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Language and Linguistics. This section of the course is about language ... the vehicle for holding and transmitting culture We will cover the origins of human language; the structure of language; historical linguistics; sociolinguistics; and the history of writing. Language origins .

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Language and Linguistics

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Language and Linguistics

  • This section of the course is about language ... the vehicle for holding and transmitting culture

  • We will cover the origins of human language; the structure of language; historical linguistics; sociolinguistics; and the history of writing.

Language origins

  • Evidence for the evolution of language comes from anatomy – comparative anatomy of modern humans and chimps and comparative anatomy of hominids through time – and from primate sign language, experiments in tool making, and comparative linguistics.

  • The capacity for language, like the capacity for culture, was part of biological evolution.

The capacity for language evolved

  • We do not know much about the details of language evolution but we do know that the capacity for language, like the capacity for culture, was part of biological evolution.

  • There have not been any hominids on Earth except for H. sapiens for 40,000 years.

    • That is probably how long it has been since the currently observable human capacity for language has been part of our repertoire.

On being primitive

  • There are technologically primitive societies on Earth – hunters and gatherers who never took part in the Neolithic revolution, much less the preindustrial state revolution or the industrial revolution or the post-industrial revolution now underway.

  • But there are no primitive people on Earth.

  • Humans have equal capacity for acquiring language.

  • All human languages ever known can transmit any culture, even the most technologically complex.

Language and biology

  • The evolution of language and the development of the human hand and the ability to make tools are probably all related.

  • The voice box and neurological complexity have all evolved.

  • We know from endocranial casts that the area of the brain devoted to speech began developing as early as H. habilis.

Speech and handedness

  • The speech area of the brain is adjacent to the area devoted to the control of the human hand.

  • Oldowan tool makers were mostly right handed.

  • Chimps can make stone tools – they don’t do that in the wild – but when they do in experiments in captivity, they do not show any preference for right- or left handedness(Stanley Ambrose, Science 2001).

  • William Haviland points out that handedness is associated with lateralization of the brain, as is language.

Hypoglossal canal

  • By half a million years ago, in H. erectus, we see a major increase in the size of the hypoglossal canal – which could accommodate larger nerves for controlling the tongue.

  • By the time we get to Neanderthals, the hypoglossal canal is the same size as it is in fully modern humans (though this is controversial).

Hyoid bone and language

  • U-shaped bone at the base of the tongue that supports the tongue muscles.

  • In Neanderthals, the hyoid shows that the larynx was as developed as that in modern humans.

  • And the thorax had expanded to the same size as that of modern humans: breath control required for continual speech.

Washoe and other chimps

  • Experiments with chimps and other apes show they are capable of much more than we thought, in terms of language.

  • Chimps do not have the physical apparatus for human speech, but Beatrice and Allan Gardner taught Washoe, a female chimp, 160 signs in Ameslan.

Generalizing signs

  • Washoe moved beyond the signs and generalized them – and combined them.

  • She learned “open” for one door, and then used it to ask for other doors to be opened

  • She asked for refrigerators to be opened and pointed to open drawers and briefcases.

Washoe and Lucy generalize

  • Washoe and Lucy (trained by Roger Fouts) generalized the sign for feces to mean dirty.

  • Lucy used the term as an expletive when she got mad at Fouts for not giving her something.

  • Lucy invented “cry hurt food” for radishes, “water bird” for swans, “candy fruit” for watermelons.

    • Chimps and other great apes achieve the linguistic capacity of a 2–3 year old human.

Comparative linguistics and language origins

  • Brent Berlin and Paul Kay studied 110 languages and found seven stages in the development of color terms.

  • All languages have at least two terms, white and black, or color and lack of color.

  • When languages acquire a third term, it is always red.

  • When languages acquire a fourth term, it is either green or yellow.

Berlin and Kay’s study

  • At 5 terms, we get green or yellow, depending on which entered at stage IV.

  • At 6 terms, blue enters, and at 7 terms, brown enters.

  • At the final stage of 8 or more terms, purple, pink, orange, gray or combinations of these terms enter the lexicon.

    • Moreover, color lexicons become more complex as societies become more complex.

Brown and Witkowski’s study

  • Replicated Berlin and Kay’s work on color using names for organisms.

  • At stage I of lexical complexity for organisms, there is a word for plant.

  • Next, languages distinguish trees from all other plants.

  • Then grerb enters the lexicon – grass and/or herb.

From bush to wug

  • Then bush enters, and then grass, and the vine.

  • In the animal kingdom, the simplest lexicons distinguish animals from plants.

  • Then fish enter the lexicon, and then:

    • Bird

    • Snake

    • wug (worm and bug)

    • Mammal

Complexity of the lexicon

  • But complexity of the lexicon for organisms is very plastic, as comparisons between urban and primitive peoples shows.

  • People in small-scale societies can name from 400-800 plants.

  • In urban areas, this is just 40-80.

    • And they recognize even fewer, as John Gatewood showed in his research on loose talk.

Pidgins and creoles

  • Recent studies of Pidgins and creoles also shed light on the evolution of language.

  • Pidgin languages are always second languages.

  • They develop when speakers of different languages try to communicate, often for purposes of trade.

  • The lexicon usually comes from one language, and the grammar from the other.

Hawaiian Creole

  • Creole languages develop from pidgins, but as people develop native capacity in a pidgin, the structure changes.

  • Hawaii is a good case. In the late 19th century, Filipinos, Puerto-Ricans, Anglo-Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and American Blacks all came to work on the plantations there.

Bickerton’s study

  • Derek Bickerton studied Hawaiian Creole in 1975 when it was a fully developed language.

  • Compared the structural properties of Hawaiian Creole to other creoles.

  • Found similarity in the use of particles for modifying verb roots to produce tense, and similarities in the use of singular, plural and neutral number markers.

  • Bickerton suggests that the similarities across creoles are because of a genetic substrate in humans.

  • This substrate produces basic structural properties in languages at the early stage of development.

  • Noam Chomsky referred to this as the biological basis of the capacity for language acquisition.

Language complexity and evolution

  • Others now studying child languages across the world to test whether this is true.

  • If it is, then the theory would be that the more child-like a language, the easier it is to learn – and the more like early language it must be.

  • But languages are getting simpler –English and modern German from early German, Spanish, Italian and French from Latin.

  • So the whole picture is not yet clear.

Children’s language acquisition

  • 12 - 13 months name objects

  • 18 – 20 months one-word sentences

  • 18 – 24 months two-word sentences

  • The experiment at Washington State University on language origins.

Structure of language

  • We shift now to the structure of language. There are two main approaches:

    • Immediate constituents approach – Leonard Bloomfield

    • Transformational grammar approach – Noam Chomsky

IC grammar

  • Collect native utterances and build up the grammar by discovering the parts.

  • This is still used in learning languages and in understanding how any language works.

  • The person most responsible for the IC approach was Leonard Bloomfield, a founder of structural linguistics just after WW I.

Chomsky’s observation

  • The IC approach doesn’t account for the fact that humans can learn languages or for the fact that languages are generative

  • From a finite number of rules operating on a finite number of words, we can encode and decode an infinite number of well-formed sentences.

Transformational-generative grammar

  • TG grammar makes it possible to understand language play.

  • It makes understandable the fact that sentences can have many meanings – because they are similar surface representations of different roots.

    • Flying planes can be dangerous.

    • I don’t like John’s cooking.

Four parts of grammar

  • Phonology

  • Morphology

  • Syntax

  • Semantics

    • The phonological rules are acquired first, and are the most difficult rules to acquire in a second language after childhood.

      • We’ll see this in the Kissinger effect later.

Writing is not the same as language

  • Language is an ideal concept, like race, and only exists in the surface representations.

  • Speech and writing are different surface representations of language, and writing is not a better representation than speech.


  • Writing is associated with the development of trade in the context of the state, but not all states develop writing.

  • Present at Uruk, in SW Iran, around 5500ya. The system began with many symbols and became reduced over a period of 400 years.

  • Writing invented independently at least twice in the world.

  • It may have been invented three times in the Old World: In the Indus Valley, in the Middle East, and in China

  • May have been an example of stimulus diffusion from the Middle East to the other Old World centers of ancient civilization.

  • Writing was invented independently in the New World.

English phonology

  • English has 46 phonemes and many allophones.

  • We discover the phonemes of a language by looking for short, minimal pairs, like pig/big in English to isolate distinctive features.

  • Here we see that voicing is the distinctive feature because p and b are both bilabial stops, but only one is voiced.

  • In English, we have stops, fricatives, affricates, nasals, and liquids.

Phonemes and allophones

  • A phoneme is a set of similar sounds which native speakers of a language think of as being alike.

  • Allophones are the members of the set, like English, [p] and [ph], in poke and spoke, tough and stuff.

  • Recall the concept of an allele – an alternative expression of a gene.

The vocal apparatus

  • We make these various sounds by regulating our breath and parts of our vocal apparatus.

  • The apparatus is capable of making all sounds in all languages, but each language has a subset of the possible sounds.

Voiceless stops

  • Stops, or plosives, are made by forming the mouth and tongue in a particular way and forcing the air to stop temporarily on the way out of the mouth during speech.

  • The letters p, t, and k represent the three common voiceless stops in English.

  • The p sound is a bilabial stop

  • The t sound is an apico-dental stop

  • The k sound is a velar stop

Voiced stops

  • Each voiceless stop has its voiced counterpart in English, so we have

    • p, t, k

    • b, d, g

  • Note the meaningful differences between the words ten and den, pig and big, cut and gut, curl and girl.

  • The difference is the single, distinctive feature of voicing.

More on allophones

  • The t sound has several allophones in English.

  • Word initial, before a vowel, the t sound is heavily aspirated.

  • Put your hand up to your mouth and say “torrid tango.”

  • Say “itty bitty” – the t in the middle of each word has no aspiration. Word medially and intervocalically, the t sound is unaspirated.

  • Native speakers of English find it hard to make a word-initial, prevocalic, unaspirated t – like the t in “patter.”

  • Native speakers of Spanish use this sound incorrectly in English, especially when its and word initial and prevocalic.

    • Spanish simply has no aspirated t.

  • But English speakers use the t sound incorrectly in Spanish – English has no word-initial, prevocalic unaspirated stops.

  • taco and thaco

  • But note that Taco Bell is English, not Spanish, so Thaco Bell is incorrect.


  • The word “saturate” has an affricate in it for many dialects of American English.

  • An affricate is a combination of a stop and a fricative, a /t/ and a /sh/, in this case.

  • One of the allophones of /t/ is /ch/ – when followed by the glide sound /y/ and the vowel sound /u/ – as in satch-yur-ate.

  • Some people say “matoor,” dropping the glide before the /u/, and thus converting the phoneme /t/ to its prevocalic aspirated allophone.

Dialect allophones

  • British dialects of English don’t have the ch allophone for t at all.

  • They say matyoor, separating the glide and the u vowel and adopting the prevocalic aspirated allophone for t.

English phonology

  • The phonology of the grammar comprises the rules for the sounds of the language – which sounds can be made, and how the sounds can occur in various positions in words.

  • We have 46 phonemes in American English, including 11 vowels in most dialects of American English.

  • Sleek hawk – high-front to low-back vowels

















The ten vowels of English

Iseeo sew

v sitU put

e set u ooze

æ catb sofa

a hot

] saw


  • Many Americans have nine, rather than ten vowels.

  • cot and caught

  • marry, merry, Mary

  • There are only six squiggles to represent the ten vowels, plus four diphthongs:

    say toycowmy


The Kissinger effect

  • Why take you through these details of phonology?

    • To show you how much you have to learn in order to become a native speaker of a language.

  • No one has a better vocabulary or a better command of the syntax and the semantics of English than Henry Kissinger does.

  • But Kissinger came to the U.S. when he was 15 years old, by which time, his phonology was locked into German.


  • Morphology comprises the rules of the grammar for constructing meaningful chunks of sounds.

  • A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language.

  • Bound and unbound morphemes.

  • -un is a bound morpheme with many allomorphs

    • illegalimmaterialinactiveignoble

    • iliminig

Past tense and plural nouns in English

  • Plural s z Əz

  • part parts bag bags rose roses

  • Pasttd Əd

  • slip slipped bag bagged want wanted

  • What rules govern these transformations?


  • Language and gender

  • The use of honorifics and hedging in speech

  • Some language, like Japanese, have quite strong rules about how men and women should speak.

Gendered speech in Japanese

yamada ga musuko to syokuzi o tanosinda

yamada      son      dinner      enjoyed

yamada-san ga musuko-san to o-syokuzi o tanosim-are-ta

yamada-HON      son-HON      HON-dinner    enjoyed-HON

Both sentences mean "Yamada enjoyed dinner with his son."

Bonvillain, Nancy. 2000. Language, culture, and communication: the meaning of messages. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, 2000.

Gendered registers

  • Women in the U.S. use question mode for declarative statements as part of a softening, or hedging speech register.

  • Men also use softening modes, but in different situations.

  • It remains to be seen whether the amount of softening differs between men and women.

Sociolinguistics – dialects

  • Social status marked by language

  • Labov’s study of the r in “fourth floor” at Klein’s (20%), Macy’s (51%) and Sak’s Fifth Avenue (62%)

  • Code switching and dialects

  • Ebonics is a dialect of English

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language and thought

  • We know that we can say things in one language that we can’t in another.

  • But we also know that translation is possible.

  • Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, hypothesized that we think the way we think because of our language.

Verbs and thought

  • For example, there are two verbs for “to be” in Spanish, depending on whether a phenomenon is transitory or permanent.

  • There are two verb forms in Turkish, depending on whether one knows the action or knows about the action.

  • Verbs in Navajo are marked for the shape of the object spoken about.

  • SVO (English), SOV (Japanese), VSO (Welsh).

Is the S/W hypothesis correct?

  • Spanish and German require that the speaker categorize everyone as familiar or not. What does all this do to our everyday thinking?

  • Sapir said that “Human beings...are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society” (1929).

  • This is the strong form of linguistic determinism, which is not accepted.

The weak form of linguistic relativity

  • Variations in language structure do structure thought, but we do not know how much.

  • In Israel, the U.S., and Finland, children incorporate gender roles at different ages. The languages of these countries have correspondingly different levels of gender labeling.

Historical linguistics

  • Lexicostatistics and glottochronology: based on the idea that the core vocabulary of languages is changes at a constant rate – about 14% per 1000 years.

  • Morris Swadesh showed that this was more-or-less the case for many written languages.

  • The claim is that, with caution, we can use this to examine the evolution of nonwritten languages.


  • Based on the systematic comparison of cognates across languages to determine the times since two languages separated from a common ancestor.

Reconstructing preliterate languages

  • We use these principles to reconstruct languages that do not have writing





    he lives

    my body

    he embarks

1066 and all that

  • beefcattle

  • pork pig

  • muttonsheep

  • venisondeer

  • chickenchicken

  • dine, cogitate, endeavor, acquire, read, thing, build, want, sad, big

  • defecate, copulate, urinate, expectorate

  • garbage and target

When did we get these words?

  • village

  • garage

  • collage

Indo-European language sub-families

  • Indo-Iranian

  • Italic

  • Germanic

  • Celtic

  • Baltic

  • Slavic

  • Albanian

  • Greek language

  • Armenian language

  • Thracian

  • Dacian

  • Phrygian

  • Anatolian

  • Tocharian


  • German, Frisian, Dutch, Afrikaans, English, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish

  • German: Bavarian, Swabian, Alsatian, Cimbrian, Rimella, Reinfrankisch, Pennsylvania, Luxembourgeois, Swiss German, Yiddish


  • Portuguese, Galician, Spanish, Ladino, Asturian, Aragonese, Catalan, Valencian, French, Wallon, Jerais, Poitevain, Piccard, Occitan, Lengadocian, Gascon, Auvergnat, Limosin, Franco-Provencal, Rumantsch, Sursilvan, Fiulian, Ladin, Italian (and all its variants), Rumanian, Sardinian


Spoken as a first language by


Mandarin Chinese
























Source: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language



  • Note, however, that 150m people speak Russian as a second language.

  • French and English are spoken as second languages by 50-75m people each.

  • Malay-Indonesian, French, Urdu, Punjabi, Korean, Telegu, Tamil, Marathi, Italian, Cantonese round out the top 20 and are spoken by at least 25m each.

The vanishing languages

  • 5% of the world’s languages are spoken by 95% of the world’s people

  • 95% of the world’s languages are spoken by 5% of the world’s people

A few facts about vanishing languages

  • Of 220 Indian languages still spoken in Mexico, 17 are nearing extinction.

  • Of the 168 American Indian languages listed for the United States, 71 are extinct or soon will be.

  • Breton probably had 1.4m speakers in 1900. It is now down to perhaps 400k speakers.

The case of Navaho

  • Navajo was down to fewer than 5000 speakers in the 19th century. It made a dramatic comeback and had over 100,000 speakers in the 1970s.

  • Now, it too, may be headed for extinction, even though it is said to have over 150k speakers.

What’s the problem?

  • One could argue that language die-off is just part of natural evolution.

  • The language of Cesar is not spoken today, and the language is Jesus is spoken by a few hundred speakers.

  • Nothing catastrophic seems to have happened . . . Why worry now?

Language diversity and survival

  • Language diversity did not cause the evolutionary success of Homo sapiens.

  • Some fraction of human knowledge however, is stored in the languages remaining today.

  • Whatever that fraction is, can we afford to lose it?

The language disappearance experiment

  • I wouldn’t be so worried about the mass extinction of languages if I had 20 or 30 planets on which to conduct this experiment.

  • We do not know if it’s enough to rescue knowledge rather than languages.

What’s being done?

  • Anthropologists and linguists who are concerned about language preservation are helping to preserve and to vitalize languages.

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