Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Chair Chair Chair Chair Chair

It's a well-known fact that if you take any word, particularly the simple, familiar ones, and say it over and over and over again, it begins to sound foreign and eventually quite unlike a word at all. Whenever this happens to me, it leads me to question the entire idea of speech. Why do we communicate using our mouths? Why does this unintelligible collection of sounds make sense when we hear it? Speech is something we are all taught beginning in infancy. We don't usually pick it up for a while, but it's not a process we tend to ponder over croissants and orange juice. We accept it as a normal part of life. So why, when we repeat a basic word enough times, does it sound like we don't know it at all?

Humans are the only animals that learn to talk. Other animals learn things; even things that are instinctive (flight, for instance, or swimming) must be introduced and tutored. The image of a mother bird pushing her chicks out of her nest is not an unfamiliar one. Humans learn these types of things, too. Walking is only one example. We aren't the only animals that communicate through sound, either. Other animals make different noises with different meanings: mating calls, warning sounds, and distress signals. Even we laugh, cry, snort, cough, guffaw, or cry out without any thought at all sometimes. But speech is another element entirely, and it belongs solely to us.

I once watched a video on the human brain in a science class, and remembered this line: "The human brain is the only brain capable of studying itself." It was rather poetically put, but really, the human brain is the only brain capable of studying anything. We are the only creatures on earth capable of abstract thought (although I harbor theories about a secret civilization of whales deep beneath the ocean's surface). While other creatures can certainly perceive notions such as hunger, or the need to find a suitable home for winter, they never think, "I'm hungry," or "I need to find a suitable home for winter." But we do. In fact, we tend to think in whatever language comes most naturally to us. Have you ever wondered what a baby's thoughts look like? What language does a baby think in, or does the stage of brain development allowing specific thoughts go hand in hand with speaking?

Still, the way our brains work does not seem unnatural, while these repeated words remain a mystery. Maybe a perfect race of humans would communicate telepathically. Maybe the connection between our brains and our mouths is deteriorating. Maybe each person has a natural language that's as much a part of who you are as your eye color or whether or not you have freckles, and any other language sounds weird to our brains. These are weak hypotheses, I know. But I can't think of any other reasons. I don't know what it is about spoken language that makes the most basic of words sound awkward when we say them again and again. And again, and again.


  1. brain,brain,brain,brain,brain,brain. Now you have made my head hurt again! (hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt)

  2. hahaha i've wondered about babies thoughts too...