Progovac began by looking at exocentric, verb-noun compounds. An exocentric compound is a compound word none of whose parts refer to what the compound as a whole refers to. A pickpocket for example is a thief, not a type of pocket. Contrast that with compounds like pigpen, thumbprint, or sandstorm in which the word does indicate what its about. These compounds defy the principles of modern syntactic theory. The parts (e.g., pick and pocket) are not hierarchical or functionally related. The relationship between the two words is vague. In a sandstorm, sand modifies storm, but in a pickpocket, pick does not modify pocket or vice versa. Thus, exocentric compounds are built like living fossils, with forms that predate syntactic structure.
Progovac also looked at imperative forms. English users think of imperatives as commands, but in this presentation it has a more “Sanskrit” meaning commands, wishes, benedictions, possibility, and doubt. Examples from English include: follow me (command); help me (wish); bless you (benediction); seek simplicity and distrust it (advice). The standard English form is verb + noun, although this form can be expanded. It has been proposed before ( here ) that imperatives are a protolinguistic form.Then Progovac pointed to words that use the imperative, verb + noun form to create compounds. She gave many examples from the Serbian (e.g., split-hair [hairsplitter], fuck-wind [charlatan], spin-butt [fidgeter]). Off the top of my head, I don’t many from English—fuckface, kickass, lickspittle—and would welcome examples from my readers. So these words seem to combine features already suggestive of protolanguage. Imperative VN compounds thus appear to be great candidates for the very earliest word combination, a clear pre-syntactic protolanguage.
One thing bound to astonish many people is the vulgarity of the terms and Progovac considered reasons for this; however, it is not clear to me that the same tone and sense of crudeness was evident in the actual protolanguage. After all, part of the vulgarity comes from the very anti-syntactic structure of the phrase. In a sentence like ,“He’s a real kickass coach,” the crudity of the syntax supports the description. In an alternate sentence, “e’s a real strokecheek mother,” the compound is decipherable, but the crudity of the syntax contradicts the emotion.Progovac did not mention it, but Washoe the chimpanzee once signed “water bird” when it saw a duckswan. There are quarrels about how to interpret the action. Was Washoe creating a compound or just signing two visible things? Whatever the answer, it appears that no extra intelligence needs to have evolved for protohumans to have had the sense to put words together appropriately but asyntactically.