What is this course about?

Foundations of Linguistic Theory attempts to give a broader, deeper, and more historical foundation to thinking about the science of language. We will study foundational issues and recurrent themes, and important papers and people across 2500 years of the history of linguistics, but mainly 1800–2000.


This class is principally intended for Linguistics Ph.D. students beyond their first year. Other students with a strong background in linguistics should seek the permission of the instructor prior to enrollment.

Reference Texts

Here are a few general reference texts, but none are textbooks for the class.

Course info

Grading basis

If you are taking Linguistics 200 to satisfy the Linguistic Department's Ph.D. course requirements, then you are required to take this course for a letter grade and receive a grade of B or better. If you're taking it just because all this stuff is so interesting, you can take it on a CR/NC basis. Since the class is for a small group of active participants, auditors are not normally allowed. Please complete all the work for the class during the quarter; I will not give an incomplete (I) grade for the class unless there are amazingly compelling extenuating circumstances. Honor Code: You are expected to follow Stanford’s Honor Code in all matters relating to this course.

Work before and in the class sessions (20%)

Leadership roles in class discussions (20%)

You will also have various opportunities to lead or co-lead class discussions. This will also be worth 20% of your grade.

Squibs (30%)

There are two squibs to write during the quarter. The first should be related to a topic from the first 3 weeks of class. The second should be related to a topic from weeks 4–6. Each should be approximately 3 pages long. The squibs should respond to a reading (or two) from the syllabus, developing an observation about it or criticism of it. Pointing out relations between the readings or a reading and other work we don't discuss would also be appropriate. They are due on the Monday of weeks 4 and 7. Each will be worth 15% of your grade.

Final Paper (30%)

A final paper of 5–10 pages is due at the end of the quarter. It should connect to some theme and readings from the syllabus, but go substantially beyond the syllabus, whether by reading more of a book we’ve read a chapter of, or reading related articles. Working together with someone else on this, especially with someone who has complementary expertise, is encouraged. If you’re clever, you might be able to get a head start on material for your final paper while preparing one of the in-class discussions that you lead. As an alternative to a final paper, you can write two more squibs, but only if you are working alone.

Credit/No credit enrollment

If you take the class credit/no credit then you are graded in the same way as those registered for a letter grade. The only difference is that, providing you reach a C− standard in your work, it will simply be graded as CR.

Making all students feel welcome

We are committed to doing what we can to work for equity and to create an inclusive learning environment that actively values the diversity of backgrounds, identities, and experiences of everyone in Ling 200. We also know that we will sometimes make missteps. If you notice some way that we could do better, we hope that you will let us know about it.

Well-Being and Mental Health

The last two years have been difficult for everyone. If you are experiencing personal, academic, or relationship problems and would like to talk to someone with training and experience, you might first reach out to the Graduate Life Office. For student mental health and wellbeing help, reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the university’s counseling center. Phone assessment appointments can be made at CAPS by calling 650-723-3785, or by accessing the VadenPatient portal through the Vaden website.

Students with Documented Disabilities

We assume that all of us learn in different ways, and that the organization of the course must accommodate each student differently. We are committed to ensuring the full participation of all enrolled students in this class. If you need an academic accommodation based on a disability, you should initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). The OAE will evaluate the request, recommend accommodations, and prepare a letter for faculty. Students should contact the OAE as soon as possible and at any rate in advance of assignment deadlines, since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations. Students should send the instructor your accommodation letter as soon as possible.

Sexual violence

Academic accommodations are available for students who have experienced or are recovering from sexual violence. If you would like to talk to a confidential resource, you can schedule a meeting with the Confidential Support Team or call their 24/7 hotline at: 650-725-9955. Counseling and Psychological Services also offers confidential counseling services. Non-confidential resources include the Title IX Office, for investigation and accommodations, and the SARA Office, for healing programs. Students can also speak directly with the instructor to arrange accommodations, but note that university employees – including professors and TAs – are required to report what they know about incidents of sexual or relationship violence, stalking and sexual harassment to the Title IX Office. Students can learn more at https://vaden.stanford.edu/sexual-assault.


Date Description Course Materials Events
Mon Sept 26 The liminal zone between early and modern linguistics
Course Introduction
Self-introductions and interests
Sir William Jones (“Oriental Jones”)
Colonial linguistics and the beginnings of comparative linguistics
  1. What can we learn from Jones’ famous address?
    • William Jones. 1786. The Third Anniversary Discourse (as President of the Asiatick Society of Bengal). In The Works of Sir William Jones, vol. 1, pp. 19–34.
  2. Who was William Jones?
  3. A critical perspective: What did Jones actually discover/invent? Maybe not much? Or maybe he did open up new vistas (with good timing)?
  4. How fundamental was the role of Sanskrit and Pāṇini in the formation of modern linguistics? (In Europe and the U.S.)
Assign people for week 2
Mon Oct 3 A path to formal descriptive linguistic theory
Levels (mainly phonology), combinatoriality, simplicity. Sanskrit.
Pāṇini's grammar and its influence on Bloomfield. Sanskrit and Menominee.
Grammar as a maximally compact representation of language. Phonological features. Thematic roles. Rule ordering, Blocking. A generative grammar?
Be on either Team Pāṇini and read Kiparsky 1995 and Scharf 2013, concentrating on the Pāṇini section (and look through Kiparsky 2002, if you wish) or be on Team Bloomfield and read Kiparsky 1995, Bloomfield 1939, look through Bloomfield 1926, and if you're rather keen, look at Koerner 2003 or Bever 1961.
  1. Team Pāṇini
    • Paul Kiparsky. 1995. Pāṇinian Linguistics. In R.E. Asher, ed., Concise history of linguistics. Oxford, New York: Pergamon Press.
    • Peter M. Scharf. 2013. Linguistics in India. In Keith Allan ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics.
    • Paul Kiparsky. 2009. On the architecture of Pāṇini's grammar. In Huet, G., Kulkarni, A., Scharf, P. (eds) Sanskrit Computational Linguistics. LNCS vol. 5402. Berlin: Springer. Too long to read all of!
  2. Team Bloomfield
Assign people for week 3
Mon Oct 10 Indigenous People's Day
Development of categorization and the comparative method
Parts of Speech
From Aristotle and Dionysius Thrax (or Tryphon) on Greek to Roman, Arabic, the Middle Ages, and beyond
Development of the comparative method and the Neogrammarians: Grimm, Brugmann
Choose either parts of speech or historical linguistics. I'll be looking for 4 people to lead discussion of 1.1-4, 1.2, 2.2, and 2.3. But also look at other things in your area!
Mon Oct 17 Semiotics and structuralism
Wilhelm von Humboldt, Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson (and the Prague School)
Everyone should read the extract from de Saussure. Since how can you not? And then you should choose something else of interest
  1. The bringing forth of language is an inner need that evolves humankind (!) and an intro to who Humboldt was.
    1. Wilhelm von Humboldt 1836 [1988]. On Language: The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind.. Translated by Peter Heath with an introduction by Hans Aarsleff. Cambridge UP. Chapters 3–5, pp. 54–64.
    2. Hans Aarsleff. 1988. Introduction to On Language, part I, pp. vii–xvii.
  2. The origins of linguistic relativity
    1. Wilhelm von Humboldt 1836 [1988]. On Language. chapter 9, pp. 54–64.
    2. John Leavitt. 2006. Linguisitic Relativities. In Christine Jourdan and Kevin Tuite (eds.) Language, Culture, and Society. Cambridge UP. pp. 47–55.
  3. Beginnings of Linguistic typology
    1. Wilhelm von Humboldt 1836 [1988]. On Language. chapter 19 and 20 to page 168.
    2. Randy La Polla. 2020. Forward to the past: modernizing linguistic typology by returning to its roots. Asian Languages and Linguistics 1(1): 146–166, pp. 1–5.
  4. Chomksy's take on Humboldt
    1. Wilhelm von Humboldt 1836 [1988]. On Language. chapter 8 and 13.
    2. Hans Aarsleff. 1988. Introduction to On Language, part II, pp. xvii–xxxii.
    3. Chomsky. 1964. Current issues in linguistic theory. The Hague: Mouton, chapter 1, pp. 7–27.
  5. de Saussure: Synchronic, structuralist linguistics
    1. Ferdinand de Saussure. 1916 [1983]. Course in General Linguistics. Introduction, chapter III and Part One, chapter I.
First squib due! – I'm okay with getting it by end-of-day Thursday!
Wed Oct 26, 10:30–1:20
Linguistics basement large meeting room
Note that class is rescheduled to Wednesday, since Chris is away at start of week at LMB Program Meeting
Semiotics and (the rest of) the era of American Structuralism
Jakobson. Boas, Sapir, Whorf, Hockett, Harris. Externalism and Emergentism. General overview of American linguistics 1900-1950.
We have assigned presenters for Jakobson. For American structuralism, we have chosen 3 of Boas, Sapir, Harris, Hockett, or Whorf and everyone is reading one of them. For Sapir, please read both readings. For Harris, you only need to read the Morpheme Alternants paper, but flick through the pages of From Morpheme to Utterance, to get a sense of the hard-to-read, semi-formalized style of a lot of Harris's later papers…. For Hockett, read the paper (!).
  1. Jakobson: Structuralism and phonology
    1. Steven C. Caton. 1987. Contributions of Roman Jakobson. Annual Review of Anthopology 16: 223–260, pp. 223–237.
    2. Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle. 1956. Phonology and Phonetics. In Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle (eds.), Fundamentals of Language, Mouton, The Hague, pp. 1-51. Reprinted in Jakobson's collected works, phonological studies.
  2. Jakobson: Poetics
    1. Roman Jakobson. 1960. Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics. In Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in Language.
    2. Steven C. Caton. 1987. Contributions of Roman Jakobson. Annual Review of Anthopology 16: 223–260, pp. 238–253.
  3. Boas
    1. Franz Boas. 1911. Introduction. Handbook of American Indian Languages, Vol 1. pp. 1–83. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 40. Washington, DC: Government Print Office. Selected interesting parts.
  4. Sapir
    1. Edward Sapir. 1922. Language: An Introduction to the study of speech, Introductory chapter.
    2. Edward Sapir. 1925. Sound patterns of language. Language 1(2): 37-51.
  5. Bloomfield
    Don't forget that we've already seen two papers by Bloomfield (effectively the most important American Structuralist) previously.
  6. Harris
    1. Zellig S. Harris. 1942. Morpheme Alternants in Linguistic Analysis. Language 18(3): 169–180.
    2. Zellig S. Harris. 1946. From morpheme to utterance. Language 22(3): 161–183.
  7. Hockett
    1. Charles F. Hockett. 1954. Two Models of Grammatical Description. Word 10(2–3): 210–234.
  8. Whorf
    1. The Punctual and segmentative aspects of verbs in Hopi.
    2. An American Indian model of the universe.
Mon Oct 31 Early Generative Grammar
Noam Chomsky. Early developments in generative grammar. Essentialism.
Today, we'll look at early Chomsky, as the corner stones of the development of generative grammar, and catch up on the last piece of Jakobson. Everybody should read Chomsky!
  1. Chomsky: Syntactic Structures
    1. Noam Chomsky. 1957. Syntactic Structures. THe Hague: Mouton. Preface + Ch. 1–4.
    2. Noam Chomsky. 1957. Syntactic Structures. THe Hague: Mouton. Ch. 5–6.
  2. Chomsky: Aspects
    1. Noam Chomsky. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Preface + Ch. 1, §1–5.
    2. Noam Chomsky. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Ch. 1, §6–9.
Additional sources
  1. Barbara Scholz, Francis Jeffry Pelletier, Geoffrey K. Pullum, and Ryan Nefdt. 2022. Philosophy of Linguistics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [web] [cached pdf].
  2. Biolinguistics (if you only look at one of these, I'd look at the first – it's quite the manifesto; I guess they're trying to compete with the Junggrammatiker!): [Boeckx/Grohmann 2007], [Chomsky 2007], [Boeckx 2013].
Mon Nov 7 The socio-cultural character of language Weinreich, Labov & Herzog; Labov; Silverstein; Chambers; Eckert; Tomasello
Choose one thing to read. Hopefully we can get 2 people per reading.
  1. Uriel Weinreich, William Labov, and Marvin I. Herzog. 1968. Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change. In Directions for Historical Linguistics: A Symposium edited by W. P. Lehmann and Yakov Malkiel, 95–195. A bridge between diachronic and synchronic empirical linguistics; tells its own history of the field. Read through the end of section 2 (p. 150).
  2. William Labov. 1966/2006. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch. 1 and 3. Foundational work of modern sociolinguistics. This extract is from the 40th anniversary edition. Commentary added in 2006 is in square brackets. I'm not sure whether having it is an improvement or not.
  3. Michael Silverstein. 1979. Language Structure and Linguistic Ideology. In The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels, edited by Paul R. Clyne, William F. Hanks, and Carol L. Hofbauer, 193–247. Chicago: Chicago Linguistics Society. Silverstein provides a through-line from Boas to semiotic functionalism and his concept of ideologies.
  4. Michael Tomasello. 1999. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press, ch. 1 and 4. Links socio-cultural context of humans to cognitive science.
  5. Chambers, J. K. 1995. Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and its Social Significance. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Second squib due. (I'm okay with getting it by the end of the week.)
Mon Nov 14 Probability, Information Theory, and Language
Zipf, Shannon, Gleason, Jelinek, and Sankoff.
  1. George Kingsley Zipf. I’m here butting together an extract from Zipf’s 1949 book with George Miller’s introduction to the reprinting of Zipf’s 1935 book. But that seemed to me the best result, since the 1949 version is clearer and more succinct than the 1935 version, while Miller’s later-written introduction provides useful analysis and context.
    1. George Kingsley Zipf. 1949. Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley. Ch. 2, pp. 19–31.
    2. George A. Miller. 1965. Introduction to the reprinted version of George Kingsley Zipf, The Psycho-Biology of Language (1935). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. v–xii.
  2. Claude Shannon. Shannon essentially invented the field on Information Theory single-handedly, while working at Bell Labs in the late 1940s. We skip his (original, key, longer) more technical exposition.
    1. Warren Weaver. 1949. Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication. In Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: The University of Illinois Press. Ch. 1, pp. 1–28.
    2. Shannon, Claude E. 1951. Prediction and Entropy of Printed English. The Bell System Technical Journal 30(1): 50–64.
  3. Hocket and Gleason. American Structuralist linguists take note. We'll skip the book review by Hockett, but note the amount of space it was given!
    1. Henry A. Gleason. 1955/1961. An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Revised edition, 1961, Ch. 23: The Process of Communication.
    2. Charles F. Hockett. 1953. Review of The Mathematical Theory of communication by Claude L. [Should be E!] Shannon and Warren Weaver. Language 29(1): 69–93.
  4. David Sankoff. An interesting story between mathematics (statistics) and linguistics.
    1. Henrietta J. Cedergren and David Sankoff. 1974. Variable Rules: Performance as a Statistical Reflection of Competence. Language 50(2): 333–355.
    2. David Sankoff. 1987. Variable Rules. In Ulrich Ammon, Norbert Dittmar, and Klaus J. Mattheier (eds.), Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society, vol. 2. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Note: There is a second edition from 2004, but, somehow, our library seems to have volumes 1 and 3 but not 2. I do not know whether the article is revised therein.
    3. David Sankoff. 1978. Probability and linguistic variation. Synthese 37: 217–238. This one is an “extra”, but I threw it in to give a bit more of an idea how over the decades, David Sankoff has written widely on probability and language, including rates of lexicon change (“glottochronology”), theory of probabilistic context-free grammars, and their use to model code-switching, as well as the variable rules approach, and other topics in sociolinguistics.
  5. Steve Abney. Another interesting story between linguistics and NLP….
    1. Steven Abney. 1996. Statistical Methods and Linguistics. In Judith L. Klavans and Philip Resnik (eds), The Balancing Act: Combining Symbolic and Statistical Approaches to Language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 1–26.
  6. Fred Jelinek. Fred Jelinek was the pioneer at IBM Research who led the adoption of probabilistic models in speech and natural language processing. I don't think it's so useful for this class to dive into his technical work, but these look-backs from Fred himself and Mark Liberman are useful thought fodder. Note that they were both written just before neural network approaches really blossomed in NLP again.
    1. Frederick Jelinek. 2009. The Dawn of Statistical ASR and MT. Computational Linguistics 35(4): 483–494.
    2. Mark Liberman. 2010. Obituary: Fred Jelinek. Computational Linguistics 36(4): 595–599.
Mon Nov 21 Thanksgiving break; no class
Mon Nov 28 Semantics: Cognitive/cultural semantics; formal semantics; compositionality
Tomasello, Fillmore; Montague, Lambek; Partee, Pelletier
  1. Michael Tomasello. 1999. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press, ch. 1 and 4. Links socio-cultural context of humans to cognitive science.
  2. Charles J. Fillmore. 1985. Frames and the semantics of understanding. Quaderni di Semantica 6(2): 222–254.
  3. Barbara H. Partee. 1984. Compositionality. In Fred Landman and Frank Veltman (eds.), Varieties of Formal Semantics,. Dordrecht: Foris, pp. 281–312.
  4. Francis Jeffry Pelletier. 1994. The Principle of Semantic Compositionality. Topoi 13: 11–24.
Additional sources
  1. Drew McDermott. 1978. Tarskian Semantics, or No Notation Without Denotation!. Cognitive Science 2: 277–282. Incidentally, looking back, it is highly interesting how close cognitive science was to (symbolic) artificial intelligence at this time: Here was the new Cognitive Science journal publishing a paper that clearly expects you to know the basics of Lisp programming, starting from page one and for which 7 of the 9 (!) references are to work by computer scientists. But his was not a weird exception. One of those references is to Bobrow and Winograd's An overview of KRL, a knowledge representation language, which appeared in the first volume.
Send a topic proposal for your final paper.
Mon Dec 5 Connectionism and its critics Wiener; McCulloch & Pitts; Rumelhart & McClelland, Fodor & Pylyshyn, Pinker & Prince, Feldman et al.
The original 1980s papers are, unfortunately, all really, really long! I'm not sure I have an answer for this. Read for a while from the beginning and then read whatever parts seem most important or interesting?
  1. David E. Rumelhart and James L. McClelland. 1986. On Learning the Past Tenses of English Verbs. In James L. McClelland, David E. Rumelhart, and the PDP Research Group (eds.), Parallel Distributed Processing: Explorations in the Microstructure of Cognition. Volume 2: Psychological and Biological Models,, pp. 216–271. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  2. Jerry A. Fodor and Zenon W. Pylyshyn. 1988. Connectionism and cognitive architecture: A critical analysis. Cognition 28(1–2): 3–71.
  3. Steven Pinker and Alan Prince. 1988. On language and connectionism: Analysis of a parallel distributed processing model of language acquisition. Cognition 28(1–2): 73–193.
  4. Feldman, Goldwater, Dupoux and Schatz. 2022. Do Infants Really Learn Phonetic Categories?. Open Mind 5: 113–131. [web] An exception from my “Nothing from the 21st century rule” to end with!
Additional sources
  1. Steven Pinker and Michael T. Ullman. 2002. The past and future of the past tense. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 6(11): 456–463. And the replies to this article pp. 464–474. We won't read this but this is a second round rehash of the issues – a paper that is itself now already 20 years old.
Mon Dec 12 No class!
Final paper due.
Final paper due.

Other things that could be on the syllabus but aren't:
Grammaticalization: Bopp, Humboldt, Meillet, Lehmann, Heine, Traugott
Functionalism: Greenberg, Comrie, Dixon, Croft, Haspelmath
Evolution of Language: Pinker & Bloom, Seyfarth & Cheney: Social Origins of Language, Bruner
Phonology: From Firth to Autosegmental phonology
Roy Harris
Dependency grammar: Arabic, Tesnière, Mel'cuk, more Prague School
Firth and Halliday: Systemic functional grammar