Approaches to diversity, 2006-2007


Jeroen Wiedenhof


The evolutionary debate forces linguists to rethink the fundamentals of their science. If we go back 10,000, 100,000 or 1,000,000 years, do core notions such as language, phoneme and meaning continue to make sense, and if so: what sense? How useful can these linguistic notions be for evolutionary research in biology, archeology, neurology, ethology, anthropology, sociology and artificial intelligence? And what do these sciences in turn have to contribute to the way linguists reconstruct early human language?

time and venue

Monday, 4 December 2006, 15:15-17:00
Friday, 8 December 2006, 9:15-17:00

Lipsius building, room 107

texts and tasks




Useful links


Before proceeding to the reconstruction of early human language, we will consider another early variety of language: not in the phylogenic sense (the beginnings of language in the Homo lineage), but in the ontogenic sense - the utterances of young children adapting to the language surrounding them. "Word choice and conceptual perspective" (1998) explores the relationships between conceptual perspectives and choice of words in young children. Questions 1 through 9 are about this text.

1.  The author gives various examples of "lexical choices" made by adult speakers (pp. 5-6). Can this phenomenon occur within the same sentence? And can it occur in a systematic, grammaticalized way? Give examples in English.

2.  On page 6, please describe in your own words in what way(s) the word "brick" (without italics) in line 21 differs from the word "brick" (in italics) in line 23.

3.  First make your own drawing of a bottle-which-may-be-a-stirrup, as discussed on page 7; then summarize Clark's point about such a drawing.

4.  Can you name examples of the kind of "people presenting opposite perspectives" (p. 8):

(a) "in quarrels"?

(b) "in various kinds of negotiations, especially where the participants come from different cultures"?

(c) "in more formalised disputes"? (For inspiration, consider the case of the TNT!MEN)

5.  Page 9 describes "children aged 1;0 to 1;6". What ages do these numbers represent? | This question may NOT be selected for the assignment on Friday.

6.  On the basis of the discussion on p. 10, can you determine if children "from age 3;0 to 4;0" can lie? Can chimpanzees lie?

7.  On p. 12, the author describes "multiple terms for the same referent". Can you describe in your own words what a referent is? And why should we distinguish between meanings and referents?

8.  Can you give three examples of "novel compound nouns to indicate greater specificity within familiar categories" in adult speech (p. 14)?

9.  When such words are created by children and diverge from adult speech, they may be cultivated within families. Can you remember examples from your own childhood, siblings or childhood friends? For each example, please specify (a) form and (b) meaning in an appropriate linguistic transcription.

The second article, "Nexus and the birth of syntax" (1996) discusses the emergence of linguistic units in the earliest stages of human language. Questions 10 through 19 are about this text.

10.  Please describe in your own words why the text from The linguistics encyclopedia (1991) which is quoted on p. 140 may be problematic.

11.  The same page quotes another source, from 1985. Find out when this title was first published, and quote your source(s) precisely.

12.  De Saussure has been described as the father of modern linguistics. Which branch(es) of academic study preceded linguistics in Europe? Name as many branches as possible, with a maximum of five. For each of these branches, describe and/or delimit the subject matter, including for linguistics itself.

13.  Section 1 (pp. 140-141) describes various linguistic units. Can you name them, and can you describe the relationship(s) between these units?

14.  Which branches (i.e. fields of study) can we distinguish within linguistics if we base ourselves on the different types of linguistic units being studied?

15.  The first paragraph of section 2 (p. 141) describes the "speech stream" as a single dimension. Can you think of a second dimension within this same stream of speech sounds? Please demonstrate this with at least one clear example from English.

16.  Section 3 describes the syntax and semantics of subordination.

(a) Do you think Homo neanderthalensis (see Mithen pp. 19, 20, 21, 23, 29) was capable of these constructions? - Please state your argument(s) here and below.

(b) And a modern chimpanzee?

(c) A modern bonobo?

(d) A talking robot?

   To answer the last option, you can listen to an interview on linguistic evolution [13 Mb]
   source: <> 30 Nov 06

17.  Can you characterize the biological and/or cultural stage of development of humans at 10,000,000; 1,000,000; 100,000; 10,000; 1;000; 100 and 10 years ago? | For each stage, use no more than one or two short sentences.

18.  How far back do phonological reconstructions usually go? Can there be a maximum age? If so, what are the restrictions?

19.  In what linguistic sense does nexus represent a "conceptual leap" (p. 149)?

20 december - results

last modified: 20 December 2006