Topic outline

  • General

    Studies of the emergence of language focus on the evolutionary and developmental factors that affect the acquisition and auto-organization of a linguistic system. Emergent accounts of language emphasize the extent to which a complex set of communicative behaviors and forms arise from a few simple mechanisms. Thus, they essentially describe moments in time when non-linguistic systems become linguistic. Language development is divided into distinct stages, where the appearance of one property depended on another that preceded it. Identifying structures within emerging systems allows us to analyze interdependencies and contraints imposed by linguistic developments. Naturally, the study of the origin and emergence of language is a highly interdisciplinary endeavor. Recent advances in the brain and cognitive sciences spurred a surge of scientific interest in language emergence, with evidence coming from comparative psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and theoretical linguistics. This seminar will survey a cross-section of modern theories, methods and research pertaining to the emergence of language from an evolutionary and human perspective.



    Please click on this link to get to the summary of your responses:

      Thanks for participating! 




    Midterm and final exams are cancelled.

    Please see the new sections (left) on Grading, Oral presentations, and term papers. 

    Important: If you send me your presentation file by Monday, May 25, 2020, it will count as a timely submission.


    Syllabus (will be updated weekly)
    Lesson 1

    Preview of the course: goals, readings, requirements, grading. 

    Introduction: Review of key concepts for the study of language, cognition, and emergence 


    Lesson 2

    Evolution of the language brain

    Required reading: 

    Luef, E. M. (2018). Tracing the human brain’s classical language areas in extant and extinct hominids. In E. M. Luef & M. M. Marin (Eds.), The talking species: Perspectives on the evolutionary, neuronal and cultural foundations of language(pp. 29-56). Graz: Uni-Press.


    Lesson 3

    What birdsong can tell us about human language

    Required reading: 

    Berwick, R. C., Okanoya, K., Beckers, G. J. L., & Bolhuis, J. J. (2011). Songs to syntax: The linguistics of birdsong. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15/3, 113-121.  

    Optional reading:  

    Steele, L. (2017). Human language is a culturally evolving system. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24, 190-193

    Searcy, W. A. & Nowicki, S. (2019). Birdsong learning, avian cognition, and the evolution of language. Animal Behavior, 151, 217-227. 


    Lesson 4

    Language from the viewpoint of Darwinian selection processes

    Required reading: 

    Whitfield, J. (2008). Across the curious parallel between language and species evolution. PLoS Biology,6/7, 1370-1372. 

    Optional reading:  

    Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13/4, 707-784. 

    Progovac, L. (2020). Natural/ sexual selection: What's language (evolution) got to do with it? Yearbook of the Poznan Linguistic Meeting, 5, 35-58. 

    'Sexual Selection and the Mind', Interview with Geoffrey Miller (2020)


    Lesson 5


    Apes and grammar

    Required reading: 

    Hixson, M. C. (1998). Ape language research: A review and behavioral perspective. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 15, 17-39. 

    Optional reading:  

    Kersken, V., Gomez, J. C., Liszkowski, U. Soldati, A. & Hobaiter, C. (2018). A gestural repertoire of 1- to 2-year old human children: In search of the ape gestures. Animal Cognition, 22, 577-595. 

    Corballis, C. (2009). The evolution of language. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156, 19-43. 


    Lessons 6 & 7


    What exactly is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it? 

    The shrinking 'language faculty'

    Required reading

    Dabrowska, E. (2015). What exactly is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it? Frontiers in Psychology, 6, DOI:

    Jackendoff, R. (2011). What is the human language faculty? Two views. Language, 87/3, 586-624. 


    Lesson 8

    Analysing recursion in animal calls: Phrase-structures in humpback whale songs. 

    New Scientist article:

    Ellen C. GarlandLuke RendellLuca LamoniM. Michael PooleMichael J.Noad (2017). Song hybridization events during revolutionary song change provide insights into cultural transmission in humpback whales. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 

    Allen, J. A., Garland, E. C., Dunlop, R. A. & Noad, M. J. (2018). Cultural revolutions reduce complexity in the songs of humpback whales. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 285, 20182088.


    Lesson 9

    The relation of human language to human emotion 


    Lesson 10

    Student presentations: Students upload and share links of their recorded presentations with the class


    Lesson 11

    Student presentations: Students upload and share links of their recorded presentations with the class


    Lesson 12

    Student presentations: Students upload and share links of their recorded presentations with the class

    • Grading

      • Attendance (i.e., doing the online lessons, not missing more than 3) = 20%
      • Oral presentation = 40%
      • Term paper = 40%


      your assigned nbr Mar 16 Mar 23 Mar 30 Apr 06 Apr 20 presentation
      23  x  x  x  x    
      24  x  x  well done  well done  well done  done
      25  x  x  x  x    
      26  well done  well done  well done  well done  well done  done
      27  well done  well done  well done  well done  well done  done


      Notes week Apr 6:

      The annotation in Praat should be aligned with the sound appearing on the spectrogram. The dark bands on the spectrogram show the sound and then boundaries for a phrase or segment can start right when the dark bands start. But so far everyone has done a good job with the annotations! 



        The oral presentations will take place as scheduled but in digital format. The requirements stay the same as we discussed at the beginning of the semester (choose your own topic, prepare well, length 20 min. etc.). Presentation dates are May 4 and 11 and there will be no class activities during these weeks. The latest date by which you should have uploaded/ link-shared your presentation with the class is May 11, 2020. 

        You are required to watch all presentations that were uploaded/ shared by your classmates before the semester ends. 


        Digital presentation

        Here are some of the options you have:

        • Do a screencast of a powerpoint presentation. This is possible when you are using Powerpoint 2013 and later. You can record your voice while going through PPT slides (probably the easiest way). You can only record your voice or also broadcast a video of yourself - that's up to you. Alternatively, you can use QuickTime Player (free download) to do a screen recording (under File -> New Screen Recording). 
        • Record yourself with a video/ laptop camera or cell phone camera while giving your powerpoint presentation on your home computer. This way, we get a video of you giving the presentation. 
        • Audio-record yourself using an audio recorder on your laptop or cell phone while giving the presentation and provide the ppt slides separately for us. 
        • I am sure there are other options available and you are free to choose the technology that best suits your needs. 


        There are essentially two options:  

          • (a) either create a video plus audio file, so that we can hear you talk and see your slides at the same time. 
          • (b) or only create an audio file of yourself giving the presentation and upload the ppt slides separately. In this case, you need to add slide numbers on the ppt and then, as you talk, indicate which slide you are talking about (e.g., by saying: “now to slide number 3”). This will make it easier for your classmates and me to follow the presentation.


        Once you have made a recording of your presentation, you can decide to upload your file on a platform (e.g. Google Drive, Youtube) and share the link with the class in MOODLE. Alternatively, you can record your presentation in Youtube/ Teams directly and then post a link to it on MOODLE. Ondrej Tichy is the contact person if you have technical questions about where to post your presentation.

        If you choose the option to only record audio (in mp3) and upload your ppt slides separately, this could be done on MOODLE if your files are under 20MB.

        If you have trouble finding a solution for your online presentation, please contact me via email. 



          A major part of your grade is based on a term paper. It should focus on a topic appropriate to this course. This can be the topic of your class presentation, or you can choose a new topic. 

          Length should be no more than 10 pages, excluding references/ bibliography and illustrations. The minimum is 6 full pages. Pagination begins with cover page. 

          Submission deadline: September 1, 2020


          Guidelines for writing 

          Papers will be judged on both content and form. You are advised to do the best job you can on both aspects.  

          1. Content: High marks go to papers deriving intelligent generalizations from accurate and appropriate facts (note the combination). Long descriptions are dull and pointless. Generalizations without supporting evidence are worthless. 

          2. Organization: From the beginning, make sure your reader knows what you intend to do and how you intend to do it. The biggest help here is to think of a meaningful title and write a cogent introduction. Then lead the reader through your argument step by step, making sure there are no breaks in your logic.  Use subheadings where necessary to remind the reader where your argument is going. Finally, your conclusion should be written so that your reader is in no doubt as to where you stand and why. 

          3. Documentation: When you borrow facts or ideas from someone else, you must acknowledge the borrowing. Failure to do so is plagiarism; every paper will be checked by a plagiarism tool provided by the university. Papers must include a bibliography or list of references which cites all your sources, and must include citations within the paper for each time you borrow ideas or facts.

          The easiest way to cite a source is in line with the text rather than with footnotes. This approach uses the author(s) name(s), followed by a year if there is more than one piece by the same person(s) in one year, followed by a page number. If documentation is seriously flawed or absent I will return your paper without grade or comment and you will be asked to supply missing documentation. Please see details below for information on the citation style. 

          4. English: English is not my native language and it may not be yours. Regardless, I have a high regard for it and have no patience with its abuse. Careful attention to formal English will pay dividends. 

          Style: If you have doubts about your writing style, get a copy of Strunk and White's handbook, The Elements of Style, available here: Read it carefully and pay attention to it. 

          Mechanics: Your writing should be grammatical and correctly punctuated. Use a dictionary to check doubtful spelling and a thesaurus to select the best word in case you have any doubts. I expect you to do your own proofreading and correct typographical errors. If you use a word processor, there are tools for spell-checking and grammar and you should use them. 

          NOTE: You can avoid a lot of trouble by making a careful outline. Revise the outline as needed, well before you begin writing. Then, when you do write, expect to make a first draft, a second draft and as many successive ones as you need, before you finally site down to put together the polished finished paper. There is no such thing as a good first draft paper. If you leave a few days between drafts, it makes it easier to find errors and awkwardnesses in the writing. Carefully edit your paper before you submit your final version. You should plan to start work early and not let things wait until the last week! 

          5. Illustrations: Geographic writing is often clarified by using photographs, sketches or maps. Three things: A. Use illustrations because you need them, not for window dressing. B. Illustrations are seldom self explanatory. You will almost always need captions to tell the reader what to look for, notice, and learn. Take care with them as with any other kind of writing. C. When you use illustrations, you are trying to get across an idea. Anything that helps is good, anything that interferes is bad. 

          6. Formatting guidelines:  

          Page 1                                      Cover page with complete author’s information (name, registration number, seminar title and semester, teacher, title of the paper

          Page 2                                     Table of contents 

          Page 3 and following               Introduction, main parts, conclusion 

          Starting on page 8 or later        List of references (follows the Conclusion)


          Formatting the text

          -       Font and font size:       Times New Roman (12 pt), Arial (11 pt), or Tahoma (11 pt).

          -       Line spacing:               1.5

          -       Margins right/left:        (standards in MS Word) 2.5–3.0 cm; top: 2.5 cm; bottom: 2.0 cm


          Structuring the paper and your argument

          -       Your paper should have a title that succinctly describes your subject.

          -       The introduction introduces the subject of the paper and outlines the paper’s relevance to the seminar. In addition, it discusses the question(s) and perspective(s) the subject involves for you, as well as how you will approach the subject (major steps in the development of your argument).

          -       The main parts of your paper present a systematic discussion of your subject, including relevant theoretical and methodical approaches and debates, or empirical results (if you are doing a research-based paper). Use sub-headings for sub-topics (or chapters). 

          • Begin your literature review with one or two paragraphs telling the reader where you are going. Briefly introduce each of your chapters. What was your rationale behind choosing these particular chapters? 
            • The easiest way to quickly find literature on a particular subject is to use Google Scholar and type in your search terms. This will give you a list of academic publications (journal articles, book chapters, books etc.) on a particular topic. You will be able to read abstracts of publications, which will give you a good idea of whether a publication is useful for your term paper. Often, you get a free PDF for download.
            • The so-called snowball method is also useful and you start with the list of references included in a book, essay or encyclopedia article and then you parse the lists of references included in the referenced work to find more sources, and so on. Books and journal articles are particularly useful when using this method. 
            • Journal articles are another important and useful resources for term papers and should not be ignored. Journal articles can quickly respond to and discuss recent developments within the discipline, and they often address issues that are not addressed in the form of monographs. They can be concise summaries of discussions, provide overviews of the current state of the research and usually include extensive lists of references. By comparing the lists of references of a number of different articles, it is possible to determine which publications are the most relevant to a given subject.
          • Write up each chapter by connecting it back to the introductory statements you made at the beginning.
          • Every paper has a distinct conclusion that presents the results of your paper. To do so, you should return to the research question and summarize your findings. You should also try to put your results in a wider context in order to show how your paper contributes to the research literature. You can conclude your paper with a discussion of open questions or critical considerations (e.g. regarding an approach that was particularly important in your argument).


          -       Try to write as clearly and succinctly as possible. Always introduce novel concepts and theories with a specific purpose in mind and for a good reason. Sentences – that is, your thoughts – should follow a logical order and reflect the development of your argument. Try to connect the different parts of your argument and put ideas in relation to other ideas that you mentioned earlier. This makes the text easier to read and your argument easier to understand. 

          -       When you cite arguments of another author, use indirect speech or other unambiguous rhetorical devices (e.g. “According to Chomsky, universal grammar can be described as…” or  “To Chomsky, universal grammar is…”) to make sure the reader knows you are citing the other author’s perspective. Please use direct speech when you write about your own thoughts – for example, when you summarize what was previously said, suggest an alternative perspective or criticize authors or approaches (e.g. “In summary,…”, “However, we can overcome this conceptual impasse by following the explanation proposed by Chomsky…”, “In the following, I will deviate from this view in several ways…”). By using direct and indirect speech, rhetorical emphasis and paragraphs that structure the text, you can visually distinguish other authors’ ideas from your own and develop logical and coherent arguments.

          -       Every term paper should be subdivided into paragraphs, because paragraphs reflect how your text is organized. To ensure your text can be read as one consistent, integrated structure, paragraphs should be of reasonable length and have a reasonable structure. They should therefore contain more than one sentence. Use as many sub-heading and chapters as you need in your term paper but keep in mind that each sub-heading should contain at least 3 paragraphs. 


          Citation style

          Please use APA Style (see here, here, or here


          It is very important that you do your citations correctly! There are two ways to make sure you are doing this right:

          1. Go to an online guide and follow it strictly. 

          2. Use citation software. Here, you have many options but two are frequently used in academia: 

          a) Endnote 

          b) Zotero:  


          These are programs that find references on Google Scholar or any library database for you and automatically record all the necessary information and, often, copy the entire document. Then, using a word processor, they will put the citation into your document using any preferred style (for example, APA) and then create a reference list using any preferred style (such as APA).  This way, you never lose a reference and never deviate from APA style. 

          Zotero is free, Endnote is provided by most universities. I highly recommend you download one of the two, get used to using it and use it from the beginning of your research.  It will save you a lot of time in the end.


          • Apes and grammar


            General information about the class

            This is an online class. 

            You are required to do three tasks. First, answer a number of questions that stem from your homework reading assignment (Hixson, 1998). Second, read a short scientific opinion piece on ape-language learning and compare it to data from studies on Kanzi (S. Savage-Rumbaugh). Reflect on how the two pieces can scientifically be united. Third, watch two short videos (parts 1 and 2 of a documentary on Kanzi, total: 30 min.) and answer some questions related to them. 

            Please type your answers to steps 1, 2, and 3 on a computer and send them to me in an email (as one PDF file) by Friday, March 20, 2020. If I do not receive your document by that deadline, you will be marked as 'absent' for this class. 

            The following text is the required reading assignment for next week: 

            Dabrowska, E. (2015). What exactly is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it? Frontiers in Psychology, 6

            If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact me any time via email. 





            Step 1, Class reading, Hixson, 1998

            Please answer the following questions about the text you read for homework (Hixson, 1998): 

            1. Briefly summarize each ape-language project described in the article. 

                                                           i.     Focus on the specific linguistic skills the apes learned/ were not able to learn. 

                                                         ii.     What exactly were the strategies to teach language to the apes? 

                                                        iii.     How far did the apes get in terms of syntax? 

            2. How do apes compare to human children in terms of linguistic cognition? 

            3. What could be the role of conditioning (or reward-based behavioral reinforcement) in apes learning language?  




            Step 2, Science opinion piece, Kanzi data

            Read the following short text from Science Magazine and study the table below where sentences directed at Kanzi are listed (taken from “Project Kanzi” by S. Savage-Rumbaugh): 














            Would you please carry the straw?

            Would you like to ball chase?

            Would you put some grapes into the pool?

            Let's chase to the A-frame.

            Kanzi, chase Kelly.

            I hid the surprise by my foot. 

            Kanzi, the pinecone goes in your shirt.

            Go to the refrigerator and get a tomato.

            Jeannine hid the pine needles in her shirt. 

            Kanzi, please carry the cooler to Penny.

            Go play with the dogs on the childside.

            Write approx. half a page (1 page max.) addressing the following question: 

            What can you say about Kanzi’s syntactical abilities? How can the findings in the article be reconciled with data from Kanzi’s perceptive language abilities? 




            Step 3, watch ape-language documentary

            Watch the 2 videos (parts 1 and 2 of a documentary, total: 30 min.) and answer the questions that you find below in a few sentences each. 

            1.  Explain the manner by which Kanzi (and other apes) communicate lexical (and possibly syntactical) items to human experimenters. 

            2. What are the reasons for this particular methodology? 

            3. What is your opinion on ape-language learning? Do you believe ape and human linguistic skills are closely related, with apes possessing the rudimentary foundation of language? Or do you believe the complexity of human language indicates that its structures are unique to humans?  

          • Universal Grammar and The Shrinking Language Faculty

            General information about the classes

            This topic spans two class sessions (weeks 6 and 7). 

            You are required to do three tasks. First, answer questions with regards to your reading assignment (Dabrowska). Second, watch a lecture of Noam Chomsky and take notes in order to answer some questions on the topic of an innate language faculty. Third, read an article by Ray Jackendoff and answer some questions here, too. 

            Please type your answers to steps 1, 2, and 3 on a computer and send them to me in an email (as one PDF file) by Friday, April 3, 2020. For you to be marked as 'present' for both lessons, you have do all three tasks. If I only receive the answers to the reading assignment (Dabrowska) and either the Chomsky lecture or the Jackendoff assignment, you will be marked as present for one lesson. 

            If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact me any time via email. 


            Step 1, Class reading, Dabrowska, 2015

            1. What are her main criticisms of Universal Grammar (UG)? Summarize each point in 1-2 sentences. 


            Step 2, Chomsky lecture

            Watch the lecture by Noam Chomsky. It is quite long (1h, 47m) but very interesting. Then address the following question: 

            1. What are his main points as to why there is an innate language faculty? Explain each briefly.


            Step 3,  Jackendoff assignment

            Read the text by Jackendoff "What is the human language faculty? Two views" (attached below) and answer the following questions:

            1.  In what ways has the concept of UG been changed (or minimized) in terms of the features it contains?

            2. What was the motivation/ reasoning behind those conceptual changes? 

            3. Briefly describe some of the conceptual changes in more detail. 

          • Phrase structure in whale songs: Evidence for recursion?


            I recognize that this course so far has covered a wide range of materials and has required a lot of reading from you. So, for this week, I have planned an activity-based lesson that is (I hope) a little bit of fun. 

            The topic of your assigned reading was recursion and recursive elements in language, and this week we are analyzing recursive elements in whale songs. We (probably) won’t be able to resolve the debate over whether whales show true recursion or whether the elements in their songs are just plain repetitions (for further information on this debate see and But the exercise has two aims: First, you will acquire some experience in the use of acoustic programs (open-source Praat) and the interpretation of spectrograms. The basics are fairly easy and some of you might already know how to use Praat. Second, you will learn some techniques for recognizing and analyzing recursive elements in vocal utterances of non-human animals. Since whale songs are famously complex (e.g., they provide good models for recursion analysis. 


            Start this lesson by downloading Praat ( on your computer. It is open-source and rather small. Once you open it, it should open two windows (on main and one picture). Here is a beginner’s guide to how to operate Praat You can find many introductions to Praat on Youtube, if you prefer video tutorials. 


            Load the whale song files into Praat by clicking on Open --> Read from File (or alternatively --> Open Long Sound File) in the main window. The songs are labelled “Humpback #1” and “Humpback #2” and are attached below. 


            In the Praat window, click on "View and Edit" (second on the right) and a new window will open with a sound wave. On it, use your cursor to mark a portion of less than 10 seconds in order for the spectrogram to be displayed (for longer files, the spectrogram will not be displayed). Please watch the following tutorial video to see how to open files, display spectrograms, and annotate them (which will be the next step for you). 




            Identify one phrase type in each whale song and annotate them in Praat. A phrase is defined as two or more elements in combination (A+B). Naturally, it has to be the same elements in the same order to be counted as one phrase type (so A+B is one phrase type, A+C is a different phrase type). Now find two separate occurrences of your phrase type per song (it should be a recurring phrase within a song) and annotate them in Praat. 

            When you annotate as shown in the video above (Annotate --> To TextGrid), select as “All Tier Names” Phrase and Segment (typed with only a space inbetween). We need two tiers: in the first you mark the length of the phrase, and in the second you annotate the individual segments. Don’t type in anything where it says “Which of these are point tiers?” The first tier (Phrase) marks the beginning and end of the entire phrase, the second tier (Segment) should identify individual segments within the phrase. Please take a look at the example that I annotated and attached below entitled “Whale Annotation Example”. 

            It can be tricky to distinguish the echo from the call. I thought that the phrase was two segments, but some people might consider it as three. You don’t have to annotate perfectly, just try and do it as well as you can. 

             So, your work is similar to what the guy in the Youtube video is doing, only you annotate phrases and segments of whales, while he annotated words and vowels of people. 


            Important: When you save your annotation (TextGrid) file, keep the name that Praat suggests for it. You should send me the TextGrid files for homework and if you keep the original file name, I can open the files easily. 


            It is probably best if you first listen to the song and try to identify phrases by listening (you can do that in Praat). Once you have identified a phrase within a song, zoom in on the portion of the call and look at the spectrogram. For your phrase, you should find two examples within the song. Do that for each of the two song )=total of four phrases in two songs). 


            If anything is unclear, please don’t hesitate to write to me. If you have difficulty downloading Praat or opening the files, let me know. 


            Please send me your two TextGrid files with the annotation as an email attachment by Friday, April 10, 2020. 


            There will be no reading for next week. 



            Note: For those of you who haven’t done it yet, please go to the class survey I sent out a few days ago to rate the contents and work load of the class. 


          • The relation of language to human emotion


            Today’s lesson consists of two tasks. First, read a short summary of a science article about semantic processing of emotions in different languages; second, discuss the translation/ semantic equivalency of some emotion words in English and Czech (or your native language).


            Step 1. Read the summary of a study on emotions in different languages. Here is the link (below I have attached the PDF of it): 



            Step 2. Consider the following English emotion terms:

            -       Surprise

            -       Fear/ fright

            -       Anxiety

            -       Danger

            -       Grief

            -       Pity

            -       Regret

            -       Pain

            -       Bad luck


            Please provide a translation for each term in Czech (or your native language) and discuss (for each term) whether the semantic content/ meaning is the same in Czech/ your native language as in English. 2-3 sentences per word should be fine (unless you have more to say – then feel free to write for longer). 

            You may want to do some research on the exact connotations of these terms in English, maybe using a corpus or Google and typing in the English terms to see in which sentences and with which meaning they tend to be used in English. Then, compare your translation and discuss whether your translation term can be used in identical or similar contexts. Discuss possible and interesting differences between the English and Czech/ your native language words.  


            Please send me your homework as .docx or PDF file by Friday, April 24, 2020

          • Student presentations

            Small audio files have been embedded in each ppt slide. Please click on the audio sign as you access each slide.  Should you have problems opening/ listening to one of the presentations, please contact me. For questions concerning the content of a presentation, please contact your respective classmate.