Like “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” but more scientific!
Human language is probably more than One Weird Trick. It’s multiple weird tricks. We’ve already posted about phonemes, and how they can be strung together to make words. That’s (at least) one trick. And then words are strung together to make phrases and sentences: but there are a multiple weird tricks here as well. Consider this quotation from some language researchers:
Every human language sentence is composed of two layers of meaning: a lexical structure that contains the lexical meaning, and an expression structure that is composed of function elements that give shape to the expression. In the question, Did John eat pizza?, the lexical layer is composed of the words John, eat, pizza … The sentence also contains did, which has two functions: it marks tense, and by occurring at the head of the sentence, it also signifies a question. (Miyagawa et. al.)
The lexical level of language includes content words: nouns, most verbs, adjectives. The expressive level contains functional words (auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, articles, and so on), as well as tenses and other inflections, and even functional operations like moving around the parts of a phrase. We can think of a sentence like a piece of carpentry, a bookshelf, say. A typical bookshelf will consist of the parts that hold things up (shelves, sides, etc., analogous to lexical structure), and parts that fasten these parts together (dowels, screws, bolts, nuts, nails, glue, etc., analogous to expressive structure).
So language gets its open-ended expressive power by fastening together expressive and functional constructions in (more-or-less) alternating levels.
But there are other ways to build furniture. For example, here’s a desk with no fasteners. Instead, the load bearing parts have slots and tabs that fit together. This is simpler but less flexible than having boards and fasteners that you can put together however you see fit.
The analogy with language would be a protolanguage with nothing but content words – nouns, verbs, and adjectives, say – and lexical structure. The analogy works because verbs come with built in slots that nouns can fit into, even without any extra “fasteners” to hold them together. Linguists call this the “argument structure” of a verb. (Think about functions and their arguments if you’re into math or computer science.) For example fear and frighten are both transitive verbs, but they have different argument structures
- Carg fear thunder.
- Thunder frighten Carg.
In one case the experiencer goes in the subject slot, and the agent goes in the direct object slot. In the other case it’s the reverse. Some verbs, like burn, have more than one argument structure.
- Carg burn meat.
- Meat burn.
English verbs have some tens of different argument structures. (Note that I haven’t put any tense on the verbs. That would be part of expressive structure, which we’re leaving off here.)
So a protolanguage, one step along the way to a full blown language, could consist of a bunch of verbs and their argument structures, together with nouns slotted in the appropriate spaces as needed, and adjectives added to convey additional information. Is this what Neanderthal language was like? There is evidence that Neanderthal ancestors as far back as 430,000 years had hearing specialized for the frequencies of speech. (This is not the case with chimpanzees, or earlier hominins.*) But we don’t know yet how complex Neanderthal speech was. Eventually, as we figure out the genetics of language, we’ll find out. For now though, let’s make today – just about the last day on Logarithmic History that Neanderthals are around – “Talk Like a Neanderthal Day.”
Carg build shed. Carg nail trim today. Carg publish blogpost now. Tonight Carg dance. Goodbye!
*My spellchecker keeps changing “hominins” to “hominids.” Get with the 21st century, spellchecker!