Silence & Noise



What was your first word? Ask your parent(s). How did you get from silence to noise to speech? And was there ever total silence? From the time our ears form and open like flowers, science has revealed, we hear noise: our mother’s heart beating, our father singing, a barking dog, a sibling clomping down the stairs. Some expectant mothers press headphones playing Mozart against their bellies; the children of many musicians who recorded and performed while pregnant -Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Sarah Blackwood of Walk Off The Earth-must have been born humming, their heartbeats’ rhythm already calibrated to melody and story and rhyme.

But when, and how, does the speech-light click on? When did you figure out that the noises around you-wind, waves, birdsong, car horns, human voices-were something you could make your own, produce yourself, attach to objects, twist around into meaning?


You used your voice from the very beginning, of course, and even without words expressed yourself eloquently; ask your parents how they dealt with how you cried at night. But when did that whole word-making thing get going?  When did it click that a series of sounds named things?

There’s imitation, of course, perhaps the first learning tool, after befuddled, squinting attention, to come online. We’ve all seen (or if you haven’t yet, you’ve got a treat in store) how infants only a few months old will mirror a parent’s expressions. Fascinating research into what are known as ‘mirror neurons’ shine a light on the possible mechanisms of not only speech and behavior but the origins of empathy and human interconnectedness as a whole.  But I’ll leave that to the experts:

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They see your mouths moving, and noises coming out, and things happening as a result, and quickly discover how to make that power their own. [Science has a way of throwing cold, objective water on such magical ideas, however: studies have shown that this ‘imitative’ behavior in infants is overblown, exaggerated, inaccurate, attributable to all kinds of other things; until at least several months have passed their brains and behaviors and processing of stimuli aren’t sufficiently wired together to perform as complex an action as ‘imitation.’ But nearly all of the debunked claims were made about infants younger than three months…so we still have the magic; we just have to wait a little while.]

Pretty soon they’re taking a stab at conversation, even if the words themselves still aren’t quite there.

What was the first word?  And why? What gave someone-or generations of someones in a slow evolution of sparks of comprehension, like a chain of firecrackers-the idea that mouth-shaped sounds could represent, comprehend, even construct reality, could cement communities, ensure cooperation, enable survival?  It had to have been far more difficult than the task facing an infant; she, after all, is born into a world ringing with words and people who can introduce her to them. What was the idea and motive force and inspiration behind the first spoken images.pngword? Who uttered it? There was nothing to imitate.  Or was there?  The noise of winds and thunder and falling rain? Bird calls? Mammoth bellowing? Hundreds of theories have been floated, and while we’re able to zero in on some potential explanations with far greater acuity than we once were, we’re going to just have to get used to the fact that, when it comes to this particular question, we will never arrive at a concrete answer. The whys and hows of the beginnings of human speech died along with its speakers. By itself, with no one to remember and pass it along or, later, to write it down, speech dies on the air, and even when if it is caught like fireflies and passed from one pair of hands to the next, the glint gets dimmer and dimmer until it eventually winks out.

But guesswork is valuable in its own right. How typically human, right? Putting our linguistic minds to work to seek the origin of our linguistic minds; attempting to put into words how we once began to put things into words; questioning how we began to question, explaining how we came to explain. Even if we never get the answer, the questions we ask get us closer to the heart of the mystery, the mechanics behind the magic: the True Beginning.

I’ve divided a brief (and I mean brief) summary of theories of language into two sections, and devoted a few posts each to them:
1) Science: the ideas and theories of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, anatomists;
2) Stories: Philosophical and Religious and Mythological speculations.

[Depending on what age I’m teaching and the general mood and momentum of the class, I carve out a section of time either before (if the cylinders are really firing and people are animated and engaged), or after (if there’s more reticence and seeing some examples and ideas would prime the imaginative pump) we go over the Science and Art content. I ask the class/group/individual students to sit for a minute or two in *silence* and think about and imagine how speech began (I remind them to notice, too, that they can only do this with language, with words). Then it’s time for them to offer the class (or me, if it’s one-on-one) two things: a scientific hypothesis of their own making (with possibly some ideas for an  experiment that might support it), and an artistic explanation in the form of a myth, story, poem, or philosophical or religious reflection. I’ve had great luck with it.]

Up next: Part 1: Science. But first, a brief intermission!

Melinda Rooney ©2017

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