LINGUIST List 12.396

Wed Feb 14 2001

Disc: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Mike Maxwell, Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome
  2. RNelsonjr, Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome
  3. Zylogy, Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

Message 1: Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

Date: Tue, 13 Feb 2001 11:59:43 -0500
From: Mike Maxwell <>
Subject: Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

This reminds me of a chart I saw while browsing a recent textbook on
genetics. Any linguist would have recognized it immediately as a
paradigm chart. (I can't recall whether the book called it that, but
I'm sure even if it didn't that my observation is not novel.)

The DNA code for all life is written in three letter "words", each of
which stands for an amino acid. (The concatenation of amino acids
yields a protein, although there are intermediate processing stages
where whole sequences of "words" can be snipped out or otherwise
altered.) There are four "letters" which may appear in these three
slots of each word, abbreviated by biologists as A, C, T and G. So
the paradigm for these DNA words is a three dimensional matrix, each
dimension of which has the same four possibilities, yielding a total
number of "words" of 64. The fillers of the cells in the
paradigm--the realization of the three codes, if you will--are
specific amino acids, plus words for "start a protein" and "stop the
protein." Since there only twenty-odd amino acids are used by life
forms, there is a considerable amount of syncretism in the paradigm.

I hasten to add that I don't believe there is any special significance
to this parallelism, since it is almost obligatory given the system
that the genetic code use. The only way to avoid the syncretism in a
four letter, three code "word", for example, would be to have exactly
62 amino acids (plus the start and stop codes), or to have unused
triplets (which would probably be evolutionarily disfavored).

On a lighter note, some readers may recall the thread I started on
LinguistList some years ago on linguistics in science fiction. There
was a science fiction story awhile back in which a significant pattern
was discovered in what is known as "junk DNA" (DNA which does not code
for proteins). The pattern turned out to be a copyright notice. Now
_that_ would be a parallelism between genetics and linguistics!

 Mike Maxwell

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Message 2: Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2001 00:03:17 EST
From: RNelsonjr <>
Subject: Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

>Many years ago, during the early '60's when the outlines of the genetic code
>were being adduced by Crick and others, Roman Jakobson speculated about
>parallelism between genetic and linguistic structures. There has been
>essentially silence on the issue since.

Actually, there has been some interesting stuff written since then,
but by psychologists. &nbsp;Morten Christiansen comes to
mind. Also, Terence Deacon's 'the Symbolic Species' reviews the

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Message 3: Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2001 09:56:26 EST
From: Zylogy <>
Subject: Re: 12.379, Disc: New: Parallelism Between Lang & Genome

Several people have asked me for a reference to the Jakobson material. The 
only thing I could find in a quick search were several pages in the book The 
Sound Shape of Language, Roman Jakobson and Linda R. Waugh Mouton de Gruyter 
Section XX entitled Life and Language pp. 67-73.

Some quotes from the text:

p69 Both biologists and linguists have observed an impressive set of 
attributes common to life and language since the latter's emergence. The two 
information-carrying and goal-directed systems imply the presence of messages 
and of an underlying code. From the first appearance of a vital minimum, "the 
special status assigned to living organisms by their origin and purpose" 
((quoting the biologist Jakob)) consists of coded messages which specify the 
molecular structures and are transmitted as instructions from generation to 
generation. The respective makeups of the two codes- the genetic, discovered 
and deciphered in our time by molecular biology, and the verbal, scrutinized 
by several generations of linguists- have displayed a series of noticeable 

Through a significant coincidence, the Prague Linguistic Circle and the 
geneticist Jacob have defined the object of their studies as "a system of 
systems". The principle of gradual integration governs the structure of the 
two codes. Both of them equally display a hierarchy of discontinuous units. 

Among all the information-carrying systems, the genetic code is the only one 
which shares with the verbal code a sequential arrangement of discrete 
subunits- phonemes in language and nucleotides (or 'nuclear letter') in the 
genetic code- which by themselves are devoid of inherent meaning but serve to 
build minimal units endowed with their own, intrinsic meaning.

p71 The isomorphism displayed by the verbal and the genetic codes proves 
to be deeply rooted in the entire model and mechanism of the two codes. 
Obviously we are not yet in a position to explain this salient 
correspondence, as long as for linguists the origin of language and, 
similarly, for geneticists the genesis of life remain unsolvable problems...

Critical comment on Jakobson: Jakobson seems to feel that at root both codes 
are "arbitrary", yet evidence has been accumulating in both fields for 
motivation behind the codes. In a paper I have buried somewhere (published in 
Science or Nature 20 years ago during a time when I still had dreams of 
becoming a molecular biologist) the authors noted the hydophobic/hydrophilic 
(water-hating/loving) qualities of isolated analogues of the molecular side 
chains (the business ends) of coded amino acids, and showed that on this 
basis of the position of each parent amino acid within the 64-cubie code 
representation was far from randomly sorted, even after accounting for the 
degeneracy of the code leading to multiple cells representing the same amino 
acid. And several years later playing with the organization of the axes of 
the representation I was able to show that the size, shape, and charge of the 
amino acid side chains, as well as on/off signals, were symmetrically 

On the linguistic side, phonosemantic coding takes advantage of symmetries 
hidden within the phonological system of the language.

Jakobson himself was certainly a defender of phonosemantics- a major section 
of the same book is given over to it- but he was writing at a time when there 
was still no sense of coherent structural motivation underlying the iconicity 
present in either the biological or linguistic codes. Similarly within the 
molecular biology community (even the genomicists) there has been little 
evidence for any drive to find motivation in the ultimate constituents.

Somehow there seems to be a kind of all-or-none prejudice when there is at 
least interest in the topic. It never occurs to most that the hierarchical 
layering itself may be partial explanation for the emergence of 
"arbitrariness" in either domain- the shifting of part/whole ranking which 
allows internal structures to be less than slavishly preserved so long as the 
higher level interactions still work. Once you're bootstrapped, your in. But 
you still need to get there in the first place. Think of the construction of 
an arch. Lots easier to build if you first emplace a form beneath it.

As for the ultimate origins of both codes, it seems reasonable to ask whether 
we might want to look at "social maintainance" at both levels. The "RNA 
World" scenarios just don't make sense- the whole arch thing again. Some 
dynamic, loosely integrated system of polymers, membranes, etc. must already 
have been in existance, and the actual chemical makeup of some of them would 
help assort them in the rough and tumble of the mix. Link things tightly 
enough and you have the beginnings of a code with all the other trimmings. 
Similarly, the social maintainance managed by vertebrate call systems seems 
like the likely place to look for the origins of language- I made an 
introductory case for "signal inversion" from such call systems a couple of 
weeks ago on LINGUIST.

Jess Tauber
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