September 18, 2005

Shortest published sentence of the year

The hunt for the shortest sentence published in print this year is over. Though it is only September, I can say that with confidence. I found the sentence in last week's New Yorker, at the end of an excellent article on the material culture of the Indians of the Brazilian Amazon rainforests — Indians whose languages I had long been interested in. Let me explain.

There are two sentences types that can be as short as one word (and here I use ‘sentence’ for a written string properly punctuated as a sentence, not in the traditional sense that requires a sentence to be or contain a clause and hence a verb) are (i) imperative clauses with unmodified intransitive verbs (Stop!), and (ii) verbless units with a single constituent of a category like question-answering particle (No.), noun phrase (Clinton?), adverb (Often.), etc.

Most categories contain no words shorter than two letters long, and as it happens there are no verbs in the dictionary that are spelled with one letter. The shortest sentence would therefore be two characters long: it would be a sentence of type (ii) in which the one word was spelled with a single letter, plus the obligatory final punctuation mark (‘.’ or ‘?’ or ‘!’).

Among the words that are only one letter long are the pronoun I, which is rarely used on its own (it would sound very pompous indeed to answer "Who did this?" by intoning "I"), and the indefinite article a, which is not allowed to occur alone. There really aren't any common nouns spelled with one letter (for the purpose of keeping this non-trivial, let's agree to ignore the fact that a letter can be used as a common noun denoting tokens of its type, as in Mind your p's and q's, or The word contains an f). So it is among proper nouns that we find the words of one letter that are most likely to occur on their own as properly punctuated separate sentences.

David Grann's excellent article ‘The Lost City of Z’ (The New Yorker, September 19, 2005, 56-81) describes a trip to Amazonia in search of clues to the fate of the explorer Colonel P. H. Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon forests in 1925 along with his son and another man. Fawcett was searching — quixotically, most have assumed — for a legendary lost city that he believed lay hidden in the jungle. He called this city Z (there is our one-letter proper name). He was a daring and resilient explorer, firm in his belief and intent on completing his mission. His disappearance prompted many to go and look for them. Quite a few never returned. Some of the Indian tribes in the Brazilian interior were well aware that massive die-offs from disease often followed contact with Europeans, and some of them would club explorers to death rather than introduce them to their villages. Other tribes took captives. Either of these fates might have been the one that overtook Fawcett. We shall probably never know. Not a verified bone has ever been found.

Grann's article describes a retracing of Fawcett's route undertaken earlier this year, with the aid of modern motor vehicles and aluminum boats. The journey goes through territory of a number of Indian peoples whose languages fall in Amazonia-located language families such as Carib; the Bakairí Kalapalo, and Kuikuro are mentioned a number of times.

I've had a professional interest in such groups for years, ever since Desmond Derbyshire convinced me of the astonishing fact that quite a few Amazonian languages, particularly in the Carib family, have Object-Verb-Subject as their standard, basic constituent order in the clause — not just as a permitted stylistic variant, but as the normal everyday order. This doesn't occur anywhere else in the entire world as far as we know. In the Carib language Derbyshire had studied for years, Hixkaryana, Toto yonoye kamara can be glossed with the English words "people", "used to eat", "jaguar". But it doesn't mean that people used to eat jaguars. It is the ordinary way of saying that jaguars used to eat people. In our four-volume series Handbook of Amazonian Languages, published by Mouton de Gruyter between 1986 and 1998, Derbyshire and I have made available to linguists a number of lengthy and detailed descriptions of Amazonian languages by expert linguists, some of them Object-Verb-Subject languages and others strange and surprising in all sorts of other ways (Dan Everett's first description of the astonishing Pirahã language was published in Volume 1.)

At his final destination in the area of the Xingu National Park, a gigantic area of Brazil set aside to be under Indian land management, Grann meets up with a Florida anthropologist, Michael Heckenberger, who has done ten years of research in the Xingu. What Heckenberger has found is staggering. Archaeologists had almost uniformly concluded that there were going to be no architectural features to be discovered in central Amazonia. However many people had lived there, they had done no building in stone. Today they mostly live in huts of simple and highly biodegradable construction. Everything older than a few decades will have long rotted away and become indistinguishable from the jungle itself. Heckenberger found otherwise.

What he has found, in brief, is that in Kuikuro territory there are remains of huge circular moats and palisades surrounding ancient settlements the size of small cities, and long causeways and bridges connecting them. A thousand years ago there had been urban areas surrounded by ditches up to 16 feet deep, 50 feet wide, a mile in diameter, and with a palisade wall of tree trunks at the bottom. There were streets at right angles to each other (oriented north-south and east-west) and wooden causeways providing routes of travel to other nearby friendly settlements. And the Indians left other artifacts, notably millions of shards of high-quality pottery. Some specialists are now saying that the population of the Amazon rainforests — once thought to have been empty of all but tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, a hundred or so at a time, always travelling and never building anything — may once have been in the millions, and the people were by no means at a primitive level of civilization compared to what was happening in other continents around the same time.

It is a revolution in our conception of Amazonia before 1500. The Kuikuro Indians today live a fairly simple life, but their ancestors appear to have built great fortified cities — according to Heckenberger, "with a complicated plan, with a sense of engineering and mathematics that rivalled anything that was happening in much of Europe at the time." The modern Kuikuro know about the archeological remains, but don't seem to be aware that they are the descendants of the architects and builders.

Grann describes sitting down with Heckenberger in the Kuikuro village as Indian dancers and musicians playing long flutes begin circling in the main plaza and Heckenberger talks of how much you can see the past in the present in such scenes. Grann writes:

The musicians were coming closer to us, and Heckenberger said something about the flutes, but I could no longer hear his voice over the sounds. For a moment, I could see this vanished world as if it were right in front of me. Z.

And there's our shortest sentence, right at the end. Others equally short may be published, but there won't be any shorter, because we've hit the lower bound.

[Well, maybe. Jonathan Lundell writes to suggest that when you see a cartoon character thinking "?", that's a sentence containing zero letters plus one sentence-final punctuation mark. I guess the meaning is the illocutionary force of interrogativeness with no propositional content. So that would be even shorter, and I would be wrong. All I can say is: "!".]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 18, 2005 12:10 PM