Part 4 - Sounds and Meaning: The molecules of language
Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. This is a series of videos on sounds and meaning. If you haven't watched the first ones, I recommend that you do so, because this is part four, so I've already talked about the other theories and why I'm talking about this. So, please check the videos above if you haven't, and then resume watching this one.
Here we come to my favorite of the three, even though I'm really, really partial to the phonosemantics one too, which I talked about on part two. This one by Abraham Abehsera is a fabulous book. In fact, I think everybody should read it, just out of curiosity if you like languages, because it gives you a new way of looking at them.
His idea is that, because we don't have any records… Usually you see trees like these, right? And you say, okay, well, it must be proven, right? That Latin leads to Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc. Germanic. Blah blah. blah. And you take it as a given that that's it. But we forget that a lot of this is guessing, pure, pure guesswork. There's no proof, there's proof sometimes when it comes to the same language and how it evolved or changed. In my opinion, it doesn't “evolve”, really, but it changes. But there's very little proof of how one led to the other. Again, that's a topic for another video.
But what Abraham Abehsera says is that nobody asks some really simple questions. For example, what happened at the beginning that led to language? Did the language capacity grow, develop on its own and people didn't have language but were capable of it? The same with mathematics, for example. Or did all come about at the same time? What were the first words, and how were they chosen? You know, who chose the first sounds? Who chose the first words? Who chose what to name? Then, according to which law? How did they come up with the system? And more so when you start thinking about the structure of a language.
In another series of videos, I'm going to talk about these questions more in depth, and the different schools of thoughts, and the different theories, from creationism to Darwinism. And you'll see what a mess it is, actually. These questions aren't answered, and are not likely to be anytime soon.
But anyway, back to his work he asks, why did cousin languages adopt different sounds for the same concept? Horse, cheval, caballo, etc. That's just for the word horse, even though they are cousin indo-European languages, they each chose different sounds. Maybe an explanation is what I just told you on part two about phonosemantics, maybe not. Maybe there's something else that binds words together and makes each people choose different essences of things to name them.
Then, why does each word have a certain sound, certain combination of sounds, instead of others? Why did English speakers decide to call an apple an apple and not a carrot? Nobody knows. And finally, why do cousin languages choose the same sounds for different meanings? Like appel is to call in French, and apple, you know what it is in English. Gateau is a cake in French, and gato in Spanish is a cat. So the same combinations of sounds, consonants in particular, but different meanings. It’s kind of strange, right? They could all have picked the same. Why not?
Well what's sure is that arbitrary consensus doesn't explain. This decision that was just collective, and you know, a little group of people started deciding, and they came up with a word and said, okay, let's name an apple and apple. It doesn't explain it. Why not? Because there are too many parallels in all the world languages, not just within the same families.
So let's look at that a little bit more closely:
He talks about how universal language ignores time. Basically, what he calls “universal language” is what you can perceive if you study different words from different languages, as I'm going to do in a minute. You'll see that there's something that almost tells you that people back then, were a lot more right-brained. You know, the right brain is the one that sees the whole, the essence, the global meaning of things, while the left brain is more logical, it's analytical, it's the one where supposedly language is more centered nowadays. But perhaps people in the past had more of an ability to think with their right brain, and imagine things, and perceive the essence of things. Why not? He's not the only one to say it, actually, there are several references I could give you about it. And I think it's quite convincing, actually, when you think about how words came to be…
This is just my analogy of it. It's funny because, in a sense, this is the elephant in the room in Linguistics too. Nobody wants to talk about these topics, as I said on part one. But, you know the story of the blind men: Each blind man is touching a part of the elephant, and nobody can figure out what it is. So this one will guess he's touching a rope, the other one a tree, the other one a wall, etc. And the idea is that all of us together can see much more reality than each of us alone.
Well, extrapolate that to languages, and what he's saying is that… Imagine this was the word for tree in English, in Spanish, in Hebrew, and Chinese, etc, etc. And each one of them conveyed a little bit of that “essence” of the word. And when you combine them together, when you see them together, that's when you get a real idea of what a word means. It's kind of an interesting concept. If you've ever learned a foreign language, you notice that there are subtleties, words that are so simple… Like cabbage: you know, in Spanish or in English cabbage is a cabbage, right? You don't think of many analogies or things to say about it. Well, in French, if you call somebody “my cabbage”, it's an endearing term. So cabbage has another connotation there, of something endearing, cute, whatever. The same happens with almost every word, I would say, even though there are “exact translations”. There's always a subtlety that you perceive when you learn a foreign language that wasn't there in your mother tongue. So he could be onto something by explaining this is a sort of a molecule.
And let me explain to you how he came up with this way of viewing words:
He says there should be two dictionaries: one dictionary for synonyms, so words that mean something similar or the same in all languages combined, and another one for homonyms, taking words that sound the same. And he would have two dictionaries and combine them both. So you start off with what he calls the “square unit” which is… You try to look between languages or the same language for synonyms: two words that mean something similar, and put them in the Y-axis. And on the X-axis, you look for homonyms, words that sound the same, share the same sounds. And he focuses on consonants, but I think vowels would apply too, except they're a little more flexible, they change more with time or across dialects, and things like that. So he focused on consonants.
But let's take an example: You have the word mèche, which means wick in French. So mèche/wick. Totally different sounds, but they have the same meaning. Then you look for two words: one that will have the /m/ and the /sh/ sound in French as well, and mean something different, and with /w/ and /k/ in English that would mean something similar here. So you have to find similar sound here, similar meaning here. And we got a pair: méchant and wicked, so something about an evil person. And he says, for each pair that you find like this, in the six or seven thousand languages of the world, you may find five, ten, sometimes three, or whatever. And what is interesting about these is that, if you were to look as normal linguists or, in general, people look at them, you would find that these words were not related at all. They have different roots. All of them have different roots. And they tell you, okay, it comes from old Germanic, it comes from whatever, Gaelic, Proto-Indoeuropean (they make up the words for Proto-Indoeuropean) and Proto-Germanic… “Proto” =old, imagined (no traces), and then you come up with these words. So notice, the roots are different. They shouldn't be related if there's nothing in common, right? Yet, you find out that there's something that binds them. It's almost like gravity. Can you guess what that is? What do these words share? It’s the idea of a torsion. A person who is wicked is twisted, just like the wick is, right? And you're like, okay, that's interesting! It's almost like a like a force field that binds these four words together, even though they didn't have the same roots.
Now, if you saw just one example, you may say, well, maybe it's a coincidence, maybe they got the roots wrong, whatever. But let's expand this example, and do what he did to find these “molecules of language”, the elephant.
You take any two concepts, like mother/wife/woman and horse. And you look for two homonyms: bride in English and bride in French, which means “bridle”. Okay, so there is a connection between words that have to do with “horse”, and words that have to do with “mother”. Do we stop here? Maybe not, because when you have the word married in English you also have a word for female horse in English which is mare. Interesting, so even within English, you have married and mare /m-r/, /m-r/. And the meaning stays. So purple is anything that has to do with “horse”, and green anything that has to do with the “wife/woman”.
Then, we keep going, and lo and behold… here it’s not even cousin languages: Mande is from Africa it's a language in Africa, or languages in Africa. And the word for “horse” is weefo, and the word for “horses” is wed, like “she wed somebody”. So you still keep finding this among languages that are not related, not from the same family, and so on and so forth. You have in Danish kone, “wife”, and in Russian the word for “horse”, конь. Аgain, then you have in Мandarin... Аnd here I added them for the sounds, because this one is 妈(ma1) and this one is 马(ma3). So they do share the sounds, but you see also that they share part of the character: this is a character for woman, and this is the character for horse, which you see here. So it´s interesting, the ways in which you write can also have these square units.
Okay, so then, you take two more concepts, and you take the “horse” that you had before, and you add the “sea”, and we find that mare in Italian and mare in English have the same sounds, mare is a pond in French, and mare again in English. Then you have aqua, water in Latin or Italian, and in Latin you have equus (like in equestrian) for horse. So you start seeing how the “horse” is related to the “mother”, and to the “sea”. And the rule he came up with is that, if (A) the mother is linked to (B) the horse, and (B) the horse is linked to (C) the water, then the (A) mother will also be linked to (C) the water. Well, is it possible? Do we find it in any languages of the world? Oh yeah, for sure. We have mer in French, and mère (different spelling, but the same sounds) for “mother”. You have 海 (hai3) in Chinese, and you have 母(mu3) in Chinese as well. Here the sounds are not the same, but I put the example so that you can see, again, that it has to do with the ideogram, the way it's written.
So here we start seeing that there's a connection. And you could say, well what's the relationship? Imagine that you were one of our ancestors, you know a primitive man. This is 10.000 BC. Why would you be linking the wife with the horse, or you know, anything like that. Well in archetypes, or in general psychology, people compare women with wild emotions, like horses. Women, high in emotion, water, horses etc. That could be one link. The other one is that they are both carriers: the horse is used for carrying, traditionally, and the wife, the mother, carries a baby, right? And the sea could be the “sea” where the baby grows, the placenta. There are all kinds of analogies you could find for why these words are related, and how they reflect some kind of ancestral view of the world.
You can keep going on and on. Here are some examples: I let you read them, but basically it's the idea that something “ripens” within the mother, like the baby. There's a wall: in fact, the French word for pregnant and a wall, an enclosure, is the same. So there's the idea that something increases in size, is broad, or is ripe, or is like a wall. So all these are sort of analogies for birth or pregnancy, and it's fascinating. I really don't want to bother you with so many details, but the book goes on and on and on, and it builds from these, until you get a story, which is almost like what you see in dreams. It's a different kind of language, it´s symbolic. And it could explain, at least in part, why so many words that are supposedly not related (like in Chinese and English) have similarities.
And nobody in Linguistics has explained that. Nobody… they just don't know. They just say that it's random, it's arbitrary, etc. But there are just too many coincidences, over and over when you look at them, to think that it's just a pure coincidence.
So to me, it's starting to look that there is a subconscious language that we carry around. It's almost like a universal fabric, something that binds all languages together. There are “language universals”, which I'll talk about in the future, but they're very few and far in between. And the sounds seem to be more universal than we think. And as I said before, different aspects of reality could be scattered perhaps throughout all the languages, and that could be the “confusion of tongues”, finally. Because each culture picks different types of traits of an object, of an entity, or of a feeling even, to describe, they choose specific sounds, and they kind of omit part of the elephant, of what the meaning of the word is.
And maybe it's like (this is just a bunch of proteins, for example)… and you see, imagine that the word apple was here, and each of these little strings are the word apple in a different language. And then you combine it with a mother, horse, blah blah blah, and you end up with something that actually describes reality. It describes what it is to be human, it describes why languages are the way they are, instead of it being, oh well, these strings just happen to be there because of whatever, or it was random, maybe they are all interconnected. And we could find out, if people were really dedicated to doing so. So far, I haven't seen many linguists who are interested in this, because it's not materialistic enough. You have to think a little bit out outside the box, and ask questions that are a little bit uncomfortable in the field of academia, which I'll talk about later.
But to wrap up with what Abraham Abehsera says in this book, he talks about two sorts of forces: creation on one side, so how words were created (but he talks about it more in terms of creationism, so god inventing the word and languages, and I'll get into these two opposites in future, in a future series). But basically on the other hand, you have that languages evolve (change, in my opinion). It's etymology, the study of the history of words. For me it's more like the information field that is represented in these sounds that are the same. And they both work together. So you start with different roots, and they all diverge (repulsion) and form different words. Those are historical changes, those are more conventional, they're decided by people, say. And on the other hand, you have a law of attraction that kind of pulls words together to sound the same, just like we saw with the examples before: wicked and wick, mèche and méchant, that actually makes them sound the same, as if there was a glue that binds them, something that attracts them together with time. And the reason why people choose similar sounds to depict similar concepts… And that says something about much, much further in the past, and a different way of viewing reality. A bit like Socrates, like I explained in the previous videos, where he talked about the words carrying the “essence” of things. So, on the one hand you have the etymology, the roots of a word, and how they spread, and on the other one, you have the words that want to sound the same and group together, and maybe that's why you have different families of languages that end up having similar sounding words.
So that's it for theory number three, that's just the main theory. So, phonosemantics, then what Carme Huertas did with the toponyms (names of places), and now what Abraham Abehsera did in the book Babel. I hope that you're starting to get curious about language and sounds. Personally, I find it fascinating, and I think it should be studied more thoroughly. But unfortunately, so far it doesn't look like it, because it's not in line with most of the Academia says and thinks about language, especially when you get into Chomskian linguistics, which I'll talk about in the future. So, I'll leave it at that, and make sure to tune in again for the last part.