Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Modern & Medieval Languages

Language, brain and society

Linguistics Tripos Part I Paper 3
MML Tripos Part IB Paper Li.3
AMES Tripos Part IB Paper X.13

Paper Coordinator 2013/14: Dr Teresa Parodi

Past and specimen exam papers, examiners' reports, full reading lists and lecture handouts are available from the Linguistics Resources on CamTools.


While linguistics often treats language as a phenomenon in its own right, taking its evidence from what people say and what they regard as grammatical, language is clearly also both a cognitive phenomenon (involving the mind and brain), and a social phenomenon (reflecting and indeed reinforcing structures in society). This paper provides an introduction to relation of language to both these domains.

Much of our knowledge about language and the mind is indirect. Although recently it has become possible, through brain-scanning techniques, to see neural responses to different linguistic stimuli, our knowledge from this kind of source is still in its infancy. Much more has been inferred about how the mind organises language from more accessible sources such as language acquisition, speech errors, and language impairment. The acquisition of language by babies and children gives a window on how we seek general patterns (children will over-generalise for while and try forms like goed once they've realised that -ed signals the past tense); and arguably acquisition gives evidence for humans being born with an innate preparedness for language. Errors in producing language turn out not to be random: the fact that tip of the slongue is a much more likely error for slip of the tongue than tlip of the songue shows that phonotactic constraints are psychologically real (English doesn't allow tl initially in a syllable). And the loss of specific aspects of language after brain damage (e.g. strokes), such as word-finding, or sentence-formation, suggests a degree of modularity in the mind corresponding (in these cases) to the lexicon or to syntax.

Within society, language reflects both geographical and social groups. Non-linguists are well aware of this, for instance describing people as having 'a Yorkshire accent' or 'a posh voice'; but linguistics aims at a precise description of the phonetic, grammatical, lexical, and semantic variables which differentiate accents and dialects. The study of language in society is sociolinguistics. Sometimes this term implies a rather general approach to discourse in society, for instance in the political context, but in this paper the focus will be on patterns of variation in the structure of language. Speakers have an impressive passive knowledge of such variation, which they can use to make linguistic judgments about others; and they can often vary their own speech along similar lines to match their style of speaking to the context. Such variation also often arises from, and drives, the spread of new linguistic features, and this connection will be explored.

Learning outcomes

  • An understanding of how different kinds of evidence can be used to understand the psychology of language
  • Familiarity with debates over how language is represented in the mind
  • A working knowledge of how core techniques of linguistic analysis can be applied to variation within a language
  • Knowledge and understanding of important methods and techniques used in sociolinguistic research
  • An awareness of the connection between contemporary language variation and the spread of new linguistic features

Preliminary reading

Crystal, D. 2004. The stories of English. London: Allen Lane (Penguin Books).
Harley, T. A. 2008 [1995]. The psychology of language: From data to theory. Hove: Psychology Press.
Holmes, J. 2001 [1992]. An introduction to sociolinguistics. London: Longman.
Mesthrie, R., Swann, J., Deumert, A., & Leap, W. L. 2000. Introducing sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Smith, N. & Tsimpli, I. M. 1995. The mind of a savant: Language learning and modularity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Yang, Charles. 2006. The infinite gift: How children learn and unlearn the languages of the world. New York: Scribner.

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