English 201A

Topics in the Structure of the English Language: Introduction to Linguistics for Graduate Students in the Humanities

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2019 Hanson, Kristin
W 3-6 note new location: 102 Barrows

Other Readings and Media

Course readings will be representative influential scholarly articles from various subfields of linguistics.  As delightful background, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct is highly recommended.


Few areas of research within the humanities are not mediated in some way by language.  Language is an object of philosophical investigation, a medium of historical record and cultural expression, the material of literature, and a metaphor for and source of contrast with other art forms.  As a result, many fields within the humanities have their own traditions of discourse about language, including claims about it and also critiques of those claims.  At the same time, especially since the development of historical linguistics in the 19th c. in Europe, and of generative theories of language in the 20th c. in America, the study of language has become a well-defined field in its own right. The purpose of this course is to help students in the humanities who wish to incorporate claims about language in their work to do so in ways that take into account claims about language made by those who take it as their primary object of research.

One common impediment to humanities scholars engaging with linguistics can be the temptation to focus on a single subsystem that seems especially relevant to their own research -- phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics or historical linguistics.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of language, however, is the way in which these subsystems interact; often one subsystem cannot be understood without understanding another.  For this reason, this introduction will consist of brief but intensive introductions to each of these subsystems and their interactions.  Another impediment can be the absence in second-hand overviews of a field of the methodological issues central to graduate study.  For this reason, to the extent possible, these introductions will be organized around guest lectures from scholars currently engaged in research in these subfields, together with representative scholarly articles and analytic exercises.  That is, even though the course will be organized around basic questions like “what is syntax?” or “what is pragmatics?”, it will try to answer these questions in ways that are appropriate for graduate students.  Finally, one other impediment can be practical knowledge of and access to the linguistic expertise available across campus, some centered in the linguistics department, and some dispersed across departments defined by individual languages and cultures.  For this reason, the course will include a couple of roundtable discussions of topics involving intersections of humanities and linguistics, with a view to acquainting students with as many faculty and fellow students engaged in linguistic research relevant to their research as possible.

Students potentially interested in this course are encouraged to stop by to discuss their interest with the instructor as soon as possible, so that it can help shape the course.

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