We are currently making improvements to the Audible site. In an effort to enhance the accessibility experience for our customers, we have created a page to more easily navigate the new experience, available at the web address www.audible.com/access.
 >   > 
The Story of Human Language Lecture

The Story of Human Language

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.
    • 1 audiobook per month
    • 180,000+ titles to choose from
    • $14.95 per month after free trial

Publisher's Summary

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.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2004 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2004 The Great Courses

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.6 (971 )
5 star
 (681)
4 star
 (206)
3 star
 (61)
2 star
 (13)
1 star
 (10)
Overall
4.6 (871 )
5 star
 (588)
4 star
 (206)
3 star
 (57)
2 star
 (13)
1 star
 (7)
Story
4.6 (883 )
5 star
 (639)
4 star
 (177)
3 star
 (42)
2 star
 (18)
1 star
 (7)
Performance
Sort by:
  •  
    Matthew CAMARGO, OK, United States 09-15-13
    Matthew CAMARGO, OK, United States 09-15-13 Member Since 2011
    HELPFUL VOTES
    40
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    281
    7
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    0
    0
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Wonderfully informative, eye-opening, funny."
    Where does The Story of Human Language rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    In the top 5 for nonfiction!


    What other book might you compare The Story of Human Language to and why?

    So informative, yet so enjoyable, I would compare it to Bill Bryson. Only, rather than a travelogue sprinkled with humor and mishaps, this is a journey through time, touching different places and peoples around the globe.


    What about Professor John McWhorter’s performance did you like?

    I love Professor McWhorter's obvious passion for his subject and his surprising sense of humor.


    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    TM 12-11-14
    TM 12-11-14

    TJM

    HELPFUL VOTES
    158
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    76
    62
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    4
    0
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Not Really a Story"
    Any additional comments?

    It was alright.

    Perhaps I was being unrealistic, but the sample on Audible's website made me think this would really be a story of human vocal development, how language first formed and then how languages have evolved over time. And it certainly has moments of this, but I struggled to maintain interest after a while as the lecturer descended in to pedantic analysis of syllable after syllable across many languages, often speaking with great authority on unusual languages that sometimes as a Welsh speaker I felt weren't exactly true.

    After a while I started to think that entomology is really more astrology than astronomy as certain word connections across languages were authoritatively decreed as having been mutations of the same word and others authoritatively decreed as not, but my not really being convinced of what the evidence of such decrees was.

    I'm naturally skeptical and I usually try to adjust for that in my reviews, but after a while I was asking myself, "since we don't really know for sure, and since we very likely will never know for sure, what use is it?".

    As I say, it was alright.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mike T. 11-17-15
    Mike T. 11-17-15 Member Since 2015
    HELPFUL VOTES
    14
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    194
    111
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    0
    0
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "I'm a richer person for having read this."

    Absolutely fascinating. Interesting, diverse, funny and not at all hard to follow. This said by a reviewer that speaks English (badly) as a second language and has had absolutely no training in grammar or linguistics. I loves these lectures.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    J. F. Uccello 10-05-15
    HELPFUL VOTES
    3
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    10
    7
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    0
    0
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Not as advertised"
    Would you try another book from The Great Courses and John McWhorter and/or Professor John McWhorter?

    There are many great lectures in The Great Courses. This is not one of them.


    Has The Story of Human Language turned you off from other books in this genre?

    Yes.


    Would you be willing to try another one of Professor John McWhorter’s performances?

    No.


    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    Disappointment. For a lecture entitled "The Story of Human Language", this feels like a collection of cute factoids and verbal ramblings by a smug professor who prefers to show off his knowledge than present an engaging through-line on the subject suggested by the title.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Julie B atlanta, ga 06-09-15
    Julie B atlanta, ga 06-09-15 Member Since 2014

    blondie

    HELPFUL VOTES
    10
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    17
    11
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    0
    1
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Wake me up"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    Not for me. This is way too esoteric for me. I'm sure it would be great if you are a linguistic student but I don't think it is for the average person. It went into a lot of detail that was of no interest to me.


    What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

    I found it interesting the difference between spoken language and written language and how that effects the actual changes in the language over time. The rest of it was the least interesting. In fact, I only listened to about 1/4 of it.


    What aspect of Professor John McWhorter’s performance would you have changed?

    I thought he presented it fine -the material just wasn't what I expected.


    If this book were a movie would you go see it?

    No.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Forest Panzy Westminster, MD United States 03-26-15
    Forest Panzy Westminster, MD United States 03-26-15 Member Since 2014
    HELPFUL VOTES
    5
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    5
    4
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    0
    0
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Entertainingly thorough."

    I most enjoyed the professor's accent. The course I felt was very thorough but also very entertaining.well worth the time

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Claudio B. Kerber São Paulo, SP, Brazil 11-20-14
    Claudio B. Kerber São Paulo, SP, Brazil 11-20-14 Member Since 2014

    I commute 35 Km a day on my bicycle listening to Audible. I love it (both riding and listening).

    HELPFUL VOTES
    3
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    25
    8
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    0
    1
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Worth every minute"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    I would recommend it to friends interested in understanding the natural processes involving languages evolution.


    What did you like best about this story?

    I was able to understand how languages develop, merge and branch and things like "a language is a dialect with an army and borders".


    Which character – as performed by Professor John McWhorter – was your favorite?

    The professor himself. His analogies with his own life and metaphors are great.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    Yes, many times I was surprised about how things got to be the way they are. My mother tongue is portuguese and I always wondered, for example, how it came to remain beautiful and "complicated" while english became this easy ugly language we all love to use.


    Any additional comments?

    I also read "Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage" also a great book. It is nice to read both, but they have a huge overlap but the former is english centric.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pandora Victoria, British Columbia, Canada 10-13-14
    Pandora Victoria, British Columbia, Canada 10-13-14 Member Since 2011
    HELPFUL VOTES
    27
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    36
    9
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    0
    1
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Exactly what a primer should be!"

    Exactly what a primer should be! Linguistics is of course a highly specialized field, just the thought of the world's six thousand individual languages is mind numbing, but John McWhorter does a wonderful job at selecting the really fascinating key points. Stimulating, comprehensive, and funny!

    I had the pleasure of recognizing McWhorter's voice from Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and he is clearly a master. He is charming and a little nerdy. I sense he seems to think he can be terribly wicked, when really he's about as devious as Ned Flanders.

    This was a wonderful primer in being, again, so comprehensive. The lectures covered the genesis of language, but also the extinction of language, artificial languages, creoles, etc.

    I am a tour guide by profession, sharing information in long format over days, and I know just how easy it is to lose an audience getting too far into specifics, dates no one cares to know or remember, etc., which is another reason I really tip my hat to McWhorter.

    A great read!

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marc 09-29-14
    Marc 09-29-14
    HELPFUL VOTES
    94
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    27
    27
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    2
    0
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Theories on language development (+ dog tortures)"
    What did you like best about The Story of Human Language? What did you like least?

    The good thing about Great-Courses audio versions is that most of the tutors are able to show their own enthusiasm about the topic they talk about. This is true for this course as well, for sure Mr. McWhorter loves his theories and his perspective on the history of language.
    There is a lot I would discuss in depth in terms of "believability" (or call it "proof") when Mr. McWhorter just states that something "is". Where other scientists understand that seeing flaws in a theory or simply expressing doubts, these lectures have a touch of "religion" to them. I really missed the more open minded approach of other Great-Courses I listened to.

    Performance-wise I have had some problems following the narration. This is the first course that made me wish that the next break would come so that I could CONCENTRATE on something. Mr. McWhorter loves to stray from a line of thoughts (many times just in order to laugh about jokes on torturing dogs, which he finds quite funny - being a "cat person") and the way the lectures have been recorded (with him obviously just loosely following notes and vividly interacting with an audience) were distracting me. There are some sound issues when Mr. McWhorter turned his mouth away from the mike, but these weren't that hard to ignore.

    What was talked about (and I said I would like to DISCUSS rather than just "believe") basically is the "standard introduction" into the one-language-theory (that has never really convinced me and this course didn't succeed in doing so either). "How have different language evolved", "why do languages change", "how can we trace back languages to common ancestors". I don't think there was much missing from the "rough overview" and Mr. McWhorter had quite some anecdotes to tell (although his humor isn't mine, so he had to laugh on his jokes without me - that's ok). But anyone having read anything about language history won't find much "new" in here.
    Other "Great Courses" did better in giving glimpses of "there is more to this, if you liked this, you might want to look into ..."


    Would you be willing to try another book from The Great Courses and John McWhorter ? Why or why not?

    I love The Great Courses, but I doubt that I would like to passively listen to another McWhorter-Lecture. I would rather have a good cup of coffee with him and talk about some of the principles of his language-religion :-D


    What three words best describe Professor John McWhorter’s voice?

    vivid, understandable, friendly


    Was The Story of Human Language worth the listening time?

    As said above: If you have never ever heard anything about how language develops and changes (and dies), this is a GOOD overview (just don't think that those linguists have the final knowledge - they just pretend). If you actively read newspapers, magazines and have a somewhat normal connection to the world you live in (and didn't sleep all the time in history at school) the bits of this course that are "new" are some anecdotes, semi-funny incidents with dogs being kicked from a ship and the repeated fact that a 38years-old man (this course is VERY old, it must have been recorded in 2003/2004) cannot tell a 1-year old child from a 9-year old one (and finds that quite normal).
    Sorry - Mr. McWhorter started that, I am just quoting.


    Any additional comments?

    It is STILL worth the money, because WHAT is told is interesting, good to know and MAY help understanding people better.

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Judd Bagley Utah 05-20-14
    Judd Bagley Utah 05-20-14 Member Since 2015

    Max Fisher of Rushmore Academy

    HELPFUL VOTES
    211
    ratings
    REVIEWS
    93
    26
    FOLLOWERS
    FOLLOWING
    16
    0
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Non-stop Fascinating"

    I can't recall being so deeply enthralled by any content purchased on audible.com. And I've purchased a lot.
    Dr. McWhorter is a master lecturer with an uncanny grasp of languages and he simply refused to be anything but compelling during every minute of this course. So enriching. Such effective delivery.
    Cannot say enough to recommend this course for anybody who finds the nature of language the slightest bit interesting.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Sort by:
  • Chris
    6/18/15
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Fascinating Overview Of World Languages"

    This course is about languages: how they change over time, how they relate to each other and how they are created and disappear. If you are interested in how your language fits into the larger picture of the world's languages (all 6000 of them!) then this is a great place to start.

    As the course is in English, the lecturer does return to English several times as it is a perfectly good example of how a language changes, absorbs new words and grammar, and has many different dialects. However, this course is certainly not Eurocentric. Many of the interesting examples the prof. is interested come from places very distant from Europe - for example a long discussion of the different creoles in Suriname is extremely interesting.

    I feel I have learned more from this course than any of the other great courses. The facts discussed are all very interesting on their own but they are placed into a much larger systemic understanding of language change which makes them not only lone facts, but parts of a bigger whole. The course is superbly written, often witty and with analogies and metaphors that make even the most confusing aspect of language seem simple to grasp.

    I can't really explain all of the topics discussed, but needless to say he covers the entire globe, the full range of bizarre grammars and tone systems (and clicks!), and explains very well how these could have arisen and how we can make sense of the mess that is human language.

    I wholeheartedly recommend it!

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Catriona
    Lincoln, United Kingdom
    12/5/13
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "entertaining and interesting"

    I greatly enjoyed this. Professor McWhorter was lively in his delivery, throwing in odd quirky comments, such as likening languages to his cat, but keeping the pace of information going well.

    I had thought I might want to alternate with listening to fiction, but this kept me engrossed while cycling and interested enough to swop over to listening to this rather than the radio while driving.

    For those wanting to judge the level you could probably put it as being similar to the In Our Time programmes, although of course those are debate, whereas this is a series of many short lectures.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  • Thomas
    11/4/15
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Excellent run through of linguistics"

    Fantastic series on linguistics with a knowledgeable and witty lecturer. Highly recommended for anyone vaguely interested in the subject area

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

Report Inappropriate Content

If you find this review inappropriate and think it should be removed from our site, let us know. This report will be reviewed by Audible and we will take appropriate action.

Cancel

Thank you.

Your report has been received. It will be reviewed by Audible and we will take appropriate action.