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Languages, Stories, and Songbirds


Admission requirements

You have received your propaedeutic diploma within one academic year and your academic results are good (indication: 7,3 average). Students who meet the criteria may apply for a place in the Humanities Lab.


Culture exists by the grace of communication. If people wouldn’t have an efficient system of communication (a language), there would be no education, our friendships would look very differently, and large institutional enterprises like science would be completely impossible. By communicating, people are able to collaborate and thereby achieve things that are far beyond the capacities of any individual. So much is clear, but we also use language to tell each other stories, including quite a number of fictional ones, and what could be the use of stories that are known to be untrue?

In this key module, we study various aspects of human communication, especially verbal communication. What makes this kind of communication special, what is the basis of its complexity, and its expressive power? We do so by putting such questions in an evolutionary framework. What are biological principles of communication, how do they lead to different kinds of communication systems, and how do we study these ? How does human communication conform to animal communication, and how does it differ? Do such differences tell us anything about what it is to be human? To be not only a biological but also a cultural being? We also look at the origins and the role of art –both verbal art and visual art– in societies from this perspective, i.e. as special forms of human communication, asking the same kind of questions.

Some of the issues involved are controversial and hotly debated among scholars and scientists, so the module also provides an opportunity to observe and discuss some ‘science-in-action’.
The module includes a number of guest lectures and an excursion to the department of Behavioral Biology.

Course objectives

  1. Introduce students to key concepts for studying communication in biology, linguistics, and art studies.
    1. Familiarize students with present day scientific insights concerning the evolutionary origins of human language and of the arts.
    2. Explore the relationship between the study of language and culture as practiced in the humanities to other disciplines, in particular biology.
    3. Critically explore the consequences of the special character of human communication in language and art for topical scientific and societal issues.


Courses of the Humanities Lab are scheduled on Friday afternoon from 13.00 to 17.00. For the exact timetable, please visit the following website.

Mode of instruction

Lectures, seminar (excursion included).

Course Load

Lectures and seminars 24 hours Readings 60 hours Weekly assignments 14 hours Final project/paper 42 hours Total course load = 140 hours### Assessment method

  • Attendance/active participation (20%)

  • Final paper (80%)

Attendance is compulsory for all meetings (lectures, seminars, excursion). If you are unable to attend due to circumstances beyond your control, notify the Humanities Lab office (see email address below), and hand in your weekly assignment in writing to the instructor. Being absent without notification may result in lower grades or exclusion from the course.

If the final grade is insufficient (lower than a 6), there is the possibility of retaking the final essay. Contact the course lecturer for more information.


Blackboard is used in this course for:

  • Making readings available

  • Assignments

  • Communication

Reading list

  • James R. Hurford (2014), The Origins of Language. A Slim Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Articles and book chapters, available through the university library and Blackboard


Students of the Humanities Lab will be registered via uSis by the administration of the Humanities Lab.


Instructor: dhr. Prof.dr. A.Verhagen

Humanities Lab:
Office: e-mail
Phone: 071-527 2228 or 071- 527 8039


If all participants of this course are Dutch native speakers, this course will be taught in Dutch.
More information: website.