Thag & Ursula

Words mean things based on usage, not logic.

According to Herodotus, the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus I sought to determine the origin of language by conducting a curious experiment. He gave a shepherd two newborn children to care for and with the instruction the children not be spoken to. The shepherd would listen for their first utterances, and those sounds would be the root language of all people. One day, one of the children cried “becos” (a sound reminiscent of a bleating sheep) which happened to be the Phrygian word for bread. Thus, it was concluded, that the Phrygians were an older people than the Egyptians.

The story above is certainly apocryphal, and if there is any humour to be found, it is rooted in the flawed assumption that there is such a thing as a root tongue – a language from which all other language flows. However, based on what I encounter regularly in arguments, discussions, and sentiments about the nature of language, people very often make the simple mistake of assuming that there is a marriage of the logical foundation of a word and its meaning. If such a thing were true, that what a word should mean is somehow demonstrable based on first principles, then it would be necessary to appeal to a root language.

We can trace English words back to Anglo-Saxon, and in some cases to Latin and Greek, and other languages. We can take a word, reduce it to its component parts, and point to the root words  that demonstrate why a word means what it does. However, it must be true in principle, that if you trace words origins back to antiquity, that the meanings of words are arbitrary – based on utterances random. To think otherwise is to believe in a root language cosmically bestowed on us or woven into our marrow.

There are some surprising commonalities between even the most disparate languages that point to some non random word construction in speech. ‘Ma’ and ‘Da’ for mother and father crosses geographical and linguistic barriers. Clearly, some instinctual mechanism is at play determining parent-specific words, and possibly others. Additionally, a study once demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of people when presented with the two nonsense words “kiki” and “bumph,” thought that they corresponded with pictures of a pointy star like object and a soft and cloudy object respectively, and regardless of the language the participants spoke. Finally, Stephen Pinker reminds us of the language transcending tendency of humans to use spatially rooted words like “grasp” (as in to hold) to analogously describe more abstract concepts (as in to understand). That occurs as often in Aramaic as it does in English, and as often in Chinese as it does in Flemish. However, I hope you are with me in concluding those fascinating titbits point to human language habits, not root languages.

Language pedants become enraged or snarky or simply annoyed at words not meaning what they think they should mean. The standard argument against faux language champions is language is always changing, and you are only annoyed that it doesn’t mean what it meant when you learned it first. I’d like to add “… and it’s all based on a bunch of random grunts by people to whom a rock was an emergent technology.”

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com


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