LIN f350 - The Human Instinct for Language

Prof. Stephen Wechsler
office: CAL 403; ph: 471-1701


This course is a non-technical introduction to a fascinating hypothesis about the nature of human language, the Innateness Hypothesis. The Innateness Hypothesis holds that, to a large extent, the organization of human language (i.e. the "grammar") is innate, that is, inborn. This means that the languages we speak are not primarily cultural artifacts (like the ability to play the violin or do calculus), but rather are part of our biological endowment as human beings (like the ability to walk or to swallow food). We will explore various types of evidence for the Innateness Hypothesis which have been put forth, including evidence from studies of: universal properties of language; special languages called pidgins and creoles; sign language and its development; how children learn to speak; varieties of language impairment; and various other domains. Among the issues we will address is the important question of what aspects of language are innate and what aspects are learned. Although the Innateness Hypothesis is probably the consensus view of most linguists today, it was considered quite revolutionary when it was introduced a few decades ago, and it continues to be controversial.

Homework assignments

  1. Homework #1: Ch.1 & 1st part of Ch. 2
  2. Homework #2: 2nd part of Ch. 2
  3. Homework #3: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (ch. 3)
  4. Homework #4: Syntax (Ch. 4)
  5. Homework #5: Words (1st part of Ch.5)
  6. Homework #6: Words (problem set; and 2nd part of Ch.6)
  7. Homework #7: Phonetics (not included here).
  8. Homework #8: Language processing by humans and computers.
  9. Homework #9: Cross-linguistic universals and variation.
  10. Homework #10: Language acquisition.
  11. Homework #11: Language, brain, and genes.
  12. Paper assignment.


  1. Chomsky's `Poverty of the Stimulus' Argument
  2. Discussion Questions on Linguistic Relativity and Linguistic Determinism
  4. Are transformations psychologically real?
  5. Are 'traces' psychologically real?
  6. Vowel systems across languages.
  7. Subjects in German.
  8. Parsing demo handout.
  9. Human articulators, English Vowels and Consonants.
  10. Children's over-extensions and classifier systems across languages.
  11. Chomsky hierarchy of grammars.
  12. 'The Game of the Name'.
  13. Chart of color terms in a survey of languages (Berlin and Kay 1969).
  14. An English phrase structure grammar fragment.
  15. Exerpts from debate between Hillary Putnam and Chomsky.
  16. Encino English (Valley Girl dialect).
  17. Creoles.
  18. The Linguistics of American Sign Language (Richard Meier).
  19. What a Two-Year-Old Sounds Like.
  20. Baby talk:Theorists challenge view that we're born to chat, by Robert S. Boyd (Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau).
  21. Acoustic phonetics; acoustic characteristics of sound.
  22. When science is distorted for ideological ends: the New York Times review of The Language Instinct, inter alia.


Writing assignments: 60%
Other homework: 20%
Class participation: 20%

Writing assignments. This course has a `Substantial Writing Component'. You will write a number of short essays, most of them responding to the assigned readings. We will begin with very short answers to questions, move to longer essays, and end with a more developed paper. Your writing assignments will be corrected and graded for grammar, punctuation, and clear writing style, as well as content. Since the purpose of the SWC requirement is to give you practice at writing, you are obviously not permitted to have anyone else proofread or edit your papers before handing them in. Longer papers must be typed or prepared on a computer.

Textbook: Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct.

Other readings will be placed on the reserve shelf in the Hill Library xerox room (CAL 513).


I. There is evidence that language is an innate human faculty.

Day 1. Introduction.

2. Read Ch. 1 `An Instinct to Acquire an Art' and Ch. 2 `Chatterboxes' pp. 25-39.

3. Read Ch. 2 `Chatterboxes' pp. 39-54. Optional reading: M. Corballis, `Human Language' (from The Lopsided Ape), on reserve in Hill Library.

II. Language is a complex system which is, in some sense, independent of the thoughts we convey with it.

4. Read Ch. 3 `Mentalese'.

This is illustrated by syntax (how words combine to form sentences) --

5. Read Ch. 4 `How Language Works' pp. 83-103.

6. Read Ch. 4 pp. 103-125.

--by morphology (the internal structure of words)--

7. Read Ch. 5 `Words, Words, Words' pp. 126-140.

8. Read Ch. 5 pp. 141-157.

--and by the sound patterns of language.

9. Read Ch. 6 `The Sounds of Silence' pp. 158-175.

10. Read Ch. 6 pp. 175-191. Watch the film Colorless Green Ideas.

III. Why is it so difficult to program computers to use language?

11. Read Ch. 7 `Talking Heads' pp. 192-214.

12. Read Ch. 7 pp. 214-230. In-class computer demonstration.

13. Wrap up.

IV. If language is innate, then why do the world's languages vary so much?

14. Read Ch. 8 `The Tower of Babel'.

15. Read `Linguists Debating Deepest Roots of Language' (New York Times)

V. We can learn a lot about language by studying the way children acquire it.

16. Read Ch. 9 `Baby Born Talking-- Describes Heaven'.

17. Reactions in the popular press: Read Statesman article `Baby talk: theorists challenge view that we're born to chat' and W. Safire, `Motherese'.

18. Watch the film Playing the Language Game.

VI. How is language represented in our genes and in our brains?

19-20. Read Ch. 10 `Language Organs and Grammar Genes'.

VII. How did language evolve? And, by the way, can chimps be taught to use language?

21. Read Ch. 11 `The Big Bang.'

22. Watch the film With and Without Words.

VIII. This approach to language has been very successful. It makes sense for us to apply it to the study of other functions of the mind.

23-24. Read Ch. 12 `Mind Design.'

25. Summary.