"I cannot conceal my astonishment at the fact that philosophers... can have arrived at the idea that the origins of human language is to be found in... emotional cries. All animals, even fish, express their feelings by sounds; but not even the most highly developed animals have so much as the beginning of true human speech... Children produce emotional sounds like animals; but is the language they learn from human beings not an entirely different language?" (p. 24, Herder, 1966 )
But if the earliest words did not originate from innate cries, and they are not (as the Bible suggested) totally arbitrary, the theorist must seek some rational basis for their phonological form. Herder accepted that concepts predated, and formed the necessary basis for, words, and his core notion was that vocal imitation, once present, would allow our ancestors to signify all those natural sources of sound (animals, wind, etc.) in a way that would be readily understood by others. The theory of onomatopoeia thus solves, with one stroke, two crucial problems: how the crucial linguistic link between sound and meaning could be made, and how this link, once made, would automatically be understood by others. This idea is by no means absurd once seen in this context. Indeed, many onomatopoetic words exist in present-day languages, across the planet. But most words in modern languages are not onomatopoetic, and even words considered onomatopoetic are quite distant and imperfect imitations of the original (witness the sound supposedly made by a rooster crowing: kikiriki in German against cock a doodle doo in English). Herder clearly realized that onomatopoeia fails entirely as the source of all words in modern language, and proposed onomatopoiea only as a bridge between early nonlinguistic humans and modern language. He thus proposed a candidate for a protolanguage: an intermediate stage between the communication system possessed by our non-linguistic hominid ancestors and modern fully evolved language. As such, it seems a thoroughly reasonable hypothesis about the origins of some early words.
[..]Do words have a natural relationship to their meanings, as in onomatopoeia, or are they instead wholly arbitrary coinages and purely conventional? Plato, through the character of Socrates, concludes that both notions have some truth.[/color]