Ljiljana Progovac and John L. Locke have published an intriguing paper, “The Urge to Merge: Ritual Insult and the Evolution of Syntax” (you can download the pdf from that page; the article is, admirably, published under a Creative Commons license). Here’s the abstract:
Throughout recorded history, sexually mature males have issued humorous insults in public. These ‘verbal duels’ are thought to discharge aggressive dispositions, and to provide a way to compete for status and mating opportunities without risking physical altercations. But, is there evidence that such verbal duels, and sexual selection in general, played any role in the evolution of specific principles of language, syntax in particular? In this paper, concrete linguistic data and analysis will be presented which indeed point to that conclusion. The prospect will be examined that an intermediate form of ‘proto-syntax’, involving ‘proto-Merge’, evolved in a context of ritual insult. This form, referred to as exocentric compound, can be seen as a ‘living fossil’ of this stage of proto-syntax — providing evidence not only of ancient structure (syntax/semantics), but also arguably of sexual selection.
Their conclusion begins: “Not only do exocentric VN compounds suggest an ancient syntactic/combinatorial strategy, but their semantics and use also provide potential evidence of ritual insult and sexual selection at work, selecting for this basic/protosyntax.” Now, all of this is pretty hand-wavey and involves unhealthy dollops of Chomskyan syntax (like this Merge business), but it’s still an interesting idea, and of course I particularly enjoyed Section 4.4. “Availability across (Unrelated) Languages”:
Exocentric compounds are found across not only Indo-European languages, but also non-Indo-European languages, with intriguing parallels in their morphological and semantic make-up. In Tashelhit Berber, a language belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family, which is spoken in Southern Morocco, ssum-sitan ‘suck-cow’ (insect) is closely parallel to Old English burst-cow, which also meant ‘insect’. In addition, the drinking image for a miser drynk-pany is reminiscent of ssum-izi (suck-fly) in Berber (see Progovac 2006, 2007, for discussion and for additional examples and parallels).
It seems that this type of compounding appears in this VN order even in head-final languages, such as German (Tauge-nichts, lit. ‘be.worth-nothing’ = ‘good-for-nothing’, Habe-nichts ‘have-nothing’, comparable to English dreadnought and know-nothing). It is not clear, however, if any correlation is expected between the ordering in exocentric compounds and the current word order in any particular language, for two reasons. First, according to Kayne’s (1994) approach to cross-linguistic variation in word order, all languages are underlyingly verb initial, and any surface deviations from this ordering would be derived by various movement operations. If VN compounds involve no movement, as we assume (see Progovac 2007), then, at least for those that involve an internal argument, it is to be expected that even head final languages would have VN ordering in these compounds.
Second, and regardless of whether or not one subscribes to Kayne’s (not uncontroversial) approach, we argue that the VN compounds found in present-day languages are fossils of some ancient stage of language, whose word order is thus not expected to be identical to that of any present-day languages. Needless to say, in-depth analyses of these exocentric compounds in additional languages, preferably by their native speakers (given that these compounds are hard or impossible to find in official reference books) would shed further important light on the ideas presented in this paper, and we hope that our paper will stimulate such research.
Of course, in my day we called those compounds “bahuvrihi,” not “exocentric.”