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SPEAKING IN TONGUES: THE HISTORY OF LANGUAGE

Currently there are more than 6,000 languages spoken around the world. This five-part series traces the history and evolution of language and attendant theories and controversies while evaluating the scope of linguistic diversity, the dissemination of language, the expansion of language into written form, and the life cycle of language. Prominent figures in the field of linguistics—Noam Chomsky, John McWhorter and Peter Ladefoged — to name only three—are featured.  (5 Episode X 48 Minutes each)

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Episode One : Let There Be Words

What precisely is language, and how did humans acquire it? In an effort to answer those essential questions, this program journeys back to prehistoric times in search of language’s origin. But this is not a passive discussion. Noam Chomsky, Brown University’s Philip Lieberman, Johanna Nichols of U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University’s Merritt Ruhlen, professor of anthropology Richard Klein, Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann and others passionately defend their points of view. Additional topics include distinguishing features of human communication and what humankind’s first utterances may have been. The early evolution and migration of humans and the development of the human brain is also considered.

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Episode Two: Constant Change

In this program John McWhorter the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Lyle Campbell of the University of Utah, Brian Joseph of The Ohio State University and population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza examine factors that contributed to the diversification and spread of languages; including early migration, the introduction of agriculture and genes. Language transfer from mother to child and from one population to the next is also investigated along with the concept of dialects and commonalities among the world’s more than 6,000 languages.

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Episode Three: Mother Tongues

This program travels the globe as it surveys a large portion of the world’s languages—25 percent of which are spoken by a mere 0.1 percent of the Earth’s population. Moving from Africa to Oceania and up to Asia and then west to Europe and across the ocean to the Americas, the program assesses how many languages are spoken in each region, the characteristics they share, and misconceptions about them. Historical background on some of the key languages of the regions is included as well. The commentary of Salikoko Mufwene (co-editor of The Ecology of Language Evolution), Larry Hyman of U.C. Berkeley, Hua Lin of the University of Victoria, Harvard University’s Jay Jasanoff and Lyle Campbell of the University of Utah are all featured.

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Episode Four: Civilization to Colonization

Writing is a relative latecomer to the history of language. This program tracks its emergence in Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica and its spread down through the millennia via conquest—usually violent, sometimes benign—and colonization. The creation of creoles and pidgins resulting from the interaction of specific populations is also addressed and speculation is made about the first things to be written down. Noam Chomsky, Peter Daniels ( coeditor of The World’s Writing Systems), the Manhattan Institute’s John McWhorter, MIT’s Michel DeGraff and Salikoko Mufwene of The University of Chicago contribute.

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Episode Five: Life and Death

It is predicted that within a century more than half of the world’s languages will become extinct, but as languages are lost, new ones emerge naturally or are constructed. In this program Noam Chomsky, Esperantist Thomas Eccardt, endangered languages researcher Peter Ladefoged (who has since passed away ) and others provide insights into the language life cycle. Topics include constructed languages such as Esperanto, language endangerment and preservation and the role of globalization in language obsolescence. The experts also discuss current language trends and offer their opinions on which languages may emerge as front-runners of the future.

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