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Bilabial plosives

September 20, 2019

I’ve been musing about bilabial plosives recently, as one does. A plosive is a sound made by releasing pent-up air from the mouth in a sort of mini-explosion. Bilabial ones release the air by briefly closing then opening the lips. In English there are two of them: the unvoiced bilabial plosive p, and the voiced bilabial plosive b. What I was musing about was this: many of the verbs beginning with these bilabial plosives denote vigorous, even violent movements: push, poke, prod, punch; beat, bash, break, batter. Is that just a coincidence, or is a subtle form of onomatopoeia at work here?

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Based on my thorough study of linguistics at Oxford in Mods (that is to say, two weeks of tutorials after which I suddenly decided that I had much better things to do with my time), isn’t this the ‘bow – wow’ theory of language ?; that is to say, the word is of a piece with, and grows out of, the bodily experience. When you push something, you actually push harder if you say the word (‘push’) that expels breath and gives you a physical impetus. The word embodies and enacts the meaning.

  2. Why is it called the bow-wow theory?

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    I think that was covered in week three. Joking aside, my hazy recollection of the theory is simple onomatopoeia. A dog barks, and we take that noise and form it into a word that captures the sound; bow – wow. Or in my case, you give a heavy object a shove, and find yourself breathing out explosively, starting with a ‘p’ and ending with a ‘sh’. You make a noise that quickly forms itself into the word ‘push’. Obviously, that is as about far as the theory goes; it is hard to see how the ‘bow – wow’ theory gives you anything more than the simplest and most elemental words (bow-wow, woof, miaow, mama, dada) but, as I say, it was that point that linguistics and I parted company.

  4. Ah, OK. Thanks!

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