Language Variation and Thought

John A. Lucy – University of Chicago
Course time: Tuesday/Thursday 3:30-5:20 pm
2407 Mason Hall

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This course will explore research on the significance of natural language variation in shaping human thought.  The first unit of the course provides essential background by introducing historical and conceptual perspectives on the relation of language and reality that continue to shape our understanding of language variation and by surveying early work in anthropology (Boas, Sapir, Whorf) and psychology (Brown, Lenneberg, Carroll) linking language variation to thought.  Classic topics involving lexical forms denoting “color” and “snow” will be discussed critically.  The second unit reviews and contrasts prominent contemporary approaches from within anthropological linguistics, including both structure-centered approaches (Lucy et al.) and domain-centered approaches (Levinson et al.), as well as several influential approaches within psychology (Slobin, Boroditsky).  The discussions will highlight both continuities and innovations with respect to earlier work.  The third unit will review recent research extending these approaches to new populations including the deaf, young children, bilinguals, etc.  These approaches not only offer avenues to exploring underlying mechanisms but also open up ways of theorizing the centrality and trade-offs of relying on language in human thought.  The final unit will explore variations in the cultural and institutional regimentation of language-thought relationships, first in the areas of standard language as promulgated through education and literacy, and then within the research enterprise itself in areas involving practical translation, including comparative linguistic research.  Readings will be drawn from many fields but will emphasize classic works that emphasize comparative, developmental, and critical approaches and provide a foundation for further research.  Class time will be divided between general orienting lectures on theoretical issues and close discussion of key empirical works.

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