Language Families of the World

Course No. 2235
Professor John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
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Course No. 2235
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What Will You Learn?

  • How languages take shape, evolve, branch out-and even how they die.
  • The linguistic ingenuity that has created over 7,000 languages worldwide and how languages differ as well as what they share.
  • The ways history, geography, topography, sociology, and other factors intersect via language.

Course Overview

Language, in its seemingly infinite variety, tells us who we are and where we come from. Many linguists believe that all of the world’s languages—over 7,000 currently—emerged from a single, prehistoric source. While experts have not yet been able to reproduce this proto-language, most of the world’s current languages can be traced to various language families that have branched and divided, spreading across the globe with migrating humans and evolving over time.

In Language Families of the World, Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University takes you back through time and around the world, following the linguistic trails left by generations of humans that lead back to the beginnings of language. Utilizing historical theories and cutting-edge research, these 34 astonishing lectures will introduce you to the major language families of the world and their many offspring, including a variety of languages that are no longer spoken but provide vital links between past and present.

An Incomplete Family Tree

The English language comes from the immense family known as Indo-European, a group that has been traced and reconstructed perhaps most thoroughly of all the language families. In fact, it is the extensive study of this family that essentially built the foundations of formal linguistic science. Other language families, like the Niger-Congo, the Afro-Asiatic, and Austronesian families, are becoming more and more known through study, but there is still a long way to go to uncover the earliest foundations of the families that comprise the thousands of languages spoken around the world today.

Professor McWhorter demonstrates how, through a combination of the known and the unknown, of tangible evidence and shifting hypotheses, linguists trace and reconstruct languages. It’s often a tangled and complex undertaking, with many theories taking root before being reevaluated—or disproven altogether. As you better understand the methods linguists use and the ideas they have developed, you will explore a host of fascinating questions, including:

  • How are similarities in languages determined?
  • Why do some languages seem related but are not, while others that appear fundamentally different are actually part of the same family?
  • What is the effect of geography—and even topography—on language?
  • Who determines the difference between a language and a dialect?
  • When does a language “officially” split into separate ones?

Filling in the Blanks of Language

As in life, the one constant in language is change. Even looking back just some hundreds of years, what we know as Middle English is barely intelligible to contemporary English speakers. Thanks to many similarities and the volume of writing that exists between the days of Chaucer’s English and now, the transition can be fairly easy to trace. However, since not every language has a clear, uninterrupted line of progression or a written record to follow through the ages, how do linguists reconstruct older languages? How do they identify a language family?

As Professor McWhorter explains: “The fundamental trait of a language family is that linguists can posit a proto-language from which the modern languages developed via regular sound changes.” This is easiest to do with groups of languages that are relatively new and thus still share a lot of features. Professor McWhorter uses the languages of Polynesia to illustrate this kind of reconstruction in its simplest form before turning to the more complicated ways linguists fill in the blanks with languages that have changed over longer periods and spread over vast distances.

Sometimes, as with the Indo-European family, there are copious written records to help cover the gaps, but often it is a matter of using core words and cognates to make the necessary connections. Like detectives, linguists must follow the clues they are given and throughout these lectures you will be able to follow the process like Watson to Professor McWhorter’s Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, you will look at language through many linguistic lenses, such as:

  • Structure and parts of words, like roots, stems, prefixes, and suffixes (morphology);
  • How sounds are organized in language (phonology);
  • The history and origin of particular words (etymology);
  • Word order and arrangement (syntax);
  • The meaning and implications of words (semantics), and many more.

If language change makes it so difficult for linguists to make clear connections between past and present, it is important to understand the nature of those changes, as well as how those changes both help and hinder investigation. Languages experience change for many reasons, including:

  • Time. Every generation alters the language(s) they inherit, through both the addition of new words and structures and the gradual erosion and extinction of others as cultures and societies change.
  • Distance. The farther away groups of speakers become, the more linguistic changes crop up between their “versions” of the language. Sometimes this results in dialects, other times in completely new languages.
  • Contact. Two unrelated languages thrown into proximity will sometimes create a mix of the two and can evolve into a new language altogether, or the influence of a dominant language can create a linguistic area with many shared characteristics among several languages.
  • Force. Sometimes—often as the result of war, colonialism, or invasion—languages can be forced to change to fit a new reality or go extinct altogether.

Languages Past, Present, and Future

Languages like Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, and Russian are some of the most widely spoken in the world and have been extensively studied. They can all provide deep insight into the nature of language and how it can change over time. Yet they are only a very small fraction of the immense number of languages and dialects you will encounter as you tour the world via linguistics. Following the trails of language across land and sea with Professor McWhorter will allow you to trace migration patterns and social contact between different peoples, as well as better understand important aspects of history and geography that continue to evolve and influence the world we live in today.

Utilizing maps, graphics, photographs, and a plethora of written examples and illustrations, Language Families of the World makes the complex and ever-changing world of language an engaging journey. From the “click” languages of sub-Saharan Africa and the little-known languages of New Guinea to the shrinking varieties of Native American grammar and the isolated Basque tongue in the heart of Europe, you will encounter an astonishing range of languages. Through them, you will reveal amazing facets of speech that defy conventional wisdom and demonstrate the immense range of human linguistic ingenuity.

While most animals communicate in some form, language—complete with grammar, syntax, dialects, vocabulary, and so much more—appears to be a uniquely human trait. When we understand not just the nuts and bolts but the extensive history and cultural power of language, we better understand ourselves, as well as the world and the people we share it with.

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34 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Are There So Many Languages?
    There are over 7,000 languages in the world and many linguists believe they likely all developed from a single source language in the distant past. Get an introduction to the concept of language families, understand how languages change over time, and discover what linguistics can teach us about our own history. x
  • 2
    The First Family Discovered: Indo-European
    While the Indo-European family of languages was not the first group to be identified as related, it is the family that has received much of the research and classification that became the basis of modern linguistics. Uncover what defines Indo-European languages, which include Latin, English, French, Armenian, Latvian, Sanskrit, and many more. x
  • 3
    Indo-European Languages in Europe
    Begin a deep dive into the earliest roots of Indo-European languages with a look at Germanic, Romance, Balto-Slavic, Greek, Albanian, and Celtic languages. See how Indo-European languages contradict common notions about how language works and uncover some of the mysteries that are yet to be solved. x
  • 4
    Indo-European Languages in Asia
    One-fifth to one-sixth of the world speaks one of the Indo-European languages of India. Trace back to the branching of the Indo-European tree, when the European languages split from the Indo-Aryan varieties like Sanskrit that would become Hindi and others. Explore many variations that evolved and see why it can be so difficult to differentiate between a language and a dialect. x
  • 5
    The Click Languages
    Shift from Indo-European to some of the most endangered languages in the world: the “click” languages, formally known as Khoisan. Spoken in southern Africa, these endangered languages share a distinctive profile, and yet likely did not all come from a single family. Explore where they may have begun and how they work. x
  • 6
    Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa I
    The Niger-Congo family consists of anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 different languages. While they are part of the same family, they do not adhere to an identified pattern like Indo-European. What links this immense family together? What is the essence of the Niger-Congo? What can these languages tell us about migration patterns? Explore these questions and more. x
  • 7
    Niger-Congo: Largest Family in Africa II
    Look closer at some of the unique aspects of the Niger-Congo family, including the use of tone, and see how different languages can spring from the same original materials. Since the work of classifying languages is on-going, you may be surprised to see how many can develop in proximity and share words but be part of different groups altogether. x
  • 8
    Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond I
    Follow the migration of peoples from Africa to the Middle East by looking at the language family that developed in the Fertile Crescent: Afro-Asiatic. This first look at this family focuses on the widely known Semitic branch, which includes Arabic and Hebrew. Examine what defines this group of languages and uncover the roots of the first alphabets. x
  • 9
    Languages of the Fertile Crescent and Beyond II
    Move beyond the Semitic languages to look at other subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic, including what some call the “Berber” subfamily and several other subfamilies spoken south of the Sahara, and see what they can teach us about the nature of language. Close with a look at Somali oral poetry and its complex use of alliteration. x
  • 10
    Nilo-Saharan: Africa's Hardest Languages?
    Afro-Asiatic languages are prevalent in the north of the African continent, and Niger-Congo in the south, with a narrow band of a third family running between: Nilo-Saharan. The Nilo-Saharan languages are immensely different from each other, so how do linguists know they are related? Examine the unique features of this family. x
  • 11
    Is the Indo-European Family Alone in Europe?
    Meet the other family of languages in Europe: Uralic, which includes Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian. Eccentric and tidy at the same time, this family stretches across the north of Europe and into Russia and parts of Asia. See why Turkish was once thought to be part of this family and how Uralic languages differ from Indo-European and others. x
  • 12
    How to Identify a Language Family
    How do linguists establish connections between languages and determine their common roots when it is nearly impossible to see a language change in real time? Take a look at the languages of Polynesia to see how changes can be followed backwards to reveal connections between different languages, then turn to the Indo-European and Uralic families. x
  • 13
    What Is a Caucasian Language?
    Named for the Caucasus mountains where they originate, the Caucasian languages are actually three different families: Northwestern, Northeastern, and a Southern one that includes Georgian. Explore these grammatically complex languages to better understand how they work and how so many different varieties can spring from a relatively small area. x
  • 14
    Indian Languages That Aren't Indo-European
    The “Big Four” languages (and many others) of southern India are not part of the Indo-European family but rather the Dravidian. Look at what the distribution of Dravidian languages says about where they come from and how they got where they are now—including some languages on the brink of extinction—and explore some of their unique features. x
  • 15
    Languages of the Silk Road and Beyond
    The languages called Altaic are spoken across Asia, from Turkey through Mongolia and to northeastern regions of Asia. Understand why there is some debate among linguists as to whether they comprise one family or are made of three separate ones as you look at how these languages function, including nuances like a mood known as “evidentiality.” x
  • 16
    Japanese and Korean: Alike yet Unrelated
    Are Japanese and Korean part of the Altaic family? They share some features of the other Altaic languages, yet some linguists believe they are separate. Take a brief foray through the fascinating Japanese writing system as you look deeper into the language. Then, turn to Korean, comparing and contrasting it with Japanese and other Asian languages. x
  • 17
    The Languages We Call Chinese
    Explore the Asian languages beyond Japanese and Korean, looking into several families along the way. See why Mandarin and Cantonese, though both considered Chinese, are a classic example of two different languages being mistaken for dialects—thanks in part to a shared writing system and cultural proximity. x
  • 18
    Chinese's Family Circle: Sino-Tibetan
    Chinese is one branch of the Sino-Tibetan family and the other branch, Tibeto-Burman, consists of around 400 languages spoken in southern China, northeastern India, and Burma. Look at features of languages from both branches and see what linguists can assume about the proto-language from which they may have sprung. x
  • 19
    Southeast Asian Languages: The Sinosphere
    How can languages that have very different origins still seem to be structurally related? To find out, look at the concept of a Sprachbrund and understand why contact is just as influential as origin when it comes to resemblances between otherwise unrelated languages—in this case, the influence of Chinese on other Asian languages. x
  • 20
    Languages of the South Seas I
    Journey to the South Seas to begin an investigation into Austronesian, one of the world's largest and most widespread language families. See what connects Austronesian languages to other families, as well as how they differ from European languages, and trace the way Austronesian languages have spread across far-flung locations. x
  • 21
    Languages of the South Seas II
    The languages of Polynesia are estimated to be some of the newest languages in the world, emerging only in the last millenium. Look back to the earliest cultures of the Polynesian islands to see how the languages likely originated and were disseminated, branching into separate sub-groups like Oceanic and the three that are all spoken on the small island of Formosa. x
  • 22
    Siberia and Beyond: Language Isolates
    How do some languages end up isolated amidst other, unrelated families? Look at pockets of language in Siberia, Spain, and Japan that are not related to those that surround them and better understand what the nature of language—and human migration and settlement patterns—can tell us about these unique places. x
  • 23
    Creole Languages
    Since all languages come from one original language, technically no one language is older than another. However, when two languages are forced into proximity, often a makeshift fusion of the two can emerge as a new language, known as a creole. Learn how a hierarchical, stopgap form of communication can become a true language. x
  • 24
    Why Are There So Many Languages in New Guinea?
    Turn your attention to one of the most linguistically rich places on Earth: the island of New Guinea, and discover why, thanks to its history and isolating terrain, it is home to hundreds of languages in a relatively small area. See how pronouns allow linguists to find connections between these languages, and explore some of their unusual traits. x
  • 25
    The Languages of Australia I
    Once the home of over 250 languages, Australia now only has about a dozen languages that will be passed to sizable generations of children. Take a look at some of the over two dozen language families in Australia and better understand how both separation from a common ancestor and proximity to a different language will cause a language to change in different ways. x
  • 26
    The Languages of Australia II
    Continue your examination of the languages of Australia, including the first Australian language to be documented by Europeans. Many of these languages present a case study in language obsolescence (as English dominates the continent) and language mixture (the emergence of creole languages due to European contact). x
  • 27
    The Original American Languages I
    Like Australia, North America was home to at least 300 distinct languages before English became dominant. Professor McWhorter takes you through some of the theories linguists have regarding the relationship of various Native American languages and the origins of humans and their varieties of speech on the North American continent. x
  • 28
    The Original American Languages II
    Zoom in on some of the larger families of North America and gain valuable insight into what they can tell us about language in general. You will get the chance to examine languages that are on the brink of extinction today, see which languages have contributed words currently used in American English, and more. x
  • 29
    The Original American Languages III
    Continue your journey through the languages of North America, including a language that uses no sounds that require the lips to touch. As you look at the unique grammatical features of languages across the continent, you will also consider what happens when languages die out and their complexities are lost to future generations. x
  • 30
    The Original American Languages IV
    Follow Native American migrations to encounter the language families that moved south to take root in Central and South America. From a language variety that incorporates whistling to some with object-subject-verb word order—and even one that resulted from a mass kidnapping—you will experience a range of fascinating linguistic developments. x
  • 31
    Languages Caught between Families
    The line between different language families is often blurred. Languages from different families that have been brought together can create a hybrid that belongs to both, and every combination happens in different ways and to varying degrees. Look at several examples of this phenomenon (which even includes English). x
  • 32
    How Far Back Can We Trace Languages?
    Embark on a quest that some believe may be impossible: tracing the relationships between the macro language families. See how the pursuit of evidence connecting the language families is complicated by time, accidental similarities, lost languages, and more, as you also look at several plausible theories that could offer solutions. x
  • 33
    What Do Genes Say about Language Families?
    The idiosyncrasies that show up in DNA allow us to trace back to common ancestors, much like language traits allow us to chart language-family relationships. Take a look at the concept of glottochronology and see what linguistic theories have been confirmed by genetics in places like Europe, India, and Polynesia—as well as some surprises. x
  • 34
    Language Families and Writing Systems
    What do writing systems tell us about language? Better understand why writing actually tells us more about human ingenuity in communication than it tells us about spoken language. Close with a consideration of the cultural importance of language, its preservation and loss, and the realities of a more linguistically homogeneous future. x

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Your professor

John McWhorter

About Your Professor

John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
Dr. John McWhorter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He previously was Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Professor McWhorter specializes in language change and language contact. He is the author of...
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Reviews

Language Families of the World is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 30.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A pleasure to use a course in which the instructor is not forced to wander around while speaking.
Date published: 2019-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A superb class with one big flaw This is the third Teaching Company class I've watched with Professor McWhorter. I am a huge fan. The breadth and depth of his knowledge about language is stunning, and I find him endless interesting. Yes, he has a quirky sense of humor which you either like or you don't. I find him amusing, and feel that his moments of humor add interest to a fairly dense topic. My one complaint about the course is this: In a course that presents itself as comprehensive regarding all human languages, his neglect of sign languages is jarring. As someone who uses American Sign Language fairly competently, I found his constant reference to language as speech as not only inaccurate and annoying, but for deaf people struggling to have their language validated, dangerous. I grant that the knowledge base about world sign languages is limited, but there is plenty known about ASL and some European Sign Languages, enough to at least merit recognition. In addition, ASL has all sorts of fascinating grammatical features that would have enriched his discussion. Iin the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which has been studied by linguists, a new language has literally emerged in the last few decades. Linguists studying it are seeing how a language emerges right before their eyes. Again, I recommend all of Professor McWhorter's classes. I just wish he could rid himself of this glaring blindspot.
Date published: 2019-04-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I am enjoying the course and learning lot from it. It is well-presented and the topic is very interesting. I probably would have given it a higher rating if you had not changed the way you introduce the lectures. It is redundant and boring to reintroduce the professor before each lecture.
Date published: 2019-04-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Another McWhorter Gem John McWhorter has presented another gem in the field of language and linguistics. Disclosure: I have purchased all of Dr. McWhorter's previous classes in language and language usage, so I am big fan. This survey is a masterful undertaking as it provides information on all the main language families in the world. I am not put off by his presentation style, which includes various sound bites and other vocalizations that might drive some viewers crazy. But I must present some caveats. First, because it is essentially a survey course, no topic is discussed in depth, including the lectures on Indo-European languages of which most viewers are familiar. This course thus suffers from touching all the bases for sure, but only lightly. Second, the course looks like it was filmed in a basement. it is very bare bones looking. For each lecture, here is McWhorter sitting on a stool facing the camera, speaking (I assume) from a teleprompter. There are close ups, but no set decoration to indicate the subject of the course. There certainly could have been more visual aids. Third and last, the course guidebook is a waste of paper and totally useless. Some lecture chapters are only 2-3 pages in length. The bibliography is terse, with no commentary on the references as to their target audiences, depth of discussion, or relative worth. If the viewer can put up with these shortcomings, this is a worthy course and I recommend it with caution. However, due to the lack of depth in the material, the main take-away might be just an appreciation of the length, breadth, and complexity of human language.
Date published: 2019-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Language Families of the World I just finished this excellent course and have given it an A grade. I knew very little about the subject matter and have learned a great deal. The professor presented the material in a very organized fashion and did so clearly with enthusiasm and humor.I looked forward to each lesson.I have completed over 80 Great Courses and this one ranks in the top 10%.
Date published: 2019-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lecturer I was amazed when the professor said he got into linguistics through Mario Pei's book. I read that too when I was around 14. Professor McWhorter left out the Celtic languages when he mentioned languages without a standard verb "to have". The Welsh do it the same as the Russians. Glad to see him begin the lecture on non-IndoEuropean languages in Europe with Estonian. A good friend and colleague of mine was Estonian and served in an Estonian battalion in WWII. He said they would screen prisoners for Finno-Ugric minorities and many spoke what he termed "stone age Finnish".
Date published: 2019-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent droll professer I have only watched the first three courses, but I am sure I will love the entire course because John McWhorter is a great professor and i love linguistics. I have been following him since his first Great Courses lectures many years ago. If you haven't seen his other courses, watch them first. it will give you a better foundation for this course. He is very informative, as well as drolly funny.
Date published: 2019-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The stunning diversity of the World's Languages. In short, this is another excellent course from Dr McWhorter. I found the topic itself (i.e. the structure and assortment of "The Language Families") to be fascinating. But a (very) pleasant surprise was how much I have enjoyed what was, essentially, a "sub-plot" of the course; that is the detailed descriptions of those aspects of the various languages and their families that make each of the languages so wholly and unexpectedly different. Before I first was introduced to other languages in school, my initial notion was that if one were to learn another language (or to try to translate from that language) what one is doing, more or less, is "speaking the same language but just using different words" --and speaking with other folks I still think this is a reasonable approximation of how many folks typically view "other languages". When I started learning languages in high school and college (Latin, Spanish, French), I quickly learned that it was bit more complicated than that. For example, there were things like case-endings, conjugation-classes, etc. But, nonetheless, the various languages were still "kind of the same thing". But with courses like this it becomes clear how grossly oversimplified even that notion is. How other languages work is --quite simply-- a whole other world. Once again, fascinating stuff.
Date published: 2019-03-29
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