Free Online – The Story of Human Language By John McWhorter & The Great Courses

The Story of Human Language is a history book by author John McWhorter and The Great Courses. The content of the book revolves around the development of human language, learning that spoken language 150,000 years ago has evolved into an estimated 6,000 languages spoken around the world today and is highly regarded. Language asks each of us why not just a single language, how to change language over time ..language mystery to create success in communication?

Here are the top 3 reviews and comments that readers love about this fascinating book.

Review 1: The Story of Human Language audiobook by Mark

Hanging on every word

After a couple of mediocre listens I was very pleased to discover this real treasure trove of an audiobook. I don’t suppose this would be a book for everyone. To enjoy it, you probably need to have a passion for and a curiosity about language, as I do.

At the beginning of this lecture series the narrator discusses the origins of language as it came into being from the mouths of our distant ancestors, and at this stage he mentions that, possibly, Neanderthals weren’t able to speak because of the positioning of their larynx compared to early humans. I was slightly concerned about this assertion because I know that a lot of recent genetic discoveries have been made about the Neanderthals and it is generally believed that Neanderthals probably did talk, and so I started to wonder if this lecture series was old and outdated. I listened to a similar Audible lecture series recently and was disappointed to discover that it was recorded in the 90s. So I was relieved when the narrator mentioned that this series dates from 2004. It isn’t smack up-to-date, but it is reasonably current. He also mentions Steven Pinker’s brilliant book ‘The Language Instinct’ (available on Audible, and highly recommended), and I was relieved that this lecture series postdates Pinker’s influential work.

So the author explains lots of concepts about language from various perspectives, and he does this in a very entertaining and amusing style. I learnt lots of good stuff. There are far too many to list, but here is one example: We have a conception that languages in ‘undeveloped’ societies, such as those of isolated Amazon hunter-gatherers, would be grammatically simple, whilst a highly developed language, such as English, would be much more complex. But the opposite is true. A language left to ‘evolve’ in isolation amongst only a small number of speakers tends to become intricate and complicated. In contrast, languages such as English have at various times in the past been learned by dominant settlers (e.g. Vikings). When these Vikings acquired English they learned it as a second language (children are good at learning a second language, but adults tend to struggle with this), and in so doing they simplified it by speaking a kind of Pidgin English, removing most article genders, verb declensions and noun cases.

And because they were the dominant people at this time, their simplified reinterpretation of the English language replaced (or at least modified) the existing one. I love the idea of some big dumb Viking making a really bad job of picking up the local language, like a modern delinquent English tourist ordering lager on Holiday in Spain, and then, hundreds of years later, the effect of this is that English, the global mega-language, is more economical and straightforward thanks to the Viking simplifications.

The audiobook is chock-full of interesting points like the above (I find this stuff interesting, but I confess I am a word geek who enjoys crosswords and Scrabble). If you find language interesting then I think you will love it too.

Review 2: The Story of Human Language audiobook 


This was one of the most fascinating lecture series I’ve ever listened to. (But then I am a bit of a grammar geek.) Did you know that the “pas” in the “ne pas” of French comes from the word “step”? As in “No, I’m not going, not a single step”?

These lectures are thick with this kind of lore. They’re also peppered with Professor McWhorter’s personal anecdotes about the languages he’s studied and the native speakers he’s known. But it’s not all trivia and party chat — there are extensive sections on the variety of grammars, on written vs non-written languages, on creoles vs pidgins, and an interesting (if gloomy) assessment of attempts to revive dying languages.

I can’t say this series changed my life, but it certainly has changed how I think about culture and communication.

Review 3: The Story of Human Language audiobook by Kathy in CA

John McWhorter is simply amazing!

Who would thought an audiobook on language could be so utterly compelling and interesting! I enjoyed the other Great Course I listened to, so I thought I would give this one a try. What a great decision on my part!

I know almost nothing about the subject nor was I ever interested in it, yet I was entertained for the entire 18 hours. What made this book so fascinating was Professor McWhorter’s obvious love of his subject, Linguistics, and his wonderful, humorous, and dynamic personality. He is a pleasure to listen to–he makes a subject that could be very dry really come alive. I can certainly imagine listening to this book again.

McWhorter answers so many questions about the development of language. If you are at all like me, you may have never had any deep thoughts about language. I have only been frustrated by my difficulty in learning a foreign language. If you listen to this book, you will find out like I did just why it is so very difficult, if not impossible, to learn languages as an adult. You will learn, among other things, how languages develop and how they become extinct, why there isn’t a universal language, what is the difference between a language, a dialect, and a creole. You will also be amazed at how few of the world’s 6000 languages have been written down. You will most likely be very amused at the mostly unsuccessful attempts to create artificial languages, as McWhorter had such a fun time describing the musical language Solresol. No matter how boring my description sounds, McWhorter makes it all amusing and very interesting.

If you are wanting to break out of the escapism of fiction for a moment, I highly recommend this Great Course. I promise you will learn a great deal, you will be entertained, and maybe you will even be inspired to try another in the Great Courses series of audiobooks. I know I will.

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