Linguistics 320
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
Course Schedule
Books, Websites, and other Sources

The Origins and Evolution of Human Language
Course Information
Spring 2008

Meetings and contact information

Class meetings: TTh 1:00-2:15
Instructor contact: Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel. (348)-6225, email,
Office hours: Wednesdays and Fridays 1:15-2:30, and by appointment

Course description

As far as we can tell, only one species has a communicative system of the complexity of human language, and that is humans. By comparing full-blown human language with other systems, we can learn something about how human language arose in prehistory. Recent advances in primate cognition and social behavior, infant cognition and social behavior, archeology, and other fields allow us to adduce various sorts of evidence, of various degrees of directness, to make hypotheses about the origin and development of human language. In doing so, we can also learn more about human language itself and the nature of the human species.

Some questions we will deal with are:

  • What properties does human language have that relate it to other communicative systems?

  • What properties does it have that are distinct from other communicative systems?

  • How does language relate to properties of the human mind and brain?

  • How do the properties of language relate to the properties of the vocal apparatus and accompanying perceptual apparatus?

  • Given the cognitive, structural, articulatory/acoustic, and developmental properties of human language, what can we say about how human language acquired these properties? (The 'Evolution Question')

  • What kinds of evidence can we bring to bear on the Evolution Question?

  • How long ago did language evolve? In what steps or stages?

  • What was early primate life like? What factors might have driven the development of features that distinguish humans from other primates, including those that appear to be underpinnings of later linguistic development?

  • What were early hominids like? If they had a communicative system, what properties of modern human language did it have or lack?

  • We will also deal with the geographic spread of Homo Sapiens Sapiens and the accompanying spread and divergence of human languages in paleolithic and post-paleolithic times. The recent hypotheses based on mitochondrial DNA and other genetic information derived from modern human populations will be considered.

    Course requirements and grading

    Tentative course schedule


    There are a number of primary texts that we will read from selectively. Selected articles and portions of the texts will be placed on Owlspace for download, or you will be told how to otherwise get access to them. Any of the following texts can be obtained from as well. A few other books from the Books, Websites and other Sources page linked below are items that can be selected for Student Reviews. (Students should also get these from the library, Amazon, or otherwise borrow them.)

  • Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby, eds. 2003. Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Chapters by Corballis; Lieberman; and others.)
  • T. Givón and B. F. Malle, eds. 2002. The Evolution of Language out of Pre-Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapters by Bybee; MacWhinney; Slobin; and others)
  • Alison Wray, ed. 2002. The Transition to Language. (Studies in the Evolution of Language.) (Papers by Bickerton, Burling, Hurford, and others. )
  • Bryan Sykes. 2001. The Seven Daughters of Eve. London: Corgi Books.
  • Books, websites, and other sources


    If you have a documented disability that will impact your work in this class, please contact me to discuss your needs. Additionally, you will need to register with the Disability Support Services Office in the Ley Student Center.