Review: Story of Human Language, by John McWhorter

I had, for a long time, heard a lot of good things about The Teaching Company’s The Great Courses. The format sounded interesting, as many many of the topics, so one day I decided to check them out. I did, and was favourably impressed with everything, with one small exception – the price!

I do understand that these things costs an awful lot of money to produce. Unfortunately buying a course for something between US$200 and 400 is not within my ordinary book-buying budget. I was still interested enough to find different options so one day I started to search the national Swedish library catalogue. No luck.

The case was laid to rest. Until one day when I heard about Story of Human Language. I was piqued enough to search for it and found it at a staggering discount – “only” about US$50! A 36-lecture course on language, for the price of a non-fiction hardback. I just HAD to get it.

So get it I did. And was rewarded.

There’s no way a layman like me can look at a course like this and judge its content from a scientific viewpoint. But to me McWhorter did his very best to try to present and represent the differences and disputes that necessarily exist when theories are built on assumptions rather than facts. But whichever way this is it is still a delightful lecture series to listen to because McWhorter has a good voice and is clearly enthusiastic about his topic, generously telling stories about himself coming up short when trying to make himself understood, or showcasing misconceptions he has held.

He starts out easy, laying out the basis by means a layman can understand, before taking off discussing more complex issues. As a Scandinavian I thought it especially interesting to think on his discussion on how Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are treated as distinct and separate languages while some English dialects are even more separated from each other… while still being perceived to be one language.

So – fun, educational, and a pleasure. I actually found myself trying to conserve the experience, to make it last longer, feeling a bit disturbed over the fact that there would be one day when I had no more lectures of his to listen to.

Highly recommended.


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