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Linguistics is the scientific study of human language, from the sounds and gestures of speech up to the organization of words, sentences, and meaning. Linguistics is also concerned with the relationship between language and cognition, society, and history.

The Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania is the oldest modern linguistics department in the United States, founded by Zellig Harris in 1947. The department is known for its interdisciplinary research, spanning many subfields of linguistics, as well as integration of theory, corpus research, field work, and cognitive and computer science.

The department has both a graduate Ph.D. program and an undergraduate major and minor. For the specializations of our faculty, please see the research section.


Recent books published by Penn linguistics faculty
Historical Linguistics
by Donald Ringe and Joseph Eska. March 2013.

Bringing the advances of theoretical linguistics to the study of language change in a systematic way, this innovative textbook shows that theoretical linguistics can be used to solve problems where traditional approaches to historical linguistics have failed to produce satisfying results, and that the results of historical research can have an impact on theory. The book first explains the nature of human language and the sources of language change in broad terms. It then focuses on different types of language change from contemporary viewpoints, before exploring comparative reconstruction — the most spectacular success of traditional historical linguistics — and the problems inherent in trying to devise new methods for linguistic comparison. Positioned at the cutting edge of the field, the book argues that this approach can and should lead to the re-integration of historical linguistics as one of the core areas in the study of language.

Dialect Diversity in America
by William Labov. December 2012.

This book examines the diversity among American dialects and presents the counterintuitive finding that geographically localized dialects of North American English are increasingly diverging from one another over time. Labov describes the political forces that drive these ongoing changes, as well as the political consequences in public debate. The author also considers the recent geographical reversal of political parties in the Blue States and the Red States and the parallels between dialect differences and the results of recent presidential elections. Finally, in attempting to account for the history and geography of linguistic change among whites, Labov highlights fascinating correlations between patterns of linguistic divergence and the politics of race and slavery, going back to the antebellum United States. Complemented by an online collection of audio files that illustrate key dialectical nuances, Dialect Diversity in America offers an unparalleled sociolinguistic study from a preeminent scholar in the field.

Meaningful Games
by Robin Clark. December 2011.

In this book Robin Clark explains in an accessible manner the usefulness of game theory in thinking about a wide range of issues in linguistics. Clark argues that we use grammar strategically to signal our intended meanings: our choices as speaker are conditioned by what choices the hearer will make interpreting what we say. Game theory — according to which the outcome of a decision depends on the choices of others — provides a formal system that allows us to develop theories about the kind of decision making that is crucial to understanding linguistic behavior. Clark argues the only way to understand meaning is to grapple with its social nature: that it is the social that gives content to our mental lives. The resulting theory of use will allow us to account for many aspects of linguistic meaning, and the grammar itself can be simplified. The book includes an extended argument in favor of the social basis of meaning; a brief introduction to game theory, with a focus on coordination games and cooperation; discussions of common knowledge and games of partial information; models of games for pronouns and politeness; and the development of a system of social coordination of reference.

Principles of Linguistic Change
by William Labov. October 2010.

This volume, which completes Labov’s seminal Principles of Linguistic Change trilogy, examines the cognitive and cultural factors responsible for linguistic change, tracing the life history of these developments, from triggering events to driving forces and endpoints. It explores the major insights obtained by combining sociolinguistics with the results of dialect geography on a large scale; demonstrates under what conditions dialects diverge from one another; and establishes an essential distinction between transmission within the community and diffusion across communities.

Localism versus Globalism
by David Embick. September 2010.

This book is the first detailed examination of morphology and phonology from a phase-cyclic point of view (that is, one that takes into account recent developments in Distributed Morphology and the Minimalist program) and the only recent detailed treatment of allomorphy, a phenomenon that is central to understanding how the grammar of human language works. In addition to making new theoretical proposals about morphology and phonology in terms of a cyclic theory, Embick addresses a schism in the field between phonological theories such as Optimality Theory and other (mostly syntactic) theories such as those associated with the Minimalist program. He presents sustained empirical arguments that the Localist view of grammar associated with the Minimalist program (and Distributed Morphology in particular) is correct, and that the Globalism espoused by many forms of Optimality Theory is incorrect.

Atlas of North American English
by William Labov, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. December 2005.

The Atlas of North American English provides the first overall view of the pronunciation and vowel systems of the dialects of the U.S. and Canada. The Atlas re-defines the regional dialects of American English on the basis of sound changes active in the 1990s and draws new boundaries reflecting those changes. It is based on a telephone survey of 762 local speakers, representing all the urbanized areas of North America.

This book won the Linguistic Society of America's biennial Bloomfield Book Award in 2008.

From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic
by Donald Ringe. October 2006.

This book is the first since 1897 to describe the earliest reconstructable stages of the prehistory of English. It outlines the grammar of Proto-Indo-European, considers the changes by which one dialect of that prehistoric language developed into Proto-Germanic, and provides a detailed account of the grammar of Proto-Germanic. The next volume will consider the development of Proto-Germanic into Old English.

The Infinite Gift
by Charles Yang. June 2006.

Drawing on cutting-edge developments in biology, neurology, psychology, and linguistics, Charles Yang's The Infinite Gift takes us inside the astonishingly complex but largely subconscious process by which children learn to talk and to understand the spoken word. Yang also puts forth an exciting new theory that we learn our native languages in part by unlearning the grammars of all the rest.

Far from the Madding Gerund
by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. May 2006.

Some of their most insightful and amusing material from Language Log, their popular website. Often irreverent and hilarious, these brief essays take on many sacred cows. Language Log is a site where serious professional linguists go to have fun. There's plenty of fun and plenty to get you thinking about language in new ways in this collection.

Department of Linguistics
619 Williams Hall (campus map)
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Telephone: (215) 898-6046
Fax: (215) 573-2091
For more information, contact Amy Forsyth at