[PLUG-TALK] Speaking of linguistics ...

Rich Shepard rshepard at appl-ecosys.com
Mon Jun 1 07:48:58 PDT 2020

On Mon, 1 Jun 2020, Rich Shepard wrote:

> John and others might be interested in Johnson's language column in this
> week's Economist:
> <https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/05/28/is-music-a-language-as-stevie-wonder-sang
> He explores language and music and wether they have commonalities or one
> developed before the other.

Well, the entire article is not available to non-subscribers. So, for those
who aren't, here's the article:

Johnson: Is music a language, as Stevie Wonder sang? A comparison between
the two illuminates what is special about both

One of the liveliest debates in linguistics is over whether all languages
share fundamental properties. If so, perhaps language is a universal feature
of music.

Music and language seem intimately linked, but how? Did language start with
song, as Darwin believed? Or is music “auditory cheesecake” that developed
from language and other useful faculties, as Steven Pinker, a Harvard
psychologist, has said? Is music itself a language, as Stevie Wonder
intoned? Might the two be fundamentally the same?

Some similarities are obvious. Both can utilise the unique human vocal
tract. Both have a kind of beat. Both can express emotion. Both can be
either carefully composed or spontaneously improvised. And both are highly
social. Although the origin of music is unclear, it seems likely to have
involved celebration, communal worship or martial inspiration and

At a structural level the parallels are striking, too. With a ?nite set of
notes or words, and a finite set of rules, an inexhaustible variety of novel
melodies or sentences can be created. This “discrete infinity” is often said
to be the hallmark of human language. Animal communication, by contrast, is
only able to convey a limited number of thoughts (the location of a source
of food, for example, or the presence of a predator).

Aniruddh Patel of Tufts University has argued that music and language,
rather than being essentially the same, rely on the same bit of the brain.
In an experiment he presented his subjects with a sentence that contained a
grammatical trick (“The scientist confirmed the hypothesis was being studied
in his lab”), revealing one word at a time. The subjects were to press a
button for each word at their own pace. Many paused at the unexpected “was”.
“The scientist confirmed the hypothesis” seemed a complete sentence.

They also heard music as they performed this exercise. Some were treated to
a new chord in a pleasing progression with every word that was revealed.
Others heard a jarring chord at the moment they reached the trick word
“was”. Both groups slowed down—but those given the discordant notes did so
much more. Mr Patel hypothesises that this is because sentence structure,
and the structure of the harmony, draw on shared, limited resources in the

For all the overlap, there are big differences. Both music and language can
make you feel and even think, but only language is truly propositional. A
quip attributed to Bertrand Russell-—“no matter how eloquently a dog may
bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor but honest”—-might be
adapted for music. Language can express contingencies, pose counterfactuals
and talk about the future. Music’s nuances are of a diffrent order.

Another stark contrast lies in the range of human aptitude for each ability.
Nearly all children produce complex sentences by the age of three and become
fluent speakers just a few years after that. As adults, they create striking
and novel utterances every day. Conversely, only a minority of adults are
talented musicians; even fewer are skilled composers of new, hitherto
unheard works.

Victor Wooten, a bass player and music teacher, has an explanation for that
disparity. Children, he points out, learn to talk by being constantly
surrounded by linguistic virtuosos—fluent older speakers who, in musical
parlance, are “jamming” with the novices almost from birth. Their fumbling
efforts are encouraged. On the other hand, students of music often keep
company with other beginners, and are stopped every time they make a

It is not that simple, reckons Jay Keyser, an emeritus professor of
linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a jazz
trombonist. For him, music is not like spoken prose, which almost everyone
can do proficiently, but instead resembles a specific, rhythmic form of
language: poetry. And, he says, “most human beings are bad at poetry.” The
number of grammatical sentences is vast. But the number that are fit for
verse, in terms of both meaning and prosody, is much smaller. Finding those
is hard-—like composing music, or improvising jazz.

On Mr Keyser’s plausible view, using ordinary language is a less rarefied
talent than making music. But while it may not instil wonder and joy, as
music can, it is still a miracle-—just an everyday one.

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