PHIL/LING 145H.001 – Honors: Language and Communication

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Instructor: Dean Pettit. This course meets TR 2:00 – 3:15 p.m. in CW 103.

Is language unique to human beings? Noam Chomsky has famously argued that humans possess an innate language faculty that is unique to humans and part of our genetic endowment as a species. Steven Pinker puts this by saying that human beings have an innate language instinct. Support for Chomsky’s thesis derives from roughly half century of research in linguistic theory, research which suggests that human language employs cognitive structures without precedent in the (non-human) animal world. Yet there has been considerable scholarly debate about these claims, and great deal of work has gone into trying to evaluate them. Importantly, a great deal of research has been done with animals (notably chimps and parrots) to evaluate their ability to learn language. There has also been a recent explosion of research into the forms of communication animals employ in the wild. This raises a number of issues. Are any animals capable of learning some form of human language? Do any animal communication systems constitute a language in their own right? If language is a uniquely human capacity without precedent, even among our closest evolutionary kin, then how is it possible for this capacity to have evolved in us?

This course will explore these issues and survey the recent research in this area. The course consists of three major topics. The first part will introduce students to the fundamentals of linguistic theory, which provides the basis for Chomsky’s thesis that language is a uniquely human capacity. The second part examines the phenomenon of animal communication and explores how it differs from human language. The last part of the course will explore the evolutionary origins of language (the question of how language could have evolved in us), examining some of the exciting recent work in this area.