Daily Archives: July 1, 2018

Hits, slides, and rings

Part of the challenge of language is coming up with some way to distinguish thousands or tens of thousands of words from one another. It would be hard to come up with that many unique sounds. What human languages do instead is to come up with phonemes and rules for stringing phonemes together into syllables, and then create words by arbitrarily pairing up one syllable, or a few, with a meaning. Phonemes are the individual sounds of a language, roughly comparable to individual letters. There are about forty phonemes in most dialects of English. (English spelling does a pretty sloppy job of matching up phonemes and letters. Finnish comes close to one phoneme per letter.)

Often in evolution organisms don’t solve new problems from scratch, but instead harness preexisting adaptations. I argued earlier that the abstract “space” of possession (“The Crampden estate went to Reginald.”) may have developed by harnessing preexisting concepts of physical space. And our abilities to recognize speech sounds may harness our preexisting capacities for recognizing the sounds of solid objects interacting. At least that’s the argument of a recent book by Mark Changizi, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.

Changizi notes that even though we’re mostly not aware of it, we’re very good at using our hearing to keep track of what’s going on in our physical surroundings. For example, people easily recognize the difference between someone going upstairs and someone going downstairs, and we’re pretty good at recognizing individuals by their treads. The sounds that solid objects make can be broadly categorized as hits, slides, and rings. Hits: one object collides with another and sends out a sharp burst of sound. Slides: an object scrapes against another and sends out a more extended sound. Rings: an object reverberates after a collision. Changizi argues that these correspond to the major categories of phonemes.

  • Hits = plosives, like p b t g k
  • Slides = fricatives, like s sh th f v z
  • Rings = sonorants, including sonorant consonants, like l r y w m n, and vowels

These are not the only sounds we can make with our mouths. We can do barks and pops and farts and so on. But our auditory systems are especially cued into solid object physics, so when we try to come up with easy-to-distinguish phonemes, that’s what we focus on. And a lot of rules about how phonemes hook up also follow from this principle – for example hits followed by rings are more common than the reverse.

There’s surely more going on with speech sounds than Changizi allows for. But if imitating nature is not the whole story of phonemes, it may at least be where they got started.

Later on when we talk about writing systems, we’ll see there’s a similar argument about how these are tuned to tickle our primate visual systems.

Speech sounds

Below are some reflections on language. There will be plenty more in days to come. For a science-fictional take on language, try Octavia Butler’s account of a world where language has disappeared, Speech Sounds. It’s one of her best. It won science fiction’s Hugo Award for best short story in 1984.

We’re now six months through the year 2018 at Logarithmic History. We raced through time at the rate of 754 million years a day on January 1. December 31 we’ll cover just one year per day. Today, June 30, covers 29,037 years, from 531,725 to 502,688 years ago.

By today’s date, the universe is a lot more complicated than when we started. As we mentioned before, one of the major sources of complexity is the origin of new discrete combinatorial systems, made of small units that can be combined into larger units that have different properties than their constituents. Elementary particles are the first discrete combinatorial system to appear, already present in the early moments of the Big Bang. The different chemical elements are another major discrete combinatorial system. It took billions of years for enough heavy atoms, beyond hydrogen and helium, to accumulate from stellar explosions, allowing the complex chemistry and geology that we know on Earth. It may be that the paucity of heavy elements in the early Universe is what prevented earlier planetary systems from developing complex life.

With the origin of life comes another discrete combinatorial systems, or rather two connected systems: nucleotides strung together to make genes, which code for amino acids strung together to make proteins.

For the second half of the Logarithmic History year, we’ll be spending a lot of time looking at the consequences of another discrete combinatorial system: language. Or maybe, as with genes-and-proteins there are really two systems here: words strung into phrases and sentences, and concepts strung together into complex propositions in a Language of Thought.

The origin of modern human is one of the major transitions in evolution, comparable to the origin of eukaryotic cells, or of social insects. Language is crucial here: ants organize high levels of cooperation by secreting pheromones. Humans organize by secreting cosmologies.