The Why Behind Words

Some Thoughts on the Arbitrariness of Language

It is often said that language is completely arbitrary. While it is interesting to ponder the complexities and layers of abstraction required to translate a series of sounds and pauses into the complex concepts and implied communication we take for granted, the idea that ancient humans sat down and simply decided on an illogical set of sounds to represent objects or ideas is a bit misleading.

The world was a dangerous place for our early ancestors (circa 100,000 BCE), and their survival was dependent on their ability to coordinate with each other and communicate practical information and instructions. The earliest inklings of language sprung from this need. Through a variance of sounds, paleolithic hominids developed a primitive system that allowed them to convey an object or action to others using only sound. These primitive sounds became some of humanity’s first words. Linguists have speculated on the foundations of these words for many years — their sounds, what they were based off of, how common they were among different communities, etc. — and have distilled their speculation into a set of whimsically named theories.

The Bow-Wow Theory

The bow-wow theory submits that the earliest words were designed to mimic natural sounds. For example, the name for a specific animal sounds like the cry of that animal. This would have led to much easier adoption, as many members of the population would have been familiar with the sound of the animal and could therefore easily associate the simplified sound-word with that animal. (Take the word ‘wolf’ for example. Said aloud, it resembles the low bark of its namesake.) This enabled rapid adoption of many distinct words over a larger population. Had the words been truly arbitrary and not based on their natural sounds, it would have taken much more effort to proliferate their use, mostly due to the fact that to associate the word with the object you would need to physically show someone that object, whereas the mimicry could make use of existing knowledge of the world.

The Pooh-Pooh Theory

This theory speculates that many non-object words were adapted from primal sounds already common among the population at the time. For example, words like “ouch!” and “oh!” have their origins in sounds that were natural reactions to physical stimuli, like pain. These sounds were already commonly used among everyone and the word forms were merely the simplified verbalizations of these sounds. Again, this relied on pre-existing knowledge to enable the rapid adoption of common words — these primal sounds were instinctual and common among the majority of the population after thousands of years of use.

The Ding-Dong Theory

Popularized by the linguist Max Muller, the ding-dong theory builds on the understanding that the sound-parts of words resemble their physical counterparts. Consider the following phase: “itsy bitsy teeny weeny moon.” High pitched vowels, enunciated with the front of the mouth, evoke ideas of a constrained/small space (hence the meaning of the words). Whereas in the phrase “the enormous gargantuan elephant,” the vowels lie primarily in the large space in the back of the mouth and upper throat, hinting at a larger size. This pattern is common throughout many words, and the common evocations from the sound of the words were common among many members of the population thus allowing rapid adoption.

While this is an exhaustive list of theories (check out more of them here), it serves to illustrate that words and language were not merely created from thin air, but rather they had practical roots in physical sounds. From there, the social structure tweaked and branched words, modifying them at every turn. These adaptations added new words with new levels of abstractness and complexity which enabled richer communication between individuals. After several iterations of branching and modification, words become very distinct from each other. As populations split and migrated around the globe, isolated populations’ languages varied and continued to evolve and split into increasing numbers of subgroups that eventually became our modern day languages.

Sources

Boeree, George. “The Origins of Language.” The Origins of Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Müller, Friedrich Max, and Roy Harris. Lectures on the science of language. London: Routledge/Thoemmes, 1994. Print.

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