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The Language Lifecycle: Genesis, Expansion, and Death

TESC/E&W Studies/Spring ‘11


Instructor: Richard McKinnon, Ph.D.

Course Description: Languages are often talked about as if they were living
organisms, and in this course we’ll investigate that metaphor by examining the
lifecycle of languages, i.e., how they are born, grow, and ultimately die. Our
investigations will lead us through the areas of psychology, linguistics, language
policy, identity politics, and cultural diversity.
Required Readings: Articles posted weekly on course website.
Course Website:
Course Objectives: By the end of the quarter, participants will:
● be familiar with the biological basis for language in humans and its status as
an evolved mechanism of the mind,
● have an understanding of the economic and political factors that can lead to
the creation of novel languages and the expansion or loss of existing
● appreciate of the value of cultural diversity that is entailed in linguistic
heterogeneity, and an appreciate what is lost when that diversity disappears.
Course Activities: Participants will produce 5 response writings (not less than 750
words in length) during the quarter. The response writing will address a specific
issue raised in the readings or discussions, and may begin with a brief quote or
summary of an argument from the readings. On the weeks that participants do not
submit a response piece, they will make a substantive comment on the writing of a
peer. A forum will be available on the website where participants will post response
writings or comments for each week. Finally, participants will produce an end-of-
quarter project in the form of a creation of (or substantial contribution to) a
Wikipedia entry concerning some aspect of the language lifecycle. This project will
include readings beyond those provided in the course materials. Participants may
form groups to complete the Wikipedia project. Participant’s work will be evaluated
on the following components:
● Contribution to class discussion of readings (Moodle and in-class).
● Completion of response writings.
● Independent research of journal articles and book chapters.
● Completion of Wikipedia project.
● Completion of a peer-reviewed self-assessment.
Course Schedule
*All readings should be completed before class on the week they are assigned.*

Topic: Readings:
Week 1: Introduction: What is language? Pinker
Video: With and Without Words

Week 2: Sugar and the Slave Trade Labov, Stewart

Video: Big Sugar

Week 3: From Pidgin to Creole Bickerton, Kegl

Video: Do you Speak American (pt. 1)

Week 4: The Bioprogram Hypothesis Bickerton

Video: Jonathan Miller

Week 5: Language Policy in North America and Europe Schmidt, Patten,

Video: Blood and Belonging

Week 6: The Economics of Language Imperialism Grin,


Week 7: A World Language? Crystal


Week 8: Language Decline


Week 9: Language Death Crystal, Baumeister


Week 10: Projects


*All readings should be read before class on the week they are assigned.*