In my work in generative anthropology (GA) over the decades, I have emphasized the necessity of referring to the originary hypothesis as providing a model for the basic forms of human culture. I am quite aware that GA cannot be a rigorous, let alone an axiomatic system, but the principle that has dictated this effort has been that the fundamental structures of specifically human interaction, as differentiated from the analogous interactions of animals, can most sharply, that is, most minimally, be understood as taking place within the scenic configuration inaugurated in a hypothetical originary event. The historical uniqueness of this event need not be hypothesized; it suffices that its fundamental configuration can be seen to be reproduced in all specifically human, or in other terms, cultural interactions, whether a simple conversation between two individuals, the sharing of food in a common meal, a concert, a lecture, or the meeting of a political body.
When I am told that the linguistics community cannot consider my theory of the origin of language because I “cannot prove” it, this meta-criticism only renews my faith in the originary hypothesis and the theory of language origin that derives from it. I can only respond that as I understand the scientific method, a theory can only be refuted by a better theory. And in order to refute my theory of language origin, one would have to propose an alternative hypothesis that purported to explain the emergence of the basic utterance forms found in all human languages.
Is the idea that the first utterance was an ostensive true, false, or meaningless? I do not think the latter is a reasonable assertion. The Chomskian language universe is an absolute monarchy in which Chomsky’s periodic revisions of his theory are contested only from within, whereas any theorization of language that does not depend on the genetically transmitted “language module” is simply ignored as irrelevant. But from an anthropological perspective, it would seem that whatever the interest of studying the structure of mature languages, the most fundamental thing about language is how and why it got started, and that an anthropology of language cannot avoid the question of its origin.
In the 40-odd years since the publication of The Origin of Language (TOOL), I have focused my attention principally on the cultural phenomena that the originary scene of language has given rise to, literature and the arts as well as theoretical/philosophical discourse. More recently, I have turned my attention to the domain of religion, which organizes human communities around concepts of the sacred.
Philosophy has as its basis philology, the love of words. Rather than following the pre-Socratics in seeking to define the “elements” of worldly reality, philosophy proper begins with Plato/Socrates and the Ideas. This procedure makes sense from the standpoint of discovering the laws of logical reasoning, using language to derive new truths from those previously established, while reflecting on the principles that regulate the human community, taking the polis as its model.
Yet it seems clear that such efforts cannot discover the origin of language in human behavior, for the simple reason that the passage from no language to language, from no words to the first word(s), cannot be described from within the human experience of language itself. Nor can attempts to derive human language from animal communication produce anything but vague suggestions. For the fact remains that animals do not possess any system of communication analogous to language in the human sense; they exchange not signs but signals, and these activities, whatever their interest in themselves, can provide no explanation for the emergence of what is a wholly new system of communication.
This is not the place to expound in detail my theory of language origin, the latest version of which can be found in The Origin of Language: A New Edition. New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2019. My purpose here, as throughout these Chronicles, is to point the reader to a “way of thinking” that I believe is most relevant to our need for human self-understanding. It is, in a word, to do anthropology in the broadest sense of the term, prior to defining it as a “field.”
In order to understand the origin of language and of the related cultural forms that depend on it, we must begin with an assumption that no previous study of the question seems ever to have formulated.
With the exception of lucky accidents, necessity is truly the mother of invention. But since language is so “useful,” this point is easily forgotten. We imagine language as making life easier even for the most primitive speakers. Being able to tell others that “the food is over the hill” is clearly easier than having to use sign-language—and strange to say, apes don’t do this either! Thus theories of language origin begin with the idea of language as a useful tool that one or more proto-humans tried one day and discovered that it worked.
On reflection it is truly surprising that previous discussions of this topic have not gone beyond this level. If indeed necessity is the mother of invention, how then did the invention of language become necessary? Or to put it more strongly: how did some group of hominins diverge from other related groups by becoming unable to survive without language?
Very simply, humanity is the unique species that needs language and its cultural derivatives to survive. It is only once the source of this necessity can be defined that we will be able to elaborate a truly fundamental anthropology.
What then could demonstrate to a group of hominins the necessity of inaugurating an entirely new form of communication? To ask this question and propose a hypothetical answer arouses a reaction more of pity than hostility. How could we possibly provide evidence for such a demonstration? Any attempt to answer it would be mere speculation, reminiscent of past exercises in what I called the “scenic imagination” (see The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day. Stanford University Press, 2007), such as Freud’s Totem and Taboo.
Hence more recent books that deal with the origin of language understandably avoid proposing any such scenario. Can language not be explicable simply as a product of Darwinian evolution? In the past there was indeed talk of a “language gene,” and some even pointed out the necessity for the gene to spread to at least two individuals in order for human speech to get started…
GA’s originary hypothesis is ignored, whereas the “language gene” has quite a bibliography. But it seems obvious that if our use of language has indeed benefited from Darwinian evolution, this evolution must have been subsequent to the emergence of language rather than prior to it. Only once language has become a key factor in human communication would genetically derived superiority in language performance be selected for.
Hence defining the hypothetical occasion or “scenario” of the origin of language is a matter of considerable importance. Why would a group of hominins need to find a new mode of communication?
As a student of René Girard, I remain persuaded by the foundational principle of his “fundamental anthropology,” which is the specifically mimetic nature of humanity, a point already remarked upon by Aristotle in the Poetics. As Girard understood, the more intensely mimetic nature of human desire than animal appetite is the source of a particular danger brought about by the intensification of rivalry for its objects.
But at this point, I part company with Girard’s anthropology, in which the human proper originates in the practice of “emissary sacrifice” of a member of the proto-human community. I nonetheless consider this a secondary matter, since the true foundation of Girard’s definition of the human is our enhanced proclivity for mimesis, and as a consequence, for mutual violence generated by the ensuing rivalries that human desire generates.
We may assume that the pre-human growth of hominin intelligence resulting from the difficulties of survival would intensify this threat of mimetic violence. The discovery of mirror neurons in primates that allow them to “internalize” the actions of their fellows gives proof of the evolutionary advantage procured by this mimetic tendency, while also suggesting the danger that it would eventually pose to the orderly distribution of such things as food and sexual favors among the group.
Apes who kill or scavenge animal prey have been found to distribute it by a serial process, in which the members of the group, or perhaps only the males, establish a fluid hierarchy through individual combats, such that each is so to speak assigned a rank, which we designate as Alpha, Beta, etc., and that according to this rank, each ape will take possession of the prey, appropriate whatever portion it likes, and pass it on to the others.
Given this point of departure, it is easy enough to predict that as the mimetic/rivalrous element grows stronger, at a certain point this serial distribution system can no longer operate; for example, the lower ranked apes might no longer wait their turn but gang up on the higher ranked animals. Whence the increased probability of “mimetic crises” perturbing the food-distribution process, and as a consequence, the growing need for a new solution.
This brings us to the key event of the originary hypothesis: the emergence of what in a somewhat different context Jacques Derrida called deferral or différance: that in reaction to the possibility of violence as presumably attested by previous experiences, at least one member of the group will defer, that is, abort his attempt to appropriate the food object, and this aborted gesture of appropriation will come to be understood by the others as a sign pointing to the object but not appropriating it: a gesture of non-rivalrous renunciation, hence of non-violence, that would come to be copied by the others.
This gesture, expressed as pointing at the object without seeking to possess it, that is, as designating it, is a phenomenon that, however we find it difficult to believe, does not occur among apes, who do point to things, but not in the human mode of “joint shared attention” in which the pointing is a communication between human beings.
This procedure once shared by the group would put an end to fighting over the object, and we may assume that it would lead by stages to the egalitarian mode of food sharing that we still observe among hunter-gatherer tribes. The resulting food-sharing ceremony or communal feast brought about through the sharing of the sign—the pointing gesture, presumably accompanied by vocalization—may then be considered the prototype of language, and the source of the semiotic culture of the human community.
Reflecting on this collective renunciation, we realize that unlike the inhibitions learned by Pavlov’s dogs, it depends in each individual on a conscious decision, but one that is at the same time experienced as an interdiction dictated by a “conscience” or “superego” that we feel to have been imposed on us from without. It is this feeling of imposition by an external force that I have called our sense of the sacred. This term allows us to talk of the sacred without reference to the supernatural beings or forces in which the various religions have embodied it.
I defend the plausibility of this hypothetical scenario simply by appealing to our common sense, that is, to the facility with which we can imagine such a phenomenon taking place. But today’s social scientists have become very suspicious of such common-sense intuitions. When I attempt to present an outline of the originary hypothesis before a scholarly group, the common response is not to judge its coherence or its probability, but to reject it out of hand as unverifiable.
When Sartre claimed that (human) existence precedes essence, or Heidegger spoke of Sein zum Tod, no one questioned such concepts as unverifiable; these are philosophical statements, whereas anthropology and linguistics are sciences. Because the philosopher situates his discourse in a framework that makes no claims of worldly verification, it cannot be rejected as unverifiable, only as not corresponding to the reader’s intuition. But in this way, phenomena such as language—and the creatures defined by its possession—can never be given a truly anthropological definition. To do so, we would presumably have to await some revolution in paleontology that would permit us to reconstruct from concrete evidence a prehistoric event of language origin.
Thus when the churchmen remonstrated against Darwinism, they were reasoning in terms more grounded in anthropology than one might have thought. The Bible, after all, tells us about the origin of language; however inadequate we may find its narrative, it is able to situate this origin in history by conceiving it in the framework of divine creation. But once Darwin appears, in the absence of paleontological evidence, the emergence of such prehistoric phenomena can no longer be conceived at all. And the result of this is that all we are left with are unscientific accounts of language origin in works for the general public. Indeed, TOOL’s appearance in 1981 may well have been the last time a university press published a book on the subject under the impression that it was actually a serious work of “linguistic science.”
No doubt it is not unreasonable to note a similarity between GA’s originary hypothesis, however minimized, and the “just so” stories that take their inspiration from the world of legend and myth. But what this suggests is that, without taking religious texts as examples of scientific discourse, they should be seen nonetheless as attempts to convey anthropological truth. And what this implies concretely is that we must recognize the importance of the sacred per se in human evolution.
I have long been struck by the fact that Roy Rappaport’s insistence in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge UP, 1999) that language and the sacred emerged coevally—and with them, humanity—is never quoted in writings on language, since it seems to smack of contamination of scientific discourse by the “irrational.” It seems to me that Rappaport’s intuition allows anthropology to build on the studies of elementary religion by such thinkers as Durkheim by focusing on the origin of language as the key moment of the emergence of the human in which language and religion are so to speak identical. For the designation of the common desire-object, the food to be distributed, is at the same time its sacralization.
Postulating the originary event of humanity is not creating a myth. It is disciplining thought to find the minimal scenic kernel from which could have emerged language, religion, culture, and all the rest of what is unique to the human community. I make no claim that the current version of the hypothesis is not subject to revision. But I do claim that we must accept the principle of an originary hypothesis, for to reject this principle out of hand is to put an end to humanity’s attempt at fundamental self-knowledge.
Unless, as a younger conference participant once amiably pointed out to me, the very idea of seeking such knowledge, however characteristic it may have been of my generation, is no longer considered by his a valid scholarly project. I can only respond that, if this be truly the case, then with the passing of my generation, human self-reflection in its most fundamental sense will have passed from this world.