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Ancient Writing and the History of the Alphabet

Examine the alphabet from A to Z with linguist John McWhorter and discover what the development of writing can teach us about language, culture, and human connection.
Ancient Writing and the History of the Alphabet is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 25.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Again, JM bemuses, befuddles, and humorously aerates a study of the components of the English language (I have two others of his Courses). I knew something of the history of the alphabet having been derived from the Phoenicians, but his ploughing through graffiti in Ancient Egypt, the maritime exploits of the Carthaginians, Greece, Hebrew, and Rome, makes for a fascinating story. Not a simple one, by any means, but totally absorbing. I recommend getting the DVD format so that review of any lecture can be done. And forget other reviewers' sour comments about his humour - just enjoy the Course.
Date published: 2023-09-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not as funny as he thinks he is After 6 units I could no longer take his lame humor. The subject is good, the presentation is not.
Date published: 2023-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great learning experience Watching this was not just very educational, it was delightful and humerous. This gave me a relaxed state of mind and everybody will learn better this way. The speaker's last name is very similar to the German words 'Wort' and 'Mann' ( word and man), This is for sure no coincidence. I loved watching it.
Date published: 2023-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting topic made enjoyable by presenter I like languages, literature and culture more than linguistics, but understand enough to make a career teaching. Dr. McWhorter was a joy to behold. His sense of humor kept my interest and his extensive knowledge was always apparent. I appreciated that if a topic did not require the usual half hour or so, he refrained from padding the segment. I could listen to him all day! This was a very interesting course.
Date published: 2023-07-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How Did the Alphabet Evolve? A Survey. Professor John McWhorter, presents a very interesting review of how the alphabet evolved. This was my first experience with the professor and I found the course very enlightening and relaxing to observe. The Professor is very natural and smooth in his delivery and also, very authoritative. He presents the course as a fireside chat, which I enjoyed much. There was no reading slides or a monitor as has been the bane of many recent Wondrous courses. This course MUST be reviewed visually as the learner would lose significant understanding made by discussion of various alphabet systems. This course is one a learner can just sit back and listen to a master share his wealth of knowledge. Excellent course with and outstanding professor. Well worth the time and investment. I look forward to Professor McWhorter's future courses.
Date published: 2023-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very knowledgeable instructor. I have tried in the past to learn about our alphabet. Here it is explained in simple terms. It helps as well that the instructor enjoys this topic.
Date published: 2023-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More Fun With John! My introduction to Dr. McWhorter came via his first course for TGC (then The Teaching Company). Dressed in black, he stood behind the podium, a window to his right peering out on an ivy-covered wall (all you in the OG remember that more civilized time). About a third of the way through the course, he announced that "they" told him he had to move more. Whereupon, he took a few side steps to his right, smiled, then moved back, where he remained for the rest of the course. In that moment, I became a John McWhorter fan! Only Dr. McWhorter could keep one both entertained and educated through fifteen lectures on the alphabet with a final lecture on punctuation thrown in for good measure. His presence on camera is easy and polished (as one would expect given his command of the subject) and peppered with the famous (infamous?) McWhorter wit. It took me close to a week to get his "Little Rascals" song out of my mind! If you feel it's not worth your time and money to explore something as common as our alphabet, you could not be more wrong. Take a chance--I'll bet you didn't learn any of this in school!
Date published: 2023-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Authoritative and Hilarious Outstanding as is everything presented and authored by John McWhorter
Date published: 2023-06-20
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Embark on a journey to the very beginning of writing as a tool of language and see how the many threads of history and linguistics came together to create the alphabet that forms the foundation of English writing. Your guide is Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University and in the 16 lectures of Ancient Writing and the History of the Alphabet, he will help you navigate the complex linguistic and cultural history behind one of our most crucial tools of communication. With his trademark humor and conversational style, Professor McWhorter makes this larger-than-life history as entertaining as it is enlightening.


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
Ancient Writing and the History of the Alphabet


The Nature of Writing

01: The Nature of Writing

Begin your exploration of ancient writing with a consideration of how written language and spoken language differ and see why writing is an artificial construct that developed relatively late in human history. Look at Maya hieroglyphs as an example of how writing develops. Close with an overview of what you will cover in the course.

25 min
Cuneiform: The World’s First Writing

02: Cuneiform: The World’s First Writing

Cuneiform is the earliest surviving form of writing and dates to 3500 BCE. Trace the origins of this writing system by examining why it developed, how it evolved from accounting pictograms to a more complex system, and how it helps us better understand ancient history. Also consider how cuneiform influenced the emergence of other writing systems.

25 min
How Egyptian Hieroglyphs Work

03: How Egyptian Hieroglyphs Work

One of the most familiar ancient writing systems to modern audiences is Egyptian hieroglyphics. Get a basic overview of how hieroglyphics function as a written form of language and consider why it never progressed to an alphabet system. Learn why it took so long for later scholars to decipher hieroglyphics, even with the Rosetta Stone as a deciphering key.

26 min
The Invention of Alphabets

04: The Invention of Alphabets

Follow the progression of writing systems in the ancient world with a look at the Phoenician alphabet as it developed from Egyptian hieroglyphics and spread across the Red Sea to the Middle East. Along the way, examine its influence on writing systems in other languages like Aramaic and Greek. Also, consider the advantages of an alphabet-based writing system for the spread of literacy.

19 min
The Alphabet Goes East

05: The Alphabet Goes East

Explore the development of writing systems in South and Southeast Asia—a part of the story of writing that is often overshadowed by developments in East Asia and Europe. Trace the connections between the scripts of South Asia and the writing systems of the Middle East to see how writing systems can influence others.

27 min
The Advent of A, E, and O

06: The Advent of A, E, and O

The “ah” sound of a short letter “A” is the most basic building block of language. Examine the origins of the letter “A” as both a symbol and a sound and see why other vowels like “E” and “O” were developed later. Discover what the letter “A” can teach us about how the alphabet relates to language itself.

23 min
Lost at C

07: Lost at C

Why does a letter like “C” operate the way it does? Go back to the ancient world of the Etruscans to trace its earliest origins. Get a clearer picture of the ways that the sounds of letters transform over time. Also, consider the nature of spelling systems and how they often stay the same while other elements of the language change over time.

24 min
The History of H

08: The History of H

The letter “H” is a unique letter of the alphabet in how often we treat it as if it doesn’t exist. Examine the ways we use the letter “H,” why the French influence on English affects “H” so much, and why many European languages drop it as a sound altogether while still preserving the letter in the alphabet.

32 min
The Inception of I and Its Journey to J

09: The Inception of I and Its Journey to J

Turn back to the great vowel shift of the 15th and 16th centuries to understand the transformation of English pronunciation. Then trace the birth of the letter “J” in the early 19th century as the result of an odd tangle of historical factors, including the national pride of Noah Webster.

24 min
The Quirks and Zigzags of Q and Z

10: The Quirks and Zigzags of Q and Z

Consider the “accidental” letters “Q” and “Z.” Look back to the Phoenician alphabet to better understand why English doesn’t really need a “Q,” and consider how English acquired the letter “Z” through Latin by way of Greek. Also, discover why “Z” sits at the very end of the alphabet.

27 min
The Ramblings of R

11: The Ramblings of R

Why does the letter “R” make such a wide array of sounds across languages? Trace the origins of “R” as both a letter and a sound. Discover why it is such an odd letter and why it is often one of the last sounds mastered by children as they learn language. Also, look at the unusual graphic transformation of the letter “R” when written in cursive.

22 min
The Unfolding of U, V, W, and F

12: The Unfolding of U, V, W, and F

Take a convoluted trip through the history of the letters “U,” “V,” and “W” and see how they connect to the letter “F.” From ancient Greek to the medieval period and beyond, these letters illustrate how the creation of an alphabet is a messy, nonlinear process with numerous twists and turns along the way.

23 min
The Yesteryears of Y

13: The Yesteryears of Y

Discover the “why” of “Y” as you examine the sound it once referred to—which is not present in modern English—and witness the journey of a borrowed letter that made its way across the ages to our current alphabet. Also, consider how the English collision with French altered the alphabet, adding and dropping letters.

20 min
Brisk Sojourns through B, L, N, and S

14: Brisk Sojourns through B, L, N, and S

Get a quick overview of some of the most common letters of the alphabet and see why the history of “B,” “L,” “N,” and “S” is easier to trace than letters you have covered so far. Look back on the alphabets of the Phoenicians and Greeks to see where these letters started and why they look the way they do.

17 min
Meditations on M, D, X, and T

15: Meditations on M, D, X, and T

Here, you will engage with a set of letters that have entangled origins. Begin with the straightforward origins of “M” and how it led to the creation of the letter “D.” Then, take a similar journey as you look at the relationship of “T” and “X.” Close with a consideration of why the letters of the alphabet are in the order that we know today.

18 min
How Did Punctuation Develop?

16: How Did Punctuation Develop?

Since the spread of writing and literacy created the need for a tool that could help readers better comprehend what they were reading, bring the course to a close with a look at punctuation. Consider why commas, periods, semicolons, question marks, and other symbols developed and how they became an integral part of modern writing systems.

28 min