Thursday December 7, 2006

Japhetic Babbling?

I don't have much to add to the news of the recent "discovery" of a universal baby language in Australia (previously mentioned on Language Log), except to point out a possible connection between the work of "researcher" Priscilla Dunstan and the theories of Nikolay Marr.

Marr was to Soviet linguistics what Lysenko was to Soviet biology.  That is to say, he was really, really wrong, but in a way I find entertaining.  Here's the relevant part of his theory, as summarized by Haim Blanc in 1958 in a review in Language (JSTOR access required):

A study of the prehistory of the Japhetic languages leads to the universally valid conclusion that tribal names represent the primordial stuff of human language.  All tribal names, hence all human language, can be reduced to one of twelve monosyllabic archetypes.  These were eventually whittled down to four and, says Marr (63), 'All the words of all languages consist entirely of [these] four elements [viz. sal, ber, yon, roš]. Every word consists of one or two, or more rarely three, elements. There is no word in the lexical stock of any language whatever which contains anything apart from these same four elements.'  This is known as speech paleontology.

This, it seems to me, implies an obvious future direction for Dunstan's "research".  If she can somehow reconcile her universal baby language's five syllables neh, owh, eh, eairh, and heh with Marr's sal, ber, yon, and roš, she'll be well on her way to placing her theories firmly on a foundation of discredited mid-century Soviet pseudoscientific hogwash. That would open up the possibility that she may eventually prove a connection with the language of heaven and thus produce a Grand Unified Theory of Stupid Linguistics.

Let's wish her luck.

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previously mentioned on Language Log


[insert query re: chopped liver]

Posted by: language hat at Dec 7, 2006 7:28:29 AM

Just in case Dunstan decides to take your "advice," she should know that no GUT of Stupid Linguistics would be complete without also reconciling the Sun Language Theory, which has its own set of syllabic primitives.

Posted by: Mercurius at Dec 7, 2006 8:41:46 AM

Wow, that's fantastic! It's like Aristotlean physics applied to linguistics! If we can just figure out which of those words means "fire", which means "air", and so on, we could perhaps develop a system of magic that uses words to manipulate their corresponding...

Hold on, I've got to go. Watch for the forthcoming short story.

Posted by: Lance at Dec 7, 2006 10:43:31 AM

[insert query re: chopped liver]

Doh! I guess I've just gotten into the (lazy) habit of assuming (incorrectly) that all language-related blogbursts start at the Log.

I should know better, and I crave forgiveness.

Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 7, 2006 2:51:25 PM

I forgive you, for I am a merciful Hospodar and Kaimakam. But I remind you that I am one of the Old Ones, who stalked the earth before the Log was a sprout; see my comment here.

Posted by: language hat at Dec 7, 2006 5:08:22 PM

Wait, are you one of the Old Ones or one of the Great Old Ones? I want to make sure I sacrifice correctly.

Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 8, 2006 2:10:35 AM

Marr's theories were old hat even before he was born. Alexander Murray sought to reduce European languages to a similar number of roots in his History of the European Languages, 1823. Naturally there was Tooke, Becanus et al before that--but Murray got it down to 8 or so, all ending in -ag.

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth at Dec 13, 2006 7:37:23 PM

I am looking for any, i mean any, actual research on this. There ain't none as far as I can tell, but really this is a lot different than the japhetic and sun systems mentioned previously. Words are obviously arbitrary symbols so there isn't going to be a sound that means universally "fire" but why can't there be a sound that is triggered by gassy build up in the baby's stomache? Is it possible that there are vocal reflexes tied to certain physical problem...after all that's what vocalization IS in a baby, right...It's the first thing we do when we exit the womb.

Posted by: JOSH at Dec 15, 2006 12:11:24 AM

I can tell you're not a father, JOSH. There sure is a sound that is triggered by gassy buildup in a baby's stomach. And it isn't a pretty sound.

Posted by: ACW at Jan 10, 2007 10:07:26 AM

Well....I am a father actually. Well aware of the burp-up sound. Doesn't really address my question whatsoever, although i do appreciate that at least one person bothered to reply.

Posted by: Josh at Jan 28, 2007 1:21:26 PM