SEL1007: The Nature of Language

NOTE: *all* assignments for this module are submitted and marked ELECTRONICALLY, with no hard-copy at all. This is also the *only* time you will use Blackboard for this module.

Hypothesis-Testing Sketch (DUE 17th October)

The sketch is worth 10% of the semester mark.

It can be about any language-related topic, but think about this carefully, and try to relate it to material in some module you're taking concurrently (e.g. 1027). There are examples posted on the lecture schedule site.

Please see LECTURE 1 for instructions.

Mid-Module Essay/Outline (DUE 14th November)

This written exercise is worth 30% of the total semester mark.

It is *not* a full essay, and is intended to help you learn how to structure a language/linguistics essay in the scientific style. It will include an Introduction which describes a hypothesis and summarizes the rest of the essay's content, a number of section headings which show the sections that would be in a full essay. You don't have to write these sections out, but include 1-2 bullet points per section saying the sort of evidence you'd include.

Please see LECTURE 5 for more instructions, and topics (note that these are subject to change until the lecture is delivered).

Final Essay 2017-2018

This module is partially assessed by a final essay. The essay is roughly 1750 words long, but you can write more if you'd like. It should be submitted electronically between 10am and 3pm on Thursday, 11th January, 2018. It counts as 60% of the total mark for SEL1007.

You should choose ONE of the essay topics listed below.

The essay will be marked for BOTH form and content. The format for the essay is the scientific article format, just like in the mid-module essay (see Lecture 5 for details). As before, once you choose a question, you should pick a hypothesis based on the question. The hypothesis is going to be tested, and you are going to say if it is supported or falsified by the evidence you present. If you do not feel you have enough evidence to tell, then you can describe how you would test the hypothesis if you had enough time, resources, etc., and then explain what sort of data, resulting from the experiment(s), would falsify or support your hypothesis. You are also encouraged to use some material (e.g. concepts, evidence, or anything you want) from the lectures that are indicated next to the question.

These essay questions are both difficult and broad, and they are intended to do two things: 1) test your ability to integrate different types of information in thinking about language, and 2) give you considerable freedom in doing so. There are no strictly right or strictly wrong answers, as long as your answer is logical, coherent, and supported by evidence. There are answers that are well-thought out and answers that are poorly developed, answers which present evidence coherently and answers which are self-contradictory, and there are answers that are clearly written and answers that written unclearly. Keep in mind that you are trying to communicate as directly and clearly as possible with the reader. Being forceful is fine. However, trying to sound overly fancy (or even pompous) can impede communication, and runs the risk of annoying the reader. (A good rule of thumb is: put yourself in the reader's position as you write, and always try to avoid annoying the reader.)

Joel will be available in our offices during the remaining seminar time in Weeks 11 and 12 for personal tuition relating to the essays or any other course material. We will also be happy to recommend outside reading, should you wish it (it is not obligatory).


  1. How much is language change like the spread of a virus? Also mention language acquisition and sociolinguistic variation in your answer.
    (You may want to think about Lectures 4, 6-8)

  2. Where would you place language variation in the mental grammar of speakers? Is there a way to combine the facts about variation with a computational theory of the linguistic system?
    (You may want to think about Lectures 2, 3, and 7 or 9)

  3. Is complex social cognition necessary for human language to evolve? How do you know?
    (You may want to think about Lectures 9-10)

  4. Is the human mind just a very complex computer? How would you go about programming a computer to produce and understand a language (give as many details as you can)?
    (You may want to think about Lectures 2, 3, and 10 or 11)

  5. How could we use animal communication systems, or animal models in general, to learn things about language change and sociolinguistic variation?
    (You may want to think about Lectures 6-9)

  6. Go back to the Feynman reading from Seminar 1. Is linguistics a science? Can you illustrate the types of scientific thinking Feynman talks about with examples from the study of human language?
    (You may want to think about Lecture 1 and the Feynman reading, and Lectures 3 and/or 7, 8, or 9)

  7. Does the language faculty (e.g. language processing for perception/comprehension, and language processing for production) operate more like an analog computer, or more like a digital computer, like a mixed analog-digital computer, or like something non-computational?
    (You may want to think about Lecture 2, and any number of other lectures)

  8. FEEDBACK From Mid-Module Essay-Outline 2017-18

    1. Good job on understanding the basic structure of a scientific essay!

    2. Most important critique: don't plagiarize. DON'T DO IT. Don't copy words into your essays from anywhere else without quotation marks and a citation. Cite ideas that are not yours. Do not copy from each other. We will catch you, and that will have consequences. It will hurt my feelings. It will not dispose me well to you in the future.

    3. Make sure your essay progresses an argument/test-of-hypothesis throughout the whole essay, section by section. This means that every section relates back to the hypothesis, and to each other, and that they're in a reasonable order. The introduction should summarize the whole argument, as it says what will be in each section. Do not just put information in the sections and expect the reader to find the connections between the pieces of information; it is YOUR job to find the connections and explain them.

    4. Past Years' FEEDBACK From Mid-Module Essay

      1. The essays have mostly been very good, and students are understanding the basic structure of a scientific essay.
        Some have been very creative, too, so good job!

      2. Please, please separate different sentences with full-stops. (Note that "however" is an adverb, not a conjunction.) So, don't do this:

        "Language change can begin through language acquisition errors however some changes have other sources."

        This is ANNOYING to read. Please do this, instead:

        "Language change can begin through language acquisition errors. However, some changes have other sources."

      3. Students should make sure they know what every word means when they use it. Some students are still trying to use overly fancy words, with the result that they are sometimes using words that do not mean what they think the words mean. If you are unsure what a word means, look it up.

      4. If you are not sure if you're expressing something as clearly as possible, then try these two things:
        a. Try reading the passage out loud, to yourself or another person.
        b. Give the passage to another student to read, and see if they can understand what you're trying to say; ask them to paraphrase it to you (and/or get them to read it aloud!). Note that people will be willing to do this for you, if you do it for them!
        (In fact, it would be good if all of you try this, even if you don't think you are having trouble.)

      5. Students should make sure that they are stating their hypothesis clearly right in the Introduction, and stating whether the hypothesis is supported or falsified also in the Introduction. These should both also be stated in the Conclusion.

      6. Do not argue both sides of a hypothesis. The scientific essay is not a debate. A single hypothesis cannot be simultaneously falsified and not falsified. For instance, it is impossible for "associationism to provide an adequate account" and also for "associationism to not provide an adequate account". This is just a contradiction. If the hypothesis is falsified by *any* data, say so. Otherwise, say how the evidence supports it. If you cannot tell whether it is falsified or not, say that you cannot tell (that is ok, and it happens all the time in science).

      7. Please make sure to cite your sources for ideas, BOTH in the body of the text and in the References section at the end.

      8. Please do not EVER make up fake data. If you have an idea for an experiment but do not have the resources to carry it out, it is fine to describe the experiment, and then describe how the data *might* come out. That is all fine if you say that clearly. However, do not make up data and present it as if you actually gathered the data by doing the experiment if you did not really do the experiment.