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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 4.6 out of 5 by 40.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing Intellectually and Historically McWhorter is a brilliant guy but he rambles through the alphabet for the majority of the course. To offer this course as "Ancient Writing," is quite misleading. McWhorter never defines "writing" or "a writing system" and therefore leaves open questions as to why he and others think "writing" began in Mesopotamia and not with cave drawings, as others are beginning to assert. Moreover, "ancients" had many more reasons to "write" than for trade and economic reasons. Those reasons are not addressed. For most of the course McWhorter sits and provides informed understandings of letters and sounds but the larger, for me, more important questions of "Did not writing also have an impact upon speech?" "Which languages are more complex? Why?" "Of what do writing and writing system have the hardest time describing or communicating?" There are far better courses on Wondrium to take than this one.
Date published: 2024-04-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from interesting with depth and breadth I enjoyed the course. I had skepticism about a few of the theories/explanations of how certain things evolved or came about, but I guess that is the nature of the subject matter. I would like to find more courses like this.
Date published: 2024-03-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Modern Alphabet Sequoyah, a chief of the Cherokee tribe, invented an alphabet: It "allowed literacy and printing to flourish in the Cherokee Nation in the early 19th century and remains in use today"
Date published: 2024-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. McW strikes again I give this course five stars with a caveat: first, you should love words and language: and second, you shouldn't love them too seriously. Dr. McWhorter is anything but pedantic. His thoroughgoing knowledge of his topic is leavened by his lively speaking style and puckish humor. He can, for instance, devote a whole lecture to the letter H and keep you intrigued on a topic that otherwise would induce either a headache or profound slumber. Dr. McWhorter's name is a guarantee to me of a pleasurable course.
Date published: 2024-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good source of information Another great course by John McQuorter. He keeps the information interesting throughout the course, and provides examples of how the English alphabet was derived.
Date published: 2024-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Entertaining I bought this a few days ago and I've listened to it everyday since. Fascinating history and very well illustrated. Prof. McWhorter is very entertaining, throwing these little personal stories in to help you remember some point or other. I highly recommend this course for those with a modicum of curiosity about how writing as we experience it developed.
Date published: 2023-12-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Always worth it We have purchased every word that Dr McWhorter has recorded for The Great Courses. We will continue to do so forever. He is the lecturer that we find ourselves quoting to family and friends until they beg us to stop. His conversational style makes us feel that he is just chatting with us, sharing the information that he finds fascinating. We find it fascinating too.
Date published: 2023-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating subject I'm so glad I bought this course! It's a fascinating topic and Professor McWhorter's light-hearted approach makes it all the more so. It's a solid groundwork for learning about the history of language.
Date published: 2023-12-22
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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