Course Meeting Times
Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session
Recitations: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session
There are no prerequisites for this course.
This class will provide some answers to basic questions about the nature of human language. Throughout the course, we will be examining a number of ways in which human language is a complex but law-governed mental system. Much of the class will be devoted to studying some core aspects of this system in detail; we will also spend individual classes discussing a number of other issues, including how language is acquired, how languages change over time, language endangerment, and others.
Assigned readings are listed on the Readings page; you should also review the Lecture Slides. There is no textbook for this course. If you would like to have a textbook, a pretty good one is:
- O’Grady, William, John Archibald, Mark Aronoff, and Janie Rees-Miller (2017). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
This would probably be our textbook, if we were going to have a textbook…but it isn’t quite good enough to justify making you buy it. It could be a useful resource, but you should bear in mind that we will be contradicting what it says, every so often. The general rule, if you seem to see a contradiction between us and the book, is that we are right and the book is wrong (though if you notice contradictions like this, it’s worth asking about them; maybe there’s some mistake, either yours or ours).
More generally, if there is any conflict between information on the course slides and information you get from any other source, including sources that we upload on the course website, you should take the information on the course slides to be correct. We reserve the right to deduct points on problem sets for answers that contradict the information on the slides, even if your answer is in accordance with information you got from another source.
Recordings and Attendance
This classroom is designed to make recordings of the lectures, and of the slides and the blackboard. I’ve never used this system before, so I don’t know how good the recordings will be. The recordings will be made freely available to anyone who:
- generally attends class, but has had to miss a class, or
- has to miss class for reasons that Student Support Services (S3) can document for me.
In neither case do you have to give me a reason for needing the recording. If you have to miss class for a reason that S3 can help you with, then you should contact S3, and they will send me an e-mail which will not give me any details about your situation—it will just say something like “[your name] has been in touch with us, and we agree that they should be given access to the recordings of the class for [dates]."
Homework: Problem Sets and Papers
You will have regular homework assignments.
Most weeks, you will be assigned a problem set. Most of the questions in these assignments will ask you to draw and justify conclusions about data that we supply from real languages (sometimes slightly simplified), using and extending concepts and analytic techniques discussed in class and in the readings.
Some of these problem sets will also require you to do linguistic fieldwork. For these assignments, we will ask you to find a speaker of a language that you do not speak and have never studied, and to learn some specific things about that language from that speaker. If possible, you should work on the same language in each problem (but this is not a requirement).
HASS CI subjects must require at least 5000 words of writing, divided among 3–5 assignments. Of these assignments, at least one must be revised and resubmitted. HASS CI subjects should further offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression, through presentations, student-led discussion, or class participation. In order to guarantee sufficient attention to student writing and substantial opportunity for oral expression, the maximum number of students per section in a HASS CI subject is 18.
You will be required to write three relatively short papers:
- a critical summary (1000 words)
- a research proposal (1000 words)
- a fieldwork report (3000 words)
You will also submit an additional polished paper, which may be a revised version of any of these three. The choice of which paper to revise is yours. The grade for the revised, polished paper will emphasize the quality and thoughtfulness of the revisions.
We will discuss the topics of these papers as the semester progresses. Your opportunities for “oral expression” will arise in the fieldwork parts of the course, as well as in class and in recitation.
Two writing advisors from the Writing and Communication Center have been assigned to this course, who will be available to help you develop, structure, and revise your papers. We strongly encourage all students to make use of this resource, and in some cases we may require it for your benefit as writers.
Problem sets will be posted on Tuesday, and will be due the following Tuesday, where Tuesday is understood as ending at dawn on Wednesday. Papers will be due as indicated on the syllabus (which may be revised as needed, so please continue to check the class website).
It is our goal to have problem sets corrected for discussion in recitation by that Friday. Papers may take longer to be returned.
You may hand in one paper up to three days late. You don’t have to tell us why; just let us know in advance that your paper will be late. Similarly, you may hand in one problem set up to three days late, as long as you let us know in advance.
How to submit problem sets and papers
Problem sets and papers should be submitted online as PDF files, either created directly from the word processor of your choice or scanned from legible originals. Please do not send us any other kind of electronic file. If you feel you need to submit an assignment non-electronically, check with your recitation instructor first.
If you are having problems with any assignment, do not hesitate to get in touch with your recitation leader or with the instructor, in person or by e-mail. We are more than happy to help.
- Problem sets: 40% [lowest problem set grade dropped]
- Papers: 60%
Honesty and Collaboration Policy
Please read these guidelines carefully. In case of academic dishonesty, ignorance of these rules will not be taken as an excuse.
- General discussion with other students of concepts and techniques relevant to the problem sets is acceptable and encouraged (“remind me, how do I know if something is an allophone?”)—but you must arrive at the actual solutions to problems on your own and you must write them up on your own. Collaboration on problems is not allowed.
- Print and online sources should not be consulted (unless the directions specify otherwise) in connection with problem sets. We’ll be delighted if you want to learn more about a language or an issue taken up in a homework problem—but this should be done after you have submitted the problem set.
- All print and online sources consulted in the process of writing a paper must be explicitly acknowledged in the text of your paper, and listed in the references section. All quotations must be indicated and fully referenced.
- If we determine that the Honesty and Collaboration Policy described above has been violated in any assignment, we will take appropriate measures. At a minimum, that assignment will receive a grade of zero and will count as unsubmitted. We will also not hesitate to refer the matter to the Office of Student Citizenship and the Committee on Discipline.
If you have not done so already, please familiarize yourself with the MIT Academic Integrity guidelines.