FT 011-J Speaking in Tongues: A History of Human Language
Stephen Morillo, Department of History
What makes us human? One answer is the capacity to ask that question — not just to have the concepts, but to express them through arbitrary combinations of sound combined according to rules that give groups of those sounds meaning. This course will introduce students to the history of that capacity unique to our species, language.
We will start with the evolutionary origins of language, including an attempt to figure out at what point in our evolutionary history we started talking the way we do now — that is, with separate words and syntax that lets us make up an infinite number of sentences from a finite number of words. What evidence do we have? What did language enable us to do? Is our language capacity connected to our capacity to make music? Where did language start?
We will then look at the mechanics of language change, the basis of historical linguistics. Language change has created the thousands of languages spoken today, and continues to operate all the time. But how? Are languages getting simpler over time? The descendants of Latin have lost most of their case endings, for example, as did Anglo-Saxon as it became English. (And why do the French use a word for “today” that means “the day of this day of this day”?) On the other hand, if language keeps getting simpler, where did those endings come from in the first place, and why aren’t we all speaking in monosyllabic grunts by now?
Historical linguistics leads us to language history, or the history of different languages globally. What have been the most widely-spoken languages in the world? How did they get that way? Will English remain the world’s most widely spoken language fifty years from now? This will also engage us in questions about the link between language and culture — does how we speak affect how we think, for example? We will finish by considering language death in recent decades, as modern communications ties more people together into larger language groups. This process threatens to reduce the world’s languages from thousands to hundreds in the next century. Do we lose unique knowledge when a language dies?
Class will be conducted entirely with non-verbal vocalizations and gestures. (No, not really.) Acquaintance with at least one spoken language is necessary. Don’t worry, English counts.w
Morillo, Stephen R.