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lecture-1.1 - Lecture notes 1.1 1 What is linguistics The...

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Lecture notes: 1.1 June 23, 2009 1 What is linguistics? The goal of linguistics: Describe and understand the structure of human languages; Discover the ways in which all languages are alike and the ways in which they may differ. Develop a better understanding of the (biological, social) forces that shape language and de- termine what’s possible or impossible in language. Q: What is language? A system of communication A tool for thought A medium for self-expression A social institution A source of identity and political controversy Language is all of those things. It is uniquely human in two ways: It is unlike anything else found in any other animals. All human societies have language; we have never known any humans, in any part of the world, at any level of social or technological development, who don’t have language. (Aside from people raised by wolves...) Human bodies are specialized for language. Since homo sapiens split off from other primates, we’ve undergone three types of changes which made our bodies more suited to language: Development of the vocal tract: human beings reshaped our vocal tract, as we can see here: (1) Human and ape heads http://people.ucsc.edu/˜kirchner/classes/intro/files/01-twoheads.jpg Homo sapiens developed a shortened muzzle and a longer throat; these allow us to move our tongues around and make very precise movements with the tongue in the mouth. It also allows us to create various resonant cavities of air and make many more different kinds of speech sounds than other primates can manage. Our brains got bigger. A very rapid process of evolution gave us much bigger brains (for our size) than any other primate. More importantly, the development was especially pronounced in areas relating to higher cognition, and areas useful for speech: (2) Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas: http://people.ucsc.edu/˜kirchner/classes/intro/files/02-languagebrain.jpg 1
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In particular, we developed Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Region, two areas of the brain that are crucial for language. Finally, we underwent genetic changes favorable to language. This involved the development of the FoxP2 gene among others. There is actually an interesting chicken-and-the-egg kind of problem here, because all of these changes happened in a very short span of time. (In evolutionary terms.) We’re not going to talk about that much in this class, because this isn’t a biology class. But it is important to know that we are adapted for speech in many ways; we are a very special animal in this communication system we have, called speech, as we will see. Let’s lay out some other important aspects of language that linguistics is interested in. Then we’ll go on to lay out an outline of the class. Language is a creative system: Breadth and diversity of human thought/experience makes great demands on language.
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