Article published in:New Perspectives on the Origins of Language
Edited by Claire Lefebvre, Bernard Comrie and Henri Cohen
[Studies in Language Companion Series 144] 2013
► pp. 301–332
Sound patterns and conceptual content of the first words
Two simple possibilities, one for the origin of sound patterns of languages and one for the origin of their linkage with concepts, are suggested, both based on behaviors observable today. The sound patterns may have been those of present-day babbling, definable as one or more instances of a rhythmic alternation of a closed and open mouth, produced by a mandibular elevation/depression cycle, accompanied by vocal fold vibration, and linguistically meaningless, though giving the perceptual impression of a consonant-vowel (CV) sequence. An example is bababa. Babbling is one of innumerable instances of “fixed action patterns” in nature – innate behavior repertoire components with “form constancy” (e.g. rodent grooming, mating rituals), which provide an initial framework for species-wide motor adaptations. Babbling may have evolved in the manner of many other adaptations noted by the discipline of evolutionary developmental psychology (“Evo Devo”) whereby a genetically determined change in development (ontogeny) in effect “formulates new phylogeny” (Goodman & Coughlin 2000, p. 2445). The simple possibility for the initial linking of sound patterns with concepts is that it occurred in the context of a particular language-related genre present today: “baby talk,” a communicative matrix specific to the parent-infant dyad. The key to understanding this putative development lies in an explanation for the consistent presence across the world’s languages of nasal consonants in maternal terms and non-nasal forms in paternal terms, both in baby talk (e.g. mama, papa) and in the probably derived parental terms of language proper (e.g. mother, father). The maternal term may have been invented when the female parent decided that a mother-directed infant nasalized demand vocalization stood for her, and the paternal term may have developed later with a necessarily perceptually contrastive non-nasal structure.
Published online: 21 November 2013
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