Why we talk the way we do…

The Story of Human Language
by John McWhorter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

With some recommendations I stumbled across this book on human language from The Great Courses. This is an audiobook, aka the lecture series by the author.

Here is what it‘s all about:

There are 6,000 languages in the world, in so much variety that many languages would leave English speakers wondering just how a human being could possibly learn and use them.

From the scope of the book / pdf supplement of the audio

The first two lectures were What Is Language? and When Language Began. By the sound of it this seem to be actual lectures. There are reactions from the audience and clapping. It makes for a different listening experience than listening to a professionally narrated book. The author, aka lecturer, is a proficient and coherent speaker. However, the experience is a bit more organic than usual.

The part about Chomsky in the second lecture was new to me and the notion that humans are somehow programmed to speak sounded logical to me. The other side of that argument is, that language develops based on external influences. Here we open the door to philosophical debate. I am benching that one for my next non-fiction book…

The basis of Chomsky’s linguistic theory lies in biolinguistics, the linguistic school that holds that the principles underpinning the structure of language are biologically preset in the human mind and hence genetically inherited.

Accordingly, Chomsky argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and distinguished from modes of communication used by any other animal species.

Wikipedia about Chomsky

Lecture 3: How Language Changes—Sound Change talks about the great vowel shift — I opened the pdf, that came with the audio. It‘s not the full text, more of a summary, but still… reading along and looking at some of the examples in writing is very helpful. Pretty cool, actually, how vowels and consonants changed over time. That word, „cool“, had a vowel shift, btw…

I won‘t bore you with summaries of every single lecture, suffice to say that the author covers a vast amount of linguistic topics. I spaced out a bit during the many chapters on dialects.

The author‘s casual dismissal of places and people outside of the US was a bit irritating at times. I think he was trying to be funny, with middling success. 

Lecture 26: Does Culture Drive Language Change? presents…

a hypothesis that our ways of processing the world are channeled by the structure of our language. This has been called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

That has always been a really fascinating concept for me. German, language of thinkers and poets, etc. Based on this audiobook course and other sources I looked at over time, this does not seem to hold true. The language you think in or the grammar you use do not seem to shape how you think and do not seem to be influenced by the culture you live in. Although it has never been proven, the idea doesn‘t seem to be going away.

In the chapters after that one we learned about Pidgin and Creole. There is a difference! I did not know that. And I learned a lot more about it that I really cared for. However, a lot of that was grounding for Lecture 32: What Is Black English?Fascinating connection to British English!

Everything was rounded off with a master class, to extrapolate on everything we learned throughout the course.

It was interesting, even with some bits in between that dragged a bit. The accompanying pdf was open most of the time, while I listened to the lectures and served a bit as a blackboard for the lecturer. Good enough to consider further offerings by The Great Courses.


Some of the recommended reading:


This was part of my #ReadPOC2021 challenge. The February prompt is „scientist“.

The March prompt is „A Work of Fiction“. These are on my want-to-read shelf and fit the prompt, in no particular order:

  • The Black Parade by Kyoko M., UF, reviews are mixed
  • The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson, horror/SF, novella
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee, UF
  • Rosewater by Tade Thompson, SF
  • David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, UF
  • Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Fantasy/SF

10 thoughts on “Why we talk the way we do…

  1. I found this one fascinating too! And it really opened my eyes to how a lot of “common sense” things about language are just plain wrong. On the other hand, I don’t think the author’s sense of humor really hit the target he was aiming for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He said quite a few things that I found off. Hamburg is boring, nothing interesting every happens in Mongolia, etc. Societies that don‘t speak or understand English are not worth living in or something along those lines. Etc. Some remarks were derogatory towards others and I don‘t mean the own-voice related comments.

      Like

  2. I‘ve studied Linguistics, and Chomsky‘s universal grammar was one of the most important topics. There’s fascinating evidence from language acquisition and 3rd generation mixed languages.
    It felt funny when my daughter told me that nowadays his theory is completely disregarded – at least at her university.
    Funny to be part of scientific wars long after being invested in it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Quite readable, as I remember it. Diamond writes in a more friendly and accessible style. Certainly not the dry prose that some historians and anthropologists can lean towards. The fact that the history itself is also interesting really helps with this.

        Liked by 1 person

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