From cuckoo to yo-he-ho: workshop explores the origins of language

4 December 2013

A unique workshop will bring internationally leading linguists, philosophers and cognitive scientists to Macquarie University on Friday 6 December, to discuss a centuries-old question: where did language come from?

In a cross-faculty workshop, experts including Professor Bob Berwick, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Professor Kim Sterelny, (Australian National University), Emeritus Professor Brian Byrne, (University of New England), Associate Professor Drew Khlentzos, (University of New England) and Dr Richard Menary, (Macquarie University) will share their views.

“The Linguistic Society of Paris actually banned debate on the subject of language evolution in 1866,” says Distinguished Professor Stephen Crain, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD) and workshop organizer.

This was perhaps due to the appearance of speculative theories on the origins of spoken language. Several of these were recounted by the historian Max Müller:

  • The Bow-wow (aka Cuckoo) theory proposed that early words were imitations of the cries of beasts and birds,
  • The Poop-pooh theory maintained that first words were emotional interjections triggered by pleasure or pain,
  • The Yo-he-ho theory suggested that language developed to synchronize muscular effort by alternating sounds such as ‘heave’ with sounds such as ‘ho.’

“In modern times, two more scientific approaches to the origins of language have gained prominence,” says Crain. “One is a gradualist approach, which explains the emergence of language using the same kinds of adaptive (Darwinian) mechanisms that are known to shape other traits.

The second approach has reached the opposite conclusion – that language emerged in the species due to a single, chance genetic micromutation.”

The workshop is devoted to an in-depth discussion of these alternative approaches to the origins of language, including:

What is language?
What aspects of language are unique to humans?
How is language represented in the brain?
What function, if any, does language serve?
Did language evolve gradually or was its evolution a ‘sudden emergent event’?
Is there a gestural origin to language?
What is the relationship between logic and language?

The conference will be held on Friday 6 December in Room 1.200 (Lecture Theatre) at the Australian Hearing Hub at Macquarie University, Sydney NSW, Australia. It is sponsored by the CCD, MQ’s Centre for Language Sciences in the Faculty of Human Sciences and the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics in the Faculty of Arts.

For event details visit:

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