Eating or Being Eaten

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

  • The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution by James Hurford
    Oxford, 791 pp, £37.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 920787 9

How did human beings develop the capacity to speak, and to speak such complex languages? That is the question that James Hurford, emeritus professor of general linguistics at Edinburgh, has sought to answer. The Origins of Meaning, published in 2007, looked at animals’ cognitive representations of the world, their part in the evolution of abstract thought, and the limits of their communication with each other. The Origins of Grammar tells how human beings broke away from other animals to develop that capacity.

In the first section he deals with the pre-conditions of syntax or ‘pre-grammar’. He notes, among other examples of animal behaviour, that the honeybee indicates the direction and distance of food by varying the angle of its posture and the length of its waggle-dance; that the calls of male chaffinches combine territorial challenges addressed to other males with invitations addressed to females, and that those of Campbell’s monkeys have components with specific meanings that can be combined (always in the same order) to express new meanings. But although certain messages can be conveyed and intelligently responded to, there is a limit on both content and complexity. The findings are tested against the Formal Language Theory based on the hierarchy of language types drawn up in Chomsky’s early papers: the animals’ communication systems are found wanting for their inability to generate complex meanings, but Formal Language Theory too is found wanting for its neglect of quantitative constraints and semantics.

The suggestion that syntax and semantics may have evolved independently at first then combined leads to the study of the first shared lexicon, the commonalty of unitary learned symbols that resulted from the convergence of individual expressive choices into a socially accepted pattern, and that preceded combination ‘in meaningful expressions with grammatical shape’. Hurford’s investigation of the origins of the shared lexicon takes in theories of synaesthesia, which claim that, for example, high front vowels, particularly i-sounds, are associated with proximity or femaleness, owing to the higher pitch at which such vowels tend to be uttered. He also considers conventional sound symbolism theory, according to which new words are created with phonetic resemblance to old ones of similar meaning. But even at their strongest, such theories can account for only a few words within the total vocabulary of individual languages. Even in antiquity it was debated whether words had their meanings by nature or convention, as when Nigidius Figulus, in the first century bc, attempted to correlate first and second person pronouns with their mode of articulation. Hurford touches on this topic, noting that the association of particular sounds with those pronouns is fairly well marked within language families but not uniform across the world; he also remarks on the tendency for words meaning ‘mother’ to begin with m or n, and those meaning ‘father’ to begin with p or t, unfortunately without noting that in Georgian ‘father’ is mama and ‘mother’ deda, or that these associations do not protect a consonant against phonetic change: to Latin pater correspond English father, Armenian hayr, and Irish athair, all in accordance with the transformation of Indo-European p.

In the second section of the book, Hurford sets about establishing what our ability to learn languages consists in. Human beings have the capacity for massive storage of vocabulary; for combining words into phrases and phrases into sentences; for morphologically combining units of meaning into single words (from the simple inflections of English to the multiply affixed single words of Inuit or Turkish); for categorising words and phrases into such classes as noun and verb, noun phrases and verb phrases; for identifying grammatical relations; for recognising dependences between words some distance apart; for forming constructional templates whose variables may be given specific values (X was Y’d by Z, for instance, which is treated as a construction in its own right rather than derived from Z Y’d X); and for observing the so-called ‘island constraints’ that limit the possibility of separating words that semantically belong together.

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