Linguistics

Professor Maria Polinsky, Head Tutor

Linguistics, the scientific study of language, is perhaps the ultimate interdisciplinary enterprise, cutting across the humanities, social sciences, cognitive sciences, physical sciences, and biological sciences. Since it is not taught in high school, most undergraduates, including many future Linguistics concentrators, only “discover” linguistics after they come to college. Some are intrigued by the prospect of discovering formal rules to model a complex form of behavior like language; others are interested in the relationship of natural languages to other symbolic systems; still others are curious about similarities and differences they have noticed among individual languages. In exploring these and similar topics, students of linguistics not only learn a great deal about a fascinating field; they also master a variety of conceptual and empirical techniques that stand them in good stead after graduation. Recent Harvard Linguistics concentrators have gone to graduate school in linguistics, mathematics, computer science, cognitive science, English, and music; to medical school, law school, and business school; and into employment in fields as diverse as editing, writing, translating, and language-processing software design.

The department understands that undergraduates are interested in linguistics for a variety of reasons. Some plan to pursue graduate studies in linguistics or a related discipline; some plan to go on to professional work; and some see a concentration in Linguistics as interesting and valuable intellectually, but do not base their future vocational plans upon it. The department has kept all of these considerations in mind in designing its course offerings and concentration requirements.

Many students who are curious about linguistics but who have never taken a linguistics course assume that it is chiefly a subject for people with an extensive background in foreign languages. This is incorrect. While it is true that some kinds of linguists need to have active control of a variety of languages, the overriding fact is that linguistics and language learning are completely separate pursuits. People who are “good at languages” are not always good at linguistics, and vice versa; many of the world’s most successful professional linguists are fluent only in their native language.

The courses offered by the Department of Linguistics reflect the extraordinary diversity of the field. The emphases are on linguistic theory, historical linguistics, and the cognitive aspects related to language.

Linguistic theory

Every normal child learns a language between the ages of one and five. Linguistic theory seeks to characterize this knowledge explicitly and to account for the ease and speed with which humans acquire it. Since the bulk of the knowledge that enables us to speak and use language is unconscious, most people are unaware of its almost unbelievable complexity and richness. Nor is it obvious to the casual observer that the underlying structures of languages as superficially different as English, Zulu, and Navajo are deeply and fundamentally the same. The traditional branches of linguistic theory are syntax, the study of sentence structure; phonology, the study of the sounds and sound systems; morphology, the study of word structure; and semantics, the study of meaning.

Historical linguistics

All languages change over time, sometimes giving rise to one or more daughter languages and, eventually, to families of related languages. Depending on their specific interests, historical linguists may investigate the processes and principles by which language change occurs, or study the documented history of individual languages, or try to recover the prehistory of language families by using the “comparative method” to reconstruct the unattested common parent of a set of attested daughter languages. A much-studied example of a reconstructed language is “Proto-Indo-European,” the parent language of the family that includes most of the ancient and modern languages of Europe (including English) and northern India.

The Linguistics track in Mind, Brain, Behavior (MBB)

Since language is a distinctively human characteristic, the study of language provides an important take-off point for investigating the complexities of the human mind/brain. Linguistics spearheaded the “cognitive revolution” in the 1950s and has occupied a privileged position in debates on cognitive issues ever since. At Harvard, the Mind/Brain/Behavior (MBB) Initiative was founded to help faculty in distinct research areas collaborate on projects making use of emerging techniques in neuroscience. One such technique, brain imaging, has long been of interest to linguists; newer experimental work is establishing connections between linguistic theory and language processing, language acquisition, language use, spatial and social cognition, evolutionary psychology and biology, and neuroscience.

The Linguistics/MBB track gives students an opportunity to delve into the neurobiological, psychological, philosophical, and evolutionary aspects of language, in the process becoming familiar with the different ways that researchers in these fields approach language-related problems. Another option encourages exploration of the relationships between language and computer science, including computational neuroscience. Whatever their specific choices, students who elect to concentrate in Linguistics/MBB graduate with a unique knowledge base and an invaluable set of skills and tools.

The implications of the study of language are broad and interdisciplinary. Modern linguistics theory attempts to characterize a very complex domain of human knowledge, and is thus an area of central concern to philosophers of mind as well as to cognitive psychologists. Furthermore, since the models of language constructed by theoretical linguists are formal in character and inspired by computational and mathematical methodologies, linguistics has a mutually beneficial relationship with computer science and the study of artificial intelligence. Linguistics also offers a firm understanding of the nature of language to literary scholars and language teachers. Finally, since languages are cultural artifacts, the reconstruction of an extinct language can shed light on the physical surroundings and the social institutions of its speakers, making linguistics a topic of interest to anthropologists, sociologists, and archaeologists.

Concentration requirements

Since high schools and even many universities do not offer courses in linguistics, the department’s introductory courses presuppose no prior background in the field. Many linguistics concentrators, in fact, were unaware of the existence of linguistics as a subject before they took their first linguistics course at Harvard. Our courses therefore aim to introduce students to linguistic analysis and actively engage them in it. They also expose students to the great diversity found in the languages of the world. An extensive foreign language background is not required or assumed.

Concentrators in Linguistics can choose among three tracks: Linguistics; Linguistics with Related Field; and Linguistics with Mind, Brain, and Behavior. The three tracks have the same tutorial program and share a core set of required courses that emphasize argumentation and methodology in phonology, syntax, semantics, and historical linguistics. The Linguistics with MBB track has an additional set of three required core courses that emphasize argumentation and methodology in mind, brain, and behavioral science. Students who choose the straight Linguistics track meet the remainder of the non-tutorial course requirement by taking a combination of more advanced linguistics courses within the department and linguistics-related offerings in other departments. Examples of linguistics-related offerings in other departments include courses on the linguistic structure of particular languages (e.g., History of the German Language) and on the computational, philosophical, and psychological aspects of language (e.g., Psychology of Language). Students who choose the Linguistics with Related Field combine courses in linguistics proper with linguistics-related courses in an approved second field such as anthropology, classics, computer science, or psychology. Students who choose Linguistics with MBB meet the remainder of the non-tutorial course requirement by taking a combination of more advanced courses on linguistics or on mind, brain, and behavior. Examples of MBB-related courses typically include courses offered by the philosophy department (e.g., Philosophy of Language), by the psychology department (e.g., Cognitive Neuropsychology), and by the computer science department (e.g., Natural Language Processing).

Note that the Linguistics with Related Field and the Linguistics with MBB tracks are not the same as a joint concentration in Linguistics and another field. Joint concentrators have their study cards approve by both concentrations, and the other field may require additional courses beyond those needed for the Linguistics with Related Field or Linguistics with MBB tracks. Such students graduate with a concentration in Linguistics and the other field (e.g., Linguistics and Mathematics; Linguistics and Anthropology). Students in the Linguistics with Related Field or with MBB tracks, on the other hand, have their study plans approved only in Linguistics, and graduate with a concentration in Linguistics alone. Students in the Linguistics with MBB track receive a certificate from the MBB program as well. Additional information about the requirements for joint concentrators is provided below.

OPTIONS

REQUIREMENTS

Basic Requirements: 12 half-courses
Requirements for Honors Eligibility: 14 half-courses

Linguistics Track

  1. Required non-tutorial courses (9 half-courses):

    1. Linguistics 110: Introduction to Linguistics or Social Analysis 34: Knowledge of Language.

    2. Linguistics 112a: Introduction to Syntactic Theory.

    3. Linguistics 115a: Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology.

    4. One of the following:

      1. Linguistics 114: Introduction to Morphology.

      2. Linguistics 116a: Introduction to Semantics.

      3. Linguistics 117r: Linguistic Field Methods.

    5. Linguistics 120: Introduction to Historical Linguistics

      -or-

      Linguistics 122: Introduction to Indo-European.

    6. Four additional half-courses, at least one of which must be in linguistics. For the other three courses, any course in linguistics or in the Supplement to the Related Field Requirement (also available upon request from the department) is acceptable. Alternatives outside this domain must be approved by the head tutor.

  2. Required Tutorials (Basic: 3 half-courses; for Honors eligibility: 5 half-courses):

    1. Sophomore year: Linguistics 97 is required in the spring term and consists of two consecutive six-week small-group tutorials.

    2. Junior year: Linguistics 98a (fall) consists of two consecutive six-week small-group tutorials. Linguistics 98b (spring) is a one-term individual tutorial with a faculty member (for Honors candidates) or two consecutive six-week small-group tutorials (for non-honors candidates).
      The specific topics covered in group tutorials change from year to year. Students are free to choose the tutorials they find most interesting, though the head tutor may require a student to select a different tutorial if enrollments have exceeded a certain level. With respect to group tutorials, non-honors candidates must take at least one tutorial in phonetics/phonology, one in syntax/semantics, and one in historical linguistics. Honors candidates must take a group tutorial in at least two of these fields.

    3. Senior year: Linguistics 99a (fall) and 99b (spring), required for Honors candidates and focused on the research and writing of the senior Honors thesis. Linguistics 99a is a one-term group tutorial led by the head tutor with the participation of Honors candidates’ thesis advisers. Linguistics 99b is a one-term individual tutorial with each Honors candidate’s thesis adviser. Graded SAT/UNS.

  3. Required Languages:

    1. Basic concentrators must demonstrate knowledge of one foreign language by the end of the junior year. This can be done in the following ways:

      • by being a native speaker of the language.
      • by obtaining at least a B grade in a full-year, second year language course.
      • by passing a Harvard College language placement exam.
      • in some cases, by passing a special departmental reading exam.

    2. Honors candidates must demonstrate a knowledge of an additional foreign language by the end of the junior year, either by the appropriate coursework (as described above) or by a placement exam.

      Note: Native speakers of a foreign language are normally not allowed to take courses of basic instruction in that language. Any such courses taken by a native speaker will not be counted toward the departmental language or related field requirements.

  4. Thesis:

    1. Basic: Not required.

    2. Honors candidates: Required. During the fall term of the senior year, Honors candidates produce a thesis prospectus for approval by the head tutor. After completing the thesis, Honors candidates present the results of their research at a departmental colloquium during Reading Period of the spring term.

  5. Other information: Courses taken Pass/Fail may not be counted for concentration credit.

Linguistics with Related Field Track

  1. Required non-tutorial courses in Linguistics (5 half-courses):

    1. Linguistics 110: Introduction to Linguistics or Social Analysis 34: Knowledge of Language

    2. Of the following three half-courses, Basic concentrators must take two half-courses, Honors concentrators must take all three:

      1. Linguistics 112a: Introduction to Syntactic Theory

      2. Linguistics 115a: Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology

      3. Linguistics 120: Introduction to Historical Linguistics

        -or-

        Linguistics 122: Introduction to Indo-European

    3. Basic concentrators take two additional half-courses in Linguistics; honors candidates take an additional course in Linguistics.

  2. Four half-courses in a related field (for example, psychology, Romance languages, computer science, etc.). These may include half-courses relevant for the scientific study of language, but not directly within its purview; for example, not only courses such as “Semitic Linguistics” are acceptable, but also courses such as “Complex Fournier Analysis” and “Philosophy of the Mind.” Each program of study is approved on an individual basis by the head tutor.

  3. Required Tutorials: Same as Linguistics Track.

  4. Required Languages: Same as Linguistics Track.

  5. Thesis: Same as Linguistics Track.

  6. Other information:

    1. Pass/Fail: Courses taken Pass/Fail may not be counted for concentration credit.

    2. Students with an unusually strong background may be permitted to substitute another linguistics course for Linguistics 110.

Linguistics with Mind, Brain, and Behavior (MBB) Track
14 half-courses

  1. Required non-tutorial courses (9 half-courses):

    1. Three required half-courses in Linguistics:

      1. Linguistics 110: Introduction to Linguistics or Social Analysis 34.

      2. Linguistics 112a: Introduction to Syntactic Theory.

      3. Linguistics 115a: Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology.

        -or-

        Linguistics 116a: Introduction to Semantics.

    2. Three required half-courses in MBB:

      1. Science of Living Systems 20 (or Science B-62 for classes of 2012 and 2011; or Science B-29 for classes of 2010 or earlier).

      2. MCB 80: Neurobiology of Behavior.

      3. An MBB interdisciplinary seminar (see the MBB website for more information).

    3. One additional half-course in linguistics.

    4. One additional half-course in MBB.

    5. One additional half-course in linguistics with an MBB focus. Examples of such courses include “Natural Language Processing,” “Philosophy of Language,” and “Cognitive Neuropsychology.”

      Note: No course can be counted doubly to satisfy requirements 1a-1c.

      The courses to be counted towards the MBB requirements must be approved by the head tutor. Approval is automatic if the course is chosen from those listed in the Requirements for the Linguistics with MBB Track (also available upon request from the department).

  2. Required Tutorials: Same as Linguistics Requirements for Honors Eligibility.

  3. Required Languages: Same as Linguistics Requirements for Honors Eligibility.

  4. Thesis: Same as Linguistics Track.

  5. General Information: Same as Linguistics Track.

  6. Other information:

    1. Pass/Fail: Courses taken Pass/Fail cannot be counted for concentration credit.

    2. Students with an unusually strong background may be permitted to substitute another linguistics course for Linguistics 110.

Joint Concentrations

Note: There is a crucial difference between the Linguistics with Related Field track or the Linguistics with MBB track and a joint concentration in Linguistics and another field. A student in Linguistics with Psychology as a related field or in Linguistics with MBB is solely under the jurisdiction of the linguistics department, while a student with a joint concentration in Linguistics and Psychology is under the jurisdiction of both linguistics and psychology—that is, he or she needs to fulfill the requirements for joint concentration outlined by both fields. A student in Linguistics with Psychology as a related field graduates with a concentration in Linguistics; a student in Linguistics with MBB also graduates with a concentration in Linguistics and is awarded a certificate by the MBB program. A joint concentrator graduates with a concentration in Linguistics and Psychology.

Joint concentrations must be approved by both participating concentrations. Typically, joint concentrators take six courses in linguistics and six in the joint field and write a thesis that, to some degree, combines the two fields. Note that the same course cannot be counted as a required course for both fields simultaneously. Courses in the joint field should be selected in consultation with the head tutor of that field. Under normal circumstances, the following courses will be taken:

  1. Linguistics as primary field: Linguistics 97r or Linguistics 98a (1 term), Linguistics 110 or Social Analysis 34, Linguistics 112a, Linguistics 115a, Linguistics 120 or 122, one additional half-course in Linguistics;

  2. Linguistics as allied field: Linguistics 110 or Social Analysis 34, Linguistics 112a, Linguistics 115a, Linguistics 120 or 122, two additional half-courses in Linguistics.

Joint concentrators ordinarily also enroll in two terms of senior tutorial in the primary field (the field listed first). Thesis advisers may be drawn from either of the two departments, subject to approval by the head tutors of both concentrations.

ADVISING

The head tutor and assistant head tutor meet with concentrators individually at the beginning of each term to approve course selection and determine tutorial assignments. In addition, they are available to meet with students during regularly scheduled office hours or by appointment. Concentrators are also encouraged to contact other members of the faculty to discuss specific linguistics issues throughout the term.

For up-to-date information on advising in Linguistics, please see the Advising Programs Office website.

RESOURCES

Concentrators are welcome to use the departmental lounge, library, and computing facilities located on the third floor of Boylston Hall. A phonetics lab where students can experiment with the acoustic and articulatory properties of the sounds of the world’s languages is located in Boylston 334. Concentrators may also frequent the department’s special collection of linguistic materials in Room B, on the top floor of Widener Library. Information about access to these locations can be obtained from the department administrator, Cheryl Murphy, in Boylston 305.

STUDY ABROAD

The Department of Linguistics encourages study abroad for concentrators. Students working on a specific language or language area may wish to spend a term or a summer abroad. They should discuss their options with the staff of the Office of International Programs before meeting with the head tutor. Under appropriate circumstances, work done abroad may be counted toward the concentration requirement. Concentrators are encouraged to discuss their interests with the head tutor.

HOW TO FIND OUT MORE

For further information about the Linguistics concentration, please contact the head tutor, Professor Maria Polinsky, Boylston 314, 617-495-9339, or the Department Office located on the third floor of Boylston Hall. The department website also contains a variety of useful information for undergraduates, including the department Handbook for Undergraduate Concentrators.

CORE AND GENERAL EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS

Non-exempt areas:

Exempt areas:

†Historical Study A

Foreign Cultures

Historical Study B

Quantitative Reasoning

†Literature and Arts A

Social Analysis

Literature and Arts B

ONE of the areas marked †.

†Literature and Arts C

 

Moral Reasoning

 

Science A

 

Science B

 

For more information on fulfilling the Core requirement, see the Core Curriculum Requirement.

All students—regardless of concentration—planning to graduate under the requirements of the Program in General Education must complete one letter-graded course in each of the eight categories in General Education. The Class of 2013 is the first to enter the College under these requirements. Students who entered Harvard College in September 2008 or earlier are expected to fulfill the requirements of the Core Curriculum, but will be permitted to switch to the Program in General Education if such a change is possible and advisable given their overall schedule and plan of study. For more information on the requirements of the Program in General Education and the possibility of switching to it, please see The Program in General Education in Chapter 2 and the General Education website.

ENROLLMENT STATISTICS

Number of Concentrators as of December

Concentrators

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

Linguistics

33

31

25

31

12

Linguistics + another field

3

5

5

5

18

Another field + Linguistics

2

1

4

5

2