LING3001: Introduction to Linguistics

4 CreditsComm, Lang, Lit, & PhilosophyField StudyOnline AvailableSocial Sciences

The ability to acquire and use language is a biological trait of the human species. This capacity for language manifests itself as thousands of particular languages spoken around the world in communities large and small. But what is language? What does it mean for a human to “know” a particular language? How do children acquire this knowledge? How do we use language to communicate? These are some of the important questions addressed by the field of linguistics, the scientific study of the human capacity for language in its physiological, cognitive, historical, and social manifestations.This course introduces some of the essential findings of linguistics: first and foremost, that all varieties of all languages are intricately structured at multiple distinct but related levels. Second, that this intricate structure can be described in terms that are not only precise, but which apply to all human languages. We will work to replicate some of these findings by deploying simple analytical methods on data from a variety of languages. These methods allow us to answer questions about the different structural components of language: phonology (how do speech sounds pattern?), morphology (what are possible words and how are they built?), and syntax (what is the hierarchical structure underlying sequences of words?). In all instances these methods require that we pay attention to basic notions of semantics, from which more complex conceptions of meaning will emerge.Having characterized language as an intricately-structured system of knowledge, we will then possess the tools to ask a number of additional questions about language and cognition. How does such complex knowledge play into the actual task of sentence production or comprehension? What do we know about the neural implementation of this knowledge in human brains? How does child language acquisition proceed, and what makes it so much more robust than language acquisition later in life? Do animals have languages of their own? Can they learn human languages?Finally, we will turn our attention to variation in language patterns observed over the passage of time, across geographical space, and within social systems. How and why do languages change over historical time? What can we know about languages spoken before the invention of writing? What distinctions exist between languages spoken in different places, and how can we tell whether similarities are due to genealogical relationships? How do new languages emerge? How do languages disappear? How does language use vary between individuals from the same place or the same community? How do socioeconomic class, ethnicity, and gender relate to the linguistic behavior of individuals? How does language policy affect educational outcomes? What about social cohesion and conflict?Although we will find that most of these questions lack definitive answers, we will develop an understanding of what it takes to ask them meaningfully and precisely. In particular, we will be able to eliminate false or misleading answers, especially when they fail to take into account the observable and describable properties of the human capacity for language.

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