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The Story of Human Language | [The Great Courses, John McWhorter]

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.
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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.

Disclaimer: Please note that this recording may include references to supplemental texts or print references that are not essential to the program and not supplied with your purchase.

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

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Performance
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  •  
    TM 12-11-14
    TM 12-11-14

    TJM

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "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.

    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
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    "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
  •  
    Doris 07-20-14
    Doris 07-20-14 Member Since 2014
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    "Easy to listen to; a few errors"

    For the most part, this course is entertaining for those who enjoy fine details of how languages develop and why they are so different. The depth of detail and the speaker's knowledge of so many language structures, and his ability to reproduce sounds, is remarkable.
    I have one objection. In his efforts to be entertaining as well as informative, he speaks glibly, and occasionally incorrectly, about how or why some language oddity came to be. I particularly noticed this in the lecture on genders. He jokes quite a bit about the seeming absurdity of assigning masculine/feminine/neuter genders to inanimate objects, and even (in one example) assigning a neuter gender to the German word for "little girl." But he surely knows - and should have emphasized - that the le/la or der/die/das "genders" are merely grammatical markers for various classes of nouns that have nothing to do with a perceived sexuality of that object, and that some grammarian hundreds, even thousands, of years after the fact assigned the terms "masculine/feminine/neuter" to those markers as a way of naming the noun classes. One perfect example of this is the use of "das" for the German word for "little girl." He tosses off the assumption that the Germanic culture perceives little girls as being without sexual identity until "a certain age." This is absurd. The word is neuter because any German noun with the diminutive suffix "chen" or "lein" is automatically assigned the noun marker "das," regardless of the gender of the original noun. A linguist, or at least an etymologist, would know this and should not imply otherwise.
    Beyond that occasional problem, however, the course is quite comprehensive and very easy to listen to.

    1 of 1 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

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    "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
  •  
    Evan Whitehorse, YT, Canada 08-11-13
    Evan Whitehorse, YT, Canada 08-11-13 Member Since 2014
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    "Great investment"
    What did you love best about The Story of Human Language?

    Dr. McWhorter covers a fascinating and broad array of languages archaic and modern. He is an excellent and entertaining speaker who humanizes the material and brings it to life, making it accessible to those who know nothing about linguistics. I finished this series feeling as though I know a lot more about what languages in general are all about, and with a deeper respect.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    D. Stewart 04-03-15
    D. Stewart 04-03-15
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    "brilliant!"

    This book really covers a lot of ground on the many languages of the world!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    F. Stuart Leeds Yellow Springs, OH 04-01-15
    F. Stuart Leeds Yellow Springs, OH 04-01-15
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    "Just superb!"

    A near-letter-perfect survey of linguistics, which is not only relentlessly entertaining and engaging, but is amazingly useful as well. This is an invaluable toolbox for deciphering how and why language works the way it does. And Dr. McWhorter is brilliant, witty, and a redoubtable master of the material. Don't miss this one!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Matt 03-30-15
    Matt 03-30-15 Member Since 2014
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    "Decent overview, but largely unsatifactory"
    Is there anything you would change about this book?

    Prof McWhorter; He seems to know his stuff alright, but he is completely awkward in his performance, and much of his focus is on material and topics that I found boring.


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

    The stuff about Indo-European was pretty interesting.


    What did you like about the performance? What did you dislike?

    Prof McWhorter's jokes were awkward and almost always fell flat. He made references about obscure things, and I was often baffled about what he was talking about.


    Was The Story of Human Language worth the listening time?

    No.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Katherine Elliott Westminster, MD United States 03-26-15
    Katherine Elliott Westminster, MD United States 03-26-15 Member Since 2014
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    "Entertainingly thorough."

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

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Leslie abingdon, MD, USA 03-21-15
    Leslie abingdon, MD, USA 03-21-15 Member Since 2009
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    "Fascinating"

    Anyone who enjoys using language - or languages - should find this series of lectures about what constitutes language informative and worth the listen. Very well done.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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