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

The Origins and Evolution of Human Language
Course Information
Spring 2016

Meetings and contact information

Class meetings: 10:00-10:50, Herring Hall 125
Instructor contact: Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel. (348)-6225, email kemmer at Office hours: MWF 11:00am-11:50am 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, genetics, 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 are similar to those found in communicative systems found in other species?

  • 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 does the development of the human brain (prenatal, neonatal, and beyond) relate to the evolution of language? (The Ontogeny Question.) How do humans compare with other primates in regard to brain development in the individuals of the species?
  • What is the relation between evolution of the human brain, and all its neural and cognitive capacities, and the evolution of language?

  • 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 aspects 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 kinds of early hominid species existed, and what were these early hominids like? If they had a communicative system, what properties of modern human language did it have or lack?

  • Did modern human language evolve from communicative systems of early hominids? Which ones? Are there properties of human language as we know it that are NOT evolutionary developments of earlier hominid communicative systems, but which arose only after our species (homo sapiens sapiens) became distinct?

  • If time, we will also deal with the geographic spread of Homo sapiens sapiens and the accompanying spread and divergence of human languages throughout the world in paleolithic and post-paleolithic times. This section will include the recent hypotheses based on mitochondrial DNA and other genetic information derived from modern human populations. If no time for this part of the course is available (since this year some guest lectures have been added), suggestions for readings on these topics will be given.

    Course requirements and grading

    Tentative course schedule


    There are a few primary texts that we will read from selectively. Selected articles and portions of the texts will be placed on the new Course Management Program CANVAS 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 used for research for the presentations and short paper. Since I don't have copies of all of them, students should get the actual readings from the library, online, Amazon, or otherwise borrow them.

  • Hockett, Charles. Design Features of Human Language.
  • Tomasello, Michael.
  • Tomasello, Michael, and Josep Call.
  • Corballis, Michael. 2003. From Hand to Mouth: The Gestural Origins of Language. In Christiansen and Kirby, eds. 2003, 201-218.
  • 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.