We are all interested in language, because it defines us as a species and presents us with many interesting questions about origins, reasons for multiplicity and variations, processes of change (decay, growth), and extinction. Dr. McWhorter does a great job of explaining how a single tongue spoken more than 100,000 years ago evolved into the estimated 6000 languages used around the world today. Each DVD in the package contains 6 half-hour lectures, whose summaries are presented below.
01. “What Is Language?” Language, as we know it today, is unique to homo sapiens and arose about 50-100K years ago. We can teach various animals to speak, but for them it is a game, not a means of communication.
02. “When Language Began.” The ability to speak has a genetic basis and it can be learned only during childhood. A girl who had been put in a closet and not allowed to interact with others up to age 13 never learned to speak.
03. “How Language Changes: Sound Change.” Changing sounds are natural outcomes of laziness in speech, not a sign of language decay. “February” is difficult to pronounce, so its sound naturally changes to “February.”
04. “How Language Changes: Building New Material.” Suffixes used for conjugation used to be separate words that merged with the words they modified and contracted to 1-2 letters over time. This is known as grammatization (concrete words changing into grammatical tools).
05. “How Language Changes: Meaning and Order.” Meanings of words and phrases change over time (“semantic drift”). For example, “silly” meant “blessed” in early English, but changed in a step-by-step fashion to carry its modern meaning.
06. “How Language Changes: Many Directions.” Word meanings change over time, including through “semantic narrowing” and “semantic broadening.”
07. “How Language Changes: Modern English.” Change isn’t limited to archaic languages, but has occurred in modern English as well. We don’t want to admit it, but most of us do not understand Shakespeare when we listen to dialog at normal speed (reading is different, because we can pause and re-read.)
08. “Language Families: Indo-European.” Evidence that languages have a common root shows up in the form of similar words and similar grammatical constructs. Indo-European languages include virtually all languages of Europe (with a few exceptions), Persian, and Indian languages.
09. “Language Families: Tracing Indo-European.” Proto-Indo-European language cannot be reconstructed in full, because there are no written records of that language. But by looking at similarities of the descendant languages, some features of it can be deduced and we may even be able to construct a few sentences.
10. “Language Families: Diversity of Structures.” Afro-Asiatic family of languages includes Semitic languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic) as a sub-family. Semitic languages have 3-consonant roots that are transformed into words by inserting vowels between them and attaching prefixes and postfixes to the result. East Asian languages belong to multiple families.
11. “Language Families: Clues to the Past.” There are many language families across the globe, some small (a dozen or so languages) and others very large (hundreds of languages). Within each family, scientists strive to find/guess common roots for words or grammatical constructs.
12. “The Case Against the World’s First Language.” Some claims made about a single common root for all of the worrld’s language families are too far-fetched to be believable.
13. “The Case for the World’s First Language.” Whereas there may not exist a single ancestor to all world languages, the case for superfamilies is fairly clear. Languages stretching from Europe, through Asia, and into North America exhibit similarities that cannot be accidental (e.g., the sound “m” in words having to do with me-ness and the sound “t” being associated with you-ness; remember that “you” was once “thou”). These similarities persisted because they constitute high-use elements of languages.
14. “Dialects: Subspecies of Species.” What eventually becomes a new language may begin as a “bad” dialect of some language. For example, early forms of French were viwed as undesirable dialects of Latin. Each language is a bundle of dialects, which are often nothing but steps in the direction of new-language creation. An official dialect, that defines a language and its written form, is often the dialect spoken by those with “the juice” (money and guns).
15. “Dialects: Where Do You Draw the Line?” There exist dialects that should be viewed as separate languages. Conversely, we have languages that are really dialects of one language. Hindi and Urdu are basically the same language, but for political and religious reasons, their speakers consider them different. When the Danes ruled Sweden, the language we now know as Swedish was a dialect of Danish.
16. “Dialects: Two Tongues in One Mouth.” Arabic is often viewed as a single language, but some of its “dialects” have little in common, except the script. What constitutes a separate language is often based on sociopolitical considerations. There are some 200 languages with “official” or “written” forms and about 200 countries. Only a quarter of the countries recognize 2 languages and only 4 (India, Singapore, Spain, Luxembourg) recognize 3 or more. Official forms are often more formal than dialects.
17. “Dialects: The Standard as Token of the Past.” Changes in languages are the norm rather than the exception. The establishment of written or standard forms, as well as proliferation of literacy, slow down the pace of change. When a written form exists, uttering the word “dog” brings to our mind the letters “D,” “O,” and “G,” making gradual drift less likely.
18. “Dialects: Spoken Style, Written Style.” In virtually all languages, the written form is fundamentally different from the spoken form. We don’t utter statements such as, “Our vacation, which begins in August, will be fun.” Spoken vocabulary is much more limited: 1000s of words vs. 100,000s. We have the word “ruthless” and the English dictionary still contains “ruth” (meaning “mercy”), but no one uses “ruth” in speech. Spoken language isn’t necessarily inferior to the written form: One can be very articulate in spoken form.
19. “Dialects:The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar.” Grammar is a fairly recent notion (about 200 years old), as is the constant worrying of the speakers of a language about making a mistake in their speech. Many grammatical rules are arbitrary and were made-up by a couple of people who first wrote about it. For example, why is “you was” (with singular “you”) considered incorrect? Double-negatives existed in Old English and persist in many current dialects.
20. “Language Mixture: Words.” Languages are like stews: Occasionally you see something in them that you don’t recognize, except perhaps by sending it to a lab for analysis. English has an extensive vocabulary of borrowed words; and this isn’t just for things like “sushi” and “taco” (according to OED, 99% of English words come from other languages, rather than Old English).
21. “Language Mixture: Grammar.” One mechanism for language change is its adjacency to other languages. This is why, for example, the Indian branch of the Indo-European family is very different from the European varieties, not just in terms of words but also word order in sentences.
22. “Language Mixture: Language Areas.” When languages mix in the same geographic area, they tend to become similar, in the same way that a married couple tends to develop similarities over time.
23. “Language Develops Beyond the Call of Duty.” Languages tend to grow and be embellished far beyond the need of effective human communication. Some nuances in expression are nice, but they are not worth the complications they produce in teaching and learning a language. Like computer software, languages collect “features” that are not helpful at all.
24. “Language Interrupted.” Contact between languages tends to inhibit over-growth. So, the complexity of a language is often an indication of how much interaction it has endured. Thus, isolated, less-advanced societies tend to have more complex languages. The world’s least complex languages are the ones that are spoken, primarily, as second languages.
25. “A New Perspective on the Story of English.” English is very different from other Germanic languages because of the way it interacted with other languages. It borrowed words from languages spoken by invaders (such as the Vikings), who married into Old-English-speaking communities and began to learn English as a second language; this led to simplifications, such as English losing its word genders and other inessential nuances.
26. “Does Culture Drive Language Change?” Navajo language has word variations based on object shapes. So, if one gives a set of objects to Navajo kids, they tend to classify them by shape, rather than by color, which is the case for English-speaking kids. This is an example of interesting interactions between culture and language
27. “Language Starts Over: Pidgins.” Pidgin is a rudimentary form of a language consisting perhaps of a few hundred words and a few basic grammatical rules (such as word order). These forms often develop in trade regions, where people with different languages interact. For example what has come to be known as Russenorsk (a cross between Russian and Norse) was a very simple language that was adequate for basic conversations. It lacked the embellishments of either language. There was once a Native American Pidgin English used to communicate with the “White Man.”
28. “Language Starts Over: Creoles I.” Creole is a language that is stripped down (like a pidgin) and is then built back up through extended use. We humans have a basic need to communicate in a nuanced fashion and using a pidgin language is very unsatisfying for extended time periods. Most creoles were created in plantation settings.
29. “Language Starts Over: Creoles II.” Saramaccan, which was developed by African slaves who escaped planatations in Suriname and formed their own communities in the interior, is a good creole example. It uses words from several different languages. The casual language of Hawaii is also a creole that developed from a pidgin in just one generation.
30. “Language Starts Over: Signs of the New.” A key feature of creole languages, besides being mixed, is their streamlined grammar. Creoles lack gender or conjugation markers, and they do not use Chinese-style tones. Their short periods of development makes then devoid of words such as “understand,” in which it is unclear how/why the prefix “under” came to be.
31. “Language Starts Over: The Creoles Continuum.” Semi-creoles are languages that are not quite separate languages but also are a bit more different than the original language compared with its dialects. Afrikaans, spoken in South Africa, is a semi-creole based on a highly simplified form of Dutch.
32. “What is Black English?” It is an English dialect that some people call “Ebonics.” Black English has its slang, but that is the least interesting part of it. The sound system gives Black English its distinctive flavor. The grammar is also different. As in Russian, the verb “to be” is often left out in Black English: “She my sister.”
33. “Language Death: The Problem.” Most languages have no written form, so when they skip a generation, they are gone forever. One language on earth disappears every two weeks. Often a language on the path to extinction devolves into the pidgin stage through lack of use. The complicated parts of a language are the first to go.
34. “Language Death: Prognosis.” There are many language preservation movements around the world. Both extremes of everyone speaking one language (English?) and of preserving all 6000 languages are highly unlikely. Urbanization favors major languages and facilitates the demise of peripheral languages with few speakers.
35. “Artificial Languages.” Artificial languages include Volapuk (had a brief vogue, because it was difficult to learn), Esperanto (relatively successful in that it has 1M speakers, only 16 rules, user-friendliness, some translated classics), Solresol (music-based), and sign languages. English has become the default universal language and it is unlikely to be replaced by something else.
36. “Finale: Master Class.” Words have peculiar histories and tracing their roots and variations tells us a lot about how languages develop, change, and intermix. Examples of word transformations include “alone” (all one) and “good-bye” (God be with you).
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