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The Story of Human Language Lecture

The Story of Human Language

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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.

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 (1923 )
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  •  
    Claudio B. Kerber São Paulo, SP, Brazil 11-20-14
    Claudio B. Kerber São Paulo, SP, Brazil 11-20-14 Member Since 2017

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

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    "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.

    2 of 2 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!

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Haviv 03-22-17
    Haviv 03-22-17
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    "Extraordinary"

    Long and comprehensive, but somehow never stops being interesting. It's a survey of the fundamental concepts that drive the study of language, but at no point does McWhorter forget to link a particular insight or example to the broader human experience it represents. The result is a window into maybe the most basic and defining human activity, from an expert who seems to love the act of teaching as much as he loves his fascinating and challenging subject. I loved it more than I ever expected to.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mike T. 11-17-15
    Mike T. 11-17-15 Member Since 2017
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    "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
  •  
    Judd Bagley 05-20-14
    Judd Bagley 05-20-14 Member Since 2017

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

    TJM

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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.

    6 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Matthew CAMARGO, OK, United States 09-15-13
    Matthew CAMARGO, OK, United States 09-15-13 Member Since 2011
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    "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 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marc 09-29-14
    Marc 09-29-14
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    "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.

    5 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer 06-25-17 Member Since 2017
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    "Fantastic!"

    If you have any interest at all in linguistics, history or anthropology, get this course! It was engaging, and the professor was funny (in a dorky, academic way). This is a lot more than just tracing word histories, although that is woven throughout. I highly recommend!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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  • Mr. Acapella
    Cornwall, UK
    1/17/17
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Blimey!"

    Is this an excellent set of lectures or what? If you are at all interested in language, its structure and how it evolves then you should try this series. Prof. McWhorter clearly knows his subject inside out and is an excellent communicator, speaking naturally, with humour and explaining any special terminology with ease. He does speak quickly though so best to tune in when you are in an alert and receptive state of mind. I'm only on lecture 5 of 36, but the quality is so self evident that I'm writing this review now.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Fabrice Saenger
    11/3/16
    Overall
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    Story
    "Leatn more about languages as a whole"

    good delivery wirh anecdotes and jokes. focus on global trends that apply to all languages.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • David
    Stockton-on-Tees, United Kingdom
    10/15/16
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    Performance
    Story
    "Interesting, at first..."

    Overall, an interesting listen but some of the illustrations are weird and examples are a combination of rushed and niche! Enjoyed it all the same.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Catlyn
    9/8/16
    Overall
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    Story
    "Very good"
    What about Professor John McWhorter’s performance did you like?

    Simple and complicated at the same time. Funny with lots of different examples and keeps you engaged. Fully recommend!


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • N R Grant
    4/10/16
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Witty, informative, interesting, engaging!!"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Ironically I'm finding it hard to find the words to describe how much I enjoyed this series of lectures! I never took a prior interest in linguistics and now I wish I had done my degree in it! Such well written and well-delivered lectures. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone!!!!


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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