Language A to Z

Lots of language lessons are full of stultiloquence. Cut through the bafflegab and learn how we got from fiddle-faddle to FOMO.
Language A to Z is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 32.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Authoritative and entertaining This course is different from many other "Great Courses" I have taken. The professor does not lecture in the formal sense. His visage appears in a sort of animation prior to the start of each section and his voice is heard throughout, but he does not appear in person. The course is highly graphical, especially including many animations. There are 24 segments each of which is 15-20 minutes long. All but two of them are assigned a letter as in "A is for Aramaic." P and Q and X and Y are doubled up. The course is fast-paced and very entertaining. Of course, the most important point is that the course is informative. It covers language structure and origin, differentiates the large number of spoken languages from those captured in dictionaries, and contrasts the different grammatical systems in common use. The course takes a global view and includes a segment on whose language is biggest and queries the difference between a language and dialect. I have also taken the course called "History of the English Language Second Edition." That course is focused on English alone and is highly informative. Although not pedantic, it is taught in a more formal or traditional way. I recommend "Language A to Z" to anyone who wants to enjoy learning a broad range of "stuff" about language. The fact that it is authoritative does not get in the way of being an entertaining educational experience.
Date published: 2021-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great presentation!!! I didn't know what to expect since the subject could be pretty dry, but a great surprise. The lectures are engaging, fun and packed with information all in 15 minutes. You can set back watch 4 lectures, learn and have a good time in an hour. I really recommend this class for all ages!
Date published: 2021-08-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I am currently watching this on the Wondrium site. I have noticed several points that caught my attention in a negative way. In Lesson 1, Dr. McWhorter (mis)pronounced Chaldean as CHALdean. It is correctly pronounced KALdean. In Lesson 3, I caught him twice ending a sentence in a preposition. Ack! From an English professor, no less. :-(
Date published: 2021-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extremely entertaining and graphically excellent My husband and I feasted on this short course (less than 6 hours I figure) with all kinds of fascinating tidbits of information about languages. While the professor is top-notch, the graphic artists should get a lot of the credit for the presentation of this course.
Date published: 2021-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from McWhorter at his best! As with all other courses by Prof. McWhorter, very informative and witty. His courses always please, wether you are interested in linguistics or not.
Date published: 2021-06-19
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Entertainment for cocktail parties Sigh. McWhorter is a storyteller and not a teacher. I've learned a handful of odd facts useful if I want entertain a small audience at a cocktail party - but that is not true knowledge of the topic. Very superficial.
Date published: 2021-06-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Good Only for Conversational Learning I look to these lectures for Academic Learning, and I take notes as I work my way through them. I'm usually quite satisfied with the academic information and presentation quality of them, but this lecture series was not Academic. I won't deny it's full of leaning, but it's the type of learning you share at a party with your friends, not anything I'd consider Academic, and worse, it's narrated, not "presented". You don't see your lecturer. Though the lecture's voice is well suited and everything flows nicely, I could buy an audiobook for less and get the same, so why did I buy this lecture from here? I kind of feel cheated that it's only narrated and that I only got Conversational Learning. It's good, but not as satisfying or as much quality as the others I've purchased here.
Date published: 2021-04-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I wouldn't call this a "course," but... I wouldn't call this a "course" because it doesn't take a topic and inform you about it in a coherent, well-organized and comprehensive way that leaves you with some degree of mastery of a certain body of knowledge. Instead, this is more like an audio magazine - a collection of miscellaneous, more or less interesting forays into various unrelated topics having loosely to do with language. It's entertaining and rather superficial, even though the professor is obviously extremely well-informed. The lectures are very fast-paced and laced with cultural references that may pass you by if you come from a generation or background different from the professor's. All in all, it was as entertaining as listening to the radio, but not the sort of thing I would pay money for again.
Date published: 2021-03-19
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Overview

Solve some of the most intriguing scientific, historical, and sociological puzzles behind the inner workings of language, with a master instructor.

About

John McWhorter
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.

INSTITUTION

Columbia University
Dr. John McWhorter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He previously was Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Professor McWhorter specializes in language change and language contact. He is the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language; The Word on the Street, a book on dialects and Black English; and Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music in America and Why We Should, Like, Care. A Contributing Editor at The New Republic, he has also been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Time, and The New Yorker. Frequently sought after by the media, Professor McWhorter has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, Talk of the Nation, Today, Good Morning America, The Jim Lehrer NewsHour, Up with Chris Hayes, and Fresh Air.

By This Professor

Language Families of the World
854
Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage
854
Language A to Z
853
Language A to Z

Trailer

A for Aramaic

01: A for Aramaic

After a brief introduction on why an alphabetic approach makes an engaging way to explore human language, Professor McWhorter provides a close look at one of the ancient world’s most influential languages: Aramaic. How did it achieve such prominence? What led to its decline? Where can you hear it today?

16 min
B for Baby Mama

02: B for Baby Mama

Explore how the common expression “baby mama” reflects the grammar behind what linguists refer to as African-American Vernacular English (or Ebonics). Along the way, you’ll discover how Ebonics emerged as an intriguing mash-up of assorted British regional dialects—along with a sprinkle of grammatical streamlining any language could benefit from.

14 min
C for Compounds

03: C for Compounds

We can actually change a word’s part of speech simply by moving the accent up front (loudspeaker versus loud speaker). Welcome to the world of compounds, one of the fundamental elements of speaking English. And knowing how they work can also help you determine historical pronunciations of words you weren’t around to hear.

16 min
D for Double Negatives

04: D for Double Negatives

Americans have been taught that double negatives are a grammatical no-no. But they’re actually used in most of the world’s languages. So who’s right? And does the substitute “any” (e.g., “not going anywhere” versus “not going nowhere”) solve the problem, or just make it more awkward? Find out here.

14 min
E for Etymology

05: E for Etymology

Learn more about etymology, the tool linguists use to decipher the fascinating (and mundane) backstories of words and phrases. For example, you’ll explore why “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” is really about sheep in Great Britain; why “quaint” originally meant “crafty”; and why we drink punches as well as throw them.

15 min
F for First Words

06: F for First Words

“Mama” and “papa” are some of the first words spoken in a majority of the world’s languages. Why these first words and not others? As you explore this intriguing subject, you’ll also probe some of the theories behind how language starts (involving everything from anatomy to music to mimicked animal calls).

16 min
G for Greek Alphabet

07: G for Greek Alphabet

It’s easy to miss just how deeply peculiar an alphabet is. It provides a transcription of language based not on pictures but written representations of sounds. Here, Professor McWhorter takes you back to ancient Greece on an investigation of how the alphabet was invented and (slowly) settled into our consciousness.

16 min
H for Hobbits

08: H for Hobbits

What can hobbits teach us about the actual science involved in linguistics? Find out in this eye-opening lecture that introduces you to Homo floresiensis, “little people,” on the island of Flores, with their own strangely simplified language that some scientists believe was spoken until just a few centuries ago.

17 min
I for Island

09: I for Island

Use the intriguing backstory of the word “island” as a gateway for exploring why English spelling can be such a mess. Two specific reasons you’ll focus on: the “sacred” linguistic nature of Latin and Greek, and the ramifications of the Great Vowel Shift, which dramatically altered the pronunciation of many English words.

15 min
J for Jamaican

10: J for Jamaican

Delve into the world of Jamaican patois, which developed among African slaves in the 1600s as they quickly adopted English. You’ll discover that languages vary not just in how they’re put together, but according to diverse factors such as socioeconomics and the audience one is speaking to.

14 min
K for Ket

11: K for Ket

Get an introduction to Ket: one of the world’s 6,000 languages you’re highly unlikely to hear about beyond Siberia, where it’s spoken by just several hundred people (as compared to, say, the 125 million who speak Japanese). It’s a fascinating look at just how complex even the tiniest of languages can be.

15 min
L for Like

12: L for Like

Turn now to a topic linguists get asked about a lot: the use of “like” in conversation among young people. As Professor McWhorter reveals, this popular pet peeve is actually a highly ritualized form of acting and a perfect example of pragmatic particles, which convey attitudes toward what’s being said.

15 min
M for Maltese

13: M for Maltese

See how Maltese, the only Arabic language variety spoken within the European Union, reflects the idea that visual maps of languages aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem. In fact, as Professor McWhorter reveals, the classification of languages and dialects can be quite frustrating—and even impossible.

16 min
N for Native American English

14: N for Native American English

Delve into the world of pidgin languages: handy linguistic tools that consist of a few hundred words with little grammar. Focus on the Native American Pidgin English that emerged in the 1600s and helped bridge basic communication gaps (without relying on sign language) between English speakers and Native Americans.

17 min
O for Oldsters in Cartoons

15: O for Oldsters in Cartoons

There’s a lot to learn about language from cartoons. In this lecture, find out how depictions of older people in American cartoons used to reflect the distinction between how people speak in the country versus the city. Also, hear this idea at work through a 1960s study about local accents on Martha’s Vineyard.

15 min
P for Plurals, Q for Quiz

16: P for Plurals, Q for Quiz

Plurals pop up in some languages, while other languages don’t care how many things there are. How did we start marking plurals, and how is it possible for languages to work without them? Discover the intriguing answers, and then learn about the possible origins of the odd word “quiz.”

16 min
R for R-lessness

17: R for R-lessness

One of the strange things about language: To a large extent, we use it subconsciously. Professor McWhorter offers a panoramic sense of this idea by zeroing in on just one sound, “R,” and its growing disappearance in British and American English (e.g., pronouncing corner not as “cor-ner” but “caw-nuh”).

17 min
S for She

18: S for She

Investigate the stories behind pronouns that we currently use or that have fallen out of favor, including “she,” “he,” “thou,” “thee,” and “they.” The general story you’ll uncover is the same you see with plurals around the world: excessive words that end up being more than we need to communicate.

15 min
T for Tone

19: T for Tone

Just as important as the word you’re saying is the tone in which you’re saying it. But some languages depend on tone much more heavily than English does. Why? How did they emerge, and why did they only cluster in certain places?

16 min
U for Understand

20: U for Understand

“Ask.” “Reveal.” “Understand.” These are just three examples of the habit of turning bare verbs into nouns instead of using an already existing noun with a suffix. Learn why this slangy, sometimes dramatic linguistic habit stems from a logical human quest for order through language maintenance.

16 min
V for Vocabulary

21: V for Vocabulary

Figuring out what words are, and which ones we want to count as part of our language, is a slippery task that you’ll make more sense of here. Specifically, focus on why discussions about vocabulary size mistakenly deal exclusively with written languages—of which there are only about a hundred worldwide.

16 min
W for What’s Up, Doc?

22: W for What’s Up, Doc?

Professor McWhorter provides a closer look at slang and its place in language. How did English slang evolve over the centuries, and why does it keep changing? Why do we seem to be using it now more than ever? And what does texting say about the importance of slang today?

16 min
X for !Xóõ, Y for Yiddish

23: X for !Xóõ, Y for Yiddish

Take a quick trip to southern Africa on an investigation of one of a whole group of click languages called the Khoi-San family that could very well be one of Earth’s first languages. Then, follow the odd story of the “death” of a language that actually isn’t dying at all: Yiddish.

15 min
Z for Zed

24: Z for Zed

Conclude the course with a tribute to the letter Z and the accompanying sound it makes. By exploring the evolution of Z—from ancient Phoenicia to medieval England to 19th-century America—you’ll discover why this strange, often underappreciated letter is more a part of us than you think.

15 min