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Languages, Stories, and Songbirds


Admission requirements

This course is available for students of the Humanities Lab
If you have received your propaedeutic diploma within one academic year, your academic results are good and you are a very motivated student, you 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.
  2. Familiarize students with present day scientific insights concerning the evolutionary origins of human language and of the arts.
  3. Explore the relationship between the study of language and culture as practiced in the humanities to other disciplines, in particular biology.
  4. 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 17.00hrs.
For the exact timetable, please visit the following website.

Mode of instruction

  • Lecture

  • Seminar

  • Excursion

Course Load

This course is worth 5 EC (140 hours):

  • Lectures and seminars: 24 hours

  • Readings: 60

  • Weekly assignments: 14

  • Final project/paper: 42

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 coordinators in advance, providing a valid reason for your absence, and hand in your weekly assignment in writing to the lecturer (if applicable). Being absent without notification and valid reason 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.

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.


Brightspace will be used 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 Brightspace.


Students of the Humanities Lab will be registered via uSis by the administration of the Humanities Lab. More information about registration for courses will be provided on Brightspace.

General information about uSis is available on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Lecturer: Dr. F. K. Ameka
Humanities Lab office: e-mail


This course is part of the Humanities Lab programme, visit the website for more information.
Visit the Honours Academy website for more information about the Honours College.