The Ancient, Modern, and Future Language of “Dog.”
Part 1. The Ancient. Wherein the Author describes the Border War between Linguists on the history of the proto-word for “Dog.” Part 2. The Modern. Wherein the Author describes Dog’s omnipresence in modern language.
Part 3. The Future. Wherein the Author describes Dog’s presence in the babble and first words of children.
A time honored cliche is that “children are our future,” which never made sense to me because our future is to get old and die. Children our the future makes only a bit more sense, but I’ll run with it because it makes a nice progression for this series of posts from ancient to modern to future. Surprisingly enough, at least one team of researchers believes that children just might be a clue to our most ancient past, and we’ve come full circle.
“Dog” is one of thefirst words babies say, occuring in frequency after “mommy,” “baby,” and “daddy;” edging out more obvious concerns like “no,” “bottle,” “banana,” “juice,” and “cookie.” Equally interesting is the early presence of two satellite dog words, “woof” and “grr,” in the top twelve:
“mommy, daddy, baby, dog, kitty, bird, duck, eye, nose, moo, woof, grr (animal noise), peekaboo, bye bye, no, hi, all gone, uh oh, night night, outside, yum yum, vroom, ouch, up, bottle, banana, ball, bath, book, car, cookie, juice, sock, keys, balloon, truck”
— First Words Project “36 most common early words that children use” from Fenson, et al. “Variability in Early Communicative Development” 1994.
“Dog” isn’t just an early word, it’s one of the most lasting and universal words in the toddler’s vocabulary. In a study of 422 two-year-old children in Pennsylvania using the Language Development Survey, researchers evaluated Word Frequencies in Toddler’s Lexicons. The most widely known words were:
daddy (97%), mommy (96%), ball (95%), no (94%), juice (93%), eye (92%), dog (91%), bye bye (91%), and shoes (91%).
There are just over 110 million households in the United States, 71 million own a pet, 44.8 million own a dog, and 31 million households have children. Not surprisingly, companion animals are most commonly found in households with minor children and over 70% of households that have children also have pets.
But that still leaves ~56% of babies who have no dog in their household and ~30% of babies who grow up with no pets at all, still resulting in only 8% of two year olds not using the word “dog.” To put that in perspective, 30% of two year olds can’t count yet and 41% can’t say their ABCs and numbers and letters are universal.
While the language of babies is fascinating on its own, there’s an intriguing theory that their babbling just might be echoes of the first words of man. The theory evolves from the observation that babies babble in similar ways across many cultures and language groups. If now distinct groups have such fundamental similarities, the logic goes that the similar elements likely come from a common source. Because baby babble contains consistent and popular elements before children learn now distinct languages, those common elements just might reflect the “mother tongue.”
Dr. Barbara Davis and Dr. Peter MacNeilage observed these similarities in babies after microphoning a plethora of toddlers and capturing all the sounds they made in detail. The analysis of the 6 to 10 month-olds showed four specific sound sequence patterns that transcended individual languages.
What makes this interesting, and brings us full circle back to the border war I discussed in Part 1, is that the specific speech patterns that Davis and MacNeilage found show up all over the place in the 27 Global Etymologies set down by Ruhlen and Bengston. You’ll notice that the article Dr. Bill Poser chose to attack so vehemently is, in fact, a paper describing this observation published by Davis and MacNeilage. And why did Poser believe that Davis and MacNeilage shouldn’t have been published? Their research uses and supports Ruhlen and Bengston’s paper which the establishment attacked even before it was published. And why the vitriol against Ruhlen? Because he worked under and used techniques developed by Dr. Joseph Greenberg whose technique was threatening to the complacent establishment decades before. This is a pattern of censorship that started with indifference and escalated into hostility.
The attacks against Greenberg and those who have followed in his footsteps fit perfectly into my Dunces theory of disproportionate attacks:
[A theory developed using Mass Lexical Comparison] put forward recently by Joseph Greenberg of Stanford University, in California, has been described variously as ‘irrelevant nonsense‘, ‘misguided and dangerous‘, and ‘completely unscientific‘. Lyle Campbell, one of Greenberg’s most vocal opponents, wrote that the thesis ‘has a detrimental impact on the field’ and that it ‘should be shouted down in order not to confuse nonspecialists or detract from the real contribution linguistics can make to prehistory‘.
Greenberg’s riposte is equally blunt. ‘My critics are myopic and wedded to a technique of limited scope.’
– Ancestral Voices at War. New Scientist, June 16, 1990
And what is so outlandish that it doesn’t deserve to be published? A very simple hypothesis that passes the duh test as far as I’m concerned. David and MacNeilage propose that early speech was the product of biology and basic mouth mechanics, namely the movement of the tongue in relation to the teeth and palate and the opening and closing of the mouth. What basically amounts to adult babbling.
The first words of human ancestors could have been like the first words of today’s infants. Infants show us a picture of what initial speech patterns may have been like at their simplest, earliest stage. We propose that the first ancestral speakers were using basic mechanical patterns to form early spoken words.
- Dr. Barbara Davis, interview
This makes perfect sense to me. It’s efficient to devote the simplest mouth mechanics to the most needed and used words (especially by learning children) and it’s likely that the first language was chock full of sounds that came most naturally to the mouth. You have to walk before you can run. Logically and empirically the most complicated languages are destined to be rare and isolated where groups don’t have to compete with more efficient languages. And when man first spat words past his teeth, those words “likely evolved out of sounds that are natural and easy to make.”
This fundamental idea is not without supporters, despite the uproar from the traditionalists.
If we are seeking some parallel to the primitive acquisition of language, we must look elsewhere and turn to baby language as it is spoken in the first year of life, before the child has begun to notice and to make out what use is made of language by grown-up people. Here in the child’s first purposeless murmuring, crowing and babbling, we have real nature sounds; here we may expect to find some clue to the infancy of the language of the race.
- Otto Jespersen, Language, its nature, development, and origin. London: G. Allen & Unwin ltd., 1922, p. 417.
Rather poetic, no? The language of infants is the infancy of language. With something that feel good, you wonder why the fuzzies don’t like it as much as the techies.
Obviously this is just a start, and Davis and MacNeilage are working to rough out the vocal origins lens by further documenting the connections between infant vocalizations and the hypothetical ancient vocabulary. But pretty much everything dealing with reconstructing a language that might never have been spoken and is more an instructive tool than an actual documented language is necessarily a theory.
That’s why the border war, and especially the censorship angle of it, makes little sense to me. Had the group think establishment succeeded in keeping Ruhlen and Bengston out of print, Davis and MacNeilage would likely have missed out on their global etymologies and their theory and supporting evidence wouldn’t have had the context that it does now. Luckily Ruhlan and Bengston, Davis and MacNeilage eventually did get published. Even if they are 100% wrong, the progression of science and knowledge depends on the free expression of ideas and community access to results. And let’s not confuse community with “peers.” Shutting them up doesn’t make their ideas go away, it simply stifles progress.
But perhaps that’s exactly what the establishment wants. The slower the progress, the less they have to adapt and the longer they can stay in power.
As for the theory that baby babbling echoes early language, I’m curious whether existing mouth structure of early man lead to the specific common early phonemes being popular because they were easier to produce, or if the ancient phonemes we presume to have now are actually the result of evolution. That is to say, if different groups of early man had variations in mouth structure and the group that produced the sounds we now find in babbling proved to be advantageous.
I suppose it’s a chicken and the egg sort of question, but heck, it makes as much sense as “children are our future.” Perhaps “children are our past” rings just as true.
[ Part 1. The Ancient. ] [ Part 2. The Modern. ]
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