Study Linguistics in Spring 2023

Three Classes Available with No Prerequisites
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Why Linguistics?

The ability to acquire and use language is a biological trait of the human species. This capacity for language manifests itself as thousands of particular languages spoken around the world in communities large and small. But what is language? What does it mean for a human to “know” a particular language? How do children acquire this knowledge? How do we use language to communicate? These are some of the important questions addressed by the field of linguistics, the scientific study of the human capacity for language in its physiological, cognitive, historical, and social manifestations.

Coursework in Linguistics can enrich your study of languages, computer science, psychology, anthropology, media, and many other areas. Graduates with linguistics background go on to work in a variety of industries, putting their linguistics knowledge to use in software engineering and AI, publishing, speech pathology, teaching, interpreting and localization, law, language revitalization, and beyond. 

The Institute of Linguistics at UMN is offering three courses without prerequisites in Spring 2023:

In this course, we will explore the linguistic questions that arise concerning the many varieties of English that are spoken around the globe. Our overarching concern will be what we can learn about humans and the human mind by studying the variation found across English varieties. Our investigation will focus on three primary threads of linguistic research: methods of data collection and analysis, tools of formal grammatical analysis, and critical analysis of sociopolitical contexts of language use. By approaching the global landscape of Englishes and English-based creoles in this way, we will tackle a number of questions, including: 

  • Who is a native speaker? 
  • What is a standard? 
  • What value judgments do people ascribe to different varieties of English? What sorts of (linguistic and extra-linguistic) relationships exist between different varieties of English and their speakers? 
  • What role does English play in an increasingly globalized world? 
  • How has its role changed over time and from place to place?

Through this course, you will gain an understanding of how English is situated in the global linguistic landscape, an ability to critically read linguistics articles and other media relating to language use, experience in analyzing linguistic data to understand patterns and variation, and an ability to communicate your findings and analyses effectively.


This course Introduces some of the essential findings of linguistics:

  • All varieties of all languages are intricately structured at multiple distinct but related levels. 
  • This intricate structure can be described in terms that are not only precise, but which apply to all human languages. 

We will work to replicate some of these findings by deploying simple analytical methods on data from a variety of languages. These methods allow us to answer questions about the different structural components of language: 

  • Phonology: how do speech sounds pattern?
  • Morphology: what are possible words and how are they built?
  • Syntax: what is the hierarchical structure underlying sequences of words?
  • Semantics: how do more complex conceptions of meaning emerge?

Having characterized language as an intricately-structured system of knowledge, we will then possess the tools to ask a number of additional questions about language and cognition.

  • How does such complex knowledge play into the actual task of sentence production or comprehension? 
  • What do we know about the neural implementation of this knowledge in human brains? 
  • How does child language acquisition proceed, and what makes it so much more robust than language acquisition later in life? 
  • Do animals have languages of their own? Can they learn human languages?

Finally, we will turn our attention to variation in language patterns observed over the passage of time, across geographical space, and within social systems. 

  • How and why do languages change over historical time? 
  • What can we know about languages spoken before the invention of writing? 
  • What distinctions exist between languages spoken in different places, and how can we tell whether similarities are due to genealogical relationships? 
  • How do new languages emerge? 
  • How do languages disappear?
  • How does language use vary between individuals from the same place or the same community? 
  • How do socioeconomic class, ethnicity, and gender relate to the linguistic behavior of individuals?
  • How does language policy affect educational outcomes?
  • What about social cohesion and conflict?

Although we will find that most of these questions lack definitive answers, we will develop an understanding of what it takes to ask them meaningfully and precisely. In particular, we will be able to eliminate false or misleading answers, especially when they fail to take into account the observable and describable properties of the human capacity for language. 


Though the question of whether music ought to be regarded as a kind of language is hotly contested, linguists have, thus far, anyway, been little involved in the discussion. The main purpose of this course is to provide needed clarification of a kind that can come only from bringing linguistics into the mix. The goal is not to make the case for one or the other side in this controversy but to provide the degree of precision required for the issue to be addressed in a way which goes beyond vague claims about poorly understood and ill-defined concepts. Further, the course will proceed from a different view of what the central question ought to be: not Is music a kind of language? but In what respects (if any) is music language-like? (alternatively: What characteristics of language does music have and what ones does it lack?), with the understanding that the answer is likely to lead to the recognition of both similarities and differences. There will be no prejudgment of what kind of enlightenment might come of the exercise, which presents itself as a mix of positive and negative, involving the recognition of ways in which music is language-like and others in which it isn?t. The similarities may loom larger to some and the differences to others, but both are useful and interesting in their own ways.

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