Spitting, and other words I rarely teach

When I went to live in Milan in 1991 I was surprised to find signs on the old single-carriage trams which still ran on some lines which read ‘non sputare’ – No Spitting. It seemed a quaint, and by that time wholly otiose, provision – imagine a world where people had to be told not to spit on trams!

Milan TramBut spitting is an ancient cultural trick. I recently read of some research by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at Reading University, which suggested as a best hypothesis that the single language from which all other languages derived (if such a language ever existed) had an identifiable core of 23 lexical items (words, to you and me), amongst which was the verb ‘to spit’.

The small group of core words was arrived at by assuming that the rate of change in commonly used words would be much lower than in less frequently used words, and then using a technique known as computational phylogenesis to crunch vast databases of usage in numerous languages down to something speculative but meaningful. At the end of the process, the computer spat out (!) the following list of 23 likely suspects – an appropriate if purely coincidental number given that we are discussing the evolution of language, and there are 23 chromosomes in the human cell.

Pronouns: You (both familiar and formal); I; We; This; That

Questions: What; Who

Verbs: To Give; To Hear; To Pull; To Spit; To Flow

Adjectives/adverbs: Not; Old; Black

Nouns: Man/Male; Mother; Hand; Fire; Bark; Ashes; Worm


There are a number of words on this list which I realise I rarely teach. Worm, for instance. The article suggests that early talking hominids must have needed to complain about their health a lot, and that a prominent part of being an early human would have been worm infestation. This is no longer the case in my classrooms, to the best of my knowledge. Bark and ashes, similarly, do not often crop up in a business English context. Flow occasionally does.

And spit. This is, I suppose,a current cultural question – freedom to expectorate in public is more prevalent in some parts of the world than in Cambridge, for instance, or latter-day Milan. But the campfire life of the classroom is, perhaps fortunately, no longer centred around fire and spitting, but rather around smartphones and empty coffee cups.


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