As everyone who studies the subject knows, the origin of language was banished from the arena of scientific debate by the French Academy of Sciences in 1866. When I published The Origin of Language in 1981, there were still only a handful of works on the subject. Today there are dozens of books and thousands of articles. The Language Origins Society or LOS will hold its fifteenth annual meeting this year. Language origin study has become an interdisciplinary subfield of the human sciences.

There are other examples of enduring interdisciplinary specialties. But because the origin of language is a special subject, its colonization by the social and biological sciences holds a special significance. As the late Jan Wind, a founder of LOS, affirmed a few years ago, “The question [of the origin of language] had until recently mainly been tackled by students of the humanities, unfortunately without much progress. Only during the last few decades some progress has been achieved, mainly as a result of the sciences having contributed their share” (Language in the Würm Glaciation, ed. Udo Figge; Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1995, p. 183). The withdrawal of language origin from the purview of humanistic thinking follows a long line of similar withdrawals, of which the most notable occurred in the Renaissance when sunspots became visible in Galileo’s telescope. But whereas, “anthropic principle” or not, the line between cosmology and anthropology is easy to draw, that between humanistic and scientific anthropology is the archetype of all untraceable boundaries. Whatever the existence of the human mind might be able to tell us about cosmology, to treat the cosmos as the product of a human-like “will” is not the way to find out about it. Humanity itself being part of the cosmos, the “enlightened” argument arises that anthropomorphic explanations even of human phenomena are inappropriate. Just as the Genesis creation stories cannot help astronomers to explain the birth of the solar system, so, this line of reasoning goes, humanistic speculations on the origin and essence of the human are of no use to serious students of the subject.

The prevailing scientific view is that language is an “instinct” (Steven Pinker), an involuntary mechanism like walking (Derek Bickerton) that evolved in the same manner as all other such mechanisms. Our eye or our spleen is a simple product of biological evolution; to believe our language “organ” is any different is a relic of cultural anthropomorphism on a par with believing that the universe was created in six days. Humanists who concoct originary hypotheses are a latter-day version of the theologians who sought to deduce the functioning of everything in the universe from theological first principles.

As for why the overwhelming majority of the language users throughout history and even today have not been isolated individuals for whom language-based thought serves primarily to rehearse practical activities but members of communities whose most intense experiences of speech, as well as of other forms of representation, take place in the context of collective religious rites, the question always remains unanswered, even though the proofs that a given prehistoric variety of Homo possesses language are always provided by ritual-related materials such as burial goods or cave paintings. One sometimes finds references to religion: for example, “[Religions] give us a sense that all is not completely beyond our frail control, that via prayer and ritual we have recourse to mechanisms that will allow us to ensure that life will proceed in a tolerably benign way” (Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language; Harvard, 1996, p. 103). But no one bothers to explain why, when language appears, these reassuring mechanisms always come with it. Presumably the problem has been, if not solved, then laid to rest long ago; there is a curious unstated indulgence of nineteenth-century explanations of religion among scientists who would never dream of citing someone like Max Müller as an authority on the origin of language. Religion is the Achilles’ heel of positive anthropology, not because true believers cannot accept this anthropology, but because this anthropology cannot explain the existence of true believers.


Derek Bickerton’s Language and Human Behavior (Washington, 1995), originally a series of lectures given at the University of Washington in 1992, is perhaps the most coherent and thoughtful synthesis of scientific thought on the origin, evolution, and functioning of human language. Bickerton is one of few who understand that (1) whatever the neurological status of language today, it cannot have emerged as a gradual adaptation of prehuman signal systems but constitutes a radical new development; and (2) language cannot be explained as a superior tool of cognition generated by our steadily increasing intelligence–rather, this intelligence is a product of human language. Hence Bickerton recognizes that the emergence of language in what he calls the “magic moment” poses a problem, one for which he has no very likely solution. His hypothesis that language first arose as a means for “exchange of information about food sources” (p. 56) is no more plausible than any other gradualist-utilitarian hypothesis of origin, and solves no better than they the conundrum that he himself describes so clearly: “[F]ew have thought about much about the most crucial features of the magic moment: how the hearers knew that it was a meaningful utterance and knew how to respond appropriately” (p. 54).

Where Bickerton goes wrong is in his refusal to view language as primarily a means of communication although its birth, as we see, can only be imagined in a communicative context. Language is indeed a system of representation, but the locus of representation is not in the first place within the individual but among the members of the linguistic community. The only plausible answer to the question of how one could begin to speak without potential hearers—a question that those who explain language as a product of genetic mutation find particularly delicate—is supplied by the originary hypothesis. The generation of the “vertical” world of signs from the “horizontal” world of appetitive relations is only conceivable in a collective, scenic context.

(Soit dit en passant, I also differ with Bickerton’s strict dichotomy between weakly syntactic “protolanguage” and true Chomskian language–a “Rubicon” whose crossing he goes so far as to explain as the result of a “single [genetic] mutation” (Language and Species [Chicago, 1990], p. 190)! On this point, I find far more plausible the gestural explanation of the origin and evolution of syntax offered by Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox in Gesture and the Nature of Language (Cambridge, 1995). As I pointed out in Chronicle 166–following Philip Lieberman in Eve Spoke (Norton, 1998)–the virtual absence of progress in the Oldowan and Acheulian stone tool industries need not reflect, as Bickerton seems to think, a qualitatively lower level of language competence; my hypothesis is that language was reserved for sacred rather than “profane” everyday activities.)

Professional linguists like Bickerton are rightly suspicious of “cultural” theories of the origin of language whose airy phrases float far above the subject. But GA is not a “cultural” theory any more than it is a theory of natural science. Originary thinking is irreducible to the subject-object dichotomy of classical metaphysics, either in its positive mode as the basis of the natural and human sciences or in its paradoxical mode as the unthinkable foundation of cultural self-analysis; it offers an explanation for the emergence of both.

The fact that communication can take place without representation does not imply that representation is born independently of communication. The point is to explain why non-representational communication became insufficient and why representational communication offered a solution. But this cannot be done if human language is conceived as the autonomous activity of biologically independent individuals. To claim that the human is a communal reality and that the meaning of a word does not exist within the individual brain but in the context of a linguistic community does not imply that language emerges from a mystical entity like the “collective unconscious,” nor that a hypostasized Language is the real agent of our speech. No doubt, whether or not it is useful to speak of a “language organ,” a “language instinct,” or a “Language Acquisition Device,” the individual user of language must learn to process both incoming and outgoing utterances on his own. But the origin of this operation, and its most urgent task, cannot be understood in terms of the Subject-Object relationship of the individual to his environment, or even in terms of the communication among subjects concerning this environment. It is only comprehensible as a means of mediation of the mimetic desire of the subjects themselves, an instrument of “the deferral of violence through representation.” Only thus, in empirical terms, can we explain the common birth of language and the sacred.


Why do social scientists react with such hostility to the hypothesis that language originates as a means of deferring intrahuman violence rather than as a means of facilitating hunting, scavenging, or tool-making? The simplest answer is that improving the interface between the species and its environment is the typical biological enhancement of reproductive fitness, whereas preventing its self-destruction is not. Other animals have communication systems that operate to reduce intraspecific violence (e.g., submission and mating rituals), but these are always dealt with separately from the ostensibly more language-like signal systems that provide information about the environment. It seems disproportionate that so rich and complex a tool of communication as human language could derive from a mere conflict-avoidance mechanism. In any case, the specific occasion for our “stumbling” onto language is the least preoccupying of the problems raised by language origin, since it gives so little insight into the complexities of syntax, and of the body and brain that generate it, on which the energies of the paleolinguistic community are focused. That it might provide a special insight into the nature of human society is dismissed as an irrelevancy.

In The Origin of Language, I proposed a nascent dichotomy in originary language between the “formal” and the “institutional,” between language proper and ritual, or simply “culture.” This dichotomy eerily anticipates the functional division between students of language and students of culture, between linguists and their allies in physical anthropology, neurophysiology, psychology, primatology on the one hand and humanists and cultural anthropologists on the other. The search for the origin of language along the two branches of this dichotomy leads away from the locus of their original unity. As the second group turns away from the problem, declaring that in principle it has no solution, the first studies language in isolation from human culture as if it were a biological organ rather than an instrument of reciprocal communication.

Bickerton explains, I think quite cogently, the origin of human self-consciousness by the emergence, as the result of language, of areas in the brain that can be detached from the immediate task at hand to engage in “off-line” reflection on the “on-line” processes going on in other areas. The language user can reflect on his own “instinctive” activity; the human plans how to catch tomorrow the mammoth that eluded him yesterday while the cat, or even the chimpanzee, thinks only about the rat it is chasing. But this freedom conferred on the human brain by language is not, as it is described, that of isolated individuals. Language and thought can be acquired only through mimetic interaction with others, with all the difficulties and dangers it occasions. There are few more convincing demonstrations of the need for originary thinking than the fact that the finest minds investigating the origin of language within the tradition of empirical science find themselves limited to such impoverished and unrealistic visions of humanity’s mental landscape.