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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

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You'll Never Look at Languages the Same Way Again

This is a course that explained how languages are divided into multiple families, and how they evolve over time. It is as much a history course as it is a linguistics course. It looks at how languages are born, change, merge, and die away. It dedicates a large chunk of its time on dialects and explains their relation to the "proper" version of their language. It is a very rich course, possibly one of the best value courses I've come across. Here's a list of the lectures in this course:

1 What Is Language?
2 When Language Began
3 How Language Changes—Sound Change
4 How Language Changes—Building New Material
5 How Language Changes—Meaning and Order
6 How Language Changes—Many Directions
7 How Language Changes—Modern English
8 Language Families—Indo-European
9 Language Families—Tracing Indo-European
10 Language Families—Diversity of Structures
11 Language Families—Clues to the Past
12 The Case Against the World’s First Language
13 The Case For the World’s First Language
14 Dialects—Subspecies of Species
15 Dialects—Where Do You Draw the Line?
16 Dialects—Two Tongues in One Mouth
17 Dialects—The Standard as Token of the Past
18 Dialects—Spoken Style, Written Style
19 Dialects—The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar
20 Language Mixture—Words
21 Language Mixture—Grammar
22 Language Mixture—Language Areas
23 Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty
24 Language Interrupted
25 A New Perspective on the Story of English
26 Does Culture Drive Language Change?
27 Language Starts Over—Pidgins
28 Language Starts Over—Creoles I
29 Language Starts Over—Creoles II
30 Language Starts Over—Signs of the New
31 Language Starts Over—The Creole Continuum
32 What Is Black English?
33 Language Death—The Problem
34 Language Death—Prognosis
35 Artificial Languages
36 Finale—Master Class

163 of 164 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating!

This was one of the most fascinating lecture series I've ever listened to. (But then I am a bit of a grammar geek.) Did you know that the "pas" in the "ne pas" of French comes from the word "step"? As in "No, I'm not going, not a single step"?

These lectures are thick with this kind of lore. They're also peppered with Professor McWhorter's personal anecdotes about the languages he's studied and the native speakers he's known. But it's not all trivia and party chat -- there are extensive sections on the variety of grammars, on written vs non-written languages, on creoles vs pidgins, and an interesting (if gloomy) assessment of attempts to revive dying languages.

I can't say this series changed my life, but it certainly has changed how I think about culture and communication.

49 of 49 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 12-27-15

Hanging on every word

After a couple of mediocre listens I was very pleased to discover this real treasure trove of an audiobook. I don’t suppose this would be a book for everyone. To enjoy it, you probably need to have a passion for and a curiosity about language, as I do.

At the beginning of this lecture series the narrator discusses the origins of language as it came into being from the mouths of our distant ancestors, and at this stage he mentions that, possibly, Neanderthals weren’t able to speak because of the positioning of their larynx compared to early humans. I was slightly concerned about this assertion because I know that a lot of recent genetic discoveries have been made about the Neanderthals and it is generally believed that Neanderthals probably did talk, and so I started to wonder if this lecture series was old and outdated. I listened to a similar Audible lecture series recently and was disappointed to discover that it was recorded in the 90s. So I was relieved when the narrator mentioned that this series dates from 2004. It isn't smack up-to-date, but it is reasonably current. He also mentions Steven Pinker’s brilliant book ‘The Language Instinct’ (available on Audible, and highly recommended), and I was relieved that this lecture series postdates Pinker’s influential work.

So the author explains lots of concepts about language from various perspectives, and he does this in a very entertaining and amusing style. I learnt lots of good stuff. There are far too many to list, but here is one example: We have a conception that languages in ‘undeveloped’ societies, such as those of isolated Amazon hunter-gatherers, would be grammatically simple, whilst a highly developed language, such as English, would be much more complex. But the opposite is true. A language left to ‘evolve’ in isolation amongst only a small number of speakers tends to become intricate and complicated. In contrast, languages such as English have at various times in the past been learned by dominant settlers (e.g. Vikings). When these Vikings acquired English they learned it as a second language (children are good at learning a second language, but adults tend to struggle with this), and in so doing they simplified it by speaking a kind of Pidgin English, removing most article genders, verb declensions and noun cases.

And because they were the dominant people at this time, their simplified reinterpretation of the English language replaced (or at least modified) the existing one. I love the idea of some big dumb Viking making a really bad job of picking up the local language, like a modern delinquent English tourist ordering lager on Holiday in Spain, and then, hundreds of years later, the effect of this is that English, the global mega-language, is more economical and straightforward thanks to the Viking simplifications.

The audiobook is chock-full of interesting points like the above (I find this stuff interesting, but I confess I am a word geek who enjoys crosswords and Scrabble). If you find language interesting then I think you will love it too.

31 of 31 people found this review helpful

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  • Kathy
  • Davis, CA, United States
  • 11-01-14

John McWhorter is simply amazing!

Who would thought an audiobook on language could be so utterly compelling and interesting! I enjoyed the other Great Course I listened to, so I thought I would give this one a try. What a great decision on my part!

I know almost nothing about the subject nor was I ever interested in it, yet I was entertained for the entire 18 hours. What made this book so fascinating was Professor McWhorter's obvious love of his subject, Linguistics, and his wonderful, humorous, and dynamic personality. He is a pleasure to listen to--he makes a subject that could be very dry really come alive. I can certainly imagine listening to this book again.

McWhorter answers so many questions about the development of language. If you are at all like me, you may have never had any deep thoughts about language. I have only been frustrated by my difficulty in learning a foreign language. If you listen to this book, you will find out like I did just why it is so very difficult, if not impossible, to learn languages as an adult. You will learn, among other things, how languages develop and how they become extinct, why there isn't a universal language, what is the difference between a language, a dialect, and a creole. You will also be amazed at how few of the world's 6000 languages have been written down. You will most likely be very amused at the mostly unsuccessful attempts to create artificial languages, as McWhorter had such a fun time describing the musical language Solresol. No matter how boring my description sounds, McWhorter makes it all amusing and very interesting.

If you are wanting to break out of the escapism of fiction for a moment, I highly recommend this Great Course. I promise you will learn a great deal, you will be entertained, and maybe you will even be inspired to try another in the Great Courses series of audiobooks. I know I will.

31 of 31 people found this review helpful

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  • William
  • Winston Salem, NC, United States
  • 04-05-14

What a surprise!

Well this was a pleasant surprise! I was looking for something different from the kinds of books I had been reading, and never having tried one of these courses, decided to take a flyer. I was worried that this might be boring, like a college lecture, but I found every lecture to be informative and interesting, and the reader had just enough smart-aleck humor about him that the lectures were often funny. The series of lectures is quite long, but it's the sort of thing where one might take a break and listen to something else, then pick this one back up without getting lost; however, even though I planned to do that, I tore through these lectures like a page-turner mystery, and look forward to listening to them again.

14 of 14 people found this review helpful

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Fine survey of language history

Any additional comments?

A good survey of the history of language. Perhaps a bit Euro-centric, but that seems to have been a deliberate choice to more readily engage listeners, many of whom are likely to have studied a Romance or Germanic language in high school or college.

Prof.McWhorter's delivery is natural and easy to follow, especially compared to some of the other Great Courses lectures I've listened to.

Quite a bit of overlap with his other lecture series, "Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage".

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

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How to Learn a lot in a very short time.

Prof. McWhorter's lectures were outstanding I learned so much that I didn't know about the origins, the structure and the evolution of human language. It really opened up a whole new world on a subject I didn't even realize I was all that interested in.

I found his continuous dismissal of the effect of culture on language a little ...um... questionable, but this is his take on it, and he resides in a field that doesn't have a lot of time for cultural criticism, so that's okay. I took it on board that this is one way into the subject, and one I didn't know a lot about.

I'll never listen to dialects or accents the same way again. I'll never bemoan the eclipse of certain words in my language, or the addition of new ones I find silly again. It's language growing and changing and without it, a language dies.

Wonderful. This is a keeper. I'll be listening to it again.



31 of 33 people found this review helpful

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  • Kate
  • Victoria, BC, Canada
  • 07-20-14

Couldn't Stop Listening

If you could sum up The Story of Human Language in three words, what would they be?

Fascinating, informative, surprising

What did you like best about this story?

I love that this course explained so many aspects of so many languages from all over the world. The Story of Human Language covers everything rom the evolution of tonal languages in Eastern Asia to the development of creoles in the New World, and so much more.

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

Professor McWhorter lectures with passion, excitement and humour. His love of language and joy of teaching really shine through.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

I couldn't turn this course off. I finished it in less than a week, and was sad when it was done.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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really enjoyable

Any additional comments?

i though the subject would boring, but it was so well presented and the presenter made it come alive.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Pandora
  • Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
  • 10-13-14

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!

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Catriona
  • 12-05-13

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.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Ben Wilkinson
  • 08-24-16

Very good

Only the Prof's slightly shaky grasp of English dialect detracted from the unalloyed listening pleasure for this Limey pedant. THE DARLING BUDS OF MAY IS SET IN KENT! As in south east of London. It's about as far from a northern English dialect as you can get without actually going to Fence. M

otherwise splendid

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Dan
  • 03-11-16

Absolutely fascinating and very accessible

John McWhorter is a pleasure to listen to as he skillfully entertains and teaches the audience. While linguistics is a highly technical subject, he explains complex ideas in simple terms, and often with nice anecdotes to add colour. Highly recommended!

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Thomas
  • 11-04-15

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

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Chris
  • 06-18-15

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!

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 10-18-16

Excellent

Loved this series. Excellent layout, and pace, and Prof McWhorter keeps it light hearted and entertaining

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • J. Watts
  • 07-11-17

Quirky professor, fascinating history

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I love love loved this series of lectures by Prof McWhorter. Not only was it incredibly interesting to learn about the various ways in which languages evolve but I also enjoyed the prof's eccentric asides about his cat, previous girlfriends and linguistic blunders.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Andrew Marsden
  • 03-13-16

Surprisingly well-constructed linguistics primer.

McWhorter's delivery is engaging, with a great use of example, historical context, and humour in his discussion of the linguistic topics he brings up.

As a linguistics student myself, I looked to this series to provide a more general overview of the historical study of the subject than is given in my university's curriculum. I was surprised at just how well the structure of this series works, and the order in which topics are introduced.

McWhorter stresses that lingusitic study goes beyond English and its close relatives, and gives examples from other language families also, but the core examples in most of the lectures in the series use Germanic and Romance examples, as these are more approachable to a general English-speaking audience, and easier to demonstrate to the layperson in this subject.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Ms
  • 01-15-18

Entertaining, interesting and informative

Any additional comments?

This lecturer is very relaxed and natural in his presentation and succeeds in make his linguistics series very interesting as well as informative (and I have limited interest in languages). Extra light relief was (accidentally) provided by his stabs at British regional accents and dialects.

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  • Alice
  • 12-10-17

Fascinating story with an engaging speaker

What an amazing story! It leaves you wanting to meet the old Indo-Europeans, or learning all the dying languages before they go away. And the speaker is quite engaging too.

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  • Mauricio
  • 12-20-17

Outstanding

Well worth a listen. Amazing teacher, funny and informative.
Learnt a lot about history in general

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Anand Manu
  • 05-30-16

An amazing course highly recommend

An amazing course. The presneterl is fantastic, knowledgeable and funny. Defintely worth the time to listen and look at langauge in a different way.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 09-29-17

A fascinating and informative overview of how language changes and develops over time

Really enjoyed the narrative arc and the way many concepts and ideas were so well illustrated and explained. At times the narrator's humour was a tad trying but overall highly recommend this to anyone interested to know more about the phenomenon of human language and its evolution.

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  • Polina
  • 01-19-17

excellent!

Great series. I really enjoyed it. The presentation was great. I felt a bit sad at the end of it, cause I felt like I'm leaving a good friend. I highly recommend it. The amount of information is just mind blowing. 5 stars:)

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  • Simon
  • 09-05-16

Fascinating, narration got a bit annoying

Thought this was a great introduction to how languages develop and related to each other. Really accessible for all.

Only issue was the narrator went on too much. Used really strange examples to try and explain his points which went off on tangents too much. Also, found some of the ways he described other languages a bit patronising in parts, which I found quite strange from someone who is a linguist. I understand he was trying to engage the listener but thought it did detract from what is a fascinating topic.