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Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language

Journey through the fascinating terrain of linguistics: the scientific study of human language.
Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 97.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understandable I took 3 linguistics courses in college 50 years ago. The first two were interesting and enlightening. The third was obscure, dense, and way over my head. McWhorter kept all of these lectures easily understandable as well as interesting. Some of the course was a review for me, but much of it was new material---I guess linguistics has changed a lot in 50 years. Excellent course. Recommended. One petty criticism---McWhorter frequently used the filler word "aannndd". It got a little annoying sometimes.
Date published: 2024-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course! Another great course in Wondrium by Prof. McWhoter. For all language enthusiasts and aspiring linguists, this is a must-take course. I have enjoyed the lectures a lot. I tried self-study some theories presented in the course as well as applied some theories to my own native tongue to how it stands. This is pretty much a practical course if you interested in applying to the theories to language other than English.
Date published: 2023-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Beauty of Languages—Indeed! Dr. John McWhorter’s Great Course on linguistics is far more comprehensive than one that I attended through a local university’s Faculty of Education. Dr. McWhorter impresses me tremendously as a lecturer. He is well-organized, witty, and entertaining. He obviously respects and cherishes the diverse languages of the world (approximately 6000 at present) and the cultures that have produced them. Much that this professor shares has the engaging qualities of a detective story. He also has an uncommon ability to compel one to become keenly interested in the basic concepts, as well as subtle nuances, that interest him. Some of my favourite lectures in the present set are #13 (Where Grammar Comes From), #16 (How Children Learn to Speak), #17 (How We Learn Languages as Adults), and #35 (Linguistics—From the Ground Up). I believe Dr. McWhorter could succeed as a generalist educator—give him preparatory time with almost any subject, and I’d bet that he could teach it effectively.
Date published: 2022-04-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Cool course Good but the examples on Arabic should be checked. In lecture 33 Arabic is written with gh it should be glottal and in the lecture where Egyptian Arabic and MSA are compared the MSA sentence should be checked either
Date published: 2021-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Linguistics A great course to understand how speaking created a written language. There is not a simple alphabet.
Date published: 2020-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from now i know better i have bought other courses from Professor McWhorter , this is what i had been looking for , to try and understand language ,i tried understanding chomsky through other platforms to no avail . Professor McWhorter gave a witty entertaining view under constrain , he gave what see as a clear understanding of linguistics , i don't think i have to be afraid to express my english , I'm born and decended american , i been learning russian , i learned the alphabet first and began reading and writing it , my problem was trying to fit english into russian ,big mistake i see different now and after hearing this course , i can see a better way. of seeing others ( i currently live in brooklyn ) especially when i have to engage them...thanks a lot .
Date published: 2020-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and well-presented I have had several Courses, and this one is the best presented! It is well-organized, examples are well-chosen and clear, and the presenter is personable. Course content is fascinating.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable, useful information and review I bought this as a refresher course. I have always enjoyed, not always agreeing with, Professor McWhorter's books. I am enjoying getting back to basics on how the brain understands language. I am looking forward to the rest of the lectures. As a foreign language teacher, I enjoy looking back to linguistics to help my students understand the processes they are using to learn language. I enjoy Professor McWhorter's illustrations and tangential digressions. They serve him well.
Date published: 2020-07-01
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Investigate the elements and purposes of language, from its fundamental building blocks to its uses as a nuanced social tool in this exciting 36-lecture course taught by an acclaimed linguist.


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 Linguistics?

01: What Is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. This lecture introduces your course's key elements, from language's building blocks to the many ways linguistic practitioners use them to learn more about us and the role of language in our lives.

33 min
The Sounds of Language-Consonants

02: The Sounds of Language-Consonants

The English alphabet, with only 26 letters, offers only an approximate sense of the 44 sounds English uses. You learn how linguists therefore transcribe sounds from which human language is built.

30 min
The Other Sounds-Vowels

03: The Other Sounds-Vowels

You continue your exploration of the International Phonetic Alphabet with a look at its vowels—a much larger resource than the five provided by the conventional alphabet—and are able to transcribe entire words and sentences in the IPA.

29 min
In the Head versus On the Lips

04: In the Head versus On the Lips

Some sounds are "real" ones that distinguish meaning; others are just variations. In exploring how words are generated on two levels, you learn about a contrast basic to modern linguistics: the difference between "phonemic" and "phonetic" sounds.

30 min
How to Make a Word

05: How to Make a Word

Just as actual sounds correspond only partially to the alphabet, the words we write correspond only partially to actual units of meaning. This lecture introduces you to the linguistic "unit of meaning" called a "morpheme," several of which might be contained in a single word.

30 min
The Chomskyan Revolution

06: The Chomskyan Revolution

Although best known outside linguistics for his political writings, Noam Chomsky inaugurated a revolution in linguistic thought, proposing in the 1950s that the capacity for language is innate, driven by a neurological configuration that generates words in a hierarchical, branching "tree" format known as phrase structure.

29 min
Deep Structure and Surface Structure

07: Deep Structure and Surface Structure

You learn the evidence for Chomsky's argument that the sentences we utter at "surface structure" level often emerge with a different constituent ordering than was in place at "deep structure" level—the result of processes of movement he originally called "transformations."

29 min
The On-Off Switches of Grammar

08: The On-Off Switches of Grammar

Syntax, in linguistics, refers to the mechanisms that order words in sentences. This lecture introduces you to the idea that languages' syntaxes differ according to whether certain parameters—such as whether objects come before or after verbs—are set to "on" or "off."

30 min
Shades of Meaning and Semantic Roles

09: Shades of Meaning and Semantic Roles

Languages differ in how they express basic concepts of meaning, such as person, space, and tense. This lecture introduces you to semantics—the ways in which different languages use the building blocks you've learned about to communicate messages about the full range of reality.

30 min
From Sentence to Storytelling

10: From Sentence to Storytelling

You begin to learn about pragmatics—how we move beyond the literal meaning of sentences to real-world matters like attitude, general presuppositions, and what is known versus what is new. Pragmatics is what makes strings of words express the full range of humanity and consciousness.

28 min
Language on Its Way to Becoming a New One

11: Language on Its Way to Becoming a New One

Jacob Grimm was more than a compiler of fairy tales. In learning how Grimm's Law spurred the development of a scientific way of charting sound changes, you are introduced to historical linguistics, the study of how language changes over time.

28 min
Recovering Languages of the Past

12: Recovering Languages of the Past

Linguists can reconstruct what earlier languages were like by comparing their modern descendants. In this lecture you see how comparative reconstruction is applied to the recovery of the ancestor of the Romance languages and the ancestor to the Polynesian languages.

31 min
Where Grammar Comes From

13: Where Grammar Comes From

Where do a language's "grammatical" words—words that, like "about," have no independent meaning in the sense that a concrete word like "apple" does—actually "come" from? You learn how independent words marking concrete concepts are reinterpreted over time to serve as grammatical markers.

30 min
Language Change from Old English to Now

14: Language Change from Old English to Now

You get a chance to observe the process of language change described in the previous three lectures, examining a passage of Old English to see how changes in sound patterns, word formation, and grammatical patterns changed that language into the one we now speak.

29 min
What Is an Impossible Language?

15: What Is an Impossible Language?

There are ways in which a language can and does change, but there are also ways in which it cannot. You gain an understanding of the concept of "markedness" and its key role in defining the constraints on a language's possible changes.

30 min
How Children Learn to Speak

16: How Children Learn to Speak

Children acquire language spontaneously without being explicitly taught how. In examining how this is accomplished, you learn about the strong evidence that such ability is innate and that much of language acquisition is about the ability to master underlying rules rather than to memorize words.

29 min
How We Learn Languages as Adults

17: How We Learn Languages as Adults

Unlike learning a first language, learning a second can be a slippery slope, with rules of the first often bleeding into the second. You learn why this is so and what factors can make the process easier.

31 min
How You Talk and How They Talk

18: How You Talk and How They Talk

You encounter the field of sociolinguistics, which investigates how social factors like class affect the way in which people say words or arrange their sentences grammatically.

30 min
How Class Defines Speech

19: How Class Defines Speech

You continue your examination of sociolinguistics with a look at two ways in which researchers have presented the impact of social factors on the way people express themselves, including Basil Bernstein's controversial hypothesis that working-class people use a more restricted code of language that hampers educational achievement.

30 min
Speaking Differently, Changing the Language

20: Speaking Differently, Changing the Language

You learn how variation is often an early sign of change in a language and that the working class, because its members are less constrained by prescriptive norms and maintain new variants as "in-group" markers, is the source of most change in a language.

30 min
Language and Gender

21: Language and Gender

How we speak is determined significantly by whether we are men or women. You learn the many ways by which this difference is brought to bear, including grammatical markers, the social favor or disfavor of a form, and other social factors.

29 min
Languages Sharing the World-Bilingualism

22: Languages Sharing the World-Bilingualism

With 6,000 languages coexisting in just 200 or so nations, bilingualism and multilingualism are not oddities; they are norms. What happens in such a situation? This lecture shows you the results of bilingualism according to social context.

30 min
Languages Sharing a Sentence-Code-Switching

23: Languages Sharing a Sentence-Code-Switching

One of the consequences of widespread bilingualism and multilingualism is the use of two languages within one conversation and even within the same sentence. This does not occur randomly but according to specific linguistic traffic rules and social factors—a phenomenon known as code-switching.

28 min
The Rules of Conversation

24: The Rules of Conversation

Linguists and sociologists have discovered that conversation between people—with not only its conveyance of data but also its interruptions and strategies—is guided by subconsciously controlled rules, just as syntax is. You gain insight into those rules in this lecture on conversation analysis.

29 min
What Is This Thing Called Language?

25: What Is This Thing Called Language?

You meet Ferdinand de Saussure, who established linguistics as a discipline concerned with language in a present-tense sense rather than as a historical procession. De Saussure inaugurated the study of language as a human activity, rather than as something recorded on paper.

30 min
Speech as Action

26: Speech as Action

Much of what we say is as much about doing something as saying something; as much about serving a social function as communicating. This is the concept termed the "speech act," and you learn in this lecture how the various kinds of speech acts have been explained and categorized.

31 min
Uses of Talk from Culture to Culture

27: Uses of Talk from Culture to Culture

How a language is actually used in various situations can vary widely from culture to culture, where differing social norms define how a speaker functions within the language. You gain an introduction to what is called the ethnography of communication.

32 min
Does Language Channel Thought? The Evidence

28: Does Language Channel Thought? The Evidence

This lecture introduces you to a seductive theory known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis—the idea that a language's particular vocabulary and grammar determine how its speakers process the world—and its inherent problems, despite its persistent popular acceptance.

29 min
Does Language Channel Thought? New Findings

29: Does Language Channel Thought? New Findings

You continue your exploration of the Whorfian hypothesis, learning that sociological concerns as well as linguistic ones have determined many of its adherents' approaches, before moving on to interesting new studies that suggest a less stark version of the Whorfian idea.

31 min
Is Language Going to the Dogs?

30: Is Language Going to the Dogs?

Linguists have had little success in convincing the public that there is no such thing as "bad grammar" and that casual speech is not an imperfect version of "proper" language. You explore why this is so and why past changes in English are viewed as acceptable in a way that current, ongoing change is not.

31 min
Why Languages Are Never Perfect

31: Why Languages Are Never Perfect

You continue your examination of the argument for descriptivism over prescriptivism begun in the previous lecture, learning that there is no human language without logical lapses and imperfections and why there is little point in trying to build one.

30 min
The Evolution of Writing

32: The Evolution of Writing

Writing is not language but only a secondary expression of it, a representation of it on the page. This lecture explains how writing first emerged, exploring the picture-based system that became abstract cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the alphabetic system that became the source of the Roman alphabet.

30 min
Writing Systems

33: Writing Systems

You explore the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing systems before plunging into the fascinating story behind the decoding of the extinct Greek writing system known as Linear B, discovered on the island of Crete in 1900. Mistakenly assumed to be a lost Cretan language, Linear B was ultimately deciphered in 1953 and shown to be a form of Greek.

31 min
Doing Linguistics-With a Head Start

34: Doing Linguistics-With a Head Start

You get the opportunity to learn something about actually being a linguist as you explore the grammar of a language called Saramaccan—a hybrid of English, Portuguese, and African languages, with a little Dutch—which is spoken in the Republic of Surinam in South America.

32 min
Doing Linguistics-From the Ground Up

35: Doing Linguistics-From the Ground Up

In this lecture, your foray into practical linguistics involves an obscure, difficult, and peculiar language—Kabardian—presented as if you were encountering it for the first time. Spoken in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, Kabardian's sound system and syntax show various concepts you have seen in this course.

32 min
The Evolution of Language

36: The Evolution of Language

Interest in how language emerged in humans, long dormant in the field, has recently re-emerged. You conclude the course with a brief look at some of this new work, including Ray Jackendorf's assertions that sentence generation, contrary to Chomskyan theory, begins with semantics, not syntax.

32 min