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Instructor: Dean Pettit. This course meets Monday – Friday from 1:15 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. in Caldwell 213.

Is language unique to human beings? Noam Chomsky has famously argued that humans possess an innate language faculty that is unique to our species and part of our genetic endowment. Steven Pinker puts this by saying that human beings have an innate language instinct that no other species possesses. Chomsky’s thesis is backed up by over a half century of research in linguistic theory suggesting that human language employs cognitive structures without precedent in the (non-human) animal world. Yet there has been considerable scholarly debate about this thesis (sometimes quite heated!), and great deal of research has gone into trying to evaluate it. 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 some of the work in linguistics that provides the basis for Chomsky’s thesis that language is a uniquely human capacity. The second part will examine some of the animal research that might pose a challenge to this claim. 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.

Students can hope to come away from the course with a deeper understanding of human language and its relationship to animal communication, thereby developing an appreciation of both for what is unique about our species and for what we share with other animals.

Dean Pettit’s webpage