This week we change our tack a bit to discuss not individual words, but rather the theories of how language arose. All credit here to Joseph T. Shipley, whose book In Praise of English (1977) our daily entries will largely quote verbatim.
Shipley notes nine hypotheses: (1) the bow-wow notion, (2) the ding-dong notion, (3) the ha-ha notion, (4) the ba-ba notion, (5) the sing-song notion, (6) the pooh-pooh notion, (7) the yo-he-ho notion, (8) the ma-ma notion, and (9) the pa-pa notion. As he explains:
The basic unanswered question about language is how it came to be. Various guesses as to how speech began, labeled hypotheses, have been advanced. Each of these has many scornful dissenters, and the methods have been given names by the mockers. In this century, these have become the usual terms.
1. The bow-wow notion suggests that human speech arose in imitation of animal cries. This is perhaps the weakest of the suggestions, for, while animals can roar, growl, whimper, purr, and whine, incipient men could no doubt make similar emotional sounds, and there seems no good reason to suppose that they learned speech from creatures with smaller and less convoluted brains. As Bertrand Russell phrased the objection, no matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor but honest.
I've heard it suggested that other higher animals might have developed speech if their postures were fully erect. Our walking upright caused our jaws and throats to change shape in such a way that we became able to articulate sounds much more precisely than other primates, and we took advantage of this coincidental adaptation.
2. The ding-dong notion suggest that speech arose in imitation of the sounds of nature. It has the largest number of actual words in support. There are indeed many echoic (onomatopoetic) word, such as crack, buzz, click, snap, splash, with more intricate approximations of nature such as Tennyson's lines in The Princess:
quote:Other people hear other sounds. This, however, in no way challenges the theory, as each language may form words from the sounds its users hear. A cat in France purrs ron-ron; in Germany it purrs schnurr.
According to my sources, the word is onomatopoeia and the adjective is onomatopoeic and not onomatopoetic. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms)
muse, the word is Shipley's, and my reaction to it was the same as yours. But upon checking I found to my surprise that, at least according to AHD, onomatopoeic and onomatopoetic are each acceptable.
3. The ha-ha notion claims that speech evolved from the bubbling spontaneous laughter of the happy babe, whose meaningless joyful prattle gradually assumed significance.
4. Complementing this, the ba-ba notion lays greater stress on the crying of the hungry or uncomfortable infant. At first its cries are automatic; then it discovers that the noise activates a parental response, whereupon the crying becomes deliberate, directed toward a goal: the proffer of breast or bottle, or dry diaper.
This assumes, however, that the adults are already speaking a vernacular. These two processes may thus more accurately describe the manner in which each newborn child in every generation learns to talk, than the way in which speech originally came into being.
The next few suggestions turn to aspects of more adult learning.
[The ha-ha and ba-ba theories look to an infant's cries of joy or pain.
Other theories stress adult cries of joy or pain.]
5. The sing-song notion suggests that man's first speech was song. Looking down a hillside to a lush vallley watered by a limpid stream, all graced by the warming sun, man in exuberant spirits burst into exultant or thankful sound. A sort of primitive yodeling soon became a signal to fellow-tribesman or mate on the opposite hill.
The Greeks accepted this idea of the origin of speech; it had weight also with Darwin, and the astute linguist Jesperson.
6. The pooh-pooh notion turns on other spontaneous utterances, emotional cries of anger, triumph, pain. expressive gestures are naturally accompanied by appropriate sounds. And gradually the symptom becomes the symbol.
7. The you-he-ho notion is allied to this, in the theought that speech arose from the grunts and calls and signals of cooperative labor. Men surrounding a bear at bay, men hauling a great log to hew out a boat, called together, often rhythmically, to guide their movements, and evolved a primitive speech.
8. Abandoning these approaches, the ma-ma notion clams that the speech faculty is given, not derived; it is innate. In India, the god Intra is credited with inventing speech, and myths around the word make similar attributions. Socrates declared that the gods named things in the proper way.
Words were thus holy; from this sprang the relation of nomen et omen: knowledge of the name gave power over the thing named. Even today, the [Orthodox] Jews do not use the hidden name of their God. Words may have magic power: Ali Baba's "Open sesame" unshut the cave of the Forty Thieves. "Solomon knew the names of all the spirits, and having their names, he held them subject to his will." (William James)
Those accepting the idea of an innate capacity for speech without attributing its existence to a god, assume a natural development, such as the pursing lips of the suckling babe, which seem to form an m-m-m. This sound of course comes close to us in mamma – mother, Mutter, mater, mere, and all the suckling mammals.
9. Finally, the pa-pa notion notion relies on the simple method of trial and error. There was a need to communicate -- and language emerged. Difficult or inappropriate sounds were sloughed; communication struggled through. This idea has at least the added attraction that it is the second step in all the other hypotheses. However language may have stated, this is how it grew, and still is growing.
Summary: While a germ of truth may lie within each of these notions, there is no device to probe prehistory and establish how the first speakers achieved meaningful word forms. To check unending argument, in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris ruled that its members indulge in no further speculation as to the origin of language.
It may be well, now, for us too to obey that rule.