Linguistics and its Study at Carleton

Linguistics at Carleton

The spring of 2010 marked the beginning of a new era for Carleton Linguistics. In fall 2009, we welcomed a second, full-time, permanent professor to our staff, as well as a third, visiting linguist for the 2009-2010 academic year; in fall 2010, our visitor became a third, full-time, permanent professor. Until spring 2010, linguistics had been a special major at Carleton, meaning that students were required to specially apply to the Academic Standing Committee for permission to follow it. Beginning with the class of 2012, we have been able to offer, for the first time, a regular major in linguistics. Details about the major are found here:

The Linguistics Major 

Students considering majoring in linguistics, should review our procedures for the senior integrative exercise (‘comps’) here.  We think our comps procedure is challenging and (ultimately at least) intellectually satisfying and even fun (most of the time).

We’re extremely excited about the prospect of having a number of students doing advanced work in linguistics at Carleton. We’re eager to build an environment in which students and faculty can together learn amazing things about human language. If you would like to join us, or just have questions about what we do, please contact Professor Michael Flynn at

Philosophy of the Carleton Linguistics Department

Linguistics, as it is construed at Carleton, is the study of the human language faculty, surely the most central capacity of those which constitute human nature. The discipline is driven by two fundamental questions. First, what is it that people know that allows them to deftly use the stupendously complicated systems that underlie human languages? Second, how is this capacity acquired, both ontogenetically and phylogenetically? To put this in a less technical way, we ask, what happens to individual humans, over the first few years of their lives, that allows them to gain complete mastery over systems of knowledge that are so complex that they continue to defy complete and accurate explicit description, and to do so at a time when other sorts of elaborate cognitive and social skills are quite out of reach? We also ask, what happened over the millions of years from the dawn of the primitive replicator to emergence of modern humans that makes our brains capable of a skill that, adaptive though it is, appears to elude all other species with whom we share the planet?

These are extraordinarily complicated questions, and as in every other intellectually sophisticated discipline, we find that there are a great number of specializations, which both characterize the subject matters constituent of the field as we understand it, but also serve as useful initial descriptions of the expertise of individual linguists. We might give a first approximation list of the various aspects of the human faculty we’re trying to describe, which we might call the “core”:

  • semantics, the meaning of words and sentences
  • syntax, well-formedness conditions on sequences of words
  • morphology, the shape and structure of words
  • phonology, the sound pattern for languages
  • phonetics, the production and perception of the linguistic signal

Of course, there is much more we are interested in. We want to know about the acquisition of each of these components, how they change over time, how the capacities to acquire and use them arose in the species, how they are deployed in social and artistic contexts, how they are realized in the human brain, how they are managed in signed languages, how writing systems work, what all of this tells us about human nature, and much more.

Varying methodologies and subject matters make linguistics a particularly attractive undergraduate major at a liberal arts college, where the investigation of significant aspects of human nature from a variety of perspectives has a high priority. To mention a few: phonetics requires knowledge of physics and human anatomy, and uses sophisticated laboratory equipment; syntax can benefit from the use of the theory of recursive functions; semantics can rely on formal logic; acquisition often involves experimental work with human subjects; metrics requires knowledge of poetic forms, and how these evolved over time; metatheory requires familiarity with the central questions of philosophy of mind, from Plato to Quine. For others we need sociology, biology and more. Linguistics is a rich area of intellectual inquiry, with significant affinities with other disciplines. Here at Carleton, we’re fortunate to have many faculty in wide array of disciplines who are interested in linguistics.

We welcome inquiries from students about our major. Contact Michael Flynn, chair of the Linguistics Department.