Re: [tied] The Googoo Hypothesis must be squashed

From: Piotr Gasiorowski
Message: 5218
Date: 2000-12-30

----- Original Message -----
From: Glen Gordon
Sent: Saturday, December 30, 2000 5:39 AM
Subject: [tied] The Googoo Hypothesis must be squashed

>These supposed universal phonemic resemblances are assumed to be "tendencies" and are not proven because in order to prove them as evolutionary tendencies conclusively, we must know how all languages relate to each other in the first place. This knowledge is of course unknown and remains to this day the holy grail of long-range comparison.


>>Big and small things are often contrasted using back versus front vowels (and/or coronal versus labial or dorsal consonants), the volume of the oral cavity symbolising size, as in itsy-bitsy or teeny-weeny versus boom or googol. This correlation is, I suppose, intuitively obvious, though any number of counterexamples resulting from historical accident could be quoted.

>This doesn't appear to be intuitively obvious to me. Another assumption that
can hardly be provable in a rational way.

Well, it can. If you examine newly coined words, expressive vocabulary, etc. -- the part of lexicon where history doesn't play much role -- sound symbolism is very much present there, in a perfectly measurable way. Onomatopoeic and iconic words may also undergo "aging" and lose their non-arbitrary shape. The "googoo hypothesis" was about the origin of language, not about the nature of phonosymbolism. There's a large literature on the latter problem and if you're interested I can provide you with references. The recurrent use of vowel quality etc. to symbolise size and related concepts is also very well known. If it isn't obvious to you that, other things being equal, [ti:] is more likely to stand for something small or thin and [bu:] for something big or thick, maybe your synaesthesia doesn't work the way it does in most people. The regular use of this phenomenon in many unrelated languages is also well documented, cf. Batta jarar 'creep (in general)', jirir 'creep (of small critters)', jurur (of something big and fearsome)'.

>>The same holds for *mama- and other nursery noises.

>Not exactly. Etruscan and Karvelian, for example, do not conform to the "mama" pattern. The "mama" phenomenon can't be used as proof of some inheirant phonemic symbolism either. However, I do agree that there is always the chance that these much-used terms can be borrowed or at the very least "backgrounded" over time. So, by themselves, they can't be used to prove genetic relationship between languages. In concert with other proof it
can be an extra boost to genetic relationship though. Afterall, IE *mate:r is praised as an uncontraversial IE term, no? :) I don't see why a Nostratic *ama can't eventually be lauded in the same way over time and through further research.

See above on expressive words acquiring a history. *ma:te:r may contain an original nursery-word as the root, but it's embedded in a nice morphological setting. It's the *-te:r part that proves its antiquity, not *ma:- alone. *mama- or *ma- or *ama- are simply too common as independently arising nursery terms to be usable as historical linguistic comparanda. Babies often go "mama" by way of asking to be breastfed (cf. Latin mamma 'nipple'), and mothers tend to think that the sound refers to them. It's a "situational" universal, not even an example of sound symbolism. But Ruhlen an the likes of him compare mama for 'mother' in languages from all the inhabited continents to reconstruct Proto-World *mama. They may be right in the sense that 100000 years ago the "mother" word was *mama here and there. But that cannot be established on comparative grounds.