Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral

One could argue for an underlying connection between voice-hearing, formulaic language, and musical ability. This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, as this has everything with the hemispheric division of neurocogntive functioning.

It is enticing to consider the possibility that language originally developed out of or in concert with music, the first linguistic expression having been sing-song utterances. And it is fascinating to imagine that the voices of gods, ancestors, etc might have spoken in a formulaic musicality. I remember reading about a custom, as I recall in pre-literate Germany, of people greeting each other with traditional (and probably formulaic) poems/rhymes. When I came across that, I wondered if it might have been a habit maintained from an earlier bicameralism.

Maybe poetic and musical language was common in most pre-literate societies. But by the time literacy comes around to write down languages, those traditions and the mindsets that go with them might already be severely on the decline. That would mean little evidence would survive. We do know, for example, that Socrates wanted to exclude the poets from his utopian Axial Age (i.e., post-bicameral) society.

Spoken language with rhymes or rhythm is dangerous because it has power over the human mind. It speaks to (or maybe even from) something ancient dwelling within us.

* * *

Rajeev J Sebastian: “Found this very interesting paper that suggests differences between grammatical language and so-called “formulaic” language and the link between melody/music and “formulaic” language … echoes of [Julian Jaynes’] theory in there.”

Ed Buffaloe: “It makes me wonder if communication in bicameral men may have been largely through right-brain-controlled formulaic language.”

Tapping into neural resources of communication: formulaic language in aphasia therapy
by Benjamin Stahl & Diana Van Lancker Sidtis

Decades of research highlight the importance of formulaic expressions in everyday spoken language (Vihman, 1982; Wray, 2002; Kuiper, 2009). Along with idioms, expletives, and proverbs, this linguistic category includes conversational speech formulas, such as “You’ve got to be kidding,” “Excuse me?” or “Hang on a minute” (Fillmore, 1979; Pawley and Syder, 1983; Schegloff, 1988). In their modern conception, formulaic expressions differ from newly created, grammatical utterances in that they are fixed in form, often non-literal in meaning with attitudinal nuances, and closely related to communicative-pragmatic context (Van Lancker Sidtis and Rallon, 2004). Although the proportion of formulaic expressions to spoken language varies with type of measure and discourse, these utterances are widely regarded as crucial in determining the success of social interaction in many communicative aspects of daily life (Van Lancker Sidtis, 2010).

The unique role of formulaic expressions in spoken language is reflected at the level of their functional neuroanatomy. While left perisylvian areas of the brain support primarily propositional, grammatical utterances, the processing of conversational speech formulas was found to engage, in particular, right-hemisphere cortical areas and the bilateral basal ganglia (Hughlings-Jackson, 1878; Graves and Landis, 1985; Speedie et al., 1993; Van Lancker Sidtis and Postman, 2006; Sidtis et al., 2009; Van Lancker Sidtis et al., 2015). It is worth pointing out that parts of these neural networks are intact in left-hemisphere stroke patients, leading to the intriguing observation that individuals with classical speech and language disorders are often able to communicate comparably well based on a repertoire of formulaic expressions (McElduff and Drummond, 1991; Lum and Ellis, 1994; Stahl et al., 2011). An upper limit of such expressions has not yet been identified, with some estimates reaching into the hundreds of thousands (Jackendoff, 1995). […]

Nonetheless, music-based rehabilitation programs have been demonstrated to directly benefit the production of trained expressions in individuals with chronic non-fluent aphasia and apraxia of speech (Wilson et al., 2006; Stahl et al., 2013; Zumbansen et al., 2014). One may argue that the reported progress in the production of such expressions depends, at least in part, on increased activity in right-hemisphere neural networks engaged in the processing of formulaic language, especially when considering the repetitive character of the training (cf. Berthier et al., 2014).

* * *

Music and Dance on the Mind

Over at Ribbonfarm, Sarah Perry has written about this and similar things. Her focus is on the varieties and necessities of human consciousness. The article is “Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture“. It’s a longer piece and packed full of ideas, including an early mention of Jaynesian bicameralism.

The author doesn’t get around to discussing the above topics until about halfway into the piece. It’s in a section titled, “Hiving and Rhythmic Entrainment”. The hiving refers to Jonathan Haidt’s hive hypothesis. It doesn’t seem all that original of an understanding, but still it’s an important idea. This is an area where I’d agree with Haidt, despite my other disagreements elsewhere. In that section, Perry writes that:

Donald Brown’s celebrated list of human universals, a list of characteristics proposed to be common to all human groups ever studied, includes many entries on music, including “music related in part to dance” and “music related in part to religion.” The Pirahã use several kinds of language, including regular speech, a whistling language, and a musical, sung language. The musical language, importantly, is used for dancing and contacting spirits. The Pirahã, Everett says, often dance for three days at a time without stopping. They achieve a different consciousness by performing rituals calibrated to evoke mental states that must remain opaque to those not affected.

Musical language is the type of evidence that seems to bridge different aspects of human experience. It has been argued that language developed along with human tendencies of singing, dance, ritual movement, communal mimicry, group bonding, and other social behaviors. Stephen Mithen has an interesting theory about the singing of early hominids (The Singing Neanderthal).

That brings to mind Lynne Kelly’s book on preliterate mnemonic practices, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. Kelly goes into great detail about the practices of the Australian Aborigines with their songlines, which always reminds me of the English and Welsh beating of the bounds. A modern example of the power of music is choral singing, which research has shown to create non-conscious mimicry, physical synchrony, and self-other merging.

* * *

Development of Language and Music

Did Music Evolve Before Language?
by Hank Campbell, Science 2.0

Gottfriend Schlaug of Harvard Medical School does something a little more direct that may be circumstantial but is a powerful exclamation point for a ‘music came first’ argument. His work with patients who have suffered severe lesions on the left side of their brain showed that while they could not speak – no language skill as we might define it – they were able to sing phrases like “I am thirsty”, sometimes within two minutes of having the phrase mapped to a melody.

Theory: Music underlies language acquisition
by B.J. Almond, Rice University

Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language.

“Spoken language is a special type of music,” said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”

* * *

Music and Dance on the Mind

In singing with a choral group or marching in an army, we moderns come as close as we are able to this ancient mind. It’s always there within us, just normally hidden. It doesn’t take much, though, for our individuality to be submerged and something else to emerge. We are all potential goosestepping authoritarian followers, waiting for the right conditions to bring our primal natures out into the open. With the fiery voice of authority, we can be quickly lulled into compliance by an inspiring or invigorating vision:

[T]hat old time religion can be heard in the words and rhythm of any great speaker. Just listen to how a recorded speech of Martin Luther King jr can pull you in with its musicality. Or if you prefer a dark example, consider the persuasive power of Adolf Hitler for even some Jews admitted they got caught up listening to his speeches. This is why Plato feared the poets and banished them from his utopia of enlightened rule. Poetry would inevitably undermine and subsume the high-minded rhetoric of philosophers. “[P]oetry used to be divine knowledge,” as Guerini et al states in Echoes of Persuasion, “It was the sound and tenor of authorization and it commanded where plain prose could only ask.”

Poetry is one of the forms of musical language. Plato’s fear wasn’t merely about the aesthetic appeal of metered rhyme. Living in an oral culture, he would have intimately known the ever-threatening power and influence of the spoken word. Likewise, the sway and thrall of rhythmic movement would have been equally familiar in that world. Community life in ancient Greek city-states was almost everything that mattered, a tightly woven identity and experience.

8 thoughts on “Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral

  1. I read somewhere that Croce denied the theory that all language was once poetry ( though that would be a fascinating, though maddening world. Perhaps a short story along the lines of Ligotti’s “Spectacles in the Drawer” could deepen that, with an excess of beauty necessarily meaning an excess of the horrific) . Croce also considers whether a famous writer of the Renaissance speaking instructions to a servant was also speaking in “prose” at that moment; short answer is “no” , but then his process of getting there is intriguing, as it involves his theory of art being derived from “intuition”; the only difference from artistic intuition to ordinary intuition is a quantitative one– we all have intuition, though we don’t all express that intuition in concrete form as artists do. I’m hoping for more on language, since that is a particularly “plastic’ medium for expression. I’d look for quotes but I only have the audiobook ( librivox has some great stuff!) and it’s about 25 chapters long.

    • Why did Croce deny that? I assume he was responding to someone who made that claim. What was his evidence or argument? Where did he think language originated? Is the book you’re referring to “Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic”?

      I don’t recall that story by Ligotti. My reading of Ligotti has been random. And I haven’t read him recently. But the excess of beauty corresponding to horror would resonate with the quality of awe and fascination within Burke’s moral imagination.

      • It was from his intellectual forebear, Giambattista Vico– From Stanford Encyclopedia’s Croce entry 8, “Identity of Art and Language”: “Vico was the first to recognize the aesthetic as a self-sufficient and non-conceptual mode of knowledge, and famously he held that all language is substantially poetry. The only serious mistake in this that Croce found was Vico’s belief in an actual historical period when all language was poetry; it was the mistake of substituting a concrete history for ‘ideal history’ (Aes. 232).”

        Croce also identifies meaning as existing at the level of the sentence, which might have something to do with it. Of course this might need revision with new data on other culture’s use of languages. The part that I find interesting is his assertion that all art, including the visual arts, is a form of language. What I’d like to know more of is how this relates to poetry, since non-poetry can have poetic elements and vice versa. This sort of parallel crops up a lot in his writing, like his designation of the “greatest” artists as neither solely Classical nor Romantic, but both at once and more, even before Romanticism was formally recognized as a movement.

        • Below is some related info about language, music, and art.

          There is the importance of movement in space, surface and sound, patterns in the environment, the living world that surrounds us. The emergent forms of language-art-music wouldn’t be easily recognizable for what they are, for the evidence remaining has all cultural context lost. But there is some potentially insightful speculations on the matter.

          Also, more along the lines of Jayne’s authorization, of interest might be Pascal Quignard’s book “Hatred of Music” which I’ve been meaning to write a post about. He discusses language. His book is a modern version of Plato’s fear of the poets.


          How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us
          by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

          Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.

          But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”

          Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive.

          The sounds of movement
          by Bob Holmes, New Scientist

          It is this subliminal processing that spoken language taps into, says Changizi. Most of the natural sounds our ancestors would have processed fall into one of three categories: things hitting one another, things sliding over one another, and things resonating after being struck. The three classes of phonemes found in speech – plosives such as p and k, fricatives such as sh and f, and sonorants such as r, m and the vowels – closely resemble these categories of natural sound.

          The same nature-mimicry guides how phonemes are assembled into syllables, and syllables into words, as Changizi shows with many examples. This explains why we acquire language so easily: the subconscious auditory processing involved is no different to what our ancestors have done for millions of years.

          The hold that music has on us can also be explained by this kind of mimicry – but where speech imitates the sounds of everyday objects, music mimics the sound of people moving, Changizi argues. Primitive humans would have needed to know four things about someone moving nearby: their distance, speed, intent and whether they are coming nearer or going away. They would have judged distance from loudness, speed from the rate of footfalls, intent from gait, and direction from subtle Doppler shifts. Voila: we have volume, tempo, rhythm and pitch, four of the main components of music.


          Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.

          This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.


          I had a thought about language. Genevieve von Petzinger studied the earliest cave paintings and claims to have found a common set of geometric designs, 32 of them to be precise. She speculates that they were used to communicate basic common meanings. […]

          Petzinger points out that the ancient symbols weren’t an alphabet or anything along those lines. She also doesn’t think they were abstract symbols. Most likely, they represented concrete things in the world and maybe used as basic counting marks. If these people had language, one might expect these symbols to already be developing some of the qualities of an alphabet or of abstraction. But it appears to be extremely concrete, maybe with some limited narrative elements.

          These cave paintings are from the ice age and the period following. The oldest are from around 40,000 years ago. That is far cry from the couple million years ago that Robbins Burling is talking about. If humans were talking at so far back, why didn’t they leave any signs of language? As for the rock paintings, Dodd thinks they do demonstrate language mastery (Kindle Locations 363-365):

          By the Upper Paleolithic, when we finally see the great painted caves and sculpted figurines of the Aurignacian culture and those that followed, the artwork suggests a level of mythic and symbolic thinking that could not have been possible without out language. The images, I feel certain, point to narrative, and one cannot tell stories with only a rudimentary lexicon.

          Maybe… or maybe not. It’s highly speculative. But, if so, the narrative would be key. Is narrative the tipping point for the formation of actual language? Narrative would be the foundation for verbs, beyond the mere naming of nouns. It would also indicate incipient complex thought based on awareness of temporality and possibly causality (Kindle Locations 355-359):

          “Perhaps language confirms, rather than creates, a view of the world,” he reasons. Syntax often reflects an iconic understanding standing of the relation among agents and goals (often through grammatical subjects and objects); our ability to perceive patterns and to “read” or “hear” the world precedes our induction into any specific language form. “We seem to understand the world around us as a collection of objects that act on each other in all sorts ofways,” he says. “If our minds were constructed so as to let us interpret the world in this way, that would be quite enough to account for the structure of our sentences.”

          What kind of consciousness, mentality, or worldview would that indicate?


          Sara Belo says:
          November 5, 2016 at 9:08 pm

          Are you familiar with the work of David-Lewis Williams and Jean Clottes on cave art? If not I would recommend starting here https://www.amazon.com/Mind-Cave-Consciousness-Origins-Art/dp/0500284652/ref=pd_sim_14_6?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=0500284652&pd_rd_r=Y713G5FDN788A5F27XYY&pd_rd_w=0lLIO&pd_rd_wg=y9EjW&psc=1&refRID=Y713G5FDN788A5F27XYY

          David-Lewis Williams ideas on how to interpret the various figurative drawings, as well as the abstract patterns and symbols mentioned in the article you posted is very interesting and, to me, sounds much more convincing than the hypothesis that this symbols are some form of early writing. The author proposes that cave art originated in hallucinatory experiences and demonstrates how much of the visual most defining characteristics of cave art resonates with hallucinatory activity that can be recreated in laboratory conditions and depend upon universal neurological functions. The more abstract and geometrical patterns, and even the symbol-like marks, could then be better understood if entoptic phenomena (such as the scintillating scotoma experienced by migraine sufferers) were contemplated as something that prehistoric people would also experience and interact with.

          I was also deeply fascinated by his proposals because he truly takes into account something people often forget when thinking about this prehistoric productions: the extremely specific context in which this paintings were created, which, for the most part, were very, very deep and labirintic caves, with extremely narrow passages that had to be navigated with the help of the flickering light of a fire torch to the complete lack of natural light – all conditions that would very likely cause some sort of hallucinatory experience. I don’t remember if David-Lewis Williams mentions the fact that this places would often have seriously dangerous low levels of oxygen, but I’m sure about that because I recently assisted a faculty class in which this fact was mentioned, and this alone would certainly help to induce hallucinatory activity in the brain.

          As for the interpretations David-Lewis Williams draws from the similarities between cave art and visual hallucinations, I’m not so sure what to think of it… he associated the trance states of which the paintings would be one of several consequences with a shamanistic-based society. I would have to read the book again to be able to fully express why I didin’t fully agree with his proposal, but I do remember that at a certain point of the book he completely disregards Julian Jaynes ideas on the origins of counsciesness with arguments that I think show some misunderstandings of Jaynes theory…

        • David Abrams in The Spell of the Sensuous, building off of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work, argues that synaesthesia is the normal state of perception and cognition. Hence, it is the original state of mind as seen in the anthropological literature showing how animism is experienced.

          As such, Abrams might disagree with Croce’s disagreement with “Vico’s belief in an actual historical period when all language was poetry”. Synaesthesia is in a sense poetic, in that it tends toward the metaphorical. Poets and other artists are more prone to synaesthesia. And synesthetes are more prone to metaphor.


          Abrams does see this as a specifically historical change. And he links it directly to alphabetic writing. That just so happens to coincide with post-bicameralism and the Axial Age, although he doesn’t mention either. Unsurprisingly, many have associated a key change with the end of oral culture and the rise of literary culture. But like Jaynes, Abrams see this as a profound change within the body-mind, not limited to outer changes in behavior and society.

  2. Here is about the power of language:

    Through authority and authorization, immense power and persuasion can be wielded. Jaynes argues that it is central to the human mind, but that in developing consciousness we learned how to partly internalize the process. Even so, Jaynesian self-consciousness is never a permanent, continuous state and the power of individual self-authorization easily morphs back into external forms. This is far from idle speculation, considering authoritarianism still haunts the modern mind. I might add that the ultimate power of authoritarianism, as Jaynes makes clear, isn’t overt force and brute violence. Outward forms of power are only necessary to the degree that external authorization is relatively weak, as is typically the case in modern societies.

    This touches upon the issue of rhetoric, although Jaynes never mentioned the topic. It’s disappointing since his original analysis of metaphor has many implications. Fortunately, others have picked up where he left off (see Ted Remington, Brian J. McVeigh, and Frank J. D’Angelo). Authorization in the ancient world came through a poetic voice, but today it is most commonly heard in rhetoric.

    Still, that old time religion can be heard in the words and rhythm of any great speaker. Just listen to how a recorded speech of Martin Luther King jr can pull you in with its musicality. Or if you prefer a dark example, consider the persuasive power of Adolf Hitler for even some Jews admitted they got caught up listening to his speeches. This is why Plato feared the poets and banished them from his utopia of enlightened rule. Poetry would inevitably undermine and subsume the high-minded rhetoric of philosophers. “[P]oetry used to be divine knowledge,” as Guerini et al states in Echoes of Persuasion, “It was the sound and tenor of authorization and it commanded where plain prose could only ask.”

    Metaphor grows naturally in poetic soil, but its seeds are planted in every aspect of language and thought, giving fruit to our perceptions and actions. This is a thousandfold true on the collective level of society and politics. Metaphors are most powerful when we don’t see them as metaphors. So, the most persuasive rhetoric is that which hides its metaphorical frame and obfuscates any attempts to bring it to light.

    Going far back into the ancient world, metaphors didn’t need to be hidden in this sense. The reason for this is that there was no intellectual capacity or conceptual understanding of metaphors as metaphors. Instead, metaphors were taken literally. The way people spoke about reality was inseparable from their experience of reality and they had no way of stepping back from their cultural biases, as the cultural worldviews they existed within were all-encompassing. It’s only with the later rise of multicultural societies, especially the vast multi-ethnic trade empires, that people began to think in terms of multiple perspectives. Such a society was developing in the trade networking and colonizing nation-states of Greece in the centuries leading up to Hellenism.

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