In any account of the genesis of language one must assume that the first linguistic sign was both absolutely new, a “symbolic” sign (Peirce), yet as close as possible to what animals were capable of producing. I have always been amazed that the recent accounts I have read, such as the one in Fauconnier and Turner’s How Do We Think (Basic Books, 2002; see Chronicle 528), simply neglect this question. This is no doubt a residue of the metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy that has since the beginning taken the existence of propositional language for granted. This tradition has persisted throughout the entire history of philosophy, and the attempts in the Early Modern era (see my The Scenic Imagination [Stanford, 2007]) to theorize the origin of human culture, and in some cases specifically of language, that culminate in Freud’s father-murder scenario in Totem and Taboo, never penetrated mainstream philosophical discourse, even among thinkers whose avowed intention was to abolish “metaphysics”—for which they had a rather different definition than mine.
As I have described the originary event, the first linguistic sign was an “aborted gesture of appropriation,” and since it was performed in the presence of its referent, I labeled it an ostensive, a term not altogether original but scarcely common in the linguistic literature. I have no desire to boast about the profound intuition that led me to this term; on the contrary, I think it would be difficult for anyone to choose a “first sign” very different from this one, given Terrence Deacon’s well-taken point that human linguistic signs are not outgrowths of the signals or “calls” used by animals to signal to their conspecifics, including the complex signal system of the vervet monkey. The fact that such obvious thoughts do not occur to those who write on this subject is a clear indication that the elephant in the room of language origin, the specificity of the human, is in fact taboo, and must be drowned in a sea of “cognitive” detail that makes language the essentially inevitable outcome of our increasing intelligence, for which it is easy to allege a Darwinian justification.
Let me repeat that what makes the originary ostensive different from any kind of signal is the fact that it emerges not from a need to exercise the newly added neurons in the proto-human brain but from a deferral of action. This is the central concept lacking in Girard’s groundbreaking account of human origin in La violence et le sacré. It is this first example of shared joint attention that is the beginning of human language. It requires no special cognitive abilities; what is new is not cognitive but communicative, and the deferral becomes necessary not because we have become more intelligent, but because with the growth of our intelligence we have become more mimetic. One wonders why this rather obvious point is so difficult to communicate in a world of people capable of solving differential equations and describing multi-dimensional vector spaces.
In order that the originary ostensive gesture become a sign, it cannot be the simple negation of the original gesture of appropriation. Here as elsewhere, we can well imagine that similar interruptions of the attempt to obtain nourishment took place well before the birth of the sign, which can only occur once the abortion of the gesture has become expected, so that the aborted or deferred gesture is performed deliberately. What had been at first an “instinctual” gesture inhibited by fear of the others in the group morphs into a voluntary gesture of communication to these others that they have nothing to fear or to defend against, while designating the central object of desire as the cause of this deferral—the originary template of joint shared attention. The repetition of the gesture would then be self-reinforcing until at least the moment at which all are confident that no individual will break the symmetry of the group, at which point the communal division of the animal in the sparagmos can begin.
In the course of this process, the sign becomes a conscious act that is no longer a failed attempt at appropriation but has acquired a form of its own. The fact that animals do not point is most significant; the first sign need be no more than a pointing, yet not solely a pointing-at but also a pointing-for the other members of the group. The very fact of designating something to the others’ attention makes the gesture more than a directional indication. It has become a mark of significance, and thence of signification. The sign is not a simple designation but a re-presentation.
At the origin, we assume that language began with a single sign, and that the significance it attributed to its object signaled the sole significant object in the universe: this is significant, and all the rest is not. And this is indeed the fundamental characteristic of the scene of representation in general. Obviously when speaking about A we are not denying the significance of B, but language is a mechanism for directing the selective attention of our audience. Each utterance assumes the existence of a world in the background, but cannot allude to it without thereby moving it out of that background.
Calling the first sign the name-of-God is not just a mnemonic device that serves to point out the uniqueness of the bearer of significance at that moment, but an affirmation of the originary indistinguishability of the sacred and the significant, and of the source of both sacrality and significance in the excess of desire that is generated by and at the same time constitutes the new human collectivity, which we can rightfully call a community. The contrast with the old pecking-order system lies precisely in the reciprocal relationship that links all in their distance from the sacred center. At the same time, the inaccessibility of the center generates an originary resentment that is beyond the mere rivalry inspired by the pecking-order system, since it concerns not a single member of the group but a sacred being that stands over against the group as a whole. Our originary ambivalence toward the sacred is the central problematic of all religious traditions, a subject that falls outside the purview of the study of language as formal representation.
Once we have provided a plausible understanding of the genesis of the originary sign, the rest of the development of language might be expected to belong to linguistics proper—save that we have no clear evidence of any “primitive” form of language. The apparent fact that the Pirahᾶ language lacks recursive structures, a discovery of anthropologist Daniel Everett recently popularized in Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown, 2016; see Chronicle 525), may be a sign that not all modern languages possess all the features of mature language, but whether or not Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device has heuristic, let alone biological validity is not something that GA need concern itself with. The important point is that it is absurd to use the complexity of mature language as the basis of a demonstration that the earliest forms of language must have been driven by a watershed advance in our cognitive ability. On the contrary, a simple increase in mimetic tension is the only contribution our increased intelligence need have made to language’s emergence.
How then might an ostensive language have evolved into mature language? Here again, it seems to me that the most fruitful avenue for speculation on this subject is not that of cognitive subtlety but of the broadening of the uses of language as a mode of communication. The peace-producing effect of language may not have left any direct evidence, but our survival (so far) as dangerously mimetic creatures is its unmistakable testament. This implies, independently of any accompanying improvements in our cognitive abilities, what I called in TOOL a “lowering of the threshold of significance” to accommodate a broader spectrum of significant objects and differences among them: different signs for different (sacrificial) animals, for example.
Thus we must assume that although the use of signs may well long have been restricted—as much later, written language commonly was—to sacred circumstances, language eventually liberated itself from ritual, the formal becoming “secular” in contrast to the institutional reproduction/commemoration of the originary event. The originary scene would have been a locus of extreme tension, in which the emergence of the sign was a means of avoiding conflict. But once the peace-bringing effects of this scene become anticipated, the sign will spread to less formal encounters, and in particular to groups of humans that are part rather than the whole of the local community.
Once utterance of the sign has become an act in its own right, it is in principle detachable from the collective scene of representation and capable of recreating this scene between any two interlocutors, or in a somewhat different sense, in the individual consciousness. One’s internal scene of representation is not that of an imagined conversation, but the mental space within which we conceive the meaning of language, as when listening to another or reading a book. Such an individual space, however implemented in our nervous system, must have begun to exist in the originary event itself, or in any case in the memory of those who had participated in the event and its early repetitions.
In Chronicle 419, I developed the idea that Eve’s temptation by the snake, making woman rather than man the first sex to experience resentment, might well reflect a time when only men were permitted to use language. Clear examples of male priority in the use of sacred signs remain to this day among conservative religious groups, and that Catholics, Muslims, and traditional Orthodox Jews have only male clergy is in all probability a reflection of the priority of (more violence-prone) males over females in the origin of language. But if men indeed used language before women, Eve’s taking up the snake’s suggestion to acquire forbidden knowledge when Adam had remained content to name the animals is a fascinating parable of the productivity of resentment.
Thus we may assume that at some point there emerged an ostensive language by means of which individuals could communicate in small non-ritual groups about objects they were able to point to. As in the originary event, reality was no doubt messier than our theoretical model; it is not unlikely, for example, that the introduction of the more advanced utterance-form of the imperative might not have awaited the development of a full-fledged ostensive language. But treating separately in the large developments that were necessarily chronological in the small—one cannot conceive that an imperative sign would not have been previously intelligible as an ostensive—brings heuristic advantages with no obvious side-effects.
One essential aspect of language that GA need not consider is the trade-off between sound and sight, gesture and speech. The fact that sign languages enable the deaf to communicate with much the same efficiency as the hearing shows that a sufficient supply of signifiers is available in either case, although given the choice, making sounds is clearly more efficient in energy and, in most situations, in signal effectiveness. But as for determining what kind of articulation existed at the dawn of language, I would leave this question to the paleontologists who study such things as the evolution of the vocal tract, and even of the hand—for example, some have speculated that the relative lack of pigmentation in the palm gives evidence of the use of the hands for communication.
We use ostensives today for such things as teaching new words to children (for example, in picture books), where a pointing gesture is supplemented with a spoken word. Beyond its pedagogical function, the ostensive serves in emergencies to alert those around of a danger potentially present to all but hitherto unnoticed. The major example I gave in TOOL was Fire!, which is not simply an exclamation but a warning to those who have not yet detected the fire, and who would be expected to repeat the word to warn others farther off.
The secularization of language obliges us to consider the notion of felicity or appropriateness conditions. In the originary event, the sign is so to speak dictated by the presence of the central object, and this constraint remains in the reconstitution of the event in ritual. The question of felicity arises only for signs uttered outside the institutional framework of the ritual scene (we can ignore at this stage the question of infelicitous institutional representations, such as black masses).
Once signs began to be used to convey “information,” their use would be subject to criteria concerning the validity and pertinence of this information. With regard to pertinence, the “lowering of the threshold of signification” implies the use of ostensives in circumstances less urgent than the originary mimetic crisis, to point out significant objects or phenomena in the environment, dangers as well as opportunities. Assuming the pertinence of the information conveyed by the ostensive sign, its felicity would depend on its fulfilling its implicit promise that the object referred to as present to the speaker is indeed present, and thus can normally be made to appear to his interlocutor(s).
The classic example of an infelicitous ostensive is that of the boy who cried wolf!, “wolf!” being an ostensive intended to signal the presence of a wolf. In the normal case, the boy would have seen or heard the wolf, no one else being close enough to do so, but his hearers would presumably be within range of the danger the wolf represents. This common vulnerability is an important detail; “Wolf!” is not the equivalent of “Help!,” which signals only a private danger. The boy presumably wants others in the community not simply to come to his rescue but to praise him for pointing out a danger to all.
This Aesopian parable of the infelicitous use of the ostensive is meant to warn us against the danger that such actions will make one an unreliable interlocutor whose future warnings risk being ignored with fatal consequences. It is of interest to us here as a demonstration that once signs exist, even signs that can presumably be easily verified, this verification, being independent of the sign itself, may fail, and the sign-user may use this fact to deliberately mislead. Higher animals are known to practice deception, but only a human being can be a liar.
To be continued…