Origins of Complex Language

by Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy

September 19th, 2008

Subtitled 'An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth', this book offers some serious linguistics. Although it isn't loaded with academic terminology, it's definitely not for beginners. I found it quite a slog. The author isn't a particularly lucid writer, and he's tackling some very difficult material. There's an entire chapter on "Truth and Reference", with sections on Frege, Wittgenstein, Strawson, and Plato. This ain't your pop linguistics.

My problem with the book is that the author's approach is more philosophical than linguistic. Although his doctorate is in linguistics, the book reeks of the philosopher's worldview. And, to be honest, I just can't abide them philosophers; in Abe Lincoln's words, they manage to pack more words into fewer ideas than anybody I've ever known. The author of this book wrings his hands over endlessly trivial issues. Perhaps the problem arises from the need philosophers have to prove their cases. Science doesn't work that way; it instead relies on developing a hypothesis, assembling a lot of supporting material, and answering all the objections to the hypothesis. Science never attempts to prove any hypothesis, but philosophy seems to lack the confidence to rely solely on a preponderance of evidence -- philosophers seem obsessed with the need to prove their claims even when proof is unobtainable. So they just talk it to death.

When considering philosophy, I am reminded of the stupid old joke about the engineer and the mathematician. They find themselves marooned on a desert island with an extremely attractive young woman. She declares that she will accept as mate anybody who reaches her by moving half the distance toward her, then half the remaining distance, then half the remaining distance and so forth. The mathematician throws up his hands and admits that the challenge is impossible. The engineer leaps forward saying "It won't be long before, for all practical purposes, I'm close enough!" When I read philosophers, I feel like that engineer.

There are plenty of useful ideas in the book. I learned a lot about syllable structure. Every syllable has a beginning, middle, and end (although he just can't use such simple terminology: he has to call them
onset, nucleus, and coda, and make the matter even more complicated by adding two new terms, mora (the combination of onset and nucleus) and rhyme (the combination of nucleus and coda). Isn't it wonderful how a scholar can take a simple idea like beginning, middle, and end, and make it impressively erudite? It turns out that humans have strong predilections for our syllable structure: the middle is always a vowel, and we much prefer to place our consonants at the beginning rather than the end of the syllable. Quite a few languages shun syllables with consonants on the end. Japanese is such a language: To-kyo, Hi-ro-shi-ma, Na-ga-sa-ki, Fu-ji, and so on. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are infrequent.

There's also a concept called sonority that organizes phonemes (the sounds we make: vowels and consonants) into a hierarchy. The vowels hog the top of the hierarchy while consonants lie at the bottom. Semivowels ('y' as in 'yuck' and 'w' as in 'wait') fall between vowels and consonants. Liquid consonants (l and r) are higher than nasals (m and n), which are higher than plosives (t and d, p and b, k and g). This hierarchy determines how consonants are assembled in a syllable. Every syllable always monotonically increases in sonority until it reaches the vowel, then monotonically decreases in sonority. For example, the syllable tramp is legal: each and every phoneme follows the rising or descending sonority rule. However, the syllable rtapm doesn't work, because t has lower sonority than r, and m has higher sonority than p. So when we combine syllables, we naturally break them up according to these rules. 'Detrampoline' is a plausible word with syllables de-tramp-o-line, but 'dertapmoline' would be broken up as der-tap-mo-line.

Unfortunately, this material was all concentrated in a few pages in the middle of the book. There wasn't much more than really grabbed my interest. Perhaps I'm just too dumb to appreciate the subtlety of this book.