Language: The Origins of Meaning

Semester: 

Fall

Offered: 

2020

Gennaro Chierchia (Department of Linguistics)
Freshman Seminar 61Q    4 credits (fall term)     Enrollment:  Limited to 12

How do languages work? Why are they so distinctly human in the natural world? Is language a creation of our intelligence, i.e. we speak, because we are smart, or the other way around? Birds produce sophisticated songs. Do bird songs mean anything? They do, in some way. They serve, for example, as predator warnings or mating calls. Humans too, like birds, can produce music. But for effective day to day communication (or, say, to develop a scientific theory, etc.), we need languages with words and sentences, i.e. the kind of languages which is unique to our species. Do all languages, in spite of looking so diverse, share a common structure? For example, in English words fall into categories: cat is a noun, meow is a verb. Do all languages have nouns and verbs? A fairly recent turning point in addressing these fundamental questions has been to view language as a computational device. This is enabling us to build effective models of how languages are structured so as to empower us with the ability to create meaning; which, in turn, is shedding light, more and more, on who we are. The seminar will explore how natural languages come to create meaning and invite participants to develop their own linguistic analyses through modern logical and computational tools.

Prerequisites: An interest in language and mind, and no fear of formal methods or the desire to overcome such fear.

See also: Fall 2020