Book Review: “The Story of Human Language” by John McWhorter

I consider myself to be something of an armchair linguist (in other words, a total amateur but I love the topic!), so I was really excited to check out this audiobook! I was also nervous, though, because this audiobook was over 18 hours long. While it did take me almost the entire month of January to get through it, it was totally worth it! I’ve actually had this one in my Audible library for quite a while, but I’ve been putting it off due to being intimidated by its length and afraid I would get bored at some point. However, I never did. I’ve always loved school, and as much as I love teaching I oftentimes miss getting to be a student! This lecture was the perfect cure for that. For anyone with any interest in languages, how they’ve changed over time, and how they interact with other languages around the world, I highly recommend this audio lecture!

Spoiler-Free Review: “The Story of Human Language” is a series of recorded lectures about language: how it started and how it’s changed over time. While it does cover some technical linguistic concepts, it also delves into real-life examples of modern languages, written language and examples from popular stories, and provides different perspectives on common misconceptions about dialects and creole languages. It’s humorous and the real-life examples provided throughout the lectures make even the most technical and potentially mundane topics engaging. While it is a little repetitive at times, I didn’t mind this. This isn’t an audiobook that’s meant to be “binged,” it’s meant to be taken as a course. You could set aside a few times a week to listen to each lecture (as if you were a college student) and even take notes depending on what you want to get out of it. The repetition is valuable, as it is difficult to retain information when it’s only been presented a single time. As this series was produced in 2004, some of the jokes and references are outdated and some of the humor is politically incorrect (and at times offensive). With that being said, while the presentation was at times flawed, the content itself was fantastic and I really learned a lot!

Below you will find a more thorough review containing my thoughts about the book. If you’re wanting to avoid any spoilers, you are welcome to jump to the TL;DR summary at the bottom of the page if you’d prefer!

“The Story of Human Language” by John McWhorter (The Great Courses)
Image result for the story of human language
  • Year of Publication: 2004
  • Genre: Nonfiction (Informational)
  • Summary:

“I never met a person who is not interested in language,” wrote the bestselling author and psychologist Steven Pinker. There are good reasons that language fascinates us so. It not only defines humans as a species, placing us head and shoulders above even the most proficient animal communicators, but it also beguiles us with its endless mysteries. For example:

* How did different languages come to be?
* Why isn’t there just a single language?
* How does a language change, and when it does, is that change indicative of decay or growth?
* How does a language become extinct?

Dr. John McWhorter, one of America’s leading linguists and a frequent commentator on network television and National Public Radio, addresses these and other questions as he takes you on an in-depth, 36-lecture tour of the development of human language, showing how a single tongue spoken 150,000 years ago has evolved into the estimated 6,000 languages used around the world today.

An accomplished scholar, Professor McWhorter is also a skilled popularizer, whose book The Power of Babel was called “startling, provocative, and remarkably entertaining,” by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The London Times called him “a born teacher.” And Steven Pinker, best known as the author of The Language Instinct, offered this praise for the book: “McWhorter’s arguments are sharply reasoned, refreshingly honest, and thoroughly original.”

Format: Audiobook (Narrated by John McWhorter)

Themes (Main Ideas): Language change is not language decay. All languages change over time. Written language does not change as quickly as spoken language. All dialects and creole languages are valid.

Character Development: Since this is nonfiction, there was no character development (nor were there characters!). The only “character” was the narrator/lecturer, and he was great! Incredibly knowledgeable and personable, even a little awkward at times but in a relatable way. It really made me feel like I was taking a college course!

Plot/Pacing: Again, since this isn’t fiction there wasn’t a plot. However, I felt the pacing of the information presented in these lectures was fantastic. It was broken up in a logical way, with each lecture having a clear topic. Even though the lectures were clearly divided by sub-topic, they still flowed nicely and made sense when listening to several in a row. This pacing and structure made it pleasant to listen to several lectures at once (like I did), but it would also work well to listen to them one-at-a-time over a longer period of time. It was very well-planned and well-thought-out.

Writing Style: Again, I really enjoyed McWhorter’s presentation of the information. It was personable, relatable, and engaging. The only issue I had was that some of these examples were outdated (such as political references to Clinton and Bush), and many of the remarks made were either bordering on offensive/degrading or just outright offensive. At one point he makes a joke about slavery, which was just inappropriate and not funny at all. I do try to be aware of my modern, 2021 lens as I’m listening, though. These lectures were recorded almost 20 years ago, and as a society we’ve learned a lot about how to address our biases and be more culturally responsive. However, it is important to be aware of these remarks as they could potentially be triggering.

“Bingeability”: Low. It’s long and it would be a lot of information to take in all at once. And to clarify, low bingeability is not a bad thing! It’s just important to acknowledge that this isn’t one you’d want to try to listen to all in one sitting (especially not if you’re really trying to learn about this subject; it’s better to take it slow and give your brain time to process).

Emotional Investment: Moderate. This is another category that’s harder to apply to informational nonfiction. I will say, I was really invested in and engaged with what I was listening to since I care so much about language. It made me want to keep listening and learning! And I believe this would be true for anyone who cares about this topic.

Windows and Mirrors: Languages and cultures around the world and throughout time.

Overall Thoughts: I’m docking half a star for the handful of jokes and remarks that made me feel uncomfortable (and that still would have been inappropriate even 20 years ago), but I truly felt that the content of this audiobook was fantastic. There was so much information presented in these lectures, and the narrator made it exciting and accessible even for amateur linguists like myself. I didn’t feel bored even once while listening, and it even answered many questions I didn’t realize I had! Such as the famous line from Romeo and Juliet: “Oh Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou Romeo?” (*This was quoted from my memory of reading it in high school, I apologize for any errors!) This quote is oftentimes interpreted to mean that Juliet is asking where Romeo is, even though he’s standing right in front of her! However, in this Old English, “wherefore” actually meant “why.” She’s asking why he has to be Romeo, since it makes their love forbidden. This was definitely a misconception that I had, but one that I had never even thought to question! There are many points brought up that I will continue to ponder, and for that reason (among others) I really enjoyed this audiobook.

Recommendation: Yes, I absolutely recommend this book. It’s a great introduction to a variety of linguistic concepts, and one that can be enjoyed by anyone with a passion for language and a limited (or non-existent) background in linguistics!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Year of Publication: 2004
Genre: Nonfiction (Informational)
Summary: * How did different languages come to be?
* Why isn’t there just a single language?
* How does a language change, and when it does, is that change indicative of decay or growth?
* How does a language become extinct?
Themes (Main Ideas): Language change. Written vs. spoken language. Dialects and creoles.
Character Development: N/a, but personable narrator!
Well-organized lectures with clear topics.
Emotional Investment:
Windows and Mirrors:
Languages and cultures around the world and throughout time.
Overall Thoughts:
Some outdated and inappropriate remarks, but great content that is accessible for even amateur linguists.
Recommendation: Yes
4.5 out of 5 stars

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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