Unanswerable question of the day: Who uttered the first pun?

There’s a fascinating piece in today’s New York Times, summarizing the findings of a recent Science article on the origins of human language. Based on a mathematical analysis of phonetic diversity (i.e., the number of separate sounds in different languages), biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland has determined that human language originated in ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

There's a fascinating piece in today's New York Times, summarizing the findings of a recent Science article on the origins of human language. Based on a mathematical analysis of phonetic diversity (i.e., the number of separate sounds in different languages), biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland has determined that human language originated in southern Africa around 50,000 years ago (some scientists believe its origins may be even earlier).

You've got to hand it to our species: 50,000 years isn't that long a time. Think of all the good and bad ideas that we've produced in 50 millennia: Shakespeare, the "divine right of kings," both slavery and abolitionism, relativity, the Bhagavad Gita, fascism, a mind-boggling array of religious dogma, liberalism, Marxism, the movies of Fred Astaire, Mad magazine, Japanese manga, rap, hip-hop, and bebop. The list is infinite … and now there's the blogosphere.

But here's what I wondered as I finished the article: Who uttered the first pun? And did those early humans groan when they heard it?

There’s a fascinating piece in today’s New York Times, summarizing the findings of a recent Science article on the origins of human language. Based on a mathematical analysis of phonetic diversity (i.e., the number of separate sounds in different languages), biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland has determined that human language originated in southern Africa around 50,000 years ago (some scientists believe its origins may be even earlier).

You’ve got to hand it to our species: 50,000 years isn’t that long a time. Think of all the good and bad ideas that we’ve produced in 50 millennia: Shakespeare, the "divine right of kings," both slavery and abolitionism, relativity, the Bhagavad Gita, fascism, a mind-boggling array of religious dogma, liberalism, Marxism, the movies of Fred Astaire, Mad magazine, Japanese manga, rap, hip-hop, and bebop. The list is infinite … and now there’s the blogosphere.

But here’s what I wondered as I finished the article: Who uttered the first pun? And did those early humans groan when they heard it?

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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