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Language Families of the World

Using the tools of linguistics, undertake a voyage of discovery to uncover the origins of language families around the world and the ways languages have developed and changed over time.
Language Families of the World is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 129.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Language Families of the World Superb course - it feels like I'm in the same room having a conversation versus being lectured to...
Date published: 2022-12-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Distraction Found professor very knowledgeable but ad lib informality a distraction.
Date published: 2022-07-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Height of hypocrisy Professor McWhorter, a self-described 'lumper' (i.e., woke leveler) valorizes spoken language as real and written language as something else. Au contraire: all civilizations that made it out of the stone age into bronze times had writing, too. McWhorter, an author and academic, sings the praises of those who've never had an equal opportunity: those who unlike him, are cut off from the human possibilities that go with written language. For shame!
Date published: 2022-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative, interesting, and entertaining Professor McWhorter did a fantastic job of presenting the material in an engaging way, and the material is really fascinating, even to a non-linguist.
Date published: 2022-05-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining but I didn't learn a lot These lectures were overall good but not the best. Professor McWhorter is obviously knowledgeable and occasionally very entertaining, but his style in these lectures is very off the cuff. It is as if he sat down on the stool at the start of each lecture with the subject in mind and spoke extemporaneously for 30 minutes. It doesn't come off as very well organized or thought out. The course also comes off as a bit like rattling off a laundry list (which I suppose is what it claims to do). Each lecture has interesting facts and tidbits about languages in different parts of the world. It satisfies a lot of curiosity, and there are some truly surprising and remarkable things to learn about all these languages, but you don't come away with a new systematic understanding about linguistics, just a bunch of factoids. I think Professor McWhorter could have designed the course in a way to accomplish both of these ends.
Date published: 2022-04-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from John McWhorter is great John McWhorter could read the phone book & it would be funny & interesting. Listening to him talking about languages is a treat.
Date published: 2022-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from whirling around the world I do like Dr. McWhorter's style and his personal asides as well. (I never took them as offensive or annoying.) He certainly adds his vibrant personality to his erudition. As one person commented, I'd love to have him over for dinner too! The course certainly covered a lot of ground, as it had to, and so many topics could warrant a course of their own. I will be looking for them! I found this one entertaining and informative.
Date published: 2022-01-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Planet of Tongues To most Americans languages other than English are foreign, but nearly all people in the world grow up speaking something else. In this course Professor McWhorter classifies and summarizes most of the world’s languages according to their families. As in biology “family” refers to a common origin at the back of a branching evolutionary process. What begins as a single language can become two or ten or a hundred as its speakers spread out or find themselves cut off from each other by mountains, rivers or swamps. Their consonants and vowels gradually shift in different directions, different syllables decay and drop off and word meanings change in different ways, until their communities no longer understand each other. Linguistic estrangement speeds up whenever some speakers mingle with others from another family, borrowing words, tones and grammar wholly alien to the ancestral tongue. This tendency has no biological counterpart above the microbial level; imagine if people could add wings, fangs, gills, tentacles, bark, venom, and photosynthesis to their bodies, and then make them hereditary. We can’t do that, but our languages can. Our many families support an astonishing diversity of speech forms, with each family retaining shared features that distinguish it from others. Indo-European tongues assign their nouns to two or three genders (as in French le soleil and la lune or in German der Kopf, die Strasse, and das Licht), conjugate their verbs with suffixes (as in Russian “to understand”—ya ponimayu, ty ponimayesh’, on/ona ponimayet, my ponimayem, vy ponimayete, and oni ponimayut), and used to--or still--decline their nouns and adjectives with case suffixes (as in Latin “boy”--puer, pueri, puero, puerum, puero). English has mostly shed these aspects, but even it still has gendered and declined pronouns (he/she/it, his/her/its, and him/her/it), conjugated verbs (I go, he/she/it goes), and case endings (ship/ship’s). Chinese languages, on the other hand, do entirely without genders, cases or conjugations. They depend on four or more tones to distinguish among several identical one- or two-syllable words. The Niger-Congo languages of Sub-Saharan Africa have many more genders than Indo-European yet often tones as well. The Bantu subfamily uses prefixes rather than suffixes to mark gender, number and verb tenses. In Afro-Asiatic languages word meanings revolve around clusters of two, three or four consonants (three in Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew) and indicate tense and number by vowel changes. Eskimo-Aleut has unusually long words that carry as much meaning as whole English sentences; one example is Iminngernaveersaartunngaortussaavunga or “I should stop drinking.” The three Khoisan families of southern Africa are famous for their “click” sounds that occur nowhere else except in one Australian language. Polynesian languages of the Austronesian family have only eight consonants compared to English’s thirty and only five vowels, so they must compound syllables in larger groups. For example, one type of fish is called humuhumunukunukuapua’a. What can one say to that but “aloha”? Some languages are orphans. Many are isolates, families with just one (or one surviving) member, like Ainu in Japan or long-dead Etruscan in Italy. McWhorter’s favorite is Ket, spoken in Siberia by just a few hundred. Many others are, or were, spoken by American Indians. There are also pidgins, highly simplified speech forms that develop through trade and other contact between speakers of very different languages. One of these is Tok Pisin (i.e. “talk business”) in Australia. When “other contact” involves raising children, pidgins have become creoles--whole languages with their own grammar and style. The course is not perfect. Some of the material McWhorter has already covered in his 2004 The Story of Human Language, including his use of “snusos” (sister-in-law) as an example of how historical linguists can reconstruct words in unwritten mother languages like Proto-Indo-European. There are at least a couple of factual errors due to avoidable sloppiness. In Lecture 22 he refers to Etruscan civilization as “a sophisticated monarchy” rather than a bunch of city-states that were more likely republics than hereditary kingships. At another point he implies that the remains of tartan-clad people found in northeastern China were Celts; instead they would have spoken Tocharian, and I’m sure he knows that. Finally, I find it irksome that the course has only thirty-four rather than thirty-six lectures. It should have been easy to add two more, perhaps one on the Niger-Congo family and another on New Guinea, which has, as he says, two dozen families. I highly recommend the course anyways, especially for those with a strong interest in foreign languages. Its worldwide overview will stun you with the nearly infinite possibilities of human speech. It’s a wonder anyone can understand anyone else. If you thought learning French, Spanish or German in school was difficult, remember that all three belong to the same language family as English. Try instead something really wild, like the South Caucasian Archi, in which a verb can take up to 1,502,839 different forms.
Date published: 2021-11-10
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In Language Families of the World, Professor John McWhorter takes you back through time and around the world, following the linguistic trails left by generations of humans that lead back to the beginnings of language. Utilizing historical theories and cutting-edge research, these 34 astonishing lectures will introduce you to the major language families of the world and their many offspring, including a variety of languages that are no longer spoken but provide vital links between past and present.


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
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

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


Why Are There So Many Languages?

01: Why Are There So Many Languages?

There are over 7,000 languages in the world and many linguists believe they likely all developed from a single source language in the distant past. Get an introduction to the concept of language families, understand how languages change over time, and discover what linguistics can teach us about our own history.

30 min
The First Family Discovered: Indo-European

02: The First Family Discovered: Indo-European

While the Indo-European family of languages was not the first group to be identified as related, it is the family that has received much of the research and classification that became the basis of modern linguistics. Uncover what defines Indo-European languages, which include Latin, English, French, Armenian, Latvian, Sanskrit, and many more.

28 min
Indo-European Languages in Europe

03: Indo-European Languages in Europe

Begin a deep dive into the earliest roots of Indo-European languages with a look at Germanic, Romance, Balto-Slavic, Greek, Albanian, and Celtic languages. See how Indo-European languages contradict common notions about how language works and uncover some of the mysteries that are yet to be solved.

29 min
Indo-European Languages in Asia

04: Indo-European Languages in Asia

One-fifth to one-sixth of the world speaks one of the Indo-European languages of India. Trace back to the branching of the Indo-European tree, when the European languages split from the Indo-Aryan varieties like Sanskrit that would become Hindi and others. Explore many variations that evolved and see why it can be so difficult to differentiate between a language and a dialect.

28 min
The Click Languages

05: The Click Languages

Shift from Indo-European to some of the most endangered languages in the world: the “click” languages, formally known as Khoisan. Spoken in southern Africa, these endangered languages share a distinctive profile, and yet likely did not all come from a single family. Explore where they may have begun and how they work.

24 min
Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa I

06: Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa I

The Niger-Congo family consists of anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 different languages. While they are part of the same family, they do not adhere to an identified pattern like Indo-European. What links this immense family together? What is the essence of the Niger-Congo? What can these languages tell us about migration patterns? Explore these questions and more.

29 min
Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa II

07: Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa II

Look closer at some of the unique aspects of the Niger-Congo family, including the use of tone, and see how different languages can spring from the same original materials. Since the work of classifying languages is on-going, you may be surprised to see how many can develop in proximity and share words but be part of different groups altogether.

30 min
Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond I

08: Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond I

Follow the migration of peoples from Africa to the Middle East by looking at the language family that developed in the Fertile Crescent: Afro-Asiatic. This first look at this family focuses on the widely known Semitic branch, which includes Arabic and Hebrew. Examine what defines this group of languages and uncover the roots of the first alphabets.

30 min
Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond II

09: Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond II

Move beyond the Semitic languages to look at other subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic, including what some call the “Berber” subfamily and several other subfamilies spoken south of the Sahara, and see what they can teach us about the nature of language. Close with a look at Somali oral poetry and its complex use of alliteration.

28 min
Nilo-Saharan: Africa’s Hardest Languages?

10: Nilo-Saharan: Africa’s Hardest Languages?

Afro-Asiatic languages are prevalent in the north of the African continent, and Niger-Congo in the south, with a narrow band of a third family running between: Nilo-Saharan. The Nilo-Saharan languages are immensely different from each other, so how do linguists know they are related? Examine the unique features of this family.

26 min
Is the Indo-European Family Alone in Europe?

11: Is the Indo-European Family Alone in Europe?

Meet the other family of languages in Europe: Uralic, which includes Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian. Eccentric and tidy at the same time, this family stretches across the north of Europe and into Russia and parts of Asia. See why Turkish was once thought to be part of this family and how Uralic languages differ from Indo-European and others.

27 min
How to Identify a Language Family

12: How to Identify a Language Family

How do linguists establish connections between languages and determine their common roots when it is nearly impossible to see a language change in real time? Take a look at the languages of Polynesia to see how changes can be followed backwards to reveal connections between different languages, then turn to the Indo-European and Uralic families.

29 min
What Is a Caucasian Language?

13: What Is a Caucasian Language?

Named for the Caucasus mountains where they originate, the Caucasian languages are actually three different families: Northwestern, Northeastern, and a Southern one that includes Georgian. Explore these grammatically complex languages to better understand how they work and how so many different varieties can spring from a relatively small area.

26 min
Indian Languages That Aren’t Indo-European

14: Indian Languages That Aren’t Indo-European

The “Big Four” languages (and many others) of southern India are not part of the Indo-European family but rather the Dravidian. Look at what the distribution of Dravidian languages says about where they come from and how they got where they are now—including some languages on the brink of extinction—and explore some of their unique features.

27 min
Languages of the Silk Road and Beyond

15: Languages of the Silk Road and Beyond

The languages called Altaic are spoken across Asia, from Turkey through Mongolia and to northeastern regions of Asia. Understand why there is some debate among linguists as to whether they comprise one family or are made of three separate ones as you look at how these languages function, including nuances like a mood known as “evidentiality.”

28 min
Japanese and Korean: Alike yet Unrelated

16: Japanese and Korean: Alike yet Unrelated

Are Japanese and Korean part of the Altaic family? They share some features of the other Altaic languages, yet some linguists believe they are separate. Take a brief foray through the fascinating Japanese writing system as you look deeper into the language. Then, turn to Korean, comparing and contrasting it with Japanese and other Asian languages.

29 min
The Languages We Call Chinese

17: The Languages We Call Chinese

Explore the Asian languages beyond Japanese and Korean, looking into several families along the way. See why Mandarin and Cantonese, though both considered Chinese, are a classic example of two different languages being mistaken for dialects—thanks in part to a shared writing system and cultural proximity.

29 min
Chinese’s Family Circle: Sino-Tibetan

18: Chinese’s Family Circle: Sino-Tibetan

Chinese is one branch of the Sino-Tibetan family and the other branch, Tibeto-Burman, consists of around 400 languages spoken in southern China, northeastern India, and Burma. Look at features of languages from both branches and see what linguists can assume about the proto-language from which they may have sprung.

28 min
Southeast Asian Languages: The Sinosphere

19: Southeast Asian Languages: The Sinosphere

How can languages that have very different origins still seem to be structurally related? To find out, look at the concept of a Sprachbrund and understand why contact is just as influential as origin when it comes to resemblances between otherwise unrelated languages—in this case, the influence of Chinese on other Asian languages.

25 min
Languages of the South Seas I

20: Languages of the South Seas I

Journey to the South Seas to begin an investigation into Austronesian, one of the world’s largest and most widespread language families. See what connects Austronesian languages to other families, as well as how they differ from European languages, and trace the way Austronesian languages have spread across far-flung locations.

26 min
Languages of the South Seas II

21: Languages of the South Seas II

The languages of Polynesia are estimated to be some of the newest languages in the world, emerging only in the last millenium. Look back to the earliest cultures of the Polynesian islands to see how the languages likely originated and were disseminated, branching into separate sub-groups like Oceanic and the three that are all spoken on the small island of Formosa.

27 min
Siberia and Beyond: Language Isolates

22: Siberia and Beyond: Language Isolates

How do some languages end up isolated amidst other, unrelated families? Look at pockets of language in Siberia, Spain, and Japan that are not related to those that surround them and better understand what the nature of language—and human migration and settlement patterns—can tell us about these unique places.

27 min
Creole Languages

23: Creole Languages

Since all languages come from one original language, technically no one language is older than another. However, when two languages are forced into proximity, often a makeshift fusion of the two can emerge as a new language, known as a creole. Learn how a hierarchical, stopgap form of communication can become a true language.

33 min
Why Are There So Many Languages in New Guinea?

24: Why Are There So Many Languages in New Guinea?

Turn your attention to one of the most linguistically rich places on Earth: the island of New Guinea, and discover why, thanks to its history and isolating terrain, it is home to hundreds of languages in a relatively small area. See how pronouns allow linguists to find connections between these languages, and explore some of their unusual traits.

29 min
The Languages of Australia I

25: The Languages of Australia I

Once the home of over 250 languages, Australia now only has about a dozen languages that will be passed to sizable generations of children. Take a look at some of the over two dozen language families in Australia and better understand how both separation from a common ancestor and proximity to a different language will cause a language to change in different ways.

25 min
The Languages of Australia II

26: The Languages of Australia II

Continue your examination of the languages of Australia, including the first Australian language to be documented by Europeans. Many of these languages present a case study in language obsolescence (as English dominates the continent) and language mixture (the emergence of creole languages due to European contact).

29 min
The Original American Languages I

27: The Original American Languages I

Like Australia, North America was home to at least 300 distinct languages before English became dominant. Professor McWhorter takes you through some of the theories linguists have regarding the relationship of various Native American languages and the origins of humans and their varieties of speech on the North American continent.

30 min
The Original American Languages II

28: The Original American Languages II

Zoom in on some of the larger families of North America and gain valuable insight into what they can tell us about language in general. You will get the chance to examine languages that are on the brink of extinction today, see which languages have contributed words currently used in American English, and more.

26 min
The Original American Languages III

29: The Original American Languages III

Continue your journey through the languages of North America, including a language that uses no sounds that require the lips to touch. As you look at the unique grammatical features of languages across the continent, you will also consider what happens when languages die out and their complexities are lost to future generations.

28 min
The Original American Languages IV

30: The Original American Languages IV

Follow Native American migrations to encounter the language families that moved south to take root in Central and South America. From a language variety that incorporates whistling to some with object-subject-verb word order—and even one that resulted from a mass kidnapping—you will experience a range of fascinating linguistic developments.

29 min
Languages Caught between Families

31: Languages Caught between Families

The line between different language families is often blurred. Languages from different families that have been brought together can create a hybrid that belongs to both, and every combination happens in different ways and to varying degrees. Look at several examples of this phenomenon (which even includes English).

28 min
How Far Back Can We Trace Languages?

32: How Far Back Can We Trace Languages?

Embark on a quest that some believe may be impossible: tracing the relationships between the macro language families. See how the pursuit of evidence connecting the language families is complicated by time, accidental similarities, lost languages, and more, as you also look at several plausible theories that could offer solutions.

28 min
What Do Genes Say about Language Families?

33: What Do Genes Say about Language Families?

The idiosyncrasies that show up in DNA allow us to trace back to common ancestors, much like language traits allow us to chart language-family relationships. Take a look at the concept of glottochronology and see what linguistic theories have been confirmed by genetics in places like Europe, India, and Polynesia—as well as some surprises.

30 min
Language Families and Writing Systems

34: Language Families and Writing Systems

What do writing systems tell us about language? Better understand why writing actually tells us more about human ingenuity in communication than it tells us about spoken language. Close with a consideration of the cultural importance of language, its preservation and loss, and the realities of a more linguistically homogeneous future.

32 min