PLIN0006 Introduction to Language

PLIN0006 is an introductory survey of linguistics taught at UCL and aimed at students on the Psychology & Language Sciences program. The module is focused on natural language phenomena, the methods linguists use to understand them, and the basic findings of the field. The module gives an introduction to the following subareas of linguistics:

  • Phonetics — the physical properties of speech sounds and how they are produced.
  • Phonology — the mental representation of speech sounds and their combinations.
  • Morphology — how the basic meaningful units of language are combined into words.
  • Syntax — how words are combined into phrases and sentences.
  • Semantics — how the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences is computed.

In addition to coverage of the basic areas above, the course spends a few weeks on various topics of linguistic interest, which may vary from year to year. In the past these have included Pragmatics (how sentences are used and interpreted in context), Language Acquisition (how children and adults acquire language), Sociolinguistics (how social context affects language use), Language and the Brain (language disorders and how language is processed in the brain), Animal Communication (how human language differs from other animal communication systems), and others.

The principal aim of the module is to provide students with an understanding of language structure and use, as well as some of the major theoretical issues and themes in linguistics.

Free course materials

While the course is usually taught face-to-face on campus, due to the coronavirus pandemic the 2020/21 version of the module was delivered through a series of video lectures combined with synchronous Q&A sessions and tutorials where students were able to ask questions, work through guided exercises, and receive feedback from their tutors.

The materials on this website are made available as a freely accessible record of the 2020/21 course iteration. You're welcome to use these materials for self-study, to share with others, or to reuse them under the conditions of the CC BY-NC 2.0 licence. Please note however that some of the lectures feature images and passages of sound and film from external sources for which we not hold copyright. These were included on the understanding that this represents fair use within an educational setting in the United Kingdom at the time of authorship. If you choose to use and distribute any content containing such material it is entirely up to you to ensure you have the legal right and/or hold any necessary licenses to do so.

Week 0: Welcome

0.1 Welcome to PLIN0006

Welcome to PLIN0006, Introduction to Language! I'm looking forward to getting to know you over the coming weeks, and to having the opportunity to explore some of the great and fundamental questions about human language with you.

Before we start the course, please go to the moodle forum and introduce yourself, telling us about your name, any languages you speak (and whether they're your first or second language), and what you are most interested in learning about language. You may also add an interesting factoid about yourself if you like ;)

0.2 Preliminaries and how to succeed

In this short video you'll get an outline of all the organisational elements of the course: teaching staff, module aims, workload, textbook, teaching modes, and assessment. Additionally you'll get some tips on how to make the most of your learning journey with this module.

Week 1: Knowledge of Language

1.1 Knowledge of Language

This is the first lecture for PLIN0006 Introduction to Language. We introduce basic notions of linguistics and its object of study: language as a property of the human mind. We then discuss a number of universal and language specific features of human language.

1.2 What is Human Language?

Adding further to our discussion of language as a property of the human mind, in this lecture we clarify further what we mean by that and introduce the notion of the Language Faculty. We then clear up a number of common misconceptions about language and linguistics.

Week 2: Phonetics — the elements of speech

2.1 Phonetics I: Consonants

This week we explore the sounds of language, how they can be transcribed accurately, how the are produced, and how they can be categorised. In this video we first explore the need for a universal, unambiguous transcription system. We then learn about the basic anatomy of the vocal tract and how the consonants of English are produced, transcribed in IPA, and classified according to their articulatory properties.

2.2 Phonetics II: Vowels

After learning about transcription, basic vocal tract anatomy, and the consonants of English in the previous video, we are now taking a look at the vowels of English: how they are produced, how they are transcribed in the IPA, and how they are classified according to their articulatory properties. We also explore some common suprasegmental annotations and introduce the concept of natural classes.

Week 3: Phonology — the grammar of sound

3.1 Phonology I: Features and Underspecification

We continue to explore the sounds of language, this time asking how the sounds of speech are represented in the mind of a speaker. We learn about the distinctive features used to encode speech sounds mentally, the distributions of sounds that allow us to tell distinctive features from those that are predictable, and we'll introduce the idea of underspecification: the hypothesis that speakers only store those features of a sound (or string of sounds) that are necessary to distinguish them from others in their language.

3.2 Phonology II: Rules and Allophones

In this lecture we begin to capitalise on our insights on contrastive and complementary distributions and distinctive features, and introduce the idea of phonemes and allophones. We then explore how the allophonic surface representation of an abstract phoneme stored in long-term memory can be derived by context-sensitive rules.

NB: Please print out a copy of the handout before watching this video (or download it onto a tablet or smartphone).

Week 4: Morphology — the internal structure of words

4.1 Morphology I: Types of Morphemes

Morphemes are the smallest meaningful building blocks of language. For instance, "unbelievable" consists of the three morphemes "un", "believe" and "able". In this video we explore the various types of morphemes and how they can be categorised based on their position and function.

4.2 Morphology II: Allomorphs and Concatenation

We continue our exploration of the building blocks of words, this time looking at the types of processes that morphemes undergo when they are combined into words. First we will explore the distribution of morphemes, and see that just like phonemes, morphemes also show context-sensitivity. We then explore various ways in which words can be formed from morphemes, including linear concatenation, truncation, mutation, and templatic morphology.

Week 5: Syntax — the structure of sentences

5.1 Syntax I: From Words to Phrases

This week we pose the question what it is that speakers know about the sentence structure of their language. In the first video we'll explore how we can use phrases and grammatical categories to account for the fundamental property of unboundedness, which allows us to potentially produce infinitely long sentences, while also accounting for ordering restrictions on words within phrases and sentences.

5.2 Syntax II: Merge, Move, and Universal 20

In this video we take a look at Universal 20, which observes that the possible orderings of the items {Demonstrative, Numeral, Adjective, Noun} within the Noun Phrase are severely restricted across the world's languages. Some of the possible orders are unattested, and believed to be in fact unattestable (i.e. impossible). We discover how we can predict both which orders are possible and which ones are impossible by looking in some more detail at the processes by which words are combined into sentences: merge, move, and pied-piping.

NB: Please print out a copy of the handout before watching this video (or download it onto a tablet or smartphone).

5.3 Syntax III: Constituency and Dependency

In our third video on syntax, we first learn how to identify whether a given substring of a sentence is a constituent or not using a three common constituency tests: displacement, deletion, and substitution. We then have a look at some of the types of dependencies that can exist between different words in a sentence, specifically Subject-Verb-Agreement, Closest Conjunct Agreement, and Reflexives.

Week 6: Linguistic meaning

6.1 Semantics

This week we're taking a look at linguistic meaning, first focusing on Semantics, which aims to model the meaning of words and sentences. In this lecture we'll first discuss some general goals for our model, and then look at how we can use truth conditions and semantic rules to understand the meaning of simple intransitive and transitive clauses. We also discuss the idea of entailment and situational truth, and how tautology, synonymy, and contradictions can all be understood as specific types of entailment relations between a pair of sentences.

6.2 Pragmatics

In this lecture we continue to explore linguistic meaning, but rather than focusing on the truth-conditions of sentences we'll look at how meaning arises from and is influenced by context, what linguists call Pragmatics. We'll explore implicatures and presuppositions and see how contextual meaning depends on the Cooperative Principles and Grice's Maxims of Relevance, Manner, Quantity, Quality.