Psychology of Language, psych 712, Spring 2012 (under revision from 2011)


We are going to try to use the Blackboard (BB) as a means accessing reading assignments; I may also try having you respond to some assignments via email.

The course is filled; a few people might be added as others drop.


Office hours-- I will be available usually immediately before class & after class and by appointment.

My office is 322 Conant Hall. The best way to contact me is in person after class or by email. Send to and put 712 in the subject line. THIS IS NECESSARY or your message gets trashed.


Laptop/phone policy? With wireless available in classrooms, some guidelines may need to be established for use in class. More to come on this topic if needed.



Overview and first assignments (being revised)

This course deals with the use, development and evolution of human  language.  Each year we focus on some topic or topics relating to language.  Some of these will be determined by your interests (see first assignments) and mine. This year I want to continue exploring a very ancient topic-- the relationship between language and certain aspects of thought and other cognitive processes, along with exploring our very shaky understanding of human language evolution.


We will also read a number of clinical papers on some aspects of language disability, along with other topics of interest.

Assignments and grading (% values are only approximate here)

Your grade will be based on a number of short assignments including reports to the class, two essay/short answer exams (50%),  class participation, and a final research paper (10-20%). The short assignments are important (maybe 20-30%) so don't ignore them or turn them in late . I will drop the lowest one of about 10 short papers so there is no reason everyone shouldn't get a high average on these assignments -- unless you don't turn them in on time (see below).


attendance and late work


I expect everyone to attend regularly and to turn in written assignments on time. E-mail copies and Blackboard messages are not acceptable except when part of the assignment or in an emergency. In such cases, I expect a printed version as soon as possible. Late papers will lose at least a point off for each class (2 points off 10 each week.) Excessive absences will cost you! If you can't make the class regularly because of work, religion, sleep loss, or bla bla bla, take another class.


I have ordered Steve Pinker's old but excellent (1994) book, the Language Instinct  (paperback at the Durham Book exchange on Main street ($cheap). In addition I will put some research articles on Blackboard for your enjoyment.


(Read about the author on the linked NYT article.)


Depending on how our interests go, we will read a number of research papers, perhaps one a week.


Sometimes you will be assigned to find your own readings on a topic.


I also expect you to skim my online Language News and daily notes each week.



Read ch.1 in Pinker this week and ch.2 next week.


Short written assignments- generally one page or less typed.

First written brief assignment #1 due today (jan 24) in class. Normally all assignments must be turned in a printed version. But given bad weather, you can get full credit by an emailed version followed up with a print version at the next class.

1.- What are your interests in language? Brief definitions --in class assignment Jan 24.

Tell me a little about yourself and interests.

2. - What is psychology? (comment on William James passage from opening of his famous Principles of Psychology (1890).

      "Psychology is the Science of Mental Life...such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like. ...a certain amount of brain-physiology must be presupposed or included in Psychology...Our psychology must therefore take account not only of the conditions antecedent to mental states, but of their resultant consequences as well...But actions originally prompted by conscious intelligence may grow so automatic by dint of habit as to be apparently unconsciously performed. Standing, walking, buttoning and unbuttoning, piano-playing, talking, even saying one's prayers, may be done when the mind is absorbed in other things. The performances of animal instinct seem semi-automatic, and the reflex acts of self-preservation certainly are so. Yet they resemble intelligent acts in bringing about the same ends at which the animals' consciousness, on other occasions, deliberately aims.[p.6] Shall the study of such machine-like yet purposive acts as these be included in Psychology?

      -- William James definition of psychology, 1890 in his famous Principles of Psychology -- perhaps the first modern psychology text.

      What do you think about James' question underlined above? Should language ("talking") be part of psychology? Why or why not? What is he worried about anyway? Don't write anything but be prepared to talk about it next week.


What is language? What is thinking?   (topics to be considered in class.)

No writing on this yet!

Language evolution timetable

second writing assignment – 1-2 pages due, Tuesday, 2/07

Write on the functions served by human language--beyond interpersonal communication!

See "daily notes" for more information on these and subsequent assignments.