The Language Snakes on Carl Sagan’s Plane

In my last post, I mentioned that Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite pointed me to an interesting claim made by Carl Sagan. Early in the book, Kaplan mentions in a footnote that Sagan claimed there might be a link between snakes and the sh-sound that people make when they want to command attention or silence. The book Kaplan refers to is Sagan’s Dragons of Eden (1977) and in it Sagan postulates the idea in the form of a question (that he doesn’t answer):

The implacable mutual hostility between man and dragon, as exemplified in the myth of St. George, is strongest in the West. (In chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, God ordains an eternal enmity between reptiles and humans.) But it is not a Western anomaly. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Is it only an accident that the common human sounds commanding silence or attracting attention seem strangely imitative of the hissing of reptiles? Is it possible that dragons posed a problem for our protohuman ancestors of a few million years ago, and that the terror they evoked and the deaths they caused helped bring about the evolution of human intelligence?

Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, p. 95, emphasis mine

An interesting idea, but one that is probably impossible to prove. The “sounds […] imitative of the hissing of reptiles” that Sagan is presumably talking about are [ s ] and [ ʃ ], or the sounds at the start of the words Superman and Shazam. According to Phoible, an inventory of sounds in the world’s languages, [ s ] and [ ʃ ] are in 67% and 37% of all recorded languages respectively. That first statistic seems high but based on Sagan’s notion we should probably assume it would be higher. There might be something else behind this though.

The claim sounds a bit like the Proto-World Hypothesis, although Sagan is unclear if he’s aware of that theory. The hypothesis states that all languages are descendants of one single source language. It is very much not accepted by linguists today, mostly because we just can’t trace words back that far. Language change is so constant and so fast that we can barely go back 1,000 years, let alone 100,00.

So for one thing, if the shh sound really does go back to our protohuman ancestors, we would expect it to have changed into something unrecognizable today. But that’s not what we see – we don’t have many different forms of shh in languages around the world. Instead, it seems Sagan is right in that many people use something like shh to tell people to “shush”. So what’s going on here?

For the record, I think that the reason so many languages share the shh word is because it is being continually reinvented – like the words mama and papa. In a great paper, which I implore you to read, linguist Larry Trask goes through the evidence for why so many languages around the world share very similar words for mama and papa. It isn’t because these words stretch back to our protohuman ancestors. No, instead these words are continually recreated by parents.

As Trask shows, the famous linguist Roman Jakobson figured out that some of the first sounds that babies produce are [m], [b] and [p]. The reason for this is that these sounds are so darn easy to make. Each of them is made simply by closing the lips and then opening them again. And guess what? Those are the sounds in the word mama. After that comes the sounds [n], [d] and [t] – all made by placing the front of the tongue on the alveolar ridge (the part just behind the upper teeth). And surprise! The words for papa in languages around the world all share these sounds. Because what’s happening is that pre-linguistic humans (aka “babies”) are making these sounds and then parents are ascribing meaning to them. And what words do a baby’s parents want to hear? Who are the most important people in the baby’s life? Mama and papa.

I think something similar is going on with shh. I think the ease of making the shh sound and its sibilant nature are what lead humans to continually recreate it in languages around the world (if most languages do indeed use the sound to command silence – the jury is still out on that one). To his credit, Sagan mentions the mama/papa idea, but he does not credit Jakobson. Sagan writes “In almost all human languages the child’s word for ‘mother’ seems imitative of the sound made inadvertently while feeding at the breast.” (p. 68) Yeah, ok. Not exactly what’s happening. But Sagan was an astrophysicist, not a linguist.

There is another thing worth noting here. The interjection shh (or sh) only goes back to 1847 in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Entry for sh in the Oxford English Dictionary

That’s…. not that far back. The OED gives hush as a comparison – and hush indeed does have the fricatives we’re looking for – but hush only goes back to 1604. It’s still younger than Shakespeare! I don’t really know a way of checking how old sh is, but maybe it’s an example of a word that we just think is very old. It feels like something that has always been in the language, but it really hasn’t (like saying hello to greet someone). That would nix Sagan’s theory.  

Another way of looking at this question would be to see how many languages use an sh-like sound (aka a snake sound) to quiet someone or command attention. I don’t know how that would be done. But even if we figured out that most languages use a snake sound to do this, it still wouldn’t prove that the sound goes back to our protohuman days. Language changes too fast and too much for something to stick around for that long.

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