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Henrietta Harvey lecturer discusses reconstructing language of the first humans

By Janet Harron | Feb. 18, 2013

Dr. Frederick Newmeyer, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Washington and an adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, will deliver the Henrietta Harvey Lecture at Memorial University on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

One of the linguists who helped to renew interest in the evolutionary origins of language, Dr. Newmeyer has published widely in theoretical and English syntax. He is probably best known for his writings on the history and sociology of recent linguistics, which include his books Linguistic Theory in America, The Politics of Linguistics and Generative Linguistics: A Historical Perspective.

The lecture will focus on whether it is possible to reconstruct the language of the first humans. According to Dr. Newmeyer, pinning down the origins of human language is one of the most difficult problems for evolutionary theory. However, the search for the first human language can lead scholars to some surprising discoveries about the relationship between language on the one hand and culture, thought, gender and behaviour on the other.

"The first ideas about what the original human language looked like was that it must have resembled the speech of people in societies that are often described as "primitive" -- hunter-gatherers, and the like. But an amazing discovery was made,” said Dr. Newmeyer. “The languages spoken by hunter-gatherers are every bit as sophisticated and complex as those spoken by those in advanced industrialized societies. In fact, there is no correlation at all between grammar and culture.”

The lecture takes place Tuesday, Feb. 26, in room A-1046 of the Arts and Administration building and begins at 7:30 p.m. All are welcome and free parking is available in lot 15B. 

Henrietta Harvey was a Nova Scotian who came to Newfoundland in 1905 to visit her aunt, Lady Whiteway, the wife of Newfoundland’s prime minister. A year later she settled in St. John’s as the wife of St. John’s businessman John Harvey. When she died in 1964, her will directed a substantial portion of her estate to Memorial University. The Henrietta Harvey lectureship is possible in any year where there are funds left over from the funding of the Henrietta Harvey research chair, the primary purpose of the endowment fund.