On Being Further Tempted From <i>Go</i> to <i>Went</i>—Bernard Comrie Son of Lingua Pranca Contents A Taxonomy of Argument Schemata in Metatheoretical Discussion of Syntax or Name That Tune—G.R.A.M.M.A.R.

Spore Theory: A Contribution to the Study of the Biological Foundations of Natural Language1

by David Athletesfoot
Dilectus Christi College

In recent years, much attention has been focused on the biological basis of human language. In particular, the extremely organic nature of language has manifested itself clearly in such devices as trees, branches and roots, which have established themselves firmly on theoretical linguistic soil. However, few (if any) linguists have noticed the similarities between certain types of plant life and syntactic phenomena, and even fewer are aware of the strong theoretical claims that can be made by using these types as models. I am referring, of course, to fungi.

In this article, I will present a new model of grammar, based on the life cycle of the fungus. While it is feasible to present only a short outline here, it is to be hoped that it will stimulate interest, and soon mushroom into a full-fledged theory.

We will start with the Initial Spore, or Germ. It develops on its own growing into an organism which contains all the seeds of a full sentence, finally exploding and sending spores scattering around it. It does not do this in an arbitrary fashion, however; the Initial Spore bursts either (a) LINEARLY or (b) in a CIRCULAR configuration. Only in this way can we construct a grammar which will account for certain universal linguistic constraints. Type (a), linear arrangements of new-fallen spores, will turn out to be relatively simple sentences (except in one important type of case to be examined below); type (b) represents a recursive device, known in Spore Theory as a FAIRY RING. The validity of this mechanism derives support from the existence of fairy rings among the trees of real forests. These fairy rings are tenacious and, potentially, infinitely numerous; this is a notion any well-rounded grammar must account for. Some “squares”2 have roundly criticized this argument as being circular, but I have countered that such a position is only the result of “not seeing the forest for the trees”, and that a closer look (perhaps closer to the ground as well, and not aloft in the often-too-abstract branches of more traditional syntactic trees) may bear out my claims.

It should be noted that, even if the Initial Spore busts linearly, other spores may do so circularly. At this point let us examine the several types of Major Spores3 that result from the Initial Spore. Only some of these will be recursive, i.e., they also develop, and then burst circularly.

Nominal Fungi (NF): corresponding to the NP in less organic theories.
Fungtors (F): corresponding to the VP.
Prepositional Fungi (PF): corresponding to the PP.
Adfungtors (A): corresponding to the Adjectives and Adverbs.

These four types will display a recursive fungtion.

While other types may also develop and burst, they can only do so linearly and, in general are more limited in their generative power, with fewer spores flung a shorter distance. This is thus related to the dichotomy of recursive and non-recursive devices, but as a type of generative power is represented more accurately by the concept of CONTAGIOUSNESS. Some fungi will be more contagious than others. For example, conjunctive fungi are generally not at all contagious, and finally mature into simple forms such as and or but in English. Some are slightly contagious; this type gives rise to such conjunctive fungi as insofar as and such that. Adfungtors are potentially very contagious, since of course adverbial sentential complements (for example) cannot be explained otherwise. But there are adfungtors like merely which are not contagious. It seems clear that the concept of contagiousness is a valid one in areas outside of linguistics, and it may also be applicable in areas other than syntax within the field.4

The notion of contagiousness is particularly valuable in a Spore Theory account of what I call “interdigital languages”. These languages can be shown to be very conducive to the rapid expansion of sentences (i.e., they feature highly contagious fungi) but also are subject to many interesting and powerful deletion processes, known as “Desenex transformations”.

Returning to the four Major Spores, let us examine two linguistic phenomena which have received much attention at various times in the history of our discipline. The first, case marking, can be handled quite simply within Spore Theory: each Major Spore has its own distinctive marking, whether spotted, mottled, striated, single-pigmented, or whatever. This marking will be borne by all of its constituent spores when it explodes, marking them with the corresponding case. Thus, for example, the Russian phrase zanimat’sja nesedobnymi grybami (‘to study toadstools’) where the minor fungtor zanimat’sja requires the following minor nominal fungus to be in the instrumental, the Major Fungtor will have the instrumental coloring coded on the nominal fungus when it matures and explodes. The latter, in turn, requires its constituent minor adfungtor nesedobnymi to be in the instrumental.

The second phenomenon has attracted more attention recently, namely NF-“movement”. Let us note first of all that all Major Spores remain in place, usually fungtioning, once matured,5 as the head of the expression. However, in some cases fungi can whither away and die, as happens with cases of ellipsis, such as Fungtor-deletion. Usually when this process is completed there is nothing left. But Nominal Fungi behave differently from the other Major Spores: they ultimately leave spoors.6 While spoors are never pronounced, they serve to indicate that the head (minor) fungus is elsewhere in the Nominal Fungus. Note however that in Spore Theory we need not postulate any “movement”; the new head fungus is one which took root naturally, like any other member constituent of the NF, flung out with the explosion of the original, ripened Major Spore. Thus what in certain other theories must be handled by many different types of rulesan unprincipled complication of the grammarcan be shown to be very natural consequences of the organic processes of growing and dying. Note also that discontinuities such as the French negative ne...pas, English verb particles, or degree adverbs with complements such as too (big) to be moved, cause no problems for Spore Theory. As noted above, the same generating explosion which expands a fungus into its constituent produces the exact same effect as movement rules in other theories. Mycological analysis makes it a simple affair to determine (for example) which Major Spore a separated mushroom comes from.

While many details of Spore Theory remain to be worked out, one can already see several natural and interesting extensions of the core I have sketched here. One of the more promising is the development of “Saprophyte Grammars”, which, I am told (by William G. Mouldton) may be quite appropriate for describing dead languages such as Latin and Sanskrit.

A fuller treatment of Spore Theory will appear in my forthcoming book, Mycological Structures. I assume that as the theory developsor festers, as some of its detractors would prefer to saywe will see more and more clearly the organic nature of language.

1 This article owes much to my two colleagues, Tom Ernst and David Stead, without whom Spore Theory would never have developed, or, indeed, ever been thought up.

2 Notably J. LeCarré in his “Réponse au champion des champignons”, Linguistique et Cuisine 16:2 (1978), and Iȗ.A. Kvadratnyj, “Ne idite za grybami”, Zaplesnevelaja Teorija 6:1 (1979).

3 Not to be confused with General Theory or Colonel Strings.

4 For example, contagiousness may have some validity in phonology. Din Dannsen (personal communication) informs me that it could well be used to account for the spread of mononuclear rules relating to the production of quadrilabial continuants.

5 It is probably during the maturation process that phonological phenomena take place. Cf. Athletesfoot (forthcoming), The Sound of Mushrooms.

6 Certain studies have already turned up valuable evidence in favor of this part of the theory. Cf. Vlad Negrul, Le Substrat daco-roumain (Cluj: Ediţea Caragiale), where he perceptively observes, “Les Thraces ont laissé des traces.”

On Being Further Tempted From Go to Went—Bernard Comrie
A Taxonomy of Argument Schemata in Metatheoretical Discussion of Syntax or Name That Tune—G.R.A.M.M.A.R.
Son of Lingua Pranca Contents