Vowels in Vanuatu

March 24, 2000

In reviewing my book The Origins of Complex Language (Books, THES, February 11), Jacques Guy takes a swipe at academic linguistics, at least as pursued by people more or less influenced by Noam Chomsky. He thus conveys the impression that my scenario for language evolution is an example of mainstream "Chomskyan" thinking. That could scarcely be more wrong, given Chomsky's extreme reluctance to speculate about the evolutionary origins of language.

Guy is right in saying that, in some languages, many words can appear equally readily in verbal contexts and in nominal contexts. But that merely reinforces my argument. Even though the meaning of such words evidently does not impose verbal or nominal syntax, nevertheless verbal and nominal constructions are generally distinguished. Why should this distinction be so central, given that it is easy to conceive a kind of syntax that lacks it? That is a genuine puzzle.

Guy denies all languages have syllables because of the long consonant clusters found in Sakao of Vanuatu. But he undermines his own argument by acknowledging that vowels get inserted into these clusters "to facilitate pronunciation".

Guy complains about my use of concocted linguistic examples rather than ones drawn from text corpora. His rejection of one French example is ironic, then, since it is cited from a study of what can actually happen in French discourse, as opposed to what French speakers think can happen. But in any case his intuition that the example is unacceptable once again reinforces the point being made. If sentence structure originated as a way of encoding the distinction between "given" and "new" information, we would expect sentences whose entire content is "new" to have peculiar syntactic characteristics - which, however, they generally lack. In fact, one of the themes of the book is the difficulty of finding any basis in "thought structure" for certain fundamental characteristics of syntax, and the consequent need to seek explanations elsewhere.

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy

Associate professor in linguistics University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Noam Chomsky, page 18

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