March 21, 2014

Happy Friday. Just 1 degree. Sunny.

We’ve been watching two series of lectures by linguist John McWhorter. The first series was Understanding Linguistics. McWhorter is an interesting lecturer and the topics he covers are mostly interesting and often fascinating. How do children learn language? They first learn some words, but they quickly figure out how to combine them into meaningful sentences that they have never heard before. How do they do that? Why is Shakespeare’s English hard for us to understand now? Why do some languages put the verb last in a sentence while other languages put it first?

The second series is The Story of Human Language, which covers language families of the world and gives two lectures on whether we can trace all languages back to one proto-language that everyone spoke before decamping from Africa for other lands. Some linguists have proposed that the so-called Click Languages of southwest Africa may be the oldest languages on earth because languages tend to get easier to pronounce over time and meaningful clicks are hard to produce. Not sure what to make of that. There are about 6,000 languages in the world, but only about 200 of them have writing and most are destined to die out as the principal languages of the world spread with modern communications and transportation.

McWhorter explains how most languages people learn after childhood are really dialects of a range of languages that constitute “French” or “German” or “English.” People who take classes usually learn the most literate way to speak in a nation’s capital, rather than a variety of the language that is spoken elsewhere. People in the north of France or Germany speak different dialects from the ones spoken in the south. Compare Scots English to English spoken in London or New York or Texas or Jamaica and you get the idea. Both lecture series were from the public library. On DVD and CD or download.

McWhorter Story of Human Language

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