Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language

Course No. 2270
Professor John McWhorter, Ph.D.
Columbia University
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Course No. 2270
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Course Overview

We all use language every day of our lives. Language, regardless of the particular dialect spoken, is the tool we use to express our wants, our needs, and our feelings.

Recently, many experts who study language have become convinced by an idea about this remarkable human trait that was, only a few decades ago, utterly revolutionary. These experts believe that the capacity for spoken language and the rules for its structure are not cultural but universal—a set of rules shared by humans in every culture and that even may be hardwired into our brains. Moreover, these rules apply regardless of which of the world's 6,000 languages are being spoken.

But what are these rules? How do they work? And how can knowing them enhance your experience of the world?

The 36 lectures of Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language—taught by acclaimed linguist, author, and Professor John McWhorter from Columbia University—are your opportunity to take a revealing journey through the fascinating terrain of linguistics. You focus on the scientific aspects of human language that were left out of any classes you may have taken in English or a foreign language, and you emerge from your journey with a newfound appreciation of the mysterious machinery built into all of us—an appreciation likely to surface time and again in your everyday life.

Gain Insights into How We Speak

"When we talk about language, we talk about the way people talk," says Professor McWhorter. Just as linguistics opens windows into our past, it can also reveal more about the world we live in today.

It was once possible, perhaps even likely, to go through daily life without encountering someone who spoke a different language. But in today's increasingly diverse world, where you can encounter different languages in different settings and where you might even speak multiple languages yourself, understanding how languages operate is increasingly important and can be extraordinarily rewarding.

In Understanding Linguistics, you explore the vast field of scientific linguistics and discover why this burgeoning field is becoming increasingly important in your everyday life:

  • Glean the real meanings hidden in everyday conversations.
  • Understand the process by which young children learn to speak.
  • Comprehend that changes in language (including new words, constructions, or usages) are a normal and inevitable part of the language's evolution.
  • Grasp the complex interaction of language, brain structure, and the physiology of the human mouth.
  • See how the science of language can reveal nuances of human history beyond the reach of any other discipline.

From Building Blocks to Social Tools

Professor McWhorter explains and illustrates the critical elements and purposes of language, from its most basic building blocks to its uses as a nuanced social tool:

  • The basic sounds from which human language is built and why the English alphabet, with only 26 letters, is inadequate to deal with the 44 sounds of our own language—a dilemma solved by the International Phonetic Alphabet
  • How these sounds are combined into words and words into sentences, and how rules of structure hardwired into everyone's brain work to ensure that those sentences have meaning within whatever language is being spoken
  • How children learn to acquire their first language spontaneously but why learning a second language can be so difficult
  • Why language, from the level of basic sounds to the customs of usage, inevitably changes over time
  • How writing systems, which exist for only about 200 of the world's approximately 6,000 languages, evolved

Meet Pioneering Linguists

Understanding Linguistics also introduces you to many of the individuals who have most influenced our scientific understanding of language. The business of linguists isn't policing language, correcting your grammar, or acting as a translator; instead, linguists devote themselves to the scientific study of human language. These are some of the many pioneers of the field whom you meet in this course:

  • Jacob Grimm: Best known to the general public for the often-dark folk tales he collected with his brother, Grimm demonstrated the systematic and predictable way the sounds of a language evolve, offering linguists a way to trace current languages back to their roots.
  • Noam Chomsky: Also a political commentator and activist, Chomsky founded the influential school of syntactic analysis—the study of how words are ordered into sentences—and developed the now widely accepted hypothesis of a hardwired human capacity for language.
  • Edward Sapir: Sapir first put forth the seed of what was ultimately to become one of linguistics' most enduring theories: that languages, to some extent, reflect the thought patterns and cultural outlooks of their speakers.
  • Benjamin Whorf: Building on the ideas of Sapir, Whorf developed what became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the idea that people's languages actually channel the way in which they perceive the world.
  • Ferdinand de Saussure: Straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, de Saussure laid the foundation for modern linguistics analysis with his idea that language could be analyzed as it exists in the moment and not just from a historical perspective.
  • William Labov: One of the first linguists to examine how race, class, and gender influence language, Labov, in his signature study The Social Stratification of English in New York City, inaugurated the now-vigorous subfield of sociolinguistics.

An Entertaining, Captivating Instructor

Professor McWhorter, a prolific writer and frequent media commentator, makes the process of understanding linguistics intensely rewarding.

Supplementing his own considerable teaching skills with recorded materials and exclusively developed graphics designed to make even complex ideas immediately graspable, he takes you inside your own mind and into cultures and social situations around the world to explain the surprisingly orderly and hierarchical levels of human language.

In exploring the ideas and people that make this course both intellectually rigorous and readily accessible, Professor McWhorter is tirelessly entertaining and as captivated by his subject as he wants you to be. His use of humor, personal anecdotes, and unexpected forays into contemporary culture make Understanding Linguistics a course you'll savor long after you've finished the final lecture.

Undoubtedly, you'll find its insights surfacing whenever you experience the language around you.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    What Is Linguistics?
    Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. This lecture introduces your course's key elements, from language's building blocks to the many ways linguistic practitioners use them to learn more about us and the role of language in our lives. x
  • 2
    The Sounds of Language—Consonants
    The English alphabet, with only 26 letters, offers only an approximate sense of the 44 sounds English uses. You learn how linguists therefore transcribe x
  • 3
    The Other Sounds—Vowels
    You continue your exploration of the International Phonetic Alphabet with a look at its vowels—a much larger resource than the five provided by the conventional alphabet—and are able to transcribe entire words and sentences in the IPA. x
  • 4
    In the Head versus On the Lips
    Some sounds are "real" ones that distinguish meaning; others are just variations. In exploring how words are generated on two levels, you learn about a contrast basic to modern linguistics: the difference between phonemic and phonetic sounds. x
  • 5
    How to Make a Word
    Just as actual sounds correspond only partially to the alphabet, the words we write correspond only partially to actual units of meaning. This lecture introduces you to the linguistic "unit of meaning" called a morpheme, several of which might be contained in a single word. x
  • 6
    The Chomskyan Revolution
    Although best known outside linguistics for his political writings, Noam Chomsky inaugurated a revolution in linguistic thought, proposing in the 1950s that the capacity for language is innate, driven by a neurological configuration that generates words in a hierarchical, branching "tree" format known as phrase structure. x
  • 7
    Deep Structure and Surface Structure
    You learn the evidence for Chomsky's argument that the sentences we utter at "surface structure" level often emerge with a different constituent ordering than was in place at "deep structure" level—the result of processes of movement he originally called transformations. x
  • 8
    The On-Off Switches of Grammar
    Syntax, in linguistics, refers to the mechanisms that order words in sentences. This lecture introduces you to the idea that languages' syntaxes differ according to whether certain parameters—such as whether objects come before or after verbs—are set to "on" or "off." x
  • 9
    Shades of Meaning and Semantic Roles
    Languages differ in how they express basic concepts of meaning, such as person, space, and tense. This lecture introduces you to semantics—the ways in which different languages use the building blocks you've learned about to communicate messages about the full range of reality. x
  • 10
    From Sentence to Storytelling
    You begin to learn about pragmatics—how we move beyond the literal meaning of sentences to real-world matters like attitude, general presuppositions, and what is known versus what is new. Pragmatics is what makes strings of words express the full range of humanity and consciousness. x
  • 11
    Language on Its Way to Becoming a New One
    Jacob Grimm was more than a compiler of fairy tales. In learning how Grimm's Law spurred the development of a scientific way of charting sound changes, you are introduced to historical linguistics, the study of how language changes over time. x
  • 12
    Recovering Languages of the Past
    Linguists can reconstruct what earlier languages were like by comparing their modern descendants. In this lecture you see how comparative reconstruction is applied to the recovery of the ancestor of the Romance languages and the ancestor to the Polynesian languages. x
  • 13
    Where Grammar Comes From
    Where do a language's "grammatical" words—words that, like "about," have no independent meaning in the sense that a concrete word like "apple" does—actually come from? You learn how independent words marking concrete concepts are reinterpreted over time to serve as grammatical markers. x
  • 14
    Language Change from Old English to Now
    You get a chance to observe the process of language change described in the previous three lectures, examining a passage of Old English to see how changes in sound patterns, word formation, and grammatical patterns changed that language into the one we now speak. x
  • 15
    What Is an Impossible Language?
    There are ways in which a language can and does change, but there are also ways in which it cannot. You gain an understanding of the concept of markedness and its key role in defining the constraints on a language's possible changes. x
  • 16
    How Children Learn to Speak
    Children acquire language spontaneously without being explicitly taught how. In examining how this is accomplished, you learn about the strong evidence that such ability is innate and that much of language acquisition is about the ability to master underlying rules rather than to memorize words. x
  • 17
    How We Learn Languages as Adults
    Unlike learning a first language, learning a second can be a slippery slope, with rules of the first often bleeding into the second. You learn why this is so and what factors can make the process easier. x
  • 18
    How You Talk and How They Talk
    You encounter the field of sociolinguistics, which investigates how social factors like class affect the way in which people say words or arrange their sentences grammatically. x
  • 19
    How Class Defines Speech
    You continue your examination of sociolinguistics with a look at two ways in which researchers have presented the impact of social factors on the way people express themselves, including Basil Bernstein's controversial hypothesis that working-class people use a more restricted code of language that hampers educational achievement. x
  • 20
    Speaking Differently, Changing the Language
    You learn how variation is often an early sign of change in a language and that the working class, because its members are less constrained by prescriptive norms and maintain new variants as "in-group" markers, is the source of most change in a language. x
  • 21
    Language and Gender
    How we speak is determined significantly by whether we are men or women. You learn the many ways by which this difference is brought to bear, including grammatical markers, the social favor or disfavor of a form, and other social factors. x
  • 22
    Languages Sharing the World—Bilingualism
    With 6,000 languages coexisting in just 200 or so nations, bilingualism and multilingualism are not oddities; they are norms. What happens in such a situation? This lecture shows you the results of bilingualism according to social context. x
  • 23
    Languages Sharing a Sentence—Code-Switching
    One of the consequences of widespread bilingualism and multilingualism is the use of two languages within one conversation and even within the same sentence. This does not occur randomly but according to specific linguistic traffic rules and social factors—a phenomenon known as code-switching. x
  • 24
    The Rules of Conversation
    Linguists and sociologists have discovered that conversation between people—with not only its conveyance of data but also its interruptions and strategies—is guided by subconsciously controlled rules, just as syntax is. You gain insight into those rules in this lecture on conversation analysis. x
  • 25
    What Is This Thing Called Language?
    You meet Ferdinand de Saussure, who established linguistics as a discipline concerned with language in a present-tense sense rather than as a historical procession. De Saussure inaugurated the study of language as a human activity, rather than as something recorded on paper. x
  • 26
    Speech as Action
    Much of what we say is as much about doing something as saying something; as much about serving a social function as communicating. This is the concept termed the "speech act," and you learn in this lecture how the various kinds of speech acts have been explained and categorized. x
  • 27
    Uses of Talk from Culture to Culture
    How a language is actually used in various situations can vary widely from culture to culture, where differing social norms define how a speaker functions within the language. You gain an introduction to what is called the ethnography of communication. x
  • 28
    Does Language Channel Thought? The Evidence
    This lecture introduces you to a seductive theory known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis—the idea that a language's particular vocabulary and grammar determine how its speakers process the world—and its inherent problems, despite its persistent popular acceptance. x
  • 29
    Does Language Channel Thought? New Findings
    You continue your exploration of the Whorfian hypothesis, learning that sociological concerns as well as linguistic ones have determined many of its adherents' approaches, before moving on to interesting new studies that suggest a less stark version of the Whorfian idea. x
  • 30
    Is Language Going to the Dogs?
    Linguists have had little success in convincing the public that there is no such thing as "bad grammar" and that casual speech is not an imperfect version of "proper" language. You explore why this is so and why past changes in English are viewed as acceptable in a way that current, ongoing change is not. x
  • 31
    Why Languages Are Never Perfect
    You continue your examination of the argument for descriptivism over prescriptivism begun in the previous lecture, learning that there is no human language without logical lapses and imperfections and why there is little point in trying to build one. x
  • 32
    The Evolution of Writing
    Writing is not language but only a secondary expression of it, a representation of it on the page. This lecture explains how writing first emerged, exploring the picture-based system that became abstract cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the alphabetic system that became the source of the Roman alphabet. x
  • 33
    Writing Systems
    You explore the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing systems before plunging into the fascinating story behind the decoding of the extinct Greek writing system known as Linear B, discovered on the island of Crete in 1900. Mistakenly assumed to be a lost Cretan language, Linear B was ultimately deciphered in 1953 and shown to be a form of Greek. x
  • 34
    Doing Linguistics—With a Head Start
    You get the opportunity to learn something about actually being a linguist as you explore the grammar of a language called Saramaccan—a hybrid of English, Portuguese, and African languages, with a little Dutch—which is spoken in the Republic of Surinam in South America. x
  • 35
    Doing Linguistics—From the Ground Up
    In this lecture, your foray into practical linguistics involves an obscure, difficult, and peculiar language—Kabardian—presented as if you were encountering it for the first time. Spoken in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, Kabardian's sound system and syntax show various concepts you have seen in this course. x
  • 36
    The Evolution of Language
    Interest in how language emerged in humans, long dormant in the field, has recently re-emerged. You conclude the course with a brief look at some of this new work, including Ray Jackendorf's assertions that sentence generation, contrary to Chomskyan theory, begins with semantics, not syntax. 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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Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 80.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The lecturer makes this course interesting I knew nothing about linguistics and just bought this on a lark, and it turned out fun mainly because of the lecturer. At first he seemed strange to me, but as I watched more, he was interesting and funny and has made this course very enjoyable.
Date published: 2019-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Title is fine I have only just started this course, but I wanted to take the opportunity to sing the praises of another course: Biblical Hebrew. The course is tough but engrossing, and the lecturer is first rate.
Date published: 2019-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course should be a requirement Professor McWhorter is an amazing teacher. His style, and knowledge of linguistics really shows. I wish I had some one like him when I was in college! Your understanding of how language evolves and how other languages blend their sounds will be forever changed.
Date published: 2019-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great teacher I am just delighted with the class, haven´t finnished yet but so far is just great
Date published: 2019-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I learned exactly what I need to The content, which is the crucial feature, is very good, interesting, well organized, and at the end, you will have the basics to go on with your studies. I refreshed what I already knew (little) and learned exactly what I expected to. You just have to completely ignore the fact that the professor is the least funny person ever (in my experience) and, at times, a sort of desperate stereotype of academic prejudices and clumsy posh vanity.
Date published: 2019-01-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting and informative. I find Professor McWhorter engaging and personable, and I did enjoy his frequent spontaneous asides. He kept my interest, while presenting a wealth of information, bolstered by examples from numerous different languages. I appreciated the description of the IPA, a full understanding of which has eluded me for some time. I was left with one question, and one small quibble. As to the question, he may have partially answered it in the last lecture to do with language use in an evolutionary context, but I wondered (and still wonder), if languages are always evolving, with syntax and pronunciation more or less simplifying, how did they start out so complex? It's the old entropy question; if processes move to a more simplified, less complex state, how did they arrive at the more complex state to begin with? The quibble has to do with his militant descriptivism. One reviewer takes him to task for making some grammatical errors. This misses the point. He sometimes defiantly uses non-standard grammar, to show how liberated he is from the silly elitist insistence on grammatical rules. It is a populist position--here's how the real folk talk, don't you know? He takes this far enough to ignore any contrary positions. Standard languages, which are used in society-wide contexts, are necessarily, to some extent, prescriptive. Otherwise courts, businesses, schools, many social institutions, could not well function. Nations promote standardized languages--the examples of Italy and Norway come easily to mind, but there are many others. He notes at one point that the French language that is spoken today is actually Latin--it's just the way Latin developed, and, of course, languages change. He fails to point out the obvious, that there are many other developments of Latin that are not intelligible to a French speaker (he does, in fact, note this type of observation, but does not bring it in when he is making the argument that all languages change). The various dialects of the Italian peninsula and islands are Latin; Spanish is Latin; Catalan is Latin; Portuguese is Latin; Romanian is Latin. But they are not classical Latin, they are not church Latin, and they are emphatically not French. He says that, since languages are always changing, and you never find an example of one that has crumbled and disappeared, then this speaks to a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist approach to language study. But nobody on the prescriptivist side would say that languages crumble and disappear in this way (some languages do disappear, but usually because they have been displaced, not because they have self-immolated); what is said is that languages change to a point that they are no longer intelligible among all the sub-linguistic communities that they serve. The other concern about language change (and Prof. McWhorter denies the obvious political implications) is that language does not change the same way everywhere and for everybody. If I hear of certain changes in pronunciation or spelling, and somebody implies that I am not up to date if I don't use these (because, after all, language "changes") I am perfectly justified in saying "Yes, I understand that some people's language in this domain has changed, but mine hasn't. I'm perfectly happy with the spelling and grammar that I use, and see no need to change it." I'm pretty sure Prof. McWhorter is aware of all the counter arguments. I am distressed that, instead of properly taking them into account, he simply ignores them, and moves to a position of ridiculing those who value "correct" usage. A lengthy quibble, but overall I enjoyed the course, and I did learn.
Date published: 2018-09-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from In depth Dr. McWorter is my favorite teacher and he was as good as always in this course. However, this course is not for those mildly interested in linguistics because it goes into great detail. I'll have to listen to these lessons more than once or twice to totally understand. But that's what I want from a course!
Date published: 2018-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clearly the best course in basic linguistics ever. If you want to learn the basics of linguistics, then this course is for you. It must be the best in existence. My interest in the subject is now backed up with actual facts. The lecturer, Dr. John McWhorter, is one of the best teachers I have even encountered. Everything is clear, interesting, even exciting. The man has a tremendous wealth of knowledge....and humor also. You learn bits of sociology, paleontology, biology, psychology, and cultural history. This course cannot be beaten or excelled.
Date published: 2018-06-16
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