On the Origin of Language: Two Essays / Edition 1

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This volume combines Rousseau's essay on the origin of diverse languages with Herder's essay on the genesis of the faculty of speech. Rousseau's essay is important to semiotics and critical theory, as it plays a central role in Jacques Derrida's book Of Grammatology, and both essays are valuable historical and philosophical documents.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226730127
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/1986
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 186
  • Sales rank: 695,492
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 8.07 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author

John H. Moran is associate professor of philosophy at Manhattan College. Alexander Gode was professor of German at New York University.

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Read an Excerpt

On the Origin of Language

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder, John H. Moran, Alexander Code

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1966 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-73012-7


On the Various Means of Communicating Our Thoughts

Speech distinguishes man among the animals; language distinguishes nations from each other; one does not know where a man comes from until he has spoken. Out of usage and necessity, each learns the language of his own country. But what determines that this language is that of his country and not of another? In order to tell, it is necessary to go back to some principle that belongs to the locality itself and antedates its customs, for speech, being the first social institution, owes its form to natural causes alone.

As soon as one man was recognized by another as a sentient, thinking being similar to himself, the desire or need to communicate his feelings and thoughts made him seek the means to do so. Such means can be derived only from the senses, the only instruments through which one man can act upon another. Hence the institution of sensate signs for the expression of thought. The inventors of language did not proceed rationally in this way; rather their instinct suggested the consequence to them.

Generally, the means by which we can act on the senses of others are restricted to two: that is, movement and voice. The action of movement is immediate through touching, or mediate through gesture. The first can function only within arm's length, while the other extends as far as the visual ray. Thus vision and hearing are the only passive organs of language among distinct individuals.

Although the language of gesture and spoken language are equally natural, still the first is easier and depends less upon conventions. For more things affect our eyes than our ears. Also, visual forms are more varied than sounds, and more expressive, saying more in less time. Love, it is said, was the inventor of drawing. It might also have invented speech, though less happily. Not being very well pleased with it, it disdains it; it has livelier ways of expressing itself. How she could say things to her beloved, who traced his shadow with such pleasure! What sounds might she use to work such magic?

Our gestures merely indicate our natural unrest. It is not of those that I wish to speak. Only Europeans gesticulate when speaking; one might say that all their power of speech is in their arms. Their lungs are powerful too, but to nearly no avail. Where a Frenchman would strain and torture his body, emitting a great verbal torrent, a Turk will momentarily remove his pipe from his mouth to utter a few words softly, crushing one with a single sentence.

Since learning to gesticulate, we have forgotten the art of pantomime, for the same reason that with all our beautiful systems of grammar we no longer understand the symbols of the Egyptians. What the ancients said in the liveliest way, they did not express in words but by means of signs. They did not say it, they showed it.

Consider ancient history; it is full of such ways of appealing to the eye, each of them more effective than all the discourse that might have replaced it. An object held up before speaking will arouse the imagination, excite curiosity, hold the mind in suspense, in expectation of what will be said. I have noticed that Italians and Provençals, among whom gesture ordinarily precedes discourse, use this as a way of drawing attention and of pleasing their listeners. But in the most vigorous language, everything is said symbolically, before one actually speaks. Tarquin, or Thrasybulus lopping off poppies; Alexander applying his seal to the mouth of his favorite; Diogenes promenading in front of Zeno: do they not speak more effectively than with words? What verbal circumlocution would express the same idea as well? Darius, engaged with his army in Scythia, receives from the King of Scythia a frog, a bird, a mouse, and five arrows. The herald makes the presentation in silence and departs. That terrible harangue was understood; and Darius returned to his own country as quickly as he could. Substitute a letter for this sign: the more menacing it is, the less frightening will it be. It will be no more than a boast, which would draw merely a smile from Darius.

When the Levite of Ephraim wanted to avenge the death of his wife, he wrote nothing to the tribes of Israel, but divided her body into twelve sections which he sent to them. At this horrible sight they rushed to arms, crying with one voice: Never has such a thing happened in Israel, from the time of our fathers' going out of Egypt, down to the present day! And the tribe of Benjamin was exterminated. In our day, this affair, recounted in court pleadings and discussions, perhaps in jest, would be dragged out until this most horrible of crimes would in the end have remained unpunished. King Saul, returning from the fields, similarly dismembered his plow oxen, thus using a similar sign to make Israel march to the aid of the city of Jabes. The Jewish prophets and the Greek lawgivers, by frequently presenting sensate objects to the people, spoke to them more effectively through these objects than they would have by means of lengthy discourse. The way the Athenaeum yields when the orator Hyperides made them acquit the courtesan Phryne, without alleging a single word in her defense, is another mute eloquence, the effects of which are not unusual in any age.

Thus one speaks more effectively to the eye than to the ear. There is no one who does not feel the truth of Horace's judgment in this regard. Clearly the most eloquent speeches are those containing the most imagery; and sounds are never more forceful than when they produce the effects of colors.

But when it is a question of stirring the heart and inflaming the passions, it is an altogether different matter. The successive impressions of discourse, which strike a redoubled blow, produce a different feeling from that of the continuous presence of the same object, which can be taken in at a single glance. Imagine someone in a painful situation that is fully known; as you watch the afflicted person, you are not likely to weep. But give him time to tell you what he feels and soon you will burst into tears. It is solely in this way that the scenes of a tragedy produce their effect.

Pantomime without discourse will leave you nearly tranquil; discourse without gestures will wring tears from you. The passions have their gestures, but they also have their accents; and these accents, which thrill us, these tones of voice that cannot fail to be heard, penetrate to the very depths of the heart, carrying there the emotions they wring from us, forcing us in spite of ourselves to feel what we hear. We conclude that while visible signs can render a more exact imitation, sounds more effectively arouse interest.

This leads me to think that if the only needs we ever experienced were physical, we should most likely never have been able to speak; we would fully express our meanings by the language of gesture alone. We would have been able to establish societies little different from those we have, or such as would have been better able to achieve their goals. We would have been able to institute laws, to choose leaders, to invent arts, to establish commerce, and to do, in a word, almost as many things as we do with the help of speech. Without fear of jealousy, the secrets of oriental gallantry are passed across the more strictly guarded harems in the epistolary language of salaams. The mutes of great nobles understand each other, and understand everything that is said to them by means of signs, just as well as one can understand anything said in discourse. M. Pereyra and those like him who not only consider that mutes speak, but claim to understand what they are saying, had to learn another language, as complicated as our own, in order to understand them.

Chardin says that in India, traders would take each other by the hand, varying their grip in a way that no one could see, thus transacting all their business publicly yet secretly, without a single word being uttered. If these traders had been blind, deaf, and mute, this would not hinder their understanding of each other; which shows that of the two senses by which we act, one alone will suffice to form a language.

It appears again, by the same observations, that the invention of the art of communicating our ideas depends less upon the organs we use in such communication than it does upon a power proper to man, according to which he uses his organs in this way, and which, if he lacked these, would lead him to use others to the same end. Give man a structure [organically] as crude as you please: doubtless he will acquire fewer ideas, but if only he has some means of contact with his fellow men, by means of which one can act and another can sense, he will finally succeed in communicating whatever ideas he might have.

Animals have a more than adequate structure for such communication, but none of them has ever made use of it. This seems to me a quite characteristic difference. That those animals which live and work in common, such as beavers, ants, bees, have some natural language for communicating among themselves, I would not question. Still, the speech of beavers and ants is apparently by gesture; i.e., it is only visual. If so, such languages are natural, not acquired. The animals that speak them possess them a-borning: they all have them, and they are everywhere the same. They are entirely unchanging and make not the slightest progress. Conventional language is characteristic of man alone. That is why man makes progress, whether for good or ill, and animals do not. That single distinction would seem to be far-reaching. It is said to be explicable by organic differences. I would be curious to witness this explanation.


That the First Invention of Speech Is Due Not to Need but Passion

It seems then that need dictated the first gestures, while the passions stimulated the first words. By pursuing the course of the facts with these distinctions we may be able to see the question of the origin of language in an entirely new light. The genesis of oriental languages, the oldest known, absolutely refutes the assumption of a didactic progression in their development. These languages are not at all systematic or rational. They are vital and figurative. The language of the first men is represented to us as the tongues of geometers, but we see that they were the tongues of poets.

And so it had to be. One does not begin by reasoning, but by feeling. It is suggested that men invented speech to express their needs: an opinion which seems to me untenable. The natural effect of the first needs was to separate men, and not to reunite them. It must have been that way, because the species spread out and the earth was promptly populated. Otherwise mankind would have been crammed into a small area of the world, and the rest would have remained uninhabited.

From this alone it follows clearly that the origin of languages is not at all due to people's first needs. It would be absurd to suppose that the means of uniting them derived from the cause of their separation. Whence then this origin? From moral needs, passions. All the passions tend to bring people back together again, but the necessity of seeking a livelihood forces them apart. It is neither hunger nor thirst but love, hatred, pity, anger, which drew from them the first words. Fruit does not disappear from our hands. One can take nourishment without speaking. One stalks in silence the prey on which one would feast. But for moving a young heart, or repelling an unjust aggressor, nature dictates accents, cries, lamentations. There we have the invention of the most ancient words; and that is why the first languages were singable and passionate before they became simple and methodical. All of this is not true without qualification, but I shall return to it in the sequel.


That the First Language Had To Be Figurative

As man's first motives for speaking were of the passions, his first expressions were tropes. Figurative language was the first to be born. Proper meaning was discovered last. One calls things by their true name only when one sees them in their true form. At first only poetry was spoken; there was no hint of reasoning until much later.

However, I feel the reader stopping me at this point to ask how an expression can be figurative before it has a proper meaning, since the figure consists only of a transference of meaning. I agree with that. But, in order to understand what I mean, it is necessary to substitute the idea that the passion presents to us for the word that we transpose. For one does not only transpose words; one also transposes ideas. Otherwise figurative language would signify nothing. I shall reply then with an example.

Upon meeting others, a savage man will initially be frightened. Because of his fear he sees the others as bigger and stronger than himself. He calls them giants. After many experiences, he recognizes that these so-called giants are neither bigger nor stronger than he. Their stature does not approach the idea he had initially attached to the word giant. So he invents another name common to them and to him, such as the name man, for example, and leaves giant to the fictitious object that had impressed him during his illusion. That is how the figurative word is born before the literal word, when our gaze is held in passionate fascination; and how it is that the first idea it conveys to us is not that of the truth.

What I have said of words and names presents no difficulty relative to the forms of phrases. The illusory image presented by passion is the first to appear, and the language that corresponded to it was also the first invented. It subsequently became metaphorical when the enlightened spirit, recognizing its first error, used the expressions only with those passions that had produced them.


On the Distinctive Characteristics of the First Language and the Changes It Had To Undergo

Simple sounds emerge naturally from the throat; and the mouth is naturally more or less open. But the modifications of the tongue and palate, which produce articulation, require attention and practice. One does not make them at all without willing to make them. All children need to learn them, and some do not succeed easily. In all tongues, the liveliest exclamations are inarticulate. Cries and groans are simple sounds. Mutes, which is to say the deaf, can make only inarticulate sounds. Father Lamy thinks that if God had not taught men to speak, they would never have learned by themselves. There are only a small number of articulations; there are infinitely many sounds, and the accents that distinguish them can be equally numerous. All the musical notes are just so many accents. True, we have only three or four in speech. The Chinese have many more; but on the other hand, they have fewer consonants. To these possible combinations, add those of tense and number, and you have not only more words, but more distinct syllables than even the richest tongue requires.

I do not doubt that independent of vocabulary and syntax, the first tongue, if it still existed, would retain the original characteristics that would distinguish it from all others. Not only would all the forms of this tongue have to be in images, feelings, and figures, but even in its mechanical part it would have to correspond to its initial object, presenting to the senses as well as to the understanding the almost inevitable impression of the feeling that it seeks to communicate.

Since natural sounds are inarticulate, words have few articulations. Interposing some consonants to fill the gaps between vowels would suffice to make them fluid and easy to pronounce. On the other hand, the sounds would be very varied, and the diversity of accents for each sound would further multiply them. Quantity and rhythm would account for still further combinations. Since sounds, accents, and number, which are natural, would leave little to articulation, which is conventional, it would be sung rather than spoken. Most of the root words would be imitative sounds or accents of passion, or effects of sense objects. It would contain many onomatopoeic expressions.

This language would have many synonyms for expressing the same thing according to various relationships. It would have few adverbs and abstract names for expressing these same relationships. It would have many augmentatives, diminutives, composite words, expletive particles to indicate the cadence of sentences and fullness of phrases. It would have many irregularities and anomalies. It would deemphasize grammatical analogy for euphony, number, harmony, and beauty of sounds. Instead of arguments, it would have aphorisms. It would persuade without convincing, and would represent without reasoning. It would resemble Chinese in certain respects, Greek and Arabic in others. If you understand these ideas in all their ramifications, you will find that Plato's Cratylus is not as ridiculous as it appears to be.


Excerpted from On the Origin of Language by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder, John H. Moran, Alexander Code. Copyright © 1966 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. On the Various Means of Communicating Our Thoughts
2. That the Invention of Speech Is Due Not to Need but Passion
3. That the First Language Had To Be Figurative
4. On the Distinctive Characteristics of the First Language and the Changes It Had to Undergo
5. On Script
6. Whether It is Likely that Homer Knew How to Write
7. On Modern Prosody
8. General and Local Differences in the Origin of Languages
9. Formation of the Southern Languages
10. Formation of the Languages of the North
11. Reflections on These Differences
12. The Origin of Music and Its Relations
13. On Melody
14. On Harmony
15. That Our Most Lively Sensations Frequently Are Produced by Moral Impressions
16. False Analogy between Colors and Sounds
17. An Error of Musicians Harmful to Their Art
18. That the Greek Musical System Had No Relation to Ours
19. How Music Has Degenerated
20. Relationship of Languages to Government

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