Analytic languages and their function. (4)

Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Sat May 27 21:56:16 UTC 2006

In a message dated 5/27/06 2:06:07 AM, amnfn at writes:
<< Why prepositions and syntax? It still seems as if you are imagining early 
language as a pidgin working its way up to a creole.>>

If by "pidgin" you mean a human language with the simplest possible grammar, 
that would be a good place to start.  In theory at least, what you have in a 
pidgin is humans building a language from scratch.  The forms that a pidgin 
takes would apparently indicate what steps are the first steps in establishing a 
comprehensible language among a human group.  Those first steps do not show 
full blown grammar.  Tense, for example, is often left out of the communication. 
 ("nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on tend to have only one invariant 
phonological form... The verbal root itself does not express any particular tense or 
aspect. When used in a clause, it is up to the listener to interpret this 
aspect of meaning in accord with the context.")  From that we might conclude that 
concepts like tense are on the next level of discrimination, after a basic 
common reference is established.  Whether they are later injected into the 
language by way of affixes or compounding or by way of syntax is another matter.

<<But animal cries, even those of our closest relatives, tend to be holistic, 
in the sense that a whole sentence is communicated with a single word, as is 
the case in the most synthetic of human languages. >>

Why start with animal cries?  Why not start with the rather sophisticated 
communal cooperation and communication that bees need to build a bee hive?  If 
anyone needs to communicate in "sentences," they do.  There are many better 
examples of animal communication than "cries."  There are many instances where a 
single signal can trigger all by itself a whole bevy of elaborate behaviors.  
These "single words" must embed very, very complex sentences indeed!

Whether or or not primates are speaking in synthetic languages and capable of 
expressing complex sentences in a single word, it looks pretty clear that 
humans, when they start languages from scratch, speak in something somewhat akin 
to what are called "analytic" languages. 

The obvious reason for this is that common reference must be established 
first.  Before we can communicate, we need to be confident that the words we use 
refer to the same things for both of us.  This is a condition precedent to all 
the nuances we find in modern human languages -- it is certainly a condition 
precedent to the situation we find in the highly synthetic Latin verb 
structure, in which a single verb can take 118 different forms.

As far as animal cries go, whether I'm yelling "Tiger!" or "Fire!," the 
shorthand really doesn't have too much to do with implied or encoded whole 
sentences.  The obvious use of the "word" is intended to have immediate behavioral 
consequences, not to mark tense, mood or aspect.  Analytic versus synthetic is 
really irrelevant.  Crying "tiger!" or "fire!" is simply making use of 
language's representational power.  The words are symbols standing in for the real 

More information about the Funknet mailing list