LINGUIST List 12.206

Fri Jan 26 2001

Disc: Origins of Human Language

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Larry Trask, Re: 12.199, Disc: Origins of Human Language

Message 1: Re: 12.199, Disc: Origins of Human Language

Date: Fri, 26 Jan 2001 15:19:10 +0000
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Re: 12.199, Disc: Origins of Human Language

Jess Tauber writes:

> The signal inversion hypothesis extrapolates feature density until even
> "phonemes" can be considered as entire utterances some time in the distant
> ancestry of man. With just 16 binary feature pairs, with one choice always
> instantiated for each pair, will generate well over 50000 separate units.

OK. But I would like to know just what those 16 binary features are.
Can we be assured that all 65,536 combinations of these features are
physiologically possible and auditorily distinct? I find this hard
to believe. Just to start with, I find that any single nasal stop,
produced in isolation, is usually next to impossible to distinguish
from any other nasal stop. I also find it very hard to distinguish
one voiceless plosive from another, without the aid of neighboring

> If we focus only on time-distributed combinatorics (the sin of
> syntactically-obsessed linguistics for some time now), then we cut ourselves
> off from more holistic signalling possibilities. 

Unfair, I think. At least since Hockett, and probably earlier, we
have recognized that discreteness -- the temporal sequencing of
linguistic items -- is a central characteristic of natural languages.

It is not that we have "cut ourselves off" from holistic systems.
It is rather that we do not find any holistic systems with any great
degree of expressiveness.

True, non-human signaling systems appear to be broadly holistic.
But these systems have never been shown, and do not appear, to 
possess anything remotely approximating to the expressiveness
of human languages. Even human sign languages, with their rich
possibilities for simultaneous exponence, cannot plausibly be described
as 'holistic'. 

Anyone who wants to defend the plausibility of holistic systems
as media of expression must accept the onus of demonstrating 
that such a system is possible -- given that no such system
appears to be attested anywhere. 

> Similar distaste has
> marginalized the study of ideophones and their formulaic structure for
> decades.

Eh? I don't follow. Ideophones, in those languages that have them,
seem to me to have received a very decent amount of attention. For
example, the Comrie-Smith questionnaire, on which a whole series
of descriptive grammars has been based, devotes a section to ideophones,
and the authors writing in this format have dutifully provided such
information as they consider important, within the length limit of
their books. I hardly find it surprising that most such authors
regard the ideophones as an interesting but somewhat peripheral
aspect of the languages they are describing, and that they prefer
to devote most of their space to phonology, morphology and syntax.
Is there a natural language in which ideophones are plainly at least
as central as syntax? I doubt it. 
> Finally, it may be that the hypothesized inverted structure could have much
> in common with polysynthetic predicate structure- a nice zipped up recipe
> giving one just the relevant facts, fast.

Well, it might be nice if we could just say [om] to express "I've just
bought a nice second-hand canoe from the retiring chief at a knock-down
price", but there are limits here. Economy of expression is hardly
the only desirable virtue in speech. If it were, then we might long
since have expected every utterance in every language to be reduced
to a phonetic minimum. But speakers (and hearers) have other priorities,
and all those people who say things like "I'm, like -- well, sorta
gutted -- ya know what I mean?" clearly have their reasons. 

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad)
Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)
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