From words to phrases

It is time to talk about the genesis of the language. No, not about how Latin has turned into French, but about the very first language coming into existence. Out of nowhere.

Speaking of language genesis, we will only discuss spoken varieties. Makes sense: spoken languages predate written considerably, and there are no attested early written languages. Also, we are going to name every proto-language. No need to say, that those funny names are unofficial, completely made up. Preface is over.

Dryopithec language – the very beginning

The rise of the language was the moment when our early ancestors attempted to use sounds for conveying information to each other. It started when people began to live in packs and found out how useful sounds were to draw one’s attention. That was the original function of the proto-language: someone produced some sounds and people around knew that he/she needed attention. What exactly does he/she needed – not specified. Somewhat similar to “Hey!”.

Although there could be several sounds. Say, woooo meant that the speaker needs attention, and aaaar meant that it’s time to be afraid/alarm (say, a predator came). Two proto-words. Note that their pronunciation could vary a lot. Woooo could in fact have been pronounced as boooo, or woooooo. Or anything at all, as long as it can be told apart from aaaar*.

*All modern language work the same. “Human” can be pronounced as “humin” or “khuman”. When we say a word, it’s not about doing it perfectly (for the record, “perfect” pronunciation is undefined), but to make it distinguishable from other words.

A modern example of Dryopithec language is the language that a cat speaks to a human: there is a sound (meow), that is used to draw attention. The exact meaning is deduced from the situation: if meow was said near a dish, it translates as “gimme some food”, if near a closed door, then as “hey u, open it fo’ me!”. If in other situation, then “hey u, I want something, go guess what it is!”. There are other proto-words that a cat speaks: there is meow, but there also are rrroar and purr. They mean something different. And also, notice how meow is different from time to time: sometimes it’s longer, sometimes it’s louder. But as long as it’s different enough from rrroar and purr, we can understand it.

Australopithec language – the true words

Those carbon-dated people had been enjoying the Dryopithec language, drawing each others’ attention with one-three proto-words while conveying the rest with mimics or whatever. What happened next?

Assume some Dryopithec named Lo-lo-lo usually calls for others for one of three reasons:

а) When he needs help to collect some fruit (in that case he stands by fruit-trees and yells woooo)
b) When he needs to attract a female (in that case he yells woooo, and if a female looks back at him, he gives her a wink, and if a male, he throws him a frown),
c) When he needs help to dig a pit (he starts a pit on his own, and then yells woooo).

I have mentioned that woooo has parallel pronunciations: wooooooo, boooo, woo-woo, goooo etc. Subconsciously, Lo-lo-lo starts to tie a specific pronunciation to a specific case: boooo – to apples, woo-woo – to females, goooo – to pits. It’s handy: no more need to say woooo standing by a started pit. Now Lo-lo-lo says goooo, and everybody instantly knows what he wants. He could say woo-woo instead of woooo and don’t distract busy males – the call has nothing to do with them, or has it? Why boooo specifically for apples? Who knows – it’s all random. He felt like calling it boooo once and it stuck. Maybe he felt that [b] sound sounds sort-of-applish. In time, the rest of the tribe will get used to the fact that he never uses boooo unless it is related to apples. Perhaps, even start using the same sounds as well: not only Lo-lo-lo needs help with apples. So three words appeared in the community.

A word is a fixed letter/sound combo associated with a certain object of thought. The use of the word instantly brings the image of the object up in the head of a listener.

So, our three new words would be:

boooo – apples
woo-woo – female (an address word)
goooo – pit-digging

And the list continued to expand from then on.

Q: It’s not clear how could one just assign a word to an object out of nowhere.

Children sometimes do so. Imagine, a child with friends found an unknown object (say, a rusty gear). He/she needs to get the friends’ attention. So he/she says: “Guys, look at the rookah I finded!” When found an unknown thing, he/she just assigned some random sounds to it. And children’s memory is sticky: said once – remembered. So will the friends. Perhaps, they’ll even call gears “rookahs” for a very long time, before adults tell them the correct word for it.

In adults, such mechanism of word-generation is off, and for naming unknown things there’s a word “thing” reserved. Problem is, very little children might not even understand the concept of “thing” word. They might use the word specifically for those things that you’ve called “things” in their presence.

P.S. The original Dryopithec word woooo was in fact the “thing” word – used for everything. Then it started to branch into more specific vocabulary.

Neandertal language – first phrases

Australopithec language was quite effective in communication. Any thought of any complexity was sayable. Some examples:

Goooo – pit-digging
Goooz – a pit
Gogoz – a deep pit
Gooooogoz – deep-pit-digging
Gogota – a non-deep pit

Anything you want, any subtleties of thought. Need to talk about mammoth hunting? Fine, let’s introduce a word tubuzaz. Now everyone knows it means mammoth hunting. Why not as well introduce some “specific” words. Say, gibizaz will be a specific pit of Lo-lo-lo, to the right from his cave. Gibizub – his other pit. Whenever people say gibizaz or gibizub, people instantly know that particular property of Lo-lo-lo is meant.

There, however, an obvious problem exists: the qty of things we can think about is infinite, isn’t it? While the qty of words we could introduce is limited. I personally know people who cannot learn how to spell a few thousand words, while Australopithec language speakers had to name millions of objects: every tree in the forest, heaps of emotions, actions. Every event. What to do?

Now we illustrate the first solution to the problem. Say, we have two objects, and we have to name them (in English, this time):

Два квадрата

The left object is ‘square’, isn’t it? And the right one? Also ‘square’ It’s difference from the left object is trifling (unless we do geometry class), and we can overlook it.

Such overlooking happens all the time in languages – a powerful ability of the languages to name different, but similar objects with the same word. Normally, each word has some “ideal” object attached to it, so called ‘type specimen’ of the word. For ‘square’, it would be a square without defects, like the left one. An infinite amount of other squares we can compare to the “ideal”, overlook their small dissimilarities (in our example, an absent segment at the top-right), and call them ‘squares’ as well. This is called abstraction.

Neandertal speakers used abstraction as well: named a tree pirokoki, and all other trees became pirokoki as well. Okay, they were different from the original pirokoki, sometimes, considerably (have you ever seen two similar trees in a forest?). But the differences, large or small, are not something Neandertals were concerned about in daily business, hence, they could neglect them. Abstract from them.

Abstraction is working whenever we speak, always. There are no two identical apples, persons, sheets, whatever. Yet we refer to them like if they were.

Read more on type specimen

But what if we need to tell the difference? Look at these circles:

Два круга

Obviously, we could call them both a ‘circle’, using abstraction. But, perhaps, colour in this case is important, and we have to tell the difference.

Solution one: just call them ‘red’ and ‘green’, thus abstracting from their shape.

Solution two: assign two new words to each of the objects. ‘Circlred’ and ‘circlgreen’, say. In the result, both objects will become new type specimen to the corresponding words.

But there is a better option: allow words to group with each other.

A group of words AKA a phrase, is the use of several words to name a single object. Examples:

Green circle – this one is not _ and ◯ at the same time. It’s , a single object.
Cabin in the woods – an object of a cabin, surrounded by woods. Probably, some would imagine the cover of the movie Again – one object, not two or four.

Phrases are the important part of languages, that allows us to name an infinite qty of diverse objects using a limited vocabulary. Each of those phrases corresponds to ONE object, not several, it must be clear. A check: every phrase in fact can be replaced with a single phrase. Every phrase! Examples: horned beast = deer, elongated yellow fruit from a tree = banana. Rectangular parallelogram = rectangle. Three cm long and three cm high rectangle = square (we abstracted from the exact values to call it with a single word). A phrase “a beautiful three-room apartment of my neighbour Melody” is a tricky one: we cannot call it with a single word without overlooking too much detail. Why? Because a word for such an object is simply non-invented in English. No problem, let’s call it ‘melodipartment’. From now on, every time I say ‘melodipartment’, I mean the exact flat, and every time I hear it, the exact image of the flat pops up in my head. But languages do not work for vocabulary expansion – our memory sucks. Luckily, we have a better tool – phrases! “Calling one thing with many words.”
*The opposite is also true: any single word can be rephrased as a phrase. Even such a “complete” object like a hair can be described. If necessary, we can list every atom of its. All objects can be divided into subobjects, or unite into superobjects – that’s the property of both the reality and cognition.

By the way, abstraction works in phrases just as well. Saying “apples eaten by us”, we overlook the time it took to consume them, the sort of the apples, the size. No matter how deep we sink into detailing, infinite amount of detail will still be lost. A language is a discreet structure. It is naturally incapable to describe a continuous object of the reality in its fullness, even if we spend 500 pages to describe a single apple.

The quote of the day: The art of language is about truncating irrelevant detail and emphasizing the most important.

From abstraction, there is a consequence: the same object can be named with infinite qty of words or phrases. The particular room I am in now can be called either of those: a room, my room, Tony’s room, comfy room, living room, comfy room with purple walls, warm room etc. The phrase/word of choice depends on the abstraction I’d prefer.

To be continued…


Further reads

Next: From Phrase to Sentence
All articles on speculative linguistics

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