Johann Gottfried Herder’s prize Essay on the Origin of Language (1772) is the definitive rejection of Condillac’s Enlightenment model that seeks to derive human language from natural signs. This rejection obliges Herder to reject as well the interactional basis for language, reasoning that if animals could communicate adequately through the very natural signs that he has shown language not to be, communication cannot be language’s raison d’être. In this, Herder anticipates the cognitivist position of Chomsky and his school, who see language as an epiphenomenon of the evolution of the brain.

Man, placed in the state of reflection which is peculiar to him, with this reflection for the first time given full freedom of action, did invent language….

Man manifests reflection when the force of his soul acts in such freedom that, in the vast ocean of sensations which permeates it through all the channels of the senses, it can … single out one wave, arrest it, concentrate its attention on it, and be conscious of being attentive. He manifests reflection when, confronted with the vast hovering dream of images which pass by his senses, he can collect himself into a moment of wakefulness and dwell at will on one image… and can select in it distinguishing marks for himself so that he will know that this object is this and not another. He thus manifests reflection if he is able not only to recognize all characteristics vividly or clearly but if he can also recognize and acknowledge to himself one or several of them as distinguishing characteristics. The first act of this acknowledgment results in a clear concept; it is the first judgment of the soul–and through what did this acknowledgment occur? Through a distinguishing mark which he had to single out and which … struck him clearly…

Let that lamb there, as an image, pass by under his eyes; it is to him, as it is to no other animal. Not as it would appear to the hungry, scenting wolf!… Not as it appears to the rutting ram which feels it only as the object of its pleasure… Not as it appears to any other animal to which the sheep is indifferent and which therefore lets it … pass by because its instinct makes it turn toward something else–Not so with man! As soon as he feels the need to come to know the sheep, no instinct gets in his way; no one sense of his pulls him too close to it or too far away from it…. White, soft, woolly–his soul in reflective exercise seeks a distinguishing mark–the sheep bleats! His soul has found the distinguishing mark…. This bleating, which makes upon man’s soul the strongest impression, which broke away from all the other qualities of vision and of touch, which sprang out and penetrated most deeply, the soul retains it. (Section 2)

This view of language as a product of the human freedom from animal determinations of appetite and action is closer to the originary hypothesis than to the cognitivists’ evolutionary determinism. Herder’s exposition suggests, albeit in the context of the lone Enlightenment individual rather than the group, the free-floating mimetic interaction by which humans replace these animal determinations. For Herder, as for Sartrean Existentialism, human freedom is a primary category, defined in negative terms but inexplicable merely on the basis of what it negates. The effect of this absence of determination is an otherwise unexplained desire to imitate, not other persons in their similarity to us, but other beings insofar force themselves upon one’s consciousness. Whence the “bleating sheep,” the best remembered passage in the Essay.

Herder’s sheep, the very symbol of innocuousness, is diametrically opposed to Rousseau’s giants. Herder exemplifies human disinterest by the least fearsome creature in opposition to both Rousseau and Condillac, for whom language originates in the “unfree” need to communicate one’s distress. Yet there is a subtle contradiction between the choice of the lamb, innocent victim and symbol of Christ, and the postulated disinterest of the human speaker in its edibility; the Lamb of God is a direct descendent of the eminently comestible Paschal lamb of the Hebrews. Herder in his Enlightenment optimism ignores the fact that it is precisely this lack of fearsomeness that makes the lamb the ideal sacrificial victim and, as a consequence, the symbol of the sacred in the religion that most clearly reveals the mimetic nature of the sacrificial.

Herder’s arguments against Condillac’s derivation of language from natural cries are more destructive than constructive. His own originary scene suggests the sacrality of language only by reductio ad absurdum: if man has no appetitive interest in the sheep, why should he “[feel] the need to come to know” it? In order to find an anthropological basis for what Herder sees as a purely gratuitous interest, we must situate it on a different level from appetitive interest, which is to say, as the interest we have in the significant, in the sacred.

Why is it the bleating of the sheep that “makes upon man’s soul the strongest impression”? Clearly the “bow-wow” theory here presented takes for granted not only the sonorous but the mimetic nature of speech. We cannot ourselves become white, soft, and woolly in imitation of the sheep, but we are able to mimic his cry. As opposed to Condillac who derives language from our own involuntary “calls,” Herder finds its source in the deliberate imitation of those of another creature. The obvious objection that many objects and actions, let alone grammatical words, are not associated with a sound suffices to refute the bow-wow theory as an overall explanation of the lexicon, but it is not entirely on the mark with respect to Herder’s originary scene. The choice of the sheep, a higher animal and the prototypical sacrificial victim to boot, allows us to construe this scene more generously. As the hypothetical referent of the first word, the sheep is an object of both desire and imitation.  Despite Herder’s Enlightenment atomism, the only way to connect desire and imitation is through the desire of the human community: we all desire (to eat) the sheep, it acquires being as a result of its desirability, we all share that being by representing/imitating the sheep through its cry. Hence to emit the sign is both to represent the object as desired and to take on the being of the object represented. Although this is not a useful explanation of the origin of most of our vocabulary, it highlights language’s doubly mimetic structure.


It is fitting that the Enlightenment’s definitive statement on the origin of language should on the one hand evacuate Condillac’s model of continuity with nature that Rousseau had problematized but not really overcome and on the other reduce the scene of language origin to the confrontation between a meaningless nature and a single free human spirit. Of these two operations, the first redefines the problem in all its paradox for all future students of the question. (To quote Alexander Gode, the author of the 1966 Frederic Ungar Press translation of the Essay, “Can we today, armed as we are with an infinitely more vast array of documented primary data than Herder, excel over Herder in his ultimate insight into the nature and the mystery of language? The answer, I fear, can only be in the negative.”) The second, in renouncing the Enlightenment ambition to reconstitute the community from an aggregate of individuals, looks forward to the Romantic blurring of boundaries between individual and collective. The two operations are inseparable; in the Enlightenment perspective, to be cut off from nature and its instincts is to be without any “natural” need for communication with a fellow creature.

Herder’s elimination from the language situation of the human other and its mimetic relationship with the self focuses our attention on the “vertical” mimetic relation between speaker and referent that in previous models, such as that of Condillac, was merely an element of the “horizontal” appetitive décor. The trajectory of this movement away from the mediating other/rival and toward the sacred central object is that of the hypothetical originary event itself. Herder is right to give primary emphasis to the individual’s free choice to represent the central being. But there remains to reestablish the relation with the human other on the basis of this mediating representation, a gesture beyond the capacity of Enlightenment thought.


Thus Herder’s solipsistic model of language origin, however indispensable to future progress, is a closure of the problem rather than a solution to it. This closure foreshadows and continues to lend credence even today to the Société Linguistique de Paris‘s infamous 1866 ban on theories of language origin. Herder’s model can be completed only once the absolute difference between free human speech and le cri de la nature can be understood as resulting from an event of separation that inaugurates a radically new form of communication. This, as my reader will recognize, is what GA achieves with the originary hypothesis.