Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Crash! Bash! Boom! Pow! What Was That Sound? ONOMATOPEIA!

Do you sometimes find yourself lost for words? Mindy Bauer lends her vocal talents with onomatopeia! A song I came across Sociology Source one day when I decided to introduce the idea to my class The Beast Within, a course designed for second year students that specifically examines what it means to be human and our relationships with other animals on earth. I play the song just before class begins. It's a great way to grab their attention and set the tone. It's also a way of making an otherwise difficult topic like culture, language and mind more student friendly and allows students to "play" with a topic and hence encourages better participation in class.

At A Glance: Language

Though I cover language acquisition and it's importance in human societies more in-depth in other courses that I give, nevertheless I introduce students briefly to the idea of language and its importance by showing a TedTalk by Mark Pagel entitled How Language Transformed Humanity. If you have yet to hear of TedTalks, they are an excellent resource for teachers and students alike. They provide valuable information that can make classes more interesting for students. They also provide teachers with a way of devising several questions that can explore the link between language and mind.

Pagel explores why language developed in the human species in contrast to that of tool use amongst chimpanzees. According to Pagel, chimpanzees lack social learning and hence cannot improve upon others ideas. "Social learning is visual theft" he claims. This left us with few options including retreating into smaller, intimate (family) groups or develop a system of communication such as language that would allow us to share ideas and cumulative knowledge. It is perhaps the epitome of human achievement. He goes so far as to state that without language we would be "like birds without wings." His examples are rudimentary and neglects other forms of non-human communication. His examples also fail to take into consideration that even with language the very same misunderstandings can take place. His reference to creativity is furthermore ethnocentric and fails to take into consideration archaeological evidence. This is particularly true of Neanderthals. His conclusion that the world must consider the possibility of of one language is reminiscent of Quebec's own One Nation, One Language. Don't even get me started on the fact that there is indeed evidence to support social learning amongst chimpanzees.


So why talk about onomatopeia at all? Edward Sapir (1949) saw speech as a non instinctive cultural function that was acquired through socialization. Thus, bow wow and meow sound differently to people from different cultures with different languages. Studying vervet monkeys tells us how different alarm calls are made to reflect different dangers. Robert Seyfarth examines these vocalizations and state that these sounds are not involuntary but rather, designed with intent and purpose. Are they words, per se? Studies using vocalizations to denote a leopard, eagle, or snake alarm call show that these specific calls do enact certain behaviours including standing, hiding or climbing a tree. Thus, while it may not be human language, it is close to language in that it bestows meaning on the sound being made. Let's look at Priscilla Dunstan's five (5) universal baby sounds.

Baby Talk With Priscilla Dunstan
According to Dunstan these five (5) baby sounds are innate and include "NEH" (hungry), "OWH" (sleepy), "HEH" (discomfort), "EAIR" (lower gas) and "EH" (burp). Thus, it doesn't matter what language you speak or ethnic background you hail from you are now an expert on baby talk and can communicate with any baby around the world! If your still skeptical think about all the ways that you communicate on a daily basis without using language! What are some of the sounds you make to convey emotions such as happiness, desire, sadness, or boredom?

Non-Verbal Communication

Even language requires non-verbal communication to drive home meaning and intent. Desmond Morris explores the language of the body and how culture helps diversify non-verbal communication. As complex as an animal we may be, like our animal counter parts humans depend heavily on onomatopeia and non-verbal communication to communicate not only with one another but equally with non-human animals as well. Simply look at New Zealand's All Blacks Haka or the semantics of vervet monkey alarm calls for inspiration. If your still not convinced, think back to the last time you were in trouble with a parent or spouse. Before they said anything to you, did you know you were in trouble? If so, how?

The idea that the superiority of human language is so integral in our definition of what makes humanity unique is inevitably what leads us to be so human-centric towards non-human animals. It's easy for us to forget that like non-human animals, our humble beginnings were undoubtedly not that unlike the primates we study today. When you consider studies have shown that gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans have the intelligence necessary to talk through sign language, it begs to question our dominion over the animal kingdom. Who knew that by looking at a concept like onomatopeia you can inevitably open up a can of worms rich with debate and controversy.

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