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

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By SAMA on 03-11-14

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

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145 of 145 people found this review helpful

By "unknown" on 10-06-13


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.

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42 of 42 people found this review helpful

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By Chris on 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!

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6 of 6 people found this review helpful

By Catriona on 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.

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9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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By Anand Manu on 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.

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2 of 3 people found this review helpful

By Mauricio on 12-20-17


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

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