From holism to compositionality: Memes and the evolution of segmentation, syntax, and signification in music and language

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Steven Mithen argues that language evolved from an antecedent he terms “Hmmmmm, [meaning it was] Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic”. Owing to certain innate and learned factors, a capacity for segmentation and cross-stream mapping in early Homo sapiens broke the continuous line of Hmmmmm, creating discrete replicated units which, with the initial support of Hmmmmm, eventually became the semantically freighted words of modern language. That which remained after what was a bifurcation of Hmmmmm arguably survived as music, existing as a sound stream segmented into discrete units, although one without the explicit and relatively fixed semantic content of language. All three types of utterance – the parent Hmmmmm, language, and music – are amenable to a memetic interpretation which applies Universal Darwinism to what are understood as language and musical memes. On the basis of Peter Carruthers’ distinction between ‘cognitivism’ and ‘communicativism’ in language, and William Calvin’s theories of cortical information encoding, a framework is hypothesized for the semantic and syntactic associations between, on the one hand, the sonic patterns of language memes (‘lexemes’) and of musical memes (‘musemes’) and, on the other hand, ‘mentalese’ conceptual structures, in Chomsky’s ‘Logical Form’ (LF).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)463-500
Number of pages38
JournalLanguage and Cognition
Issue number04
Early online date6 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016


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