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The Story of Human Language (2004)

de John McWhorter

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2329118,208 (4.45)54
Language Arts. Nonfiction. HTML:

Language defines us as a species, placing humans head and shoulders above even the most proficient animal communicators. But it also beguiles us with its endless mysteries, allowing us to ponder why different languages emerged, why there isn't simply a single language, how languages change over time and whether that's good or bad, and how languages die out and become extinct. Now you can explore all of these questions and more in an in-depth series of 36 lectures from one of America's leading linguists. You'll be witness to the development of human language, learning how a single tongue spoken 150,000 years ago evolved into the estimated 6,000 languages used around the world today and gaining an appreciation of the remarkable ways in which one language sheds light on another. The many fascinating topics you examine in these lectures include: the intriguing evidence that links a specific gene to the ability to use language; the specific mechanisms responsible for language change; language families and the heated debate over the first language; the phenomenon of language mixture; why some languages develop more grammatical machinery than they actually need; the famous hypothesis that says our grammars channel how we think; artificial languages, including Esperanto and sign languages for the deaf; and how word histories reflect the phenomena of language change and mixture worldwide.

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Es mostren 1-5 de 9 (següent | mostra-les totes)
This is absolutely fascinating stuff, even if you aren't a linguist.
However, I have a linguistic background, which is probably why I chose this course in the first place.

There were things I vaguely remembered from my language studies, but there was lots more that was entirely new to me.
Mr McWorther's presentation of it was great! Very clear, quite extensive, and very knowledgeable about the subject matter.

I'd recommend this course to everyone who has even a remote interest in human language. ( )
  Belana | Dec 15, 2021 |
Really fascinating material here. I'd consider listening to another lecture series by this author. However, he did have some odd choices of example or phrasing. For the most part I didn't have any problems (and he tends to use cats as comparisons to languages a lot, which I found very cute). But every now and then he'd say something that would make me pause and which felt a bit weird. I can't remember them now -- they weren't bad enough to make me remember them, and they certainly weren't intentionally offensive. Just weird.

As to the course itself, I expected a slightly different approach than he took. He acknowledged this at the end, mentioning that if he had bought the course as a listener, he would have expected this to be a set on how words change and enter a language. The last lecture was exactly and entirely that, and after listening to it I am glad the course wasn't what I expected. It turns out that the story of how languages grow and change and die and form is a lot more interesting than I had realized. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Linguistics. ( )
  ca.bookwyrm | May 18, 2020 |
Fascinating! Really enjoyed this! ( )
  rbartholomew | May 21, 2017 |
The Story of Human Language is a college-level introduction to linguistics, from the basics of what language is and how words change to the development of pidgins and creoles. The author, John McWhorter, includes interesting examples from many languages, including languages that most Westerners have never heard of.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the CDs (I had the audio not DVD version) and reading the course guidebook. McWhorter knows the material and presents it clearly with interesting examples. He covered many topics, but left me wanting to read more on this topic. And that is what a good teacher does -- inspire students to learn more!

My only complaint is that occasionally he went on for 2-3 sentences about something tangential to the topic. I know this was his personal style, but I wanted maximum linguistic knowledge in my 30-minute lecture!

Would I read/listen to this again? Yes, and I already did. I would whole-heartedly recommend the CD version to anyone who wants an introduction to linguistics and has a long commute! ( )
  LMHTWB | Mar 17, 2012 |
I took a course on linguistics in college, but still learned a ton from these lectures. For instance, McWhorter describes how languages acquire grammar when words which originally meant something specific gradually turn into suffixes, prefixes and particles. Obviously, people don’t come together one day and say, “Let’s add ‘ed’ to all the action words when we talk about what happened in the past to show that we’re talking about the past.” The author uses as example the French negative which has “ne” in front of the verb, like most European languages, but then also “pas” after it. According to McWhorter, it started like an affectation when people said that somebody won’t walk a step (pas), won’t drink a drop, or won’t eat a crumb, by way of strengthening a negative. Eventually, the fad with drops and crumbs passed, but the one with steps remained, faded from a colorful to a normal expression (as many colorful expressions which don’t disappear with time do, the author says), became normal, and then became the norm for all negative sentences – by then nobody thought of “pas” as “step” – it simply began to mean the negative in this context.

McWhorter also says that languages tend to become increasingly and unnecessarily complex if not checked by vast waves of new arrivals or spreading literacy which tends to slow down any language change. He explains the fact that English is considerably simpler in comparison with most other European languages and Old English by the big numbers of Vikings who settled there, intermarried and generally intermingled with the natives, but didn’t bother learning the “whole” language and passed their simplified version – no gender for nouns and adjectives, no conjugal verb endings, except for “s” in 3rd person singular in the simple present tense, no case endings for nouns – to future generations. But even with these simplifications, English has plenty of unnecessary grammatical features, such as articles and a plethora of past tenses. (Consider the grammatically correct phrase “I have finished the book that the teacher had given me” and the phrase “I finished book that teacher gave me.” Has any meaning been lost?) And if a language doesn’t have articles and multiple past tenses, it may have sentence-final particles which lets the other person know that the statement was meant assertively, or is a reply to his/her question, or marks some other kind of attitude which English speakers leave to context or intonation. Many East Asian languages have such particles; Cantonese has 30 of them. And you can’t omit them, anymore than articles in English – it’s part of grammar. Many of these languages also have classifiers used with plural nouns. Like in English one can’t say “three cattle” and has to say “three heads of cattle,” in these languages one has to use classifiers like “heads” with every noun. Moreover, all the nouns are divided into dozens of groups, each of which has its own classifier. And if a language doesn’t have any of these features, it may have evidential markers, which signify whether you’ve come by the information you’re sharing by hearing it, or seeing what’s happened, or by one of the other myriad of possible ways of obtaining information. The author doesn’t say what exactly compels languages to develop unnecessary grammatical categories, such as genders, conjugations, articles, more than three tenses, sentence-final particles, evidential markers, classifiers and many other curious features, the cumbersome uselessness of which one often doesn’t think about till one tries to learn a foreign language – or teach one’s own language to a foreigner. Do all such features start with an affectation? And where does that come from? A elite’s desire to separate itself from the masses who in turn start mimicking the elite? Youth’s desire to be different which is then passed on to their children? In short, is it the human desire to show off that drives languages to become overly complex in all sorts of bizarre ways? Or is it an attempt to find a stronger, more colorful expression that eventually begins to sound normal and then sometimes becomes fossilized in our speech? In short, is it our emotion that produces this overabundance of grammatical categories? Or is it our tendency to classify everything into groups – that is, our logic? Or, perhaps, all of the above? The author doesn’t discuss what drives this phenomenon, and so I’m left to wonder.

He does discuss at length how new languages are born and how languages die (in the same stages, happening in the opposite order), shows how the distribution of languages, as well as their influences on each other, illuminate history too ancient to be recorded, and how the languages which originated the current language families are reconstructed.

My only complaint with McWhorter’s lectures is that he has a bias in favor of oral languages which he often describes as “natural” and “real” languages, while “the Oxford Standard Dictionary and the prose of Milton are historical curiosities, departures from the ‘natural,’ similar to dogs that bring in the newspaper.” Of course, the major difference here is that no dog starts bringing in the newspaper on its own accord, no matter how many times it sees its humans reading it, while writing systems and literatures arose independently in vastly different cultures over 5,000 years of human history. McWhorter himself once slips out of his PC stance when he writes the following introduction to Lecture 18 in his course guidebook: “Written languages do have certain what you might call advantages over oral languages. Sometimes you’re not supposed to say this too loud, like many things that are true, but a written language has a larger and richer vocabulary than a solely oral language. And in many ways, it has a more elaborate kind of syntax and other ways of arranging its words to convey meaning.” As I was reading this, I couldn’t help smiling wryly over the contradiction between our society’s outward emphasis on always telling the truth and the fact that “many things that are true” “you’re not supposed to say… too loud” and even more so over the awkward phrasing of this paragraph – of written language, no less. Why “do have certain what you might call advantages” rather than simply “do have certain advantages”? And why “a more elaborate kind of syntax” instead of simply “a more elaborate syntax”? As a linguist, McWhorter can’t be unaware of these filler words in his sentences; so it feels like he’s trying to apologize for once letting slip something somebody somewhere may not be happy to hear by manifesting his discomfort over having to admit this fact. It seems to me that his bias towards oral languages leads him to overemphasize the difference between the written and spoken language, for instance, by claiming that some features of spoken American English generally considered ungrammatical, such as the use of double negatives, substitution of “who” for “whom,” or constructs like “Bill and me” are much more widespread than I personally have observed them to be in real life, apparently to be able to claim that universality should bring these practices legitimacy (Hey, no one really talks “correctly” outside of the classroom!). And since he exaggerates this gap with English, I don’t know how much I can trust him when he makes similar claims for other languages, e.g. that the difference between Standard Arabic used in print and media and spoken Arabic (different in each country) is so great that it’s practically like different mutually-unintelligible languages, or that ever since the Middle Ages everybody in France has been dropping “ne” in negative phrases in conversation, leaving only the “pas,” and that “French people on all levels of society” have been saying “on” with 3rd person singular instead of “nous” with 1st person plural for “we” for centuries. (Curiously enough, on the other hand, he doesn’t even mention the two practices in the English language which really are very widespread, occurring even in written language, including his own course guidebook, but that quite a few people still disapprove of, namely the splitting of the infinitive and relegating the preposition in certain cases to the end of the sentence.)

On the whole, however, I quite enjoyed these lectures. McWhorter has a very engaging presentation style and certainly knows how to keep his audience interested. ( )
  Ella_Jill | Jul 27, 2011 |
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Language Arts. Nonfiction. HTML:

Language defines us as a species, placing humans head and shoulders above even the most proficient animal communicators. But it also beguiles us with its endless mysteries, allowing us to ponder why different languages emerged, why there isn't simply a single language, how languages change over time and whether that's good or bad, and how languages die out and become extinct. Now you can explore all of these questions and more in an in-depth series of 36 lectures from one of America's leading linguists. You'll be witness to the development of human language, learning how a single tongue spoken 150,000 years ago evolved into the estimated 6,000 languages used around the world today and gaining an appreciation of the remarkable ways in which one language sheds light on another. The many fascinating topics you examine in these lectures include: the intriguing evidence that links a specific gene to the ability to use language; the specific mechanisms responsible for language change; language families and the heated debate over the first language; the phenomenon of language mixture; why some languages develop more grammatical machinery than they actually need; the famous hypothesis that says our grammars channel how we think; artificial languages, including Esperanto and sign languages for the deaf; and how word histories reflect the phenomena of language change and mixture worldwide.

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