Tonal Language

My cat just spoke to me. She's a talkative kitty, probably of a breed that cat books describe as "highly vocal." Non-cat people would just say that she meows a lot. To me, it seems like talking. We have conversations. There are complex patterns of tone and timing in her voice which in some instances are beautifully lyrical.

I describe this not to turn this into yet another random guy's website about his cats, but to introduce a question I'm having trouble framing. The thing is, when my cat talks to me, I swear it feels like speech. It's a subtle mental sensation, as though something were tickling my Wernicke's area. Somewhere in my skull, something is interpreting her vocalizations as language.

When speakers of English think of the components of language, they think in terms of consonants and vowels. But tone, the pattern of pitch in speaking, is also an important component of language. In English, tone can convey attitude or emotion, but in many languages, tone is phonemic, that is, a sequence of vowels and consonants spoken with one pattern of tone is an entirely different word than the same sequence with a different pattern.

Here's where I get wacky: What if tone in language now is a vestige of something older? What if our ancestors, long before modern language, had a language made of patterns of tone? Something primitive, hardwired, less flexible than the language instinct we have now? What if we still carry the remnants of its mechanisms in our genes, in our brains?

I know certain patterns of tone in music have an unmistakable effect on me. Certain specific moments in certain songs just get me. Of course, that could just be an emotional association I've formed during my lifetime, a trivial and common artifact of the evolution of one man's psyche. Or it could be an artifact of my culture, an arbitrary association between a set of notes and an emotion which is taught to us by the Western system of music. But it feels deeper.

If there is an ancient tonal language in us, I want to know more about it. It might mean that music and language are two branches of the same tree, and that would have implications about the meaning of music. Are composers unknowingly attempting to write treatises in a forgotten tongue? Are great composers simply those who got it right, reciting to us deep and moving poems in words only our unconscious minds can hear?

And if my unconscious has a language, could I speak to it deliberately, tell it things? Our understanding of the workings of our own minds is cloudy at best, and our relationship to our unconscious troubled. What if I could program my unconscious just by playing the right music? We try to do that now, we play peppy songs to cheer ourselves up, and we know certain songs make us sad, but those efforts are clumsy guesswork.

Neal Stephenson touches on this in Snow Crash, positing that Sumerian is primitive instinctive language that can be used to control people. I guess I'm positing that he was right, but that the answer is a lot farther back in our history.

I must stress that this is all ignorant speculation on my part. Others, with far more knowledge than I, have studied all of these subjects. But I don't know if anyone has framed the question quite this way. Unfortunately, I suspect I'm not qualified to answer it.

It could be that there is a profound truth about the human mind which we, as a civilization, won't grasp until the right circumstances come together. Maybe we have to wait until one day, fifty years from now, when some brilliant neurolinguist composer has a conversation with her cat.

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