Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

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.

In the first two thirds of the class, we will study some core aspects of this system in detail. In the final part of the class, we will use what we have learned to address a variety of other questions—including how language is acquired, how dialects arise, how languages change over time, and others.

Course Requirements


The main textbook for the course is:

O'Grady, William, John Archibald, et al. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. ISBN: 9780312618513.

We will also read the following book:

Baker, Mark. The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar. Basic Books, 2002. ISBN: 9780465005222.

From time to time, there will also be other required readings (mostly short), as well as some things to listen to or watch.


Attendance in class and recitations is required, and will affect your grade. Though you can learn a lot from the readings, many classes will present material not in the readings—or will present the material in a slightly different way.

Participation in recitation discussions is part of the communications intensive component required in CI-H classes. Attendance will be taken in recitations.

Homework: Problem Sets and Papers

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 fieldwork. For these assignments, you will ask be asked 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.

You will also be required to write three relatively short papers: an analytical summary (4 pages); an argumentative essay (4 pages); and a field research paper (12 pages). You will also submit an additional polished paper. This paper will be a substantially revised and extended version of either the first or second paper, reflecting new ideas and perspectives you have developed through this course and your response to the writing instructor's comments on your previous version. 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.

Quizzes and final exam

There will be two in-class (45-minute) quizzes and a sit-down closed-book final exam. The final exam will cover material from the entire course, and will be a mixture of factual questions and problems.


Problem sets 20%
2 quizzes 20%
Final exam 25%
Papers 25%
Attendance and participation 10%

If you have not done so already, please familiarize yourself with the MIT Academic Integrity guidelines.