loader image
Courses

Story of Human Language

YEAR: 2004 | LENGTH: 36 parts (30 minutes each)  |  SOURCE: TGC

description:

I never met a person who is not interested in language, wrote the bestselling author and psychologist Steven Pinker. There are good reasons that language fascinates us so. It not only defines humans as a species, placing us head and shoulders above even the most proficient animal communicators, but it also beguiles us with its endless mysteries.

episodes:

Professor John McWhorter introduces the course by exploring two questions: What distinguishes the language ability of humans from the signaling system of animals, and when did humans first acquire language?

We look at evidence that language is an innate ability of the human brain, an idea linked to Noam Chomsky. But many linguists and psychologists see language as one facet of cognition rather than as a separate ability.

The first of five lectures on language change examines how sounds evolve, exemplified by the Great Vowel Shift in English and the complex tone system in Chinese.

Language change is not just sound erosion and morphing, but the building of new words and constructions. This lecture shows how such developments lead to novel grammatical features.

The meaning of a word changes over time. Silly first meant “blessed” and acquired its current sense through a series of gradual steps. Word order also changes: In Old English, the verb usually came at the end of a sentence.

The first language has evolved into 6,000 because language change takes place in many directions. Latin split in this way into the Romance languages as changes proceeded differently in each area where the Romans brought Latin.

As recently as Shakespeare, English words had meanings different enough to interfere with our understanding of his language today. Even by the 1800s, Jane Austen’s work is full of sentences that would now be considered errors.

The first of four lectures on language families introduces Indo-European, which probably began in the southern steppes of Russia around 4000 B.C. and then spread westward to most of Europe and eastward to Iran and India.

Linguists have reconstructed the proto-language of the Indo-Europeans by comparing the modern languages. Applying this process, we learn the Proto-Indo-European word for sister-in-law that was spoken 6,000 years ago.

Semitic languages assign basic meanings to three-consonant sequences and create words by altering the vowels around them. In Sino-Tibetan languages, a sentence tends to leave more to context than we often imagine possible.

The distribution of language families shows how humans have spread through migration. We trace the Austronesian language family to its origins on Formosa. Similar work sheds light on the history of Africa and North America.

A few linguists have claimed to reconstruct words from the world’s first language, but this work is extremely controversial. Professor McWhorter presents the case against this theory, called the “Proto-World” hypothesis.

Despite the hostility of most linguists to the Proto-World hypothesis, there is increasing evidence that many of the world’s language families do trace to “mega-ancestors,” even if evidence for a Proto-World remains lacking.

The first of five lectures on dialects probes the nature of these “languages within languages.” Dialects are variations on a common theme, rather than bastardizations of a “legitimate” standard variety.

Dialects of one language can be called languages simply because they are spoken in different countries, such as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. The reverse is also true: The Chinese “dialects” are distinctly different languages.

Diglossia is the sociological division of labor in many societies between two languages, with a “high” one used in formal contexts and a “low” one used in casual ones—as in High German and Swiss German in Switzerland.

When a dialect of a language is used widely in writing and literacy is high, the normal pace of change is artificially slowed, as people come to see “the language” as on the page and inviolable. This helps create diglossia.

We often see the written style of language as how it really “is” or “should be.” But in fact, writing allows uses of language that are impossible when a language is only a spoken one.

Understanding language change and how languages differ helps us see that what is often labeled “wrong” about people’s speech is, in fact, a misanalysis.

The first language’s 6,000 branches have not only diverged into dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another on all levels. The first of three lectures on language mixture looks at how this process applies to words.

Languages also mix their grammars. For example, Yiddish is a dialect of German, but it has many grammatical features from Slavic languages like Polish. There are no languages without some signs of grammar mixture.

When unrelated or distantly related languages are spoken in the same area for long periods, they tend to become more grammatically similar because of widespread bilingualism.

A great deal of a language’s grammar is a kind of overgrowth, marking nuances that many or most languages do without. Even the gender marking of European languages is a frill, absent in thousands of other languages.

Generally, a language spoken by a small, isolated group will be much more complicated than English. Languages are “streamlined” in this way when history leads them to be learned more as second languages than as first ones.

We trace English back to its earliest discernible roots in Proto-Indo-European and follow its fascinating development, including an ancient encounter with a language possibly related to Arabic and Hebrew.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that features of our grammars channel how we think. Professor McWhorter discusses the evidence for and against this controversial but widely held view.

This lecture is the first of five on how human ingenuity spins new languages out of old through the creation of pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a stripped-down version of a language suitable for passing, utilitarian use.

Creoles emerge when pidgin speakers use the pidgin as an everyday language. Creoles are spoken throughout the world, wherever history has forced people to expand a pidgin into a full language.

As new languages, creoles don’t have as many frills as older languages, but they do have complexities. Like real languages, creoles change over time, have dialects, and mix with other languages.

Creoles are the only languages that lack or have very little of the grammatical traits that emerge over time. In this, creole grammars are the closest to what the grammar of the first language was probably like.

Just as one dialect shades into another, “creoleness” is a continuum concept. Once we know this, we are in a position to put the finishing touches on our conception of how speech varieties are distributed across the globe.

Using insights developed in the course to this point, Professor McWhorter takes a fresh look at Black English, tracing its roots to regional English spoken in Britain and Ireland several centuries ago.

Just as there is an extinction crisis among many of the world’s animals and plants, it is estimated that 5,500 of the world’s languages will no longer be spoken in 2100

There are many movements to revive dying languages. We explore the reasons that success is so elusive. For one, people often see their unwritten native language as less “legitimate” than written ones used in popular media.

There have been many attempts to create languages for use by the whole world. The most successful is Esperanto. Sign languages for the deaf are also artificial languages, though ones fully equipped with grammar, nuance, and dialects.

Professor McWhorter concludes with an etymological sampling of the English language, tracing the origin of every word in the sentence: While the snow fell, she arrived to ask about their fee.