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Origins and Evolution of Language

Eight 2-hour lectures at LSA Institute, University of Kentucky
Prof. James R Hurford


Prior acquaintance with Linguistics, to at least Upper Division undergraduate level. A broad knowledge of all core sectors of linguistics, namely Pragmatics, Semantics, Lexicon, Syntax, Morphology, Phonetics and Phonology would be a great advantage

Aims and objectives

The course will show how understanding of all the main subdisciplines of Linguistics can be enhanced by viewing them from an evolutionary perspective. Thus, in cases where other approaches to language do little more than describe the linguistic facts, or at best explain them by stipulated abstract principles, Evolutionary Linguistics can often provide more satisfactory explanations by showing a route by which the facts could have arisen. In short, where much linguistics says `This is how language is', evolutionary linguistics attempts to say 'This is how language got to be that way'. The course will apply this approach to all levels of linguistic analysis, thus outlining areas aptly labelled as Evolutionary Pragmatics, Evolutionary Phonetics, Evolutionary Semantics, Evolutionary Phonology, and Evolutionary Syntax.

In addition, the course aims to give Linguistics students a survey of the main issues in the evolution and origins of the human language faculty and of actual human languages. The subject matter is inevitably somewhat speculative, but the course will set out a basis of relevant facts accumulated from a range of disciplines within and outwith Linguistics, including animal behaviour, evolutionary theory, computer modelling, genetics, language acquisition, paleontology, archaeology. Where facts are scarce, methodological questions about how best to proceed will be examined. After the course, students should be able to speak and write informedly and responsibly about the origins of language, know how to keep track of fresh developments in the field, and be able to put such developments in perspective.

Course Structure

Lectures (with some discussion): Monday and Thursday mornings, 11.00 - 12.50, in room 231, Jacobs Science Building.
Readings are specified below for each lecture of the course. There is a lot to read, more than can be done in the time. Students should read at least one of the specified papers each week.

Course content: Lecture topics and readings

Assessment updated 26 September 2009