11 October 2021

So-Called Patterns in So-Called Jazz

Steven Mithen
The Singing Neanderthals (2006)
The most significant survival of 'Hmmmmm' [Neanderthal communication that was "holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and mimetic"] is within language itself. One aspect of this is the presence of onomatopoeia, vocal imitation and sound synaesthesia, which are probably most readily apparent in the languages of present-day people who still live traditional lifestyles and are 'close to nature'. Another is the use of rhythm, which enables fluent conversations to take place.

Perhaps of most significance, however, is our propensity to use holistic utterances whenever the possibility arises. Although the creative power of language certainly derives from its compositional nature—the combination of words with grammar—a great deal of day-to-day communication takes place by holistic utterances, or what are more frequently called 'formulaic phrases'. This is the principal argument of Alison Wray's 2002 book entitled Formulaic Language and the Lexicon... She describes formulaic phrases as 'prestored in multiword units for quick retrieval, with no need to apply grammatical rules'. In my chapter 2, I give the example of idioms, such as 'straight from the horse's mouth' and 'a pig in a poke', while Wray provides many more examples which are often phrases used as greetings or commands: 'hello, how are you?', 'watch where you're going', 'keep off the grass', 'I'm sorry', 'how dare you!'

Critics of Wray's views about the prevalence and nature of formulaic phrases have noted that the majority do actually conform to grammatical rules and are evidently constructed from words. They rely, therefore, on the prior existence of compositional language. This is true, but misses the point. Even though we have compositional language, we have a propensity to slip into the use of formulaic phrases/holistic structures whenever appropriate occasions arise. These are frequently the oft-repeated social situations, such as greeting friends...and sitting down to meals...especially in company with people with whom we already share a great deal of knowledge and experience, such as the members of our close family. One might argue that we use such formulaic phrases simply to reduce the mental effort of having to put together words with grammatical rules whenever we wish to say something. But to my mind, their frequency in our everyday speech reflects an evolutionary history of language that for millions of years was based on holistic phrases alone: we simply can't rid ourselves of that habit.
(pp. 276-277)

Even though we have compositional language, we have a propensity to slip into the use of formulaic phrases/holistic structures whenever appropriate occasions arise.


The notions of the

appropriate occasion
and of the
slip[ping] into

suggest,

respectively,

that


some element of subjectivity might be
(or should be)
involved
vis-a-vis the sizing up of occasions,

and

that we can break the pattern-habit
if we really want to
and are willing to work a little harder for it
.



And if we do

really want to,

then

one option among several

is
to
proactively
avoid

the oft-repeated social
(and/or musical)
situations

.

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