The Phonological Mind

Iris Berent – Northeastern University
Course time: Monday/Wednesday 1:30-3:20 pm
2325 Mason Hall

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All human languages construct words from meaningless elements—either speech sounds (in spoken languages) or manual gestures (in signed linguistic systems).  Not only are phonological patterns evident in every known human language, but they even emerge anew, in the systems generated spontaneously in the homes of deaf signers and in newly emerging languages.  Why do humans engage in phonological patterning? And what mechanisms support our capacity to extend our phonological reflexes to novel forms?

This course addresses these questions from a broad interdisciplinary perspective. We consider evidence from diverse sources, ranging from linguistic analysis to experimental studies of humans, comparative animal work, neurological evidence, genetic studies and computational simulations of language evolution. Select issues include:

  • Specialization and innateness: What is an innate specialized cognitive system?

  • Generalizations: What computational mechanisms support phonological generalizations? Do they exhibit the capacity for discrete infinity?

  • Design. Are there constraints on the design of phonological systems—actual and potential? What is the nature of such restrictions: do they concern language, broadly, or speech, specifically?

  • Hardware: What genes and brain “hardware” regulate the phonological system? Is this hardware specialized for language?

  • Ontogeny: Are some phonological precursors present at birth?

  • Phylogeny: What components of the phonological mind are shared with our evolutionary ancestors? How did the human capacity for phonological patterning evolve?

  • Phonological technologies. Unlike language, reading and writing are “linguistic technologies” that emerge (sometimes spontaneously) on the basis of linguistic principles. Why is reading based on phonology? And why do reading disorders impair speech perception?

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