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Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Review: The Story of Human Language

The Story of Human Language is one of the best "great courses" audio lecture series I've ever audited. I have no formal training in linguistics other than auditing other lecture series, and came into the lecture series thinking it'd be something like a history of the English language, but instead it's a principles-oriented discussion of language evolution and the implications of those principles!

Here are the principles as discussed:

  • Vowels at the end of words are in danger of being eroded away
  • Vowels tend to shift over time
  • Words and phrases tend to get shortened and sped up over time
  • Intensity of semantics tends to erode overtime, so meanings get diluted. (Think about how you used to be able to say "Great!" and mean it, and now you have to say "Awesome")

    From these, John McWhorter discusses:
    • Where do tones come from? (if you erode away words, eventually what's left as the difference between words becomes tonal)
    • Are all languages equally complex? (No, the complicated languages are the ones that are spoken by a small insular group of people with no larger interaction with the outside world --- when adults have to learn a language they learn it badly so complicated languages get shaved down and simplified... As a result, the more widely spoken a language is, the simpler it becomes --- as a result, Mandarin Chinese is easier to learn than Cantonese, for instance)
    • The corollary is that a language that grows out of a pidgin gradually develops grammar and becomes more complicated as it needs to express more, but is still easier that ancient languages.
    • Because words tend to disappear over time or get diluted, only written languages can maintain a big vocabulary.
    There's a ton of other stuff in here, including a discussion of what's a language versus what's merely a pidgin (this is highly technical). It turns out that Hawaiian Pidgin is actually a creole language. There's a great explanation of why English is so different from old English, and why we find Shakespeare nearly incomprehensible. There's a discussion of artificial languages such as Esperanto and the various sign languages including Solresol, a musical constructed language. It sounds so delightful that I had to look it up after auditing the entire course.

    I can't do this audio lecture series justice. Just the anecdote about how he walked into an elevator with two men who grew up together but hadn't seen each other in decades, and how they gradually code-shifted from formal English into their native dialects made the entire series worthwhile. It's well worth the 18 hours (or you could speed it up with the audible app by listening at double speed) . This is the "great courses" audio lecture series where I went back and read the lecture notes that accompanied the audible download.

    Highly recommended!

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