Language evolution, cartoon summary

Today’s Bizarro:

The Pooh-Pooh theory of language evolution.

From Wikipedia:

In 1861, historical linguist Max Müller published a list of speculative theories concerning the origins of spoken language:

Bow-wow. The bow-wow or cuckoo theory, which Müller attributed to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, saw early words as imitations of the cries of beasts and birds.

Pooh-pooh. The Pooh-Pooh theory saw the first words as emotional interjections and exclamations triggered by pain, pleasure, surprise and so on.

Ding-dong. Müller suggested what he called the Ding-Dong theory, which states that all things have a vibrating natural resonance, echoed somehow by man in his earliest words.

Yo-he-ho. The yo-he-ho theory saw language emerging out of collective rhythmic labour, the attempt to synchronise muscular effort resulting in sounds such as heave alternating with sounds such as ho.

Ta-ta. This did not feature in Max Müller’s list, having been proposed in 1930 by Sir Richard Paget. According to the ta-ta theory, humans made the earliest words by tongue movements that mimicked manual gestures, rendering them audible.

Most scholars today consider all such theories not so much wrong — they occasionally offer peripheral insights — as comically naïve and irrelevant. The problem with these theories is that they are so narrowly mechanistic. They assume that once our ancestors had stumbled upon the appropriate ingenious mechanism for linking sounds with meanings, language automatically evolved and changed.

For a different take on the matter, see Leo Cullum’s “We need to talk” cartoon, here.

 

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