some 300,000 years ago to the estimated 7,000 languages spoken today.
The Story of Human Language is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 262.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from the best lecturer The lecturer is very informed and engaging. Incredibly funny and real. I supremely enjoyed this course. Thank you.
Date published: 2023-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great course! Obviously, professor McWhoter is one of the best instructors in Wondrium. His teaching style, delivery style and speaking style is very clear and easy to follow for a novice of the subject. This course like his other Language/Linguistics courses, one of the best I have taken. I hope to follow his remaining courses soon!
Date published: 2023-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Genetics I've watched all of Professor McWhorter's lectures and enjoyed them very much. I am not a linguist but found Dr. McWhorter's lectures fascinating. One comment I would offer is that he frequently used the word genes in the lecture on genetics. It would probably be better to use the term DNA. The genes are the part of DNA that codes for proteins. It is doubtful that the genetic changes Dr. McWhorter's is discussing involve genes. They more likely are SNP changes which may not involve genes.
Date published: 2022-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course for the Educated Layman Love the subject and the speaker. He was funny, clear, informative and entertaining. I especially enjoyed how he broke down complex issues into smaller ones and showed unusual connections. The structure of the course also rates a top grade.
Date published: 2022-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Topic with Enjoyable Presentation For those of us who work with words to author things, this topic is fascinatingly interesting. John could make even a dull topic interesting by the way he talks. I have enjoyed his podcast. I only wish I had his email address so I could suggest a topic or two.
Date published: 2022-04-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from McWhorter Is a Fine Teacher This is the second course of McWhorter's that I've taken. Like the first, this one is a treat. The professor is smart, engaging, funny, and comprehensive in his coverage of the subject. You can see the scope of the course in the outline of the session topics, so I won't bother you with an account of the content and its flow. Suffice to say, he follows the outline dutifully and masterfully. Beyond giving the course a check mark for covering the material well, I would just add that studying language with him is a wonderful way, too, to learn about culture, history, the flow of peoples on the earth, and social developments within the nations and cultures for which language is, of course, a key feature of life. I'm not sure I'd recommend multiple courses of his to all listeners unless you want to get more mastery. But, if you haven't learned from him before, I'll bet you'll like it a lot.
Date published: 2022-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lying vs Laying Was anyone else surprised to hear Dr. McWhorter using 'laying' as an intransitive present-tense verb? I heard it at least three times during this series, and I always expected him to correct his usage, but he never did. Sure do hope I didn't learn that wrong.
Date published: 2022-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderfully explained and very much needed to know If I was given the choice to have subjects that I would like to know among the vast infinite options in my life, then this course will definitely be one of them. I am glad that I was able to find it, which was almost accidentally. I also have a great appreciation for the instructor John McWhorter. It is very obvious that he has vast knowledge in this field of study and is really good at explaining things, even the subtle nuances that I would like to know in this subject. Learning this course was a treat for me, it really made me aware of how much I love learning, especially what I wanted to learn.
Date published: 2022-01-03
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Dr. John McWhorter, one of America's leading linguists and a frequent commentator on network television and National Public Radio, takes you on a fascinating, 36-lecture tour of the development of human language-he unfolds the story of how a single tongue spoken 300,000 years ago may have evolved into the estimated 7,000 languages used worldwide today. Discover why, for the past century, linguistics has been one of the most exciting and productive fields in the social sciences.


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.


Columbia University

John McWhorter is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He earned a PhD in Linguistics from Stanford University. He is the author of several books, including The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language; Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter; and Word on the Street, a book on dialects and Black English. He has also been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he has appeared on Dateline and Good Morning America, among other platforms.

By This Professor

Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage
Language Families of the World
Language A to Z
Ancient Writing and the History of the Alphabet
What Is Language?

01: 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

02: 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

03: 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

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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