Video Lectures

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Professor John Hamilton McWhorter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.”

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

Lecture 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.

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