A good friend of mine died young, of a surprise heart attack, at fifty. If I were reminiscing I could dig out one of many photographs to remind myself of his face, but no need. It is his voice that stays with me always. The utterly distinct tough-guy accent (unlike my father’s never modulated according to hearer), confounding class categorisations by blending his native Geordie and alma mater Magdalene College, Cambridge (pronounced, he would scathingly remind us, ‘maudlin’, of which much more later); the urgent hectoring tone used to denounce barmen when the ale was off, or friends who had failed to vote for Old Labour. Here in print, or even by imitating them out loud, I can’t do justice to the nuances of their accents, evoke their individuality with real precision: I wish so much that I had recorded them both, and all the other now silenced voices, when they were still alive.
A baby’s gurgling laugh elides into the sound of water trickling over pebbles; lovers ‘bill and coo’, share ‘sweet nothings’; girls’ eager conversation echoes flocking birdsong; revivalists’ ‘speaking in tongues’ reaches to the spirit language of the upper air; the rattling ‘doom-roar’ of a Death Metal band dissolves into rolling thunder. We respond to the affecting cadences of language, from the simplicity of lullaby via the complexities of poetry and rhetoric, back to the elemental vocalising of holy chant and mantra. We may look at linguists’ theories of the origins of language itself and discover that they are far from definitive. Commonsense connections between volume and aggression, speed and stress, for instance, satisfy us well enough, but science has yet to explain the precise relationship between phonology and psychology: why some words evoke reactions that are seemingly quite at odds with literal meaning. We learn that the unique sound of a loved one’s conversation may linger in the mind when even their face has disappeared from memory.
Having a sound knowledge of your own native language should be quite straightforward, even instinctive, but the English language is something special. Its convoluted history means that even the most common terms may be pronounced in different ways; linguists disagree among themselves on the rules that we should apply, while the many accents of English trigger widely different responses – from fawning admiration through polite puzzlement to knee-jerk hostility – in those who hear them…
…When we move from words to longer examples of intonation, rhythm and pitch, it can be a mixture of supposed familiarity – we recognise the same sounds from a different context such as baby-talk or comic exaggeration – and unfamiliarity – we don’t know what it means – that leads us to find the sound of the Dutch language funny for example.
Where other accents – the regional British variants among them – are concerned, studies have found that people react positively or negatively first according to how closely the accent resembles their own and secondly to its associations, usually which prominent figures – typically actors, newsreaders, footballers – employ it and in which contexts it has been encountered, so a Northern Irish accent, once evoking the language of the Troubles is now, like the Scottish Connery lilt, linked to actors who charm and don’t threaten. Only rarely does a truly unusual, unplaceable accent arrest our attention, scramble our responses. My late friend’s was one such: its unfashionably precise articulation and its stern delivery was intimidating, but its sonorous qualities (worthy, someone said, of a [Richard] Burton or a [John] Gielgud) could overwhelm the hearer in other ways, to persuade, enchant, bamboozle, seduce…
It’s hard to imagine a cultural phenomenon that’s more important than the development of language. And yet no human attribute offers less conclusive evidence regarding its origins. The oldest and best-known theories of how language began all depend on sounds and how they are interpreted, refashioned and manipulated:
The Bow-Wow Theory
According to this influential theory, endorsed by Rousseau among others, language began when our ancestors started imitating the natural sounds around them. The first speech was onomatopoeic, marked by echoic words such as moo, meow, splash, cuckoo, and bang.
Relatively few words in any language are actually onomatopoeic, and these words vary from one language to another. For instance, a dog’s bark is heard as au au in Brazil, ham ham in Albania, and wang, wang in China. In addition, many onomatopoeic words are of recent origin, and not all are derived from natural sounds.
The Mama Theory
This theory posits that language began with the easiest syllables attached to the most significant objects.
Once we move beyond the most primal connections, such as that between suckling baby and mother, the theory falls short of explaining anything.
The Ding-Dong Theory
This theory, sometimes ascribed to Plato and Pythagoras, maintains that speech arose in response to the essential qualities of objects in the environment. The original sounds people made were supposedly in harmony with the world around them.
Apart from some rare instances there’s no absolutely conclusive evidence in any language of an innate connection between sound and meaning.
The La-La Theory
The eminent Danish linguist Otto Jespersen suggested that language may have developed from sounds associated with love, play, and especially song.
As Professor David Crystal notes in How Language Works, this theory still fails to account for “the gap between the emotional and the rational aspects of speech expression.”
The Pooh-Pooh Theory
This theory holds that speech began with interjections – spontaneous cries of pain (“Ouch!”), surprise (“Oh!”), and other emotions (the teenager’s “Meh” of indifference).
No language contains very many interjections, and, Crystal points out, “the clicks, intakes of breath, and other noises which are used in this way bear little relationship to the vowels and consonants found in phonology.”
The Ta-ta Theory
Sir Richard Paget, influenced by Darwin, believed that body movement preceded language. Language began as an unconscious vocal imitation of these movements, like the way a child’s mouth will move when they use scissors, or my tongue sticks out when I try to play the guitar. This evolved into the popular idea that language may have derived from gestures.
Once again, the theory fails to prove an unarguable connection between more than a very few instances of such a link.
The Yo-He-Ho Theory
According to this theory, language evolved from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labour, or the rhythmic chants of those engaged in it.
Though this notion may account for some of the rhythmic features of language, it doesn’t go very far in explaining where the extraordinary range of words quite unassociated with work come from.