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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 4.4 out of 5 by 9.
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Rated 2 out of 5 by from Phoning it in This is not Prof. McWhorter's best effort. Much of the time is devoted to early 60s cool-guy humor, reminiscent of Johnny Carson and my older brother. The remaining is a quick gloss over potentially interesting material. The production values are questionable. The claim is that the course was recorded in the Vanderbilt Library, but it is certainly a green screen with a plasma torch photoshopped into the background.
Date published: 2023-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Answers finally! When I was a youth, I often studied that page in the dictionary that shows the various alphabets through time: Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, and Roman. I could never figure out how people went from the first alphabet to what we use today. I could kinda see some similarities, but not really. Professor McWhorter is an excellent teacher and I love every lecture series of his. I have never binge watched anything ever, but I binged watched this series. He told me the answers to the questions I've had since my youth! The phonetics stuff was a recap, since I studied that in college (I ended up with a linguistics minor just because I happened to take enough of those classes.) It wasn't at all boring because Professor McWhorter makes everything interesting. I highly recommend this lecture series to anyone who is an English speaker/reader/writer. It answers all the questions you had when you were learning to read and write this language. It helps you to understand all the difficulties your child is having learning to read and write. I might watch it again because it was just so enlightening!
Date published: 2023-05-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating story about how we got to the alphabet I am a huge fan of Dr. McWhorter and have watched all his other Great Courses lectures. I enjoyed almost all of this course too - a complex story of how the idea of an alphabet for recording language came to be and how it morphed as it moved from culture to culture. I liked the inclusion of many examples - either images of ancient writing or Dr. McWhorter speaking passages in another language. It helps to anchor the concept when you have something specific as a for instance. Dr. McWhorter knows his material and how to make it approachable to an interested lay audience. This course includes a great deal of material about how we make sounds in various parts of our mouth and why that's a part of the evolution of how language sounds over time. Sounds influenced changes in written letters over time too - having learned French in school and knowing that you say the letter Y as "ee-greck” I now know that's a Greek I (Upsilon)! The only reason I didn't give this 5 stars was I found the off topic story telling too much in this course - it was distracting more than enjoyable.I would encourage Dr. McWhorter to trust in his magnificent skills in explaining complex material in an engaging way; he doesn't need to embellish to hold our attention.
Date published: 2023-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Very interesting subject and John McWhorter is an amazing lecturer. He is my favourite lecturer and I have watched all his sets. Another excellent set Highly recommended
Date published: 2023-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Update I had rated this course as a 4, but I changed my mind.
Date published: 2023-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another McWinner by McWhorter Life hack: Always buy and listen to any The Great Courses (TGC) offering by Dr. McWhorter. They are always informative and enjoyable and often useful as well. (They are helping me learn a foreign language.) The putative structure of this course is a look at how each letter in the English alphabet came into the language and why it is written the way it is. However, it is not quite that simple. Rather, Dr. McWhorter begins with a history of writing in the West (cuneiform and hieroglyphs) and the invention of the alphabet. He then traces the transmission of individual letters from the Phoenicians through the Greeks, through the Etruscans, through the Romans, through the French, and ultimately into the English. Along the way, he raises and answer interesting and fascinating questions. Why are X, Y, and Z at the end of the English alphabet? Why is the third letter of the English alphabet C while it is G in Eastern Mediterranean languages? Why is there such overlap among C, K, and Q in the English language? Dr. McWhorter explains it all. Dr. McWhorter is in the TGC Hall of Fame of lecturers. His content is always on point and he has one of the best presentation styles among the stable of TGC lecturers. He conveys serious material with humor. Note that this course departs from the standard TGC format of each lecture being 30 or 45 minutes long. Some lectures are less than 20 minutes long. That is probably appropriate for the material at hand but the listener should be aware of the difference. The course guide is average by TGC standards. It has about five pages per lecture, which is probably a little lower than average by TGC standards. There are some useful graphics, particularly in the earlier lectures. It is written in a cross between outline and paragraph format in which the outline points are entire paragraphs instead of sentences or phrases. It has no appendices although, in fairness, there probably is not a need for a timeline or biographical notes. It might have been useful, however, to have a glossary and a bibliography. I used the video streaming version. While most of the lecture merely shows Dr. McWhorter sitting in a chair in a library, there are some useful graphics from time to time. The course was published in 2023.
Date published: 2023-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Storytelling - one of the best form of didacticism If only more teaching was framed this way - I was totally drawn in by the way these courses are communicated. I loved the cognitive frameworks that were built up to help me locate the facts given. This is absolutely what I wanted to learn from a course on this subject. Thank you to everyone who contributed to make learning such a delight.
Date published: 2023-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved it. Brought it down to us that hated linguistics in college could appreciate. I enjoyed his humor a lot.
Date published: 2023-05-22
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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