Further biological/linguistic parallels??

jess tauber phonosemantics at earthlink.net
Sun Mar 26 00:12:13 UTC 2006

I want to broach another possible parallelism between biological and linguistic organization. Whether it has any reality I can't say.

Words obviously have more going on than just their form and meaning- there are all the various class memberships, collocational privileges and statistics, understandings of where and when they are properly or improperly used, and so on. All the things that make NLP so easy!

Gene products- proteins, various RNA's- are not purely linear after transcription or translation. They fold into 2 and 3 dimensional shapes (4 if these shapes time-vary). These higher dimensional shapes, distributing mass, energy, charge, and so on, depend on internal and external interactions for their folding instructions, which can be either based on the amino acid sequence or on long-distance interactions, either within the string, or between strings, or with other molecular species and groupings.

Some of these folds with their charges, solubilities, shapes naturally fit together with others. Because of external and long distance internal interactions, complete prediction of three-dimensional protein conformation for most proteins has been impossible just using sequence data, and it will stay that way until we have complete interactive maps of entire 'proteomes' (coming soon to a laboratory near you!). Some simple sequences, though, have conformations that are predictable.

Could it be that something analogous goes on with languages? My own work on ideophones shows that their form/meaning mapping is usually very crisp, and based on the internal symmetries of the used portion of the phonological inventory of the language. They evolve into normal lexical roots (at least some of them do, with attrition perhaps reflecting some sort of Darwin-style selection for the new function?), just as similar selection goes on in the evolution of grams from lexical items.

As roots lexicalize they lose some of their form/meaning transparency (at least as concerns the 'meaning' of the root in terms of external, real world meaning). Is this simply disappearing, or is there perhaps a transferrence of function, where some of the phonology now starts coding lexical properties? Similarly, do grammaticalizing forms utilize some of their phonology to encode grammatical and later pragmatic meaning?

I'm not suggesting that if this were true that there would only be one single universal pattern that all languages would adhere to- even in ideophones there are different patterns that seem to depend on the shape of the phonology, and different feature prioritizations. Thus in the path from form/meaning mapping isomorphism in ideophones through possible shift in lexemes to grams with remapping there may be many possible trajectories that different languages may take, but not perhaps an infinite number. I am reminded here of the color-term schemes of Berlin and Kay and later workers.

The parallel to biology might be the creation of higher level form/function mappings which operate in greater numbers of dimensions than the very basic form/meaning type found in ideophones. We have only the external signals to look at- how all this would be instantiated in living brains would be useful to know.

With functional shift there seems to be a drift also from the segmental to the prosodic. Could the opposition between the phonological types be relatable to the differences between biopolymer types? One might have to involve hydrocarbon and sugar polymers as well in the comparison. I may have mentioned that sugar polymers have been recently hypothesized to consitute a kind of mailing-address system for complex cells and organisms. Membrane hydrocarbons create all the working surfaces of cells, partial or complete boundaries between compartments, thus linking them intimately to any putative address system. 

I guess for most of you such musings as the above bear little resemblance to linguistics-as-we-know-it. Hoping for a little debate in any case, given the paucity of what has shown up so far. Hey, T.G., I know you're out there somewhere. Been awfully quiet. This should be right up your alley.

Jess Tauber

More information about the Funknet mailing list