Human language should be one of the most interesting subjects – it is something we all share and one of the things that makes us human. In this seminar, we will study how and why languages vary and change – over time, over distance, and socially. We will go from Universal Grammar to fantastic diversity.

Why don’t we all speak the same language? Why is English different to Japanese? Why are English and German similar? Why is American English different to British English? Why do women and men speak differently in Japan? And what does children learning language have to do with language change? We will examine all of these questions in this seminar.

The first semester will be an introduction covering topics such as language and the brain, and how children learn language. We will also look at the sounds of English (phonology), the building blocks of words (morphology), the meaning of language (semantics and pragmatics), and how sentences are generated (syntax). All these parts of language can change.

Then we will examine how and why languages change over time – in particular English. This is called historical linguistics. We will trace the changes in English back to closely related languages like German, Dutch and Swedish. Then we will go even further back in time. We will discover how English is related to languages such as Russian, Hindi, Persian and Greek, and we will try to explain why Japanese is different to English.

We will also explore English accents and dialects. We will look at English in the UK and Ireland, the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa and the Caribbean. You will learn to recognise the differences between these varieties. Then, we will study variation in languages of the world, looking at language families in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Why are there 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the world rather than one? You will have the chance to compare languages from Arabic to Zulu – examining how they vary and, importantly, how they are all similar.

One further important way language can vary is socially – whether socioeconomically in British English, between black and white in American English, or between men and women in Japanese and other languages. We will look at all these types of sociolinguistic variation.

At the end of the two years, I hope you will have a deeper and broader understanding of both the universality of human language and how and why languages change. The language of the seminar will be English, so you will have plenty of opportunity to speak, read and write in English.