Program Director: Prof. Meredith Landman, 712 Hamilton Hall,, 212-854-3941

In any discussion of linguistics, in popular or academic contexts, the first question is always, what is linguistics, after all?  This is remarkable.  Language informs most of our mental and cultural activity, and linguistics is the just study of language.  

The tradition of generative grammar posits (a) an idealized individual user of language, which is then seen as (b) a thoroughly rule-governed, (c) biological and universal system.   This tradition has been dominant in the sociology of the field since the appearance of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957).

But various programs have begun to move away from the reductionism of generative grammar and contextual approaches. Alternative approaches, which might be termed contextual, look at:  (a) how individuals use language in the context of a community, from which it follows that (b)‍language is not just an abstract mental system; (c) language is rather a cultural habit, whose salient features are by no means universal.

Our program seeks to be inclusive; it presents both strains of linguistics, to ensure that students have the proper training to apply to graduate school, but leans more to a contextual approach.  This bias to contextual linguistics fits with the tradition of linguistics at Columbia, from Franz Boas through Uriel Weinreich.

Linguistics, by virtue of dealing with language, naturally intersects with other academic disciplines which also touch on language from the perspective of the other discipline. 

(a) Linguistics—at least contextual linguistics—shares with sociology and anthropology the axiom that language is communal, and therefore may be used (for example) to signal identity, to negotiate relations of power between members of a community, and the like.  Linguistics does not reduce to sociology, however, in that linguistics investigates not only the communal side of language, but also the systemic and the cognitive properties of language.

(b) Cognitive psychology, in the attempt to understand the workings of the mind, often investigates language, which, after all, is the most accessible manifestation of the activity of the mind.  Psychology, however, is virtually obligated to treat all languages as equivalent—after all, language is produced by the human brain, whose properties do not vary across individuals or cultures.  In this way psychological investigations of language are less attuned to the variation and cultural accidence of language than linguistics.

(c) Some concerns of philosophy have been adopted by some practitioners of “formal semantics” in linguistics.   Yet philosophy, like psychology, adopts an idealized view of language, whereby all languages and all modes of usage are equivalent; there is a tacit assumption that language is immutable.  Linguistics—again, contextual linguistics, at least—when it investigates semantics finds the associative and subjective operations of metaphor (similarity) and metonymy (contiguity) as essential tools in modeling language meaning and change in meaning; the subdiscipline of cognitive linguistics focuses on these essentially tropic operations as the critical means whereby meaning is textured and changed over time; change in meaning over time is not relevant to psychology and philosophy.  Philosophy and linguistics differ in their take on discourse.  In philosophy, the Gricean approach to discourse, to take one example, posits an overarching and idealized “cooperative principle” against which behavior is evaluated.  While Grice is in fact often invoked in linguistic discussions of discourse, linguistics is likely to be more empirical than the tradition of discourse in philosophy and pay attention, for example, to differences:  to differences among functions of discourse (“genres” of speech), to differences in the roles of speaker, and to the differences between written and spontaneous oral use of language. 

Study Abroad

Undergraduates have engaged in unique travel and research projects, including sign language in Nicaragua; language attitudes in Kyrgyzstan; colloquial Arabic in Cairo; summer internship at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology; and study abroad in Spain, England, India, Hungary, and Ireland.

Graduate Study

Columbia's linguists have distinguished themselves with awards and plans after graduation, such as Fulbright Fellowships to France, Georgia, and Turkey; and graduate study of linguistics or psychology at Harvard, Stanford, UCSD, Northwestern, New York University, and SUNY Buffalo. Linguistics is also a natural background for the law, and our students have entered such law schools as Georgetown and Columbia.

There is no graduate program in linguistics at Columbia. Students interested in pursuing graduate study in linguistics in New York should investigate CUNY Graduate Center, New York University, or Teachers College (applied linguistics).

The Columbia Linguistics Society

The Columbia Linguistics Society is an organization of undergraduates interested in linguistics which sponsors lectures and hosts informal social events. Information is available at or through Facebook.

Affiliated Faculty

  • May Ahmar (Arabic; MESAAS)
  • Akeel Bilgrami (Philosophy)
  • Aaron Fox (Music)
  • Haim Gaifman (Philosophy)
  • Boris Gasparov (Slavic Languages)
  • Tiina Haapakoski (Finnish, Germanic Languages)
  • Julia Hirschberg (Computer Science)
  • Ana Paula Huback (Latin American and Iberian Studies)
  • Rina Kreitman (Hebrew; MESAAS)
    Meredith Landman (Slavic Languages)
  • Karen Lewis (Philosophy, Barnard)
  • Lening Liu (Chinese; East Asian Languages and Cultures)
  • David Lurie (Japanese; East Asian Languages and Cultures)
  • Kathleen McKeown (Computer Science)
  • John McWhorter (American Studies)
  • Yuan-Yuan Meng (Chinese; East Asian Languages and Cultures)
  • Michele Miozzo (Psychology)
  • Fumiko Nazikian (Japanese; East Asian Languages and Cultures)
  • Youssef Nouhi (Arabic; MESAAS)
  • Christopher Peacocke (Philosophy)
    John Phan (East Asian Languages and Cultures)
  • Owen Rambow (Center for Computational Learning Systems)
  • Robert Remez (Psychology, Barnard)
  • Francisco Rosales-Varo (Latin American and Iberian Studies)
  • Carol Rounds (Hungarian; Italian)
  • José Plácido Ruiz-Campillo (Latin American and Iberian Studies)
  • Richard Sacks (English and Comparative Literature)
  • Ann Senghas (Psychology, Barnard)
  • Mariame Sy (Wolof; Pulaar; MESAAS)
  • Alan Timberlake (Slavic Languages)
  • Zhirong Wang (Chinese; East Asian Languages and Cultures)

Special Concentration in Linguistics

Linguistics at Columbia:  Special Concentration

The special concentration in linguistics is not sufficient for graduation in and of itself. It must be taken in conjunction with a major or a full concentration in another discipline.
For the special concentration, students must take 18 points in the linguistics program as follows:
1. Three core courses in linguistics chosen from:

LING UN3101Introduction to Linguistics
LING UN3102Endangered Languages in the Global City: Lang, Culture, and Migration in Contempary NYC
HNGR UN3343Hungarian Descriptive Grammar
ANTH UN3906Functional Linguistics and Language Typology
AMST UN3990Senior Research Seminar
LING GU4108Language History
LING GU4120Language Documentation and Field Methods
LING GU4190Discourse and Pragmatics
LING GU4202Cognitive Linguistics
LING GU4206Advanced Grammar and Grammars
LING GU4376Phonetics and Phonology
LING GU4800Language and Society
ENGL GU4901History of the English Language
LING GU4903Syntax

2. Two additional courses in either linguistics or in related fields chosen in consultation with the program director, in fields such as:

History or structure of individual languages
Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, etc.
ANTH V3044Symbolic Anthropology
ANTH W4042Agent, Person, Subject, Self
ANTH G6125Language, Culture and Power
Computer Science
COMS W3261Computer Science Theory
COMS W4705Natural Language Processing
COMS W4706Spoken Language Processing
COMS E6998Topics in Computer Science
Comparative Literature & Society
CPLS GU4111World Philology
MUSI W4405Music and Language
MSPS G4233Language and Music (Seminar)
PHIL UN3411Symbolic Logic
PHIL UN3685Philosophy of Language
PSYC W2440Language and the Brain
PSYC UN2450Behavioral Neuroscience
PSYC W3265Auditory Perception (Seminar)
PSYC BC3164Perception and Language
PSYC BC3369Language Development
PSYC UN2215Cognition and the Brain
SOCI G4030Sociology of Language

3. One language course at the intermediate level (third-semester), separate from the general language requirement.

In Fulfillment of the Language Requirement for Linguistics

The language taken in fulfillment of the linguistics requirement can be either an ancient or modern language, but should neither be the student’s native (or semi-native) language nor belong to one of the major groups of modern European languages (Germanic, Romance). In addition to the regularly taught courses listed under the Foreign Language Requirement, the following is a list of languages that have been offered at Columbia. See the list of languages offered through the Language Resource Center and consult with the program director about other languages to determine if they are acceptable for the linguistics language requirement.

Ancient Egyptian
Old Church Slavonic
Sumerian Swahili
Ukrainian Uzbek


LING UN3101 Introduction to Linguistics. 3 points.

An introduction to the study of language from a scientific perspective. The course is divided into three units: language as a system (sounds, morphology, syntax, and semantics), language in context (in space, time, and community), and language of the individual (psycholinguistics, errors, aphasia, neurology of language, and acquisition). Workload: lecture, weekly homework, and final examination. 

Fall 2019: LING UN3101
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
LING 3101 001/53924 T Th 2:40pm - 3:55pm
301 Pupin Laboratories
John McWhorter 3 160/185

LING UN3102 Endangered Languages in the Global City: Lang, Culture, and Migration in Contempary NYC. 3 points.

CC/GS/SEAS: Partial Fulfillment of Global Core Requirement

Of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages – representing migrations and historical developments thousands of years old – the majority are oral, little-documented, and increasingly endangered under the onslaught of global languages like English. This course will take the unprecedented, paradoxical linguistic capital of New York City as a lens for examining how immigrants form communities in a new land, how those communities are integrated into the wider society, and how they grapple with linguistic and cultural loss. Interdisciplinary with an experiential learning component, the course will focus on texts, materials, encounters, and fieldwork with three of the city’s newest and least-studied indigenous immigrant communities (indigenous Latin Americans, Himalayans, and Central Asians).

Indigeneity, though often invisible or perceived as marginal in global cities like New York, is in fact pervasive and fundamental. Cities now constitute a crucial site for understanding migration and cultural change, with language a vehicle for culture. Studying cultures only in situ (i.e. in their homelands) risks missing a crucial dimension. Students will be immersed in stateless, oral, immigrant cultures while also gaining a hands-on critical understanding of language endangerment and urban sociolinguistic research, first through field experiences and guest speakers (Endangered Language Alliance partners) and then by going out together into communities to work on projects in small teams.

The Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), where the instructor is Co-Director, was formed as a non-profit research institute in 2010 as a forum for researchers, community members, activists, artists, and other New Yorkers to come together to support indigenous and minority languages. ELA’s video recordings provide first-hand testimony of endangered languages in the global city – in indigenous languages with English translation – available in few other places. Those texts will be central to this course, supplemented by the new,first-ever, detailed language map of New York City being produced by ELA.

HNGR UN3343 Hungarian Descriptive Grammar. 3 points.

This course is designed for those curious about the structure of Hungarian - an unusual language with a complex grammar quite different from English, or, indeed, any Indo -European language. The study of Hungarian, a language of the Finno-Ugric family, offers the opportunity to learn about the phonology of vowel harmony, the syntax of topic-comment discourse, verb agreement with subjects and objects, highly developed case systems and possessive nominal paradigms. In addition to its inflectional profile, Hungarian derivation possibilities are vast, combinatory, and playful. During the semester we will touch upon all the important grammatical aspects of Hungarian and discuss them in relation to general linguistic principles and discourse, and finally, through some text analysis, see them in action. Although the primary discussion will center on Hungarian, we will draw on comparisons to other Finno-Ugric languages, most notably Finnish and Komi; students are encouraged to draw on comparisons with their own languages of interest. No prerequisite. Counts as Core Linguistics.

Spring 2019: HNGR UN3343
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
HNGR 3343 001/76395 T Th 4:10pm - 5:25pm
613 Hamilton Hall
Carol Rounds 3 6/18

LING UN3997 Supervised Individual Research. 2-4 points.

LING UN3998 Supervised Individual Research. 2-4 points.

Supervised Individual Research

Spring 2019: LING UN3998
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
LING 3998 001/73956  
John McWhorter, Meredith Landman 2-4 9/25

LING GU4108 Language History. 3 points.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101

Language, like all components of culture, is structured and conventional, yet can nevertheless change over time. This course examines how language changes, firstly as a self-contained system that changes organically and autonomously, and secondly as contextualized habits that change in time, in space, and in communities. Workload: readings & discussion, weekly problems, and final examination.

Fall 2019: LING GU4108
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
LING 4108 001/53926 T Th 1:10pm - 2:25pm
423 Kent Hall
Meredith Landman 3 13/15

LING GU4120 Language Documentation and Field Methods. 3 points.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101

In light of the predicted loss of up to 90% of the world languages by the end of this century, it has become urgent that linguists take a more active role in documenting and conserving endangered languages. In this course, we will learn the essential skills and technology of language documentation through work with speakers of an endangered language.

Spring 2019: LING GU4120
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
LING 4120 001/14476 T Th 1:10pm - 2:25pm
101 Knox Hall
Meredith Landman 3 11/15

LING GU4170 Language and Symbol: Semiotics of Speech, Literature, & Culture. 3 points.

Not offered during 2019-20 academic year.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101 or a course on linguistic semantics, literary theory, or linguistic anthropology.

Reading and discussion of scholarly literature on various aspects of the meaning, structure, and functioning of signs in language, art, and society. All reading for the course is drawn from original scholarly literature, some of it of a specialized nature. At some points (for instance, while discussing dimensions of the linguistic signs, or parameters of structural poetics), theoretical reading will be supplemented by brief practical assignments.

LING GU4171 Languages of Africa. 3 points.

Not offered during 2019-20 academic year.

The African continent is home not to simply a collection of similar "African dialects," but to at least 1000 distinct languages that belong to five language families, none of them any more closely related than English and its relatives are to Japanese. This includes the Semitic languages that emerged in the Middle East and are now most commonly associated with Arabic and Hebrew, the famous "click" languages of Southern Africa whose origins are still shrouded by mystery, and in the case of Malagasy on Madagascar, the Austronesian family of Southeast Asia and Oceania - the language traces to speakers who travelled over the ocean from Borneo to Africa. This course will examine languages in all of these families, with a focus on how they demonstrate a wide array of linguistic processes and how they interact with social history, anthropology, and geography.

LING GU4172 The Structure of Cambodian. 3 points.

Like every other language, Cambodian is totally  unique in some respects (these are of interest only to the language learner), and  a representative human language in others (these are of interest to all students of language).  Thus, for example, like every written language, Cambodian  will  exhibit diglossia: the grammar  and the vocabulary  of the written language will differ from that of the  spoken language.  It is also a member of a language family, known as Austroasiatic, whose members are spoken from NE India through Malaysia, Myanmar,  and Indochina. In addition, Cambodian is a structural representative of a given type of language spoken throughout mainland Southeast Asia. That is, in many respects, the structure of Cambodian is similar to those of Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, as well as Hmong.  In the “Far West” of SE Asia, are spoken other languages, among  them Burmese, Mon,  and Karen, which  are still similar, but less so.  All of these languages are isolating, monosyllabic languages.  Of the languages just listed, only Vietnamese and Mon are genetically related to Cambodian.   Finally, in its orthography and lexicon, Cambodian has borrowed so extensively from Indic languages, that all literate speakers  have a considerable background in practical etymology, and recognize borrowings from , say, Pali, as English speakers generally do not recognize borrowings from Norman French or Latin or Greek. Since the Indic languages belong  to Indoeuropean, some unexpected words in Cambodian  (e.g. niam ,smaeu )  will turn out to have English cognates (like name, same).

Your goal in this course is not to acquire a speaking knowledge of Khmer. (For that you would need a pedagogical grammar,  a native-speaker instructor, and hours and hours of practice in the lab and in the classroom.)  It is rather to understand from a linguist’s point of view what it is that makes this language a typical language of this part of the world.   We  will be working  through a reference grammar of the language together.  You  are  each also going to ‘adopt’ another mainland SE Asian language for purposes of comparison, to experience for yourself  what it means for a language to be a member of a linguistic alliance or Sprachbund. You may select your own ‘pet’ language, and your assignment will then be to ‘master’  this language in the same way that you have ‘mastered’ Khmer. 

LING GU4190 Discourse and Pragmatics. 3 points.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101

How discourse works; how language is used: oral vs. written modes of language; the structure of discourse; speech acts and speech genres; the expression of power; authenticity; and solidarity in discourse, dialogicity, pragmatics, and mimesis.

Spring 2019: LING GU4190
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
LING 4190 001/10663 M W 6:10pm - 7:25pm
507 Hamilton Hall
John Wright 3 14/25

LING GU4202 Cognitive Linguistics. 3 points.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101 previously or concurrently.

Reading and discussion of scholarly literature on the cognitive approach to language, including: usage-oriented approaches to language, frame semantics, construction grammar, theories of conceptual metaphor and mental spaces; alongside of experimental research on language acquisition, language memory, prototypical and analogous thinking, and the role of visual imagery in language processing.

LING GU4376 Phonetics and Phonology. 3 points.

Not offered during 2019-20 academic year.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101

An investigation of the sounds of human language, from the perspective of phonetics (articulation and acoustics, including computer-aided acoustic analysis) and phonology (the distribution and function of sounds in individual languages). 

Spring 2019: LING GU4376
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
LING 4376 001/76588 T Th 10:10am - 11:25am
303 Hamilton Hall
Meredith Landman 3 28/35

LING GU4444 In Search of Language: From Rousseau to Derrida. 0-3 points.

Not offered during 2019-20 academic year.

The course addresses fundamental ideas concerning the nature of linguistic meaning and communication as they evolved in modern times, from the Enlightenment to the contemporary critique of the modernist linguistic paradigm. Beginning with the polemic between Herder and Rousseau, the course then proceeds to Romantic philosophy of language (in particular, the role of Romantic philosophy in the emergence of historical linguistics and linguistic typology); Saussure, his structuralist interpreters and his critics; generative grammar as a philosophical concept; the notion of linguistic performativity and its philosophical implications; Bakhtin's heteroglossia; and the impact of the post-structuralist semiotic revolution (Barthes, Derrida) on the study of language.

LING GU4800 Language and Society. 3 points.

How language structure and usage varies according to societal factors such as social history and socioeconomic factors, illustrated with study modules on language contact, language standardization and literacy, quantitative sociolinguistic theory, language allegiance, language, and power.

LING GU4903 Syntax. 3 points.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101

Syntax - the combination of words - has been at the center of the Chomskyan revolution in Linguistics. This is a technical course which examines modern formal theories of syntax, focusing on later versions of generative syntax (Government and Binding) with secondary attention to alternative models (HPSG, Categorial Grammar). 

Fall 2019: LING GU4903
Course Number Section/Call Number Times/Location Instructor Points Enrollment
LING 4903 001/53925 T Th 10:10am - 11:25am
709 Hamilton Hall
Meredith Landman 3 21/18

LING GU4206 Advanced Grammar and Grammars. 3 points.

Prerequisites: LING UN3101

An investigation of the possible types of grammatical phenomena (argument structure, tense/aspect/mood, relative clauses, classifiers, and deixis). This typological approach is enriched by the reading of actual grammars of languages from Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

Of Related Interest

Anthropology (Barnard)
ANTH UN1009Introduction to Language and Culture
ANTH V3044Symbolic Anthropology
ANTH UN1009Introduction to Language and Culture
ANTH UN3906Functional Linguistics and Language Typology
ANTH UN3947Text, Magic, Performance
ANTH W4042Agent, Person, Subject, Self
Computer Science
COMS W3261Computer Science Theory
COMS W4705Natural Language Processing
East Asian Languages and Cultures
CHNS W3301
 - CHNS W3302
Introduction To Classical Chinese I
and Introduction To Classical Chinese II
CHNS GU4019History of Chinese Language
French (Barnard)
HNGR UN3343Hungarian Descriptive Grammar
PHIL UN3252Philosophy of Language and Mind
PHIL UN3411Symbolic Logic
Psychology (Barnard)
PSYC BC3164Perception and Language
PSYC BC3369Language Development
Slavic Languages
SLLN GU4005Introduction to Old Church Slavonic
Spanish and Latin American Cultures (Barnard)
SPAN BC3382Languages in Contact: Sociolinguistic Aspects of U. S. Spanish
Latin American and Iberian Cultures
SPAN W3563Spanish Pragmatics: What Do We Do When We Speak Spanish?