The courses offered by the Department of Linguistics place an emphasis on linguistic theory, historical linguistics, and the cognitive aspects related to language.

Linguistic Theory

Every normal child learns a language between the ages of one and five. Linguistic theory seeks to characterize this knowledge explicitly and to account for the ease and speed with which humans acquire it. Since the bulk of the knowledge that enables us to speak and use language is unconscious, most people are unaware of its almost unbelievable complexity and richness. Nor is it obvious to the casual observer that the underlying structures of languages as superficially different as English, Zulu, and Navajo are deeply and fundamentally the same.

The traditional branches of linguistic theory are syntax, the study of sentence structure; phonology, the study of the sounds and sound systems; morphology, the study of word structure; and semantics, the study of meaning.

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Historical Linguistics

All languages change over time, sometimes giving rise to one or more daughter languages and, eventually, to families of related languages. Depending on their specific interests, historical linguists may investigate the processes and principles by which language change occurs, or study the documented history of individual languages, or try to recover the prehistory of language families by using the “comparative method” to reconstruct the unattested common parent of a set of attested daughter languages. A much-studied example of a reconstructed language is “Proto-Indo-European,” the parent language of the family that includes most of the ancient and modern languages of Europe (including English) and northern India.


Since language is a distinctively human characteristic, the study of language provides an important take-off point for investigating the complexities of the human mind/brain. Linguistics spearheaded the “cognitive revolution” in the 1950s and has occupied a privileged position in debates on cognitive issues ever since. At Harvard, the Mind/Brain/Behavior (MBB) Initiative was founded to help faculty in distinct research areas collaborate on projects making use of emerging techniques in neuroscience. One such technique, brain imaging, has long been of interest to linguists; newer experimental work is establishing connections between linguistic theory and language processing, language acquisition, language use, spatial and social cognition, evolutionary psychology and biology, and neuroscience.

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