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The Story of Human Language

Discover the fascinating history of human language-from its beginning as a single tongue spoken some 300,000 years ago to the estimated 7,000 languages spoken today.
The Story of Human Language is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 253.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent introduction, highly recommended I was impressed by how much of this I absorbed. I have zero prior knowledge and kept pace with the content. Selfishly I found the elements about the history of the English language more interesting and potentially why I initially started the course. However Dr McWhorter has such a vast knowledge that he was able to cover the whole world and I was able follow it without any prior knowledge. I'm definitely going to look at more and run through this course again.
Date published: 2021-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Foundation on the Topic I've been binging Great Courses for the last few months and this one is one of the very best I've seen. Dr McWhorter is incredibly knowledgable on the topic as well as being a natural and relaxed speaker, feeling much less "rehearsed" than most of the other GC lecturers. It is good to keep in mind that this topic is an active area of study and these lectures were recorded quite a few years ago, so some of the ideas presented might have changed or gone in new directions in the intervening time. Still, this course provides a solid foundation for people who are interested in linguistics and hopefully will encourage people who are truly curious to do more reading and research on their own.
Date published: 2021-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent introduction to linguistics. I am a French and Spanish teacher in a secondary school and was looking for a course to have a better understanding of how languages evolve. This has been a fascinating course provided in an engaging way. It is thirty years since i attended University and i really needed such a course to captivate me and motivate me further in delivering language courses. This has been an invaluable and mind-blowing few days following John Mac Worther's delivery of a compelling and rich content. Many thanks for such a course that I have thoroughly enjoyed! I will advise my fellow languages teachers to follow the course or read the script. merci beaucoup!
Date published: 2021-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An appropriate title for the content. I've listened twice, so far, to these lectures. They are chocked full of interesting information.
Date published: 2021-05-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I like this lecturer I like Prof McWhorter so have been watching his lectures streaming on Plus. I am not sure I retain much, but his style is entertaining and easy to listen to. When I am listening, my teens or husband stroll through the room, and stop to listen to his lecture without being invited to listen... these are people who like to watch explosions and anime. :) So that may give you an idea how nice it is to listen to this Professor. Now, I have just started this "Story of Human Language" series of lectures after watching the others, and this one is from 2004. I'm sure it will be good but the fact that it is older is making me worry and wonder how much I will like this set.
Date published: 2021-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easy to Understand I watched these lectures because the title intrigued me, and each of the lectures were relatively short. I found them very informative and interesting. I enjoyed Dr. McWhorter's easygoing style, and I appreciated his occasional "extra," usually humorous, comments both of which made the lectures seem much more like conversation than lecture.
Date published: 2021-02-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointed Professor McWhorter is an accomplished and very intelligent lecturer. He obviously is very proficient in his field, and his speaking style is relaxed and instructive. My only complaint was that his thought stream was often ahead of his speaking. Sometimes, he was just hard to follow. Previously, I had seen some of his recorded lectures and I thought they were excellent. Linguistics is a fascinating topic that I wanted to learn more about. So, when I saw that “The Great Courses” offered these lectures, I jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, I was disappointed because many of the lectures were somewhat boring. This may have been my fault – perhaps, Prof. McWhorter is simply over my head? However, these lectures did offer many interesting insights. For instance, some animals can learn words, but they can't use them grammatically or abstractly. He discussed how children can learn a language without an accent, but when humans learn a language at an older age, they almost always will have an accent. I have seen this with some of my friends when I was a child. He discussed Noam Chomsky and his theories that humans have genes that facilitate language. Another interesting discussion was how we learn languages such as French or German in High School, but they become very difficult to use in their native countries because they often don't match the vernacular. I saw this often when I tried to speak French or German overseas. He also reviewed how there are approximately 6,000 spoken languages and about 200 written ones. There is one written system for the several Chinese dialects, and one written system for several Arabic dialects. When we speak, we use shorter sentences than when we write. The above are just a few of the interesting insights offered by Prof. McWhorter. The end result is a course that covers many interesting issues, however, there are times where the lectures slow down and lose their vitality. Nevertheless, I recommend the course as an effective way to learn about linguistics.
Date published: 2020-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and very informative The discussion of the development of human language is absolutely amazing. The instructor was very explanatory and covered the material effectively.
Date published: 2020-10-06
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Dr. John McWhorter, one of America's leading linguists and a frequent commentator on network television and National Public Radio, takes you on a fascinating, 36-lecture tour of the development of human language-he unfolds the story of how a single tongue spoken 300,000 years ago may have evolved into the estimated 7,000 languages used worldwide today. Discover why, for the past century, linguistics has been one of the most exciting and productive fields in the social sciences.


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.


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
Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage
Language A to Z
What Is Language?

01: What Is Language?

Professor John McWhorter introduces the course by exploring two questions: What distinguishes the language ability of humans from the signaling system of animals, and when did humans first acquire language?

29 min
When Language Began

02: When Language Began

We look at evidence that language is an innate ability of the human brain, an idea linked to Noam Chomsky. But many linguists and psychologists see language as one facet of cognition rather than as a separate ability.

30 min
How Language Changes-Sound Change

03: How Language Changes-Sound Change

The first of five lectures on language change examines how sounds evolve, exemplified by the Great Vowel Shift in English and the complex tone system in Chinese.

30 min
How Language Changes-Building New Material

04: How Language Changes-Building New Material

Language change is not just sound erosion and morphing, but the building of new words and constructions. This lecture shows how such developments lead to novel grammatical features.

30 min
How Language Changes-Meaning and Order

05: How Language Changes-Meaning and Order

The meaning of a word changes over time. Silly first meant "blessed" and acquired its current sense through a series of gradual steps. Word order also changes: In Old English, the verb usually came at the end of a sentence.

31 min
How Language Changes-Many Directions

06: How Language Changes-Many Directions

The first language has evolved into 6,000 because language change takes place in many directions. Latin split in this way into the Romance languages as changes proceeded differently in each area where the Romans brought Latin.

30 min
How Language Changes-Modern English

07: How Language Changes-Modern English

As recently as Shakespeare, English words had meanings different enough to interfere with our understanding of his language today. Even by the 1800s, Jane Austen's work is full of sentences that would now be considered errors.

30 min
Language Families-Indo-European

08: Language Families-Indo-European

The first of four lectures on language families introduces Indo-European, which probably began in the southern steppes of Russia around 4000 B.C. and then spread westward to most of Europe and eastward to Iran and India.

30 min
Language Families-Tracing Indo-European

09: Language Families-Tracing Indo-European

Linguists have reconstructed the proto-language of the Indo-Europeans by comparing the modern languages. Applying this process, we learn the Proto-Indo-European word for sister-in-law that was spoken 6,000 years ago.

30 min
Language Families-Diversity of Structures

10: Language Families-Diversity of Structures

Semitic languages assign basic meanings to three-consonant sequences and create words by altering the vowels around them. In Sino-Tibetan languages, a sentence tends to leave more to context than we often imagine possible.

30 min
Language Families-Clues to the Past

11: Language Families-Clues to the Past

The distribution of language families shows how humans have spread through migration. We trace the Austronesian language family to its origins on Formosa. Similar work sheds light on the history of Africa and North America.

30 min
The Case Against the World's First Language

12: The Case Against the World's First Language

A few linguists have claimed to reconstruct words from the world's first language, but this work is extremely controversial. Professor McWhorter presents the case against this theory, called the "Proto-World" hypothesis.

31 min
The Case For the World's First Language

13: The Case For the World's First Language

Despite the hostility of most linguists to the Proto-World hypothesis, there is increasing evidence that many of the world's language families do trace to "mega-ancestors," even if evidence for a Proto-World remains lacking.

30 min
Dialects-Subspecies of Species

14: Dialects-Subspecies of Species

The first of five lectures on dialects probes the nature of these "languages within languages." Dialects are variations on a common theme, rather than bastardizations of a "legitimate" standard variety.

30 min
Dialects-Where Do You Draw the Line?

15: Dialects-Where Do You Draw the Line?

Dialects of one language can be called languages simply because they are spoken in different countries, such as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. The reverse is also true: The Chinese "dialects" are distinctly different languages.

30 min
Dialects-Two Tongues in One Mouth

16: Dialects-Two Tongues in One Mouth

Diglossia is the sociological division of labor in many societies between two languages, with a "high" one used in formal contexts and a "low" one used in casual ones-as in High German and Swiss German in Switzerland.

30 min
Dialects-The Standard as Token of the Past

17: Dialects-The Standard as Token of the Past

When a dialect of a language is used widely in writing and literacy is high, the normal pace of change is artificially slowed, as people come to see "the language" as on the page and inviolable. This helps create diglossia.

30 min
Dialects-Spoken Style, Written Style

18: Dialects-Spoken Style, Written Style

We often see the written style of language as how it really "is" or "should be." But in fact, writing allows uses of language that are impossible when a language is only a spoken one.

31 min
Dialects-The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar

19: Dialects-The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar

Understanding language change and how languages differ helps us see that what is often labeled "wrong" about people's speech is, in fact, a misanalysis.

30 min
Language Mixture-Words

20: Language Mixture-Words

The first language's 6,000 branches have not only diverged into dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another on all levels. The first of three lectures on language mixture looks at how this process applies to words.

30 min
Language Mixture-Grammar

21: Language Mixture-Grammar

Languages also mix their grammars. For example, Yiddish is a dialect of German, but it has many grammatical features from Slavic languages like Polish. There are no languages without some signs of grammar mixture.

29 min
Language Mixture-Language Areas

22: Language Mixture-Language Areas

When unrelated or distantly related languages are spoken in the same area for long periods, they tend to become more grammatically similar because of widespread bilingualism.

30 min
Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty

23: Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty

A great deal of a language's grammar is a kind of overgrowth, marking nuances that many or most languages do without. Even the gender marking of European languages is a frill, absent in thousands of other languages.

31 min
Language Interrupted

24: Language Interrupted

Generally, a language spoken by a small, isolated group will be much more complicated than English. Languages are "streamlined" in this way when history leads them to be learned more as second languages than as first ones.

30 min
A New Perspective on the Story of English

25: A New Perspective on the Story of English

We trace English back to its earliest discernible roots in Proto-Indo-European and follow its fascinating development, including an ancient encounter with a language possibly related to Arabic and Hebrew.

30 min
Does Culture Drive Language Change?

26: Does Culture Drive Language Change?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that features of our grammars channel how we think. Professor McWhorter discusses the evidence for and against this controversial but widely held view.

30 min
Language Starts Over-Pidgins

27: Language Starts Over-Pidgins

This lecture is the first of five on how human ingenuity spins new languages out of old through the creation of pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a stripped-down version of a language suitable for passing, utilitarian use.

30 min
Language Starts Over-Creoles I

28: Language Starts Over-Creoles I

Creoles emerge when pidgin speakers use the pidgin as an everyday language. Creoles are spoken throughout the world, wherever history has forced people to expand a pidgin into a full language.

31 min
Language Starts Over-Creoles II

29: Language Starts Over-Creoles II

As new languages, creoles don't have as many frills as older languages, but they do have complexities. Like real languages, creoles change over time, have dialects, and mix with other languages.

31 min
Language Starts Over-Signs of the New

30: Language Starts Over-Signs of the New

Creoles are the only languages that lack or have very little of the grammatical traits that emerge over time. In this, creole grammars are the closest to what the grammar of the first language was probably like.

30 min
Language Starts Over-The Creole Continuum

31: Language Starts Over-The Creole Continuum

Just as one dialect shades into another, "creoleness" is a continuum concept. Once we know this, we are in a position to put the finishing touches on our conception of how speech varieties are distributed across the globe.

30 min
What Is Black English?

32: What Is Black English?

Using insights developed in the course to this point, Professor McWhorter takes a fresh look at Black English, tracing its roots to regional English spoken in Britain and Ireland several centuries ago.

30 min
Language Death-The Problem

33: Language Death-The Problem

Just as there is an extinction crisis among many of the world's animals and plants, it is estimated that 5,500 of the world's languages will no longer be spoken in 2100.

31 min
Language Death-Prognosis

34: Language Death-Prognosis

There are many movements to revive dying languages. We explore the reasons that success is so elusive. For one, people often see their unwritten native language as less "legitimate" than written ones used in popular media.

30 min
Artificial Languages

35: Artificial Languages

There have been many attempts to create languages for use by the whole world. The most successful is Esperanto. Sign languages for the deaf are also artificial languages, though ones fully equipped with grammar, nuance, and dialects.

30 min
Finale-Master Class

36: Finale-Master Class

Professor McWhorter concludes with an etymological sampling of the English language, tracing the origin of every word in the sentence: While the snow fell, she arrived to ask about their fee.

31 min