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The Story of Human Language

Narrated by: John McWhorter
Length: 18 hrs and 15 mins
4.7 out of 5 stars (160 ratings)

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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 My Library section along with the audio.

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

What listeners say about The Story of Human Language

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Fascinating!

I really enjoyed this course. It was insightful and illuminating. I learned so much about how languages changed over time and how that effects us today. My only quibble was the weird jabs and odd stereotyping the professor injected at surprising times. I suppose it was for humour's sake but it was a little off putting, especially since it would just come out of nowhere.

6 people found this helpful

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History of language explained

this book really has everything you would expect in a discussion about the history of language. its too bad my friends dont find it as fascinating as i do, i became a random fact machine for a little while as i point out little nuances in the everyday words we speak. needless to say, they were not impressed. #Audible1

3 people found this helpful

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Language explained

The presenter makes you want to eat up this course. His whit and humour draw the listener in and makes them want to keep learning. I wasn’t sure what this course would be about with regard to language evolution but after listening to the lecture I now feel I have a good understanding of how languages change over time and what impacts their present state. If you’re at all interested in language development this course will satisfy curiosity.

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Very very interesting

I really enjoyed this course. John McWhorter was engaging and found a way of making what could be a very dry subject into a very interesting series of lectures. His sense of humor is sometimes a little quirky and in a few occasions he said thinks that may be perceived as politically incorrect but this is a minor point. I learned a lot in this course and hope to get a chance to find another course by Dr McWhorter in the future.

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Astounding

Professor McWhorter is now my favorite TTC lecturer. He is funny and organized, and his knowledge of linguistics and culture is very wide. I highly recommend this lecture series.

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Loved it!

I learned so many interesting things and I now have a whole new perspective on language.

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awesome!

i loved this program. john is great! he delivered the lectures like a pro. i recommend this

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Fun, engaging and educational!

Professor McWhorter makes learning about this subject very interesting — he’s a natural speaker, with great examples and an excellent sense of humour. My girlfriend and I would listen to it every morning on our way to work, and it was easily one of the best parts of our day.

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Thank you!

I very much enjoyed this course- all the little insights and humor (Canadian- humour). The course was very engaging.

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Great Lectures

John keeps the lectures interesting involving not just differences and structures of languages but also real life experiences of languages/Creoles/pigeons and instances of applications.

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  • SAMA
  • 2014-03-11

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

413 people found this helpful

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  • Mark
  • 2015-12-27

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.

165 people found this helpful

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  • "unknown"
  • 2013-10-06

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.

150 people found this helpful

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  • Kate
  • 2014-07-20

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.

26 people found this helpful

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  • Kathy in CA
  • 2014-11-01

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.

72 people found this helpful

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  • William
  • 2014-04-05

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.

47 people found this helpful

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  • Andrew R.
  • 2017-08-19

After 650 hours of listening, this might be my favorite

This guy is witty, engaging, and perhaps most importantly, accessible. Even when venturing into the more esoteric topics in linguistics, his delivery and organization make it an utterly digestible, enjoyable experience. Bonus: not a single thing about his voice annoyed me, and I'm the kind of guy with plenty of pet peeves who often has to forsake lectures that I find positively fascinating due to the lecturer's articulation, tonality, cadence, etc...
Download this lecture. McWhorter is truly a skilled linguist and downright talented educator. You will not be disappointed.

29 people found this helpful

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  • Dragonfly Samurai
  • 2017-08-14

Great Info

This was one of my first listens in the Great courses series. Originally I wasn't very flattering in my opinions of this course, but as I have listened to more and have come to understand Professor McWhorter's style I would definitely recommend this course. A lot of great information. Professor McWhorter may go on tangents at times, but he is an enjoyable professor to listen to and has well thought out courses.

12 people found this helpful

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  • Madeleine
  • 2014-04-13

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.



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  • Eugenia
  • 2019-10-27

So Self-absorbed

Boy! Talk about being pseudo-intellectual and smug! Maybe it's just his tone of voice, but also just the way he talks about animals versus humans was so...self-righteous with such a weird condescending attitude. I only listened to a a few minutes and now I will return the book. Sorry that I'm not learning more about language.

9 people found this helpful

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  • MAM
  • 2016-12-25

Many flaws in Arabic

When talking about the word "Nothing" in Arabic, the lecturer made many mistakes. For instance he claimed that ši and šay mean Nothing in Algerian and Tunisian. The fact is that ši and šay mean Thing and to say Nothing you need to change it to Wálu in Algerian and add حد in Tunisian. He said that wálu is Moroccan when it is widely used in Algeria. His big mistake is when he claimed that Nothing in Egyptian is Dilwa'ti. In fact Dilwa'ti means Now. Nothing is Wala Haga.
In addition he overestimated the difference between dialects in some Arab countries. I should say Arabic may be very confusing for non-Arab speakers especially when you have, for example, El- in the beginning of your last name and your passport shows Al- instead. It is an Arabic to Latin scripting issue. In Arabic it is written ال wherever it is Al or El and Arab people switch effortlessly between these 2 versions even in the same sentence when they speak in their Arabic dialect. I gave this example to make it clear since the actual examples for the lectures are more difficult to debate when you don't speak Arabic.
I hope that his arguments about other languages are flawless but it is up to Native to send their critics. I tweeted to the Lecturer but he didn't reply .. I will listen to another audiobook about English by the same author but I can no more trust his global theories about language in general and especially foreign ones.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Utilisateur anonyme
  • 2020-07-08

Magnífico

La narrativa es súper entretenida y agradable. los temas están muy bien enlazados unos con otros. Me encantó el curso. Perfecto para los amantes de la lingüística y aún para los no tan fans, deberían escucharlo.

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  • Client Amazon
  • 2017-04-07

Fantastic approach to our linguistic history

A great way to discover the great voyage through time and space of the many words we speak.