Prosody-pragmatics rich language- the case of Piraha~?

jess tauber phonosemantics at
Thu May 25 23:34:11 UTC 2006

One can have a rough unidirectional cycle as a default, deflections from it resulting from a variety of factors, not least of which is arealism. But it might be better to imagine the cyclic relation in a larger scheme, so for instance by adding another dimension (say through the center of the cycle) you end up with a spiral. One might also consider allowing for subcycles within the larger supercycle which are still unidirectional, but don't encompass the entire set of possibilities. This would let a language 'backslide' typologically without violating unidirectionality.

Getting back to parts of my original post, I'm wondering whether its possible that lateralization and shared linguistic responsibilities cognition-wise could explain some of what has been found in Piraha~. Now while I don't KNOW for a fact, it will be my guess that the vast majority of brain-scan work and stroke studies (etc.) aimed at unlocking the neural basis of language have been done on a rather limited sample of subject languages. Of course if one assumes that all languages are processed in exactly the same way this shouldn't matter, and the Chomskyan tradition hasn't really bothered to challenge this assumption.

Thus we have (with a nod to Scott Delancey's 'physics envy') our very own linguistic 'Standard Model': Left hemisphere language processing (and we can safely ignore the right). Of course more and more evidence has been cumulating that the right does most things pragmatic, but since when does the Cambridge tradition care too much about that? Not really 'language'. The left hemisphere seems to like to concern itself with sequences of smallish manipulations and behavioral automaticizations, which of course is perfect for the development of grammatical morphology, creating simple symbol strings (at several levels) , etc. I'm kidding of course that things are this clean. But the trend is definitely there. Objectification of the world, into orderly patterns of small, easily chewable bites. Fixed particles as opposed to wildly dynamic force fields. Crystals.

Yet the idea of the right hemisphere as somehow more interested in global/holistic perspectives, in larger, clumsier manipulations also seems to have some merit. Here is the realm of give and take (perhaps more the latter), action and reaction (especially subjective/emotional), of discourse continuity, and humor, music, etc. Continually shifting contexts. Fields over particles. Effects can be spread over many individual manipulable objects, and the objects may themselves be partially broken down and spread out (and perhaps unrecognizable for anyone fixed on self-contained forms smaller than the whole).  Solutes.

Now obviously it takes the usual processes of both hemispheres to make language work, but there are questions about hemispheric dominance, either in absolute terms, or ordering, etc. Men tend to have more hemispheric laterization than women statistically- perhaps this comes into play in language structure as well? For instance in more synthetic languages we see left-hemisphere grammaticalization gone wild, and syntactic ordering 'relegated' more and more to pragmatic interpretations. This sounds a bit like increased lateral functional polarization- left gets grammar, right gets antigrammar, with much less crossover than 'middle ground' languages.

Note that polysynthetic languages tend to have relatively few ideophones- another indication that segmentality is being segregated to the grammatical side of the equation.  Polarization is left/right.

But what about isolating and/or analytical languages? Here grammatical and lexical class relations depend much more on prosody, larger ordering, negotiation. Much more crossover between the prosodic and the segmental, between the pragmantic and the grammatical. Much less polarization, at least between left and right. How about polarization between front/back (motor versus sensory halves of the brain)? The verb/noun distinction is often the last to go?

Here I'm delving into relatively uncharted territory. In addition to left/right and front/back polarization, there could also be top/bottom. Different pathways (used linguistically how?) have already been found along this axis, so it is possible. The homuncular mappings on the cortex have the feet on top, and the head on the bottom. I've already found in many languages of the 'bipartite construction' (involving instrument/bodypart and pathway/location affixation) there is often implicit in stem structure order a bias that splits the upper body (home of most of the instrument-relatable body parts) from the lower (home of those effectors that relate to path and location). Perhaps increased polarization of brain structure and processing in this dimension is involved in some way?

The last gross dimension to deal with (that I'm aware of- are there more?) is depth. Cortex versus deeper layers and centers. The cortex is a differentiation device (literally where I have to lay/spell it out for you). Integration for the cortex seems to depend on long-distance connections which vary over evolutionary time, including the corpus callosum linking the two hemispheres (which exhibits great variability in humans). Interestingly the right hemisphere seems to have much grosser division into functional units versus the left, which may go towards its more holistic functioning. Lower centers less finely differentiate, are more integrated. So for instance temporarily disabling the cortex seems to be an effective way to experience synaesthesia.

Given the way humans seem to operate (note how we lump certain body-centered spatial axes together- right/front/up versus left/down/back), one might try to do the same with the brain. So up (homuncular feet= down)/right (body left)/front (motor cortex- for most of evolutionary history body actions have been geared to pull or push things in the rearward direction- whether food (into us), mates (towards us), ground (away back), wastes, etc. We move forward, but the world moves the other way). 

Does the grosser/holistic versus finer/individuated distinction hold in each of these dimensions of the brain? How would increased or decreased functional polarity between them affect language structure and use? Can prioritizations between the poles be reversed (Alphonse versus Anatole)? Is there some sort of ordered sequence between the axes and poles that might help explain the linguistic cycle? And within each of these larger patternings are there smaller ones? For instance in the human arm gross but powerful motions get the arm moving ballistically, and finer and weaker ones are found as one moves distally (the hand itself has another axis of its own from thumb to pinkie finger)- similarly with most of the effectors of the external body (internally it may be the other way round- how does this affect how we view for instance phonological ontogeny in first language acquisition, and the actual sound symbolic values of the phonemes, which seem to follow?).

Piraha~ may simply be a relatively rare (in TODAY'S world) extreme form of allowed language variation. It might be that in times past many more languages were like it. What other variations have we missed because of sample errors beyond our control (diachronically, or probabilistically)? Beyond what counts as human language as-we-know-it, how can we reconcile other species' communication systems with our own? Is the gap unbridgeable, or are we just not taking a large enough view. Chomskyan thinking has tended to ignore the right hemisphere, and completely ignore the other possibly relevant structural/functional polarities in the brain. Certainly our brains are different to some extent from those of other animals, but theirs are also different from each other as well. How much goes to phylogeny and genes, and how much can be ascribed to socialization and personality? What are the limits of variation, and how are they fixed?

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at

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