A linguistic taniwha? How real is it?

By SciBooks 10/04/2014

by Michael Corballistaniwha

REVIEW: How to Find a Taniwha
by Trevor Lloyd

Steele Roberts Publishers 2014
RRP: $24.99

A common view among linguists is that words are arbitrary, and in themselves convey no information as to what they mean. The word dog bears no physical relation to that friendly animal itself, in either sight or sound. The arbitrary nature of language was declared in the early 20th century by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky, the most prominent linguist of our time, has proclaimed that language cannot have evolved through natural selection because there is no relation between the linguistic symbols we use and what they represent. Language was formed by events in the brain.

Some words, though, do convey meaning through sound. These include onomatopoeic words such as cackle or fizz, or phonosthemes, which are words with initial clusters of consonants that provide a common aspect of meaning—examples are SN words like sniff, snigger, sneeze, snort, etc, that involve the nose, or CL words like clamber, claw, climb, cling, clutch, etc, that imply a tight grip. Onomatopoeia and phonosthemes are generally regarded as exceptions to the rule that words are arbitrary sounds that betray nothing of what they represent.

Trevor Lloyd, an amateur linguist, challenges this view, and aims to establish what he calls Universal Semantics—principles that link sound to meaning and that apply to all languages. Going beyond phonosthemes, he seeks to document the common meanings underlying words that share common initial sounds. In English, for example, many words beginning with the L sound share what he calls “display, manifestness, and conspicuous visibility”; these words include label, lady, lamp, language, lapel, launch, leaf, learn, lesson, letter, lift, light, line, list, livid, look, lump.

He suggests that in Māori, which has no L, it is the R words that share this same facet of meaning: ra (sun), rae (forehead), rahi (great, loud, many), rahui (sign of tapu), rakai (adorn), rangi (sky), rapu (search, look), rarangi (row), rau (blade, feather), reo (language), rere (escape, flee, fall, fly), roa (long, tall), runga (above, over). Lloyd trundles through the English and Māori dictionaries to construct a comprehensive list of what he calls the essential dimensions of meaning—“the taniwha lurking unseen in the murky depths of the languages” [p. 19].

There are two main difficulties here. First is what might be called the Rorschach problem—a tendency to see meaningful patterns even if none exists. If you were to read out the L words above to a naïve listener, or even to a linguist, how likely is it that they would perceive any commonality, let alone one that represents “display, manifestness or conspicuous visibility”? A sceptic might also note that few of Māori R words translate into the words in the English L list, or into words beginning with L.

Second is what might be termed the needle-in-the-haystack problem. There are some 7,000 different languages, each more or less opaque to every other, and Lloyd’s analysis can only skim the surface. He does recognise that English and Māori are historically distant, so that common principles of meaning might well be taken to imply universality. He nonetheless rejects the idea that commonalities, if such exist, might have arisen from a common historical source. Instead he supposes that they reflect a universal disposition of the human mind.

Over the course of time, languages have mutated, in much the same way that biological organisms have—perhaps even from a single source, sometimes referred to as Proto World. As peoples radiated out of Africa and across the globe, languages multiplied. In the process their origins probably dissolved, in part through the process known as conventionalisation. That is, any physical or sound-related basis of meaning was largely replaced by simpler or more convenient forms, maintained culturally rather than biologically. In this view, it is conventionalization that shifts words toward arbitrariness, rather than some cerebral big bang, as Chomsky seems to imply.

To establish the basis for meaning, then, we may need to dig deeper into the etymology of words, closer to the point where vocabularies emerged. My own suggestion has been that the origin of words lay in pantomime, and one can detect even in the recent evolution of sign languages a shift from pantomimic gesture to more arbitrary signs maintained through convention rather than visual enactment. But Lloyd may well be correct in seeking an auditory basis for meaning as well, even if his method of doing so may be less than optimal.

He is, in fact, not alone in seeking a universal core of meaning. He himself notes the well-known “bouba/kiki experiment,” in which people were asked which these otherwise meaningless words should be identified with a smooth rounded objects and which with a sharply jagged one. As the reader might well anticipate, bouba was linked to the former, kiki to the latter. The neuroscientist and polymath Vilyanur Ramachandran has suggest that word meaning may depend on synaesthesia—a built-in tendency to associate sounds with shapes.

I applaud Lloyd’s brave, if not altogether convincing, attempt to find a naturalistic basis for word meaning. I also applaud his defiance of Chomsky’s insistence that language evolved independently of the external environment. But he is less isolated than he evidently feels. There are now many of us trying to understand how language evolved in terms of naturalistic, Darwinian principles, and not as the result of some neurological miracle. He is welcome to the party.

Michael Corballis is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland. He has written extensively on the evolution of language. The idea that language evolved from manual gestures is spelled out in From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of language (Princeton University Press, 2002), and outlined in more accessible fashion in Pieces of Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain (Auckland University Press, 2011) and The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking (Auckland University Press, 2014)