This course investigates the syntax (sentence structure properties) of human language. It addresses the need for a scientific model to explain human knowledge of language that also makes predictions about its representation in the mind. The focus here is on human language as a specific cognitive capacity restricted to humans, rather than on the individual languages (e.g., English, Arabic, Hindi) that are made possible by the existence of this capacity. For this reason, the course explores in detail many structural properties that are common across different languages, even those that clearly do not share a common recent past. A simple example: all languages have specific strategies to ask questions that make them different from affirmative sentences (e.g., English uses special question words — ‘who’, ‘what’ and so on — as most languages do). In order to explain this and many other common properties of human language, a scientific hypothesis that has been explored in depth is that a large part of human knowledge of language is biologically determined, and maybe innate. This is further supported by the fact that normal children effortlessly learn their native language at an amazing speed, despite the complexity of the task at hand (compare trying to learn for example Korean or Turkish as an adult, with years of language classes), and despite variation and deficiencies of the language input they are exposed to. It is also clear, however, that there is a huge diversity among human languages, which can be illustrated only in an unfair way in this short description (e.g., only some languages change the sentence structure in a regular question: you say ‘Who do you like?’ in English, instead of ‘You like who?’, a possible word order similar to the one would find for instance in Chinese). Given this kind of diversity, which will be made clear, children need to be exposed to some minimum input of a particular language in order to be able to acquire it proficiently. Therefore, a major question that arises in modern linguistic inquiry and that will be object of this course is how the hypothesis of a biological basis for human language — which provides an explanation for the common aspects among all human languages and for the striking success of the acquisition task — can be reconciled with the obvious diversity of the human language experience.
Prerequisites: Although there are no official prerequisites, students usually take one introductory course in linguistics (LING 111, 209, 210, 212) before taking this course.