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Unit 6: Language

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    It seems appropriate that after taking a look at who we are, what makes us human, how we think about ourselves, and the world that we take a look at how we communicate. Take a few minutes and jot down some of your ideas about these questions.

    • How is our understanding of culture and society constructed through and by language?
    • How can language be powerful?
    • How can you use language to empower yourself?
    • How is language used to manipulate us?
    • In what ways are language and power inseparable?
    • What is the relationship between thinking and language? How close or far are they apart?
    • How does language influence the way we think, act, and perceive the world?
    • How do authors use the resources of language to impact an audience?

    Where did language come from? A question that never gets answered.

    The origin of language and its evolutionary emergence in the human species have been subjects of speculation for several centuries. The topic is difficult to study because of the lack of direct evidence. Consequently, scholars wishing to study the origins of language must draw inferences from other kinds of evidence such as the fossil record, archaeological evidence, contemporary language diversity, studies of language acquisition and comparisons between human language and systems of communication existing among animals (particularly other primates). Many argue that the origins of language probably relate closely to the origins of modern human behavior, but there is little agreement about the implications and directionality of this connection.

    This shortage of empirical evidence has caused many scholars to regard the entire topic as unsuitable for serious study. In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned any existing or future debates on the subject, a prohibition which remained influential across much of the Western world until late in the twentieth century.[1][2] Today, there are various hypotheses about how, why, when, and where language might have emerged.[3] Despite this, there is scarcely more agreement today than a hundred years ago, when Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provoked a rash of armchair speculation on the topic.[4] Since the early 1990s, however, a number of linguists, archaeologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others have attempted to address with new methods what some consider one of the hardest problems in science.[5]

    Click on the following link to read an article, “How Did Language Begin?: by Ray Jackendoff

    Take some notes on the following Ted Talk. Look back at the questions from the beginning of this unit. Can you answer any here? Do you have any more ideas?

    Let’s take a look at how Alex Gendler explains how linguists group languages into language families, demonstrating how these linguistic trees give us crucial insights into the past. Over the course of human history, thousands of languages have developed from what was once a much smaller number. How did we end up with so many? And how do we keep track of them all?

    Answer these questions as you listen:

    What does it mean for two languages to be related?

    A They are spoken in the same country or region

    B They are written in the same alphabet

    C They evolved from the same older language

    What is a proto-language?

    A A very primitive language

    B The earliest known ancestor of a group of related languages

    C A basic form of a language as spoken by people learning it

    Which of these words are most likely to be borrowed from another language?

    A Words for family members

    B Pronouns

    C Words for plants and animals

    What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

    A There is no defined cutoff point

    B Dialects are always mutually understandable

    C A language must have official status in at least one country

    Which is NOT a reason for linguistic divergence?

    A Migration and encountering different groups and environments

    B Political and historical events

    C Different brain structure among different groups of people

    Why are words that sound similar and have similar meanings not enough to establish a relation between languages?

    What are some reasons that it’s impossible to give an exact number for how many different languages there are?

    What can linguistics teach us about the history and culture of ancient peoples?

    Currently there are more than 6,000 languages spoken around the world. This five-part series traces the history and evolution of language and attendant theories and controversies while evaluating the scope of linguistic diversity, the dissemination of language, the expansion of language into written form, and the life cycle of language.

    Watch this 5 part series on Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language. You can find in the Films on Demand library, if you have access to that or here after applying for a ‘free membership’.

    From Films on Demand (you’ll need to log in to see it)

    A 5 part series on Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language

    There are five episodes. Each episodes is about 45 minutes long. As you watch, take notes. Remember the essential questions. How many can you begin to answer?

    • How is our understanding of culture and society constructed through and by language?
    • How can language be powerful?
    • How can you use language to empower yourself?
    • How is language used to manipulate us?
    • In what ways are language and power inseparable?
    • What is the relationship between thinking and language? How close or far are they apart?
    • How does language influence the way we think, act, and perceive the world?
    • How do authors use the resources of language to impact an audience?

    Continue to search for the answers to these questions as you watch the following lectures.

    How language began | Dan Everett | TEDxSanFrancisco

    In this next lecture, Dan Everett brings us back in time to the Homo Erectus to share how language began and why it is the ultimate evolutionary tool to share knowledge. Dan Everett was born in Southern California. He completed an undergraduate degree in biblical studies from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and his Master’s and ScD in linguistics at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil. From 1977, he has regularly conducted research on the Pirahã language of Brazil. He has also conducted research on Tzeltal (Mexico), Selish (USA), Arawan (Brazil), Satere (Brazil), Wari’ (Brazil) among many others. He has published fourteen books and more than 110 articles and has lectured around the world on his research.

    The Origins and Evolution of Language | Michael Corballis | TEDxAuckland

    Nearly everybody can communicate, and most do so through some form of language, and yet the question of where language came from is one of the most difficult questions in science. Psychologist and author, Michael Corballis explores the many theories of language's origins, including his own, and details how language and communication have continued to evolve, from primates' use of gestures, to the advent of communicative technologies. Michael Corballis, emeritus professor at the Department of Psychology at The University of Auckland is one of the foremost global experts on the evolution of human language.

    The son of a sheep farmer from Marton, Michael’s long and decorated academic career has seen his studies of the brain and what it is to be human earn him New Zealand’s top science prize, The Rutherford Medal.

    He has worked with patients who have had two-sides of their brains disconnected to relieve epilepsy which led him to look deeper into studying the two brain hemispheres. His most recent book The Truth About Language explores the idea that language evolved from manual gestures.

    Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain | Big Think

    In this lecture, Steven Pinker, renowned linguist and Harvard Psychology Professor, discusses linguistics as a window to understanding the human brain.

    Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity

    Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of "social technology" that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.

    What about Indigenous Languages? Why are they disappearing? Why does it matter?

    Read through this short article on The World’s Indigenous Languages In Context.

    Then in this short video, meet Indigenous Speakers and Learn How They're Keeping Their Languages Alive

    With a partner, explore Celebrating Indigenous Languages,,-44.18799066,-16651a,31916368d,35y,0h,0t,0r/data=CjISMBIgYTY1Y2U1NTk3MzE4MTFlOTkzN2RjN2JkNTNhNDc1ZGIiDHNwbGFzaHNjcmVlbg

    Theme: Identity, Family & Community authored by global oneness project

    “A language tells who you are. It is connected with your culture, with your lands, with your family.”

    Polina Shulbaeva, Selkup, Narym Dialect

    Tomsk Oblast, Russia


    From the Global Oneness Project film Wukchumni. Marie Wilcox (left), eighty-five, is the remaining fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, a dialect of the Yokuts tribal group

    Identity can be defined as the various ways individuals and groups define themselves by their beliefs, ethnicity, and culture, among other characteristics. Indigenous peoples may identify themselves through their tribe or tribal nation, as well as the Indigenous language they speak.

    Access the Google Earth tour Celebrating Indigenous Languages.,-44.18799066,-16651a,31916368d,35y,0h,0t,0r/data=CjISMBIgYTY1Y2U1NTk3MzE4MTFlOTkzN2RjN2JkNTNhNDc1ZGIiD HNwbGFzaHNjcmVlbg

    Divide into pairs or small groups. With your partners or group members, explore the tour through the theme of identity and how the role of family and community is essential to language vitality. Answer the following questions and write down your observation, insights, and evidence.


    1. Select and listen to three greetings from three speakers. What do you notice? What sounds are new to you?
    2. Describe ways the speakers greet you in their native languages, in addition to saying hello. What phrases or words are used? Describe the similarities and differences between the three speakers.
    3. Expressive or peaceful are words used by some speakers to describe their languages. What do you hear? Select two languages. What words would you use to describe these languages?
    4. Describe the relationship between a speaker’s language and his/her family. Find an example in one of the greetings, phrases, or songs. How does a language bring family and community closer together?
    5. Provide an example of how speaking in one’s native language gives a person a sense of pride, power, or freedom. In what ways, from the speakers’ perspectives, do these qualities help to define their identities?
    6. “I do this not for myself, but for my children and grandchildren, so that in the future, they’ll hear our language,” said Dolores Greyeyes Sand, Plains Cree, from Crown Hill, Saskatchewan, Canada. What are some additional examples of ways the individuals express the importance of passing their languages on to their children and grandchildren?
    7. What is your favorite greeting or phrase shared by the Indigenous language speakers? Why? Describe what makes this greeting or phrase unique and why it impacts you.
    8. “We want our people to know our family, identity and language are one. By knowing the language, you understand the culture,” says Rev. Elder Suamalie N TIosefa Naisali, speaker of Faipati Faka Tuvalu from the Tuvalu Islands in the South Pacific. Why might this be an important message for the world?

    In one paragraph, write a response to the following questions.

    1. Anthropologist Keith Basso asked, “What can the study of spoken languages reveal about the shapes and contours of other cultural worlds?” What do you know now about the relationship between language and culture? How did your perspective shift? In what ways do the Indigenous language speakers provide you with a new way of seeing the world? In what ways do their stories add to a more comprehensive global story of humanity?
    2. What new insights or reflections do you have about your own language(s), family, community, and culture?
    3. Do you know which Indigenous people are the original stewards of the land you live on? Research to find out the following:
      • The name of the tribe, territory, and language. (Note: You can use the website resource:
      • Learn a local Indigenous or Native word. What did you learn?



    This page titled Unit 6: Language is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lori-Beth Larsen.

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