Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Story of Human Language DVDs

After several years of receiving catalogues in the mail from The Great Courses [] I finally ordered one (my wife actually encouraged me to order one for my birthday). There are easily half a dozen that I would love to get, but one at a time... My first was The Story of Human Languages with professor John McWhorter.

There are 36 half-hour lectures on 6 dvds - 18 hours worth total. Donna and I have watched 7 lectures so far. It even comes with a Course Guidebook so you don't have to take notes, and can see how words referred to are spelled. McWhorter is one of my favorite linguistic authors anyway for his The Power of Babel book published in 2001.

In Lecture 3 McWhorter talks about sound changes, and explained the Great Vowel Shift which started in the late 1300's in English. The word name for example used to be pronounced NAH-meh which is why it is spelled the way it is. Two changes turned name into the way it sounds today - the first vowel changed into a long A, and the E became silent. This explains much of our weird spelling in English - the spelling is a fossilized remnant of the way words used to be pronounced - the sounds changed but the spellings did not. Boat, coat, etc used to be two syllable words BO-at, CO-at, etc. which is how they are still pronounced in modern Frisian. Inherent laziness caused our ancestors to turn them into one syllable words. Other examples were given of how words shorten over time.

Lecture 4 deals with how words are added to, a process that continuously occurs along with the shortening trend. Prefixes and suffixes started out as separate words that got shortened and attached. McWhorter explained how grammatical words (prepositions, articles, conjunctions etc like in, under, the, but, not...) develop out of concrete words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs), a process called Grammaticalization. He gave the fascinating example of how, in the French language, the concrete word pas meaning "step" became a grammatical word meaning "not" (if someone asks, I'll explain it in a future post).

Another process called Rebracketing creates new words out of other words. For example all one became alone from which came the word lone (not the other way around as we might suppose). Similarly a noranj became an orange, and an ekename became a nickname.  Another example of rebracketing is hamburger which started as Hamburger steak, named for the German city where burg means "fort" and ham has nothing to do with meat. It has been further shortened to burger, referring to the meat patty, from which variations like cheeseburger  and fishburger were invented. He also showed how new words in tonal languages can develop using an example from the Lahu language of SE Asia.

I'll share more from these dvds in future posts.


  1. OK, I'll ask about Pas to pas.
    Some European languages pronounce the ending e's. I think. How come the English were the lazy ones and developed all these short forms?

  2. English aren't the only lazy speakers. The same process of word shortening and word lengthening are at work in all languages. Change happens faster in non-literate (oral) languages as there are no rule books governing how you are "supposed" to speak, or teachers rapping your knuckles for speaking in a way that seems perfectly normal to you. Thanks for biting - I'll explain "pas" in a future post.