What happens when you say `kiss'

William Hartston meets an artist with an challenging new theory aboutthe origins of human language
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BOW-WOW, pooh-pooh, ding-dong, yo-he-ho and la-la are not, as you might think, an assortment of country cousins of the Teletubbies, though they may have a profound effect on what the Teletubbies say. Bow- wow and his companions are, according to David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language the terms given, half-jokingly and half for ease of reference, to the five distinct theories about the original of language. The Danish linguist Otto Jesperson (1860-1943) listed the theories, and his followers gave them their pre-Teletubby names.

Bow-wow is the theory that words originated by people imitating the sounds of things encountered in nature. All words, the theory claims, began as onomatopoeia - which is fine for squelching cuckoos, but is unconvincing for the vast majority of the words in the language.

Pooh-pooh is a more instinctive version of Bow-wow. The idea here is that we began with shrieks and grunts that emerged naturally as signs of pain or emotion. You only have to spit, sigh, snarl and whimper a little to realise the basic defects of this theory: the vowels and consonants of language bear little resemblance to the sounds from which they are said to have evolved.

Ding-dong offers a rather more flexible scheme: words, in this theory, are based on our reaction to stimuli in the world about us. They are "oral gestures" in harmony with the environment. A baby says "mama" as her lips naturally form the movements needed to latch on to her mother's breast. When the same child grows a little more linguistically mature and bids farewell with "ta-ta", she is waving goodbye with her tongue. But you need to stretch the imagination a little in order to fit most words into such a neat scheme.

Yo-he-ho is a more social theory of language development. Early communities grunted together, then chanted together, and the chants became language. The natural rhythms and poetry of language seem to support ideas of such a musical origin, but there is nothing in the theory to explain why different languages ended up with such a wide variety of different rhythmic patterns. Why should distinct groups of hominids have emitted their instinctive communal grunts according to different rules?

La-la was Jespersen's own theory, concocted when he found the others less than convincing. The gospel according to la-la maintains that words have an emotional rather than functional origin. They stem from the sounds associated not with pain and disgust, but with love play and poetic feeling. But when we say "potato", are we really sighing with emotion and pursing our lips to give the beloved vegetable a gentle kiss?

Now, however, we have a sixth theory, which I shall refer to, until a better name emerges, as the lip-loup theory. It is the brainchild of a North London artist, Ronis Varlaam and it may be seen as a development of ding-dong. His view is that when early man started speaking, what he was trying to do was to form, with his lips and tongue, the shapes of those things he was talking about. When you say the word "hole", does not your mouth open and extend to form a deep hole, finishing with the tongue flicking its way across the entrance to check that it is indeed holey? When you say "foot", do not your lips extend in imitation of a foot, ending with a neat evocation of toes (or possibly heel) by the tongue?

Varlaam has illustrated his theory with a series of paintings based on his favourite English poem, TS Eliot's The Waste Land. Each painting (as illustrated on the left) is based initially on the shape of the lips in uttering a word or phrase from the first verse of the poem.

"As words are spoken the mouth makes shapes as if to illustrate the words", he explains. "Pictographs are created and words become visual representations of their meaning. The shapes on the paintings are transcriptions of the shapes the mouth makes; the details are usually mine. I also use the silent movements that the mouth makes after a word is spoken." He stresses, however, that: "This series is not an attempt to illustrate the poem, but an attempt to reach the origin of the words."

There are four basic ideas underlying Varlaam's linguistic theory:

1. It makes everyone an artist

2. Our alphabet is based on pictographs

3. It may give a glimpse into a platonic pre-linguistic "language".

4. It can be looked at purely visually, ignoring any theories.

Quite apart from the oxymoronic attraction of a theory that ignores theories, the idea of thinking about our lip-loups is strangely beguiling. When I say "box" am I really just opening my mouth with "bo-" (like a box opening), then putting a rectangular lid on it with the "ks" sound at the end? Or is this just an exercise in fantasy, trying to fit the word to the theory? Do my lips, when saying "kiss" form themselves into any more smoochy an arrangement than when they say, for example, "pickle"?

In his notes on the "Waste Land" series, Ronis Varlaam quotes, to support his views, a passage by Siri Hustvedt, writing on the art of still life paintings in Modern Review last year: "It may seem odd to speak of images in terms of language. Pictures are supposed to escape the confines of words. But language is the grid through which we see the world and in still life naming is implied by looking."

Whatever you may think of the theory, lip-loup has one great advantage over its rivals bow-wow, pooh-pooh, ding-dong, yo-he-ho and la-la: it is a theory that we can all test with almost everything we utter. Indeed, we can hardly resist testing it. Once given the idea of thinking about the shapes your lips make when you speak, everyone starts to experience the beguiling charm of the theory. Just out of range of your eyes, your lips are making shapes all the time. You have probably never thought about them before, but once you do, it quickly becomes obsessive.

As Varlaam says: it makes artists out of all of us. And if you want to know what someone is really talking about, all you have to do is follow that memorable advice of President George Bush: Watch my lips.