Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Syntax of languages

  1. Mar 9, 2016 #1
    "Syntax is not unique to human language"
    "The power of language lies in combining meaningless sounds into words that in turn are combined into phrases"
    I'm looking at it from a different direction, wondering if words aren't based off of obvious instinctive sounds which are typical across the species?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 9, 2016 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Words are, fundamentally, based on sounds that are easily and naturally made by humans but I don't see how you can go farther than that. What is "natural and easy" to a South African bushman who very naturally makes a click sound in some words is literally impossible for adults from most other cultures to learn, and that's just one example of people training their vocal chords at an early age when things can be impressed on them that cannot be later impressed on them.

    Are these "easy and natural" sounds "instinctive". I don't think so. Exclamations are instinctive, language is developed. I am NOT, however, a student of linguistics so take what I say with a grain of salt.
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2016
  4. Mar 9, 2016 #3
    I'm not sure if this partially belongs to the kind of answer you are looking for. If it does, than I am not sure what exactly does it mean. However, this is something that came to my mind when thinking about your question
  5. Mar 9, 2016 #4
    Hi Sophie:

    Since you did not specify in your post which "word" goes with which figure,you may have a reason for not answering the following question.

    I am guessing that "maluma" goes with Fig 18 and "takete" with Fig 19. Is that correct?

    If this is correct, then I am guessing that most people, no matter what their native language is, will associate a smooth sound with the smooth curve, and a "plosive" sound with the ragged curve.

  6. Mar 10, 2016 #5
    Yes. And if it is true that most people regardless of their native language say the same, than it is possible that there might be some "natural" sounds or syllables that are used for certain objects in most languages.
    However I am not sure if this is what the OP asked
    And I can't provide more evidence
    My previous post should be only considered as a random thought in brainstorming
  7. Mar 10, 2016 #6
    Yes that is what I am pondering, on a more sophisticated level. I'm starting with a more simple ideas along those lines, but it seems to follow closely. What you said is similar to how comic strip "events" use words which "replicate" the sound of the event, for examples, "Thud", "ZAP", "boom", etc. I am also thinking about sounds people (or animals) make while doing different activities as well, like in martial arts for example, the sounds made are typical for any humans who master the proper techniques. Another point I'm considering is the change in tone people use to give words different context, like when offering someone something you can simply say the name of the item like a question. When someone asks what is in the container you are carrying you would say the same item in a different tone, as a declaration rather than an invitation.
  8. Mar 10, 2016 #7
    Maybe it would be a good idea to look at communication of primates. I've seen somewhere that they use gestures identical or at least similar to human like taping the shoulder or brief hand shaking /holding. Perhaps they create sounds that might be similar to most primitive human sounds? But I don't know anything about it, but I assume it could be useful in answering this question.
    I have a friend who is a linguist. I'll ask her if she knows anything about this topic.
  9. Mar 10, 2016 #8
    Awesome thanks a lot! I suppose a little more "background info" would help. Where I started this "quest" was in wanting to program an AI to play "go" against. I wanted to give this AI an observable yet simple personality and in doing so I wondered if I could keep it simple and "universal" so that anyone in any language might understand and on the other side of the coin perhaps the AI could pick up on key information from it's opponents language, within a basic contextual framework.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2016
  10. Mar 10, 2016 #9
    Now I see. So you are looking for the basic sounds it would make to express universally understandable emotions? And it would get info about the human from a microphone?
  11. Mar 10, 2016 #10
    Yes. Primarily the AI would get information from the plays it's opponent makes, and on a basic scale it would play just above an opponent's ability to keep the game competitive, and perhaps detect distraught or frustration to tweak it's aggressiveness.
  12. Mar 10, 2016 #11
    OK, I'll ask, but she does not specialise in this kind of things. But maybe she can at least recommend some sources.
  13. Mar 10, 2016 #12
    See edit above. I'm not sure exactly how far this will go in the future... I got as far as long range "universal" (interstellar alien species) communications (Yeah, that's as far "out there" as you can get I think but like I said starting simple, with big dreams...) I think facial features might be a significant part as well. What I am proposing is a uniquely interactive experience where the AI has an objectified presence in the game, where it can express its posture and sense its opponent's postures. Of course if this AI was pitted against "AlphaGo" or any emotionless efficient opponent it would simply be forced into logical domination. It's flexibility and and therefore it's personality would "unfold" from layers of deviation from perfection. The very top I think would be whether the opponent is distraught as in they know they made an inferior move or confident as if oblivious of a mistake. Subsequent moves would therefore unfold various possible branches dependent upon aggressive or defensive moves.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2016
  14. Mar 10, 2016 #13
    In a more scientific explanation, "thud" is relative velocity with an inelastic collision (th = moving thru air?, ud = sudden stop against something hard), "zap" is z = energy buzzing and ap = sudden concentrated discharge, "boom" is b ("buh"?) feels like pressure releasing quickly and oom = is the wave spreading, dissipating energy.
  15. Mar 11, 2016 #14
    Yes, but that explains at most 5% of it. For the most part they are arbitrary sounds, thinks I.
  16. Mar 13, 2016 #15
    I would think the process of assimilation of sounds over 1 million years of hominid evolution is rather complex. But I think at some level, we all have these natural sounds imprinted in or psyche.
  17. Mar 13, 2016 #16
    I think I have a simple enough base to work off of. I mean regardless of species, there seems to be the "universal" understanding that a growl means back off. What a growl consists of can vary wildly but the message between members of that species is fully aware when to say it or what is said by it. When you look at it as "necessity is the mother of invention" point of view the simplest set of language to be naturally selected would be the simplest and most efficient, developed into genetically reproduced offspring eventually born with instinctive sounds for a base. Perhaps sub-speicial differentiation exists as well but I believe the premise is strong.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2016
  18. Mar 15, 2016 #17
    I'm sorry, I asked but she can't help.
  19. Mar 15, 2016 #18
    Yeah, thanks for trying! I am realizing what is universal is simpler than language, more about tones and mannerisms...
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted