Language A to Z
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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”).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.