March 23, 2020

Did ancient Akkadians refer to the head as the "yak-yak" part of the body? Support for Julian Jaynes' view of the history of consciousness

Nassim Taleb posted a diagram of the body with the parts labeled in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language that is the earliest attested member of the family, spoken in / during the Akkadian Empire circa the late 3rd millennium BC, in what is now the northern and eastern part of Iraq:

There's something very strange about the word for 'head' being "qaqqadum," which bears no resemblance to the widely attested words for 'head' in all other Semitic languages, which derive from "raʔš" in Proto-Semitic (although Akkadian apparently also had a separate word for 'head' that derived from this usual root). It is not a loanword from the nearby, non-Semitic Sumerian language, whose word for 'head' is "sag".

What's going on here? "-um" is just a suffix that can be ignored, leaving "qaqqad". But that can't be it, because Semitic languages almost never allow for a pair of adjacent positions in a root to be the same sound, unless it's the middle and final positions in the triconsonantal root -- not the first and middle positions. For example, h-l-l is allowed, but not h-h-l.

Yet here we seem to have the "q" in the first and middle positions. Turns out it's a reduplication of the single syllable "qad," giving an intermediate form "qadqad," with the cluster "dq" apparently not allowed, so that the "d" assimilates into the following sound, becoming a "q". (Not an uncommon phenomenon across languages.)

OK, at least "qadqad" does not violate basic Semitic phonotactics, or the rules governing which sounds can be combined in which ways. But that only complicates things because it means the word for such a basic, primitive, all-important word like 'head' is morphologically complex -- it's a reduplication of "qad," giving "qadqad". Why not just make it its own primitive word, instead of deriving it from some other word? It's not like there's anything figurative or conceptual about it -- it's a literal head, from your physical, tangible, visible body.

Well, perhaps there's something even more semantically primitive about "qad," whose roots would seem to be q-d. That's morphologically primitive, only two consonants instead of the usual three. And the "q" and "d" in Akkadian only come from those same sounds in Proto-Semitic, so the Proto-Semitic root would also be q-d.

But what does the q-d root mean in Semitic languages -- anything having to do with the head? According to the article "Statistics of Language Morphology Change: From Biconsonantal Hunters to Triconsonantal Farmers" by Agmon & Bloch (2013), Table S1, row 1.10, q-d refers to 'burn' and 'ignite". In other words, nothing to do with 'head' by even a generous stretch of the imagination, let alone where 'burn' is the primitive form and 'head' is the derived form.

Saying it a few times out loud, I realized that "qadqad" is a lot like "yak-yak" or "bla-bla" or "bar-bar" (the origin of "barbarian"). Or "yadda-yadda". Then "qad" is just a case of onomatopoeia -- referring to a generic, all-purpose speech syllable, and the reduplicated form "qadqad" suggests a stream or longer utterance of such syllables, just like yadda-yadda and the others.

That is the only way for the word for 'head' to be morphologically complex. Whatever it's derived from must be more primitive -- and how do you get more simple, basic, and primitive than 'head'? It's impossible if it's derived from semantic concepts (like the putative 'burn'). But it is possible if it's derived from an onomatopoeia, which is purely physical rather than conceptual, and therefore simpler and more primitive.

Under this interpretation, the Akkadian word for 'head' originally meant something like "the part of the body that does the yak-yak activity". The bla-bla part. The yadda-yadda part. Not so different from modern languages like English referring to a body part by the activity that it performs, like "yapper" for 'mouth' in English. In Akkadian, they might have done this to refer to the head as a whole, not just the mouth. After all, you need to refer to some activity that is distinctive of the head -- what else is there?

Remember, this is before the emergence in history of the self-awareness of one's own internal mental states (or consciousness), to borrow from Julian Jaynes' seminal work "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". (Now there's a book to stimulate your stir-crazy mind during the quarantine). It's 20-some-hundred BC, not 500 BC, give or take. Or pre- vs. post-Axial Age, in structural terms rather than absolute time. So internal mental processes like thinking and feeling are not options for the Akkadians to choose from. BTW, I've written before about that book and model -- use Google to search this blog for "Jaynes".

External processes connected to the brain might work, but they are fairly passive and not active enough to be the most salient activities. Seeing, hearing, smelling -- not very evocative. Eating is more active, but it involves too much that lies outside the head (most of the digestive tract), and you only eat every so often. Speaking is the only thing that is distinctive of the head, external and physical rather than internal and psychological, and done often enough during the day, to be the most salient activity for the head (before the rise of consciousness).

These two views -- a certain etymology of 'head' in Akkadian, and Jaynes' history of consciousness -- are compatible with each other. I'm not supposing one to prove the other. More like using the etymology of "qaqqadum" as yet another piece of evidence for Jaynes' view of the history of consciousness. I don't need Jaynes' view to argue for the etymology of "qaqqadum," which stands on its own, and I don't see any obvious alternative explanations for such a strange word for 'head' in a Semitic language. And Jaynes' view doesn't rise or fall on the basis of this one proposed etymology.

But they do support each other. If the Akkadians were a more modern people, they probably would have derived their word for 'head' from a more purely cerebral activity, internal to the mind. "Oh that part of the body? Y'know, that's the, er, the thinking-part!" However, if they were pre-conscious (in Jaynes' sense), then they would have chosen a more physical and outwardly directed activity localized above the neck -- the 'head' is the speaking-part of the body! And not just "speech" in some abstract cerebral sense, but in the corporeal onomatopoetic sense, employing a specific example of a speech syllable (reduplicated to suggest a stream of such syllables). For pre-conscious people, the 'head' is not the thinking-part but the yak-yak part.

1 comment:

  1. Even if the activity is eating rather than speaking, that still allows an onomatopoetic reading of "qad" -- namely, as a chewing sound, and the reduplication "qadqad" to refer to the activity of chewing food.

    Akin to English "yum-yum," "nom nom," "munch munch," etc.

    Note that this makes it more distinctive to the head than a generic 'eating' noise would, which might refer to further stages of digestion below the neck. Chewing takes place entirely inside the head.

    Under this reading, the Akkadian word for 'head' originally meant "the nom-nom part of the body".

    Still, it's a corporeal and non-psychological activity that is being linked to 'head'. And so, it still supports the Jaynes view of the history of consciousness. As long as it isn't about mental states.


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