A Unified and Integrative Theory of Language

by Pablo Kirtchuk (Author)
Monographs XVI, 252 Pages


Language requires investigation within a broad framework, which can only be achieved if the elements studied belong to all realms of verbal (and to some extent non-verbal) communication. Grammar is merely the systematized aspect of language: by drawing on data from oral communication in a number of languages – with its phonological, pragmatic and gestural aspects – and taking into account palaeontology, anthropology, psychology and evolutionary biology, it is possible to shed new light on the phenomenon of language, meant and designed for communication, and not merely grammar.
This book explores why language operates the way it does, why it is acquired the way it is, how it evolved in the first place, and why it is that some phenomena in language are universal while others are not. The author also considers whether apparently separate defining properties of our species are in fact narrowly correlated aspects of one and the same biological reality, which converges in language. Finally, the book explores the possibility that language is both the reason and the effect of the intrinsic responsibility that we feel for our fellow beings, akin to that which in different contexts is called love for our neighbour, or altruism.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1: Preamble
  • 1.1 Deconstructing Popper
  • 1.2 Generative Grammar: Rise, Decline and Fall of the Structuralist Empire
  • Chapter 2: The Dynamics of Language
  • Chapter 3: The Quintessentially Pragmatic Nature of Language
  • 3.1 Prolepsis
  • Chapter 4: The Emergence of the Language Ability and the Importance of Context
  • Chapter 5: Deictics vs Nouns, Deixis vs Conceptualization
  • 5.1 An Application of Deixis: Definiteness
  • Chapter 6: Sub-Segmentals, Co-Segmentals and Segmentals
  • 6.1 Focus Intonation
  • 6.2 Tones
  • 6.3 The Articulatory/Auditive Nature of Language
  • Chapter 7: Iconicity
  • 7.1 Onomatopoeia, Reduplication and Phono-Iconicity
  • Chapter 8: The Interactive/Interlocutive Nature of Language
  • 8.1 Dialogic Persons vs Non-Person
  • Chapter 9: Grammaticalization: Emergence of the Verb Category
  • 9.1 On the Verb in North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic
  • 9.2 Zero Marking: Implications
  • Chapter 10: The Biological Nature of Language
  • 10.1 Properties of Language
  • 10.2 Multiple Encoding
  • Chapter 11: Language as Information Creator
  • 11.1 Grice: Maxims?
  • Chapter 12: Language, Sex and Gender
  • 12.1 Language and Taboo
  • Chapter 13: Language as Permanent Encounter, Cooperation or Love
  • Chapter 14: Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index Nominum
  • Index Linguarum
  • Index Rerum
  • Series index

| vii →


The answers to many a question about language are to be found in biology, and these answers have philosophical and moral implications. Grammatical (unduly called linguistic) Typology is but one of the keys to solve the riddle of Language and therefore of our species, which it defines. Typology, however, is not the Holy Grail. It asks how, not why. Moreover, if typology allows seeing variation, differences and types, at the end of the day it should allow us to see also that which does not vary, is common to all languages and is therefore constitutive of the language ability.1 Now the founding fathers of Biology and Psychology took into account the facts, but then they built the picture which gives them meaning in the framework of their disciplines and allows them to integrate facts not yet observed. This work wishes to accomplish the same kind of endeavour; moreover, it shall attempt to show, while assembling the puzzle of language, that it partakes of all these disciplines and that it is only within a unified analysis that language can be adequately grasped.2 ← vii | viii →

Repetition may be otiose from a strictly logical viewpoint, yet when it seems useful it has not been overruled. The aim is not to make a logically perfect demonstration of a theorem, but to show the plausibility of some dynamic correlations and hypotheses in the light of linguistic and other facts deemed relevant, nay indispensable for the understanding of language. Language is dynamic: it happens in time, not on a bi-dimensional A4 sheet of paper. From the cognitive viewpoint it is paramount to know whether “A” precedes and entails “B”, or the other way round. “Right” and “left” have nothing to do with it. One thing is exploring language, another thing is reasoning on the graphic representation thereof.

The excellent linguists whose work and sometimes person I am honoured to know were or are polyglots. The empirical truth is that one has a good intuition of language only if s/he has devoted the indispensable effort and time to actually learn really various real languages. This is probably due to the fact that effort, interaction, experience and emotion are crucial in the human process of acquiring knowledge to the point of being able to create new knowledge. Human intelligence seems to include and depend on factors that are not strictly rational.3 Some non-Western peoples practice the cult of their ancestors; so does Western intellectual tradition as well. Yet since we claim to be rational beings, our ancestors in this context are not shamans, saints or patriarchs, but ancient Greek philosophers. Now the either-or approach will not do: Aristotle is not the only alternative to Plato. If bow to a Greek philosopher and his contemporaries one must, let it be Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics, for they understood the primacy in all things human of context and relation, and beyond that of the importance of different viewpoints, circumstances and aspects: “εμεν τε κα οκ εμεν” (“We are and are not”). Yet not only Western scholars inspired this work. Plato and Aristotle, but also Lao-Tzu and Augustine, are oft-quoted sources in scholarly and scientific research. In other traditions feeling, intuition, emotion, ← viii | ix → psyche, desire, spirit and above all the human relations they entail are not anathema and do not exclude reason but contain it; body and soul are not antagonist but complementary. To the above list let me therefore add קהלת Qohelet, a.k.a. the Ecclesiastes, and the Mishna Treaty אבות Avot, “Our Forefathers’ Sayings”. They prove relevant when traditional methods (by and large inspired by physics and by the Platonic binary approach) will not do in order to cope with human reality, of which language is a cornerstone. These methods often eschew aspects which are intrinsically related to language, including the moral-relational one, and lack a holistic view of Homo Sapiens both as a biological species, as well as one that became such once it endowed itself with language and then, thanks to language, with self-awareness and with the capacity of acceding symbols.

When one reads Darwin, Fonagy, Freud, Humboldt, Koestler, Lamarck or Piaget, one is overwhelmed by the fact that they write or rather speak in the first-person singular and include personal anecdotes and observations of their own kith and kin. One cannot but be inspired by their passion and commitment to their scientific work, in which their subjectivity is completely engaged, which is why their style is close to oral. Their commitment is all embracing. So shall I proceed too. This does not mean that LUIT is not sufficiently corroborated or that it analyses only such facts as to satisfy the theory. Quite the opposite: in 1987 I began researching the Pilagá language (Guaykuru group, Macro-Gê stock, Amerind phylum) spoken in the Gran Chaco region, on the Argentine side of the Paraguayan border. I noticed that in this language, deixis played a preponderant role. A thorough investigation led me to the conclusion that deixis might be at the origin of the language ability. This implied that, indeed, language had (1) an identifiable origin, which was (2) evolutionary. At the time, it was revolutionary. I delivered a first lecture on the subject at Mr Pottier’s Seminary in 1987. I’ve been developing this theory ever since. A sketch was published as “LUIT – A unified and integrative theory of language” (Kirtchuk 2007), following the one presented implicitly in my Ph.D. dissertation (Kirtchuk 1993). LUIT rejects the mainstream – viz. generative or otherwise formal or structural – views on language, as it shifts the stress from grammar and/or mathematics-oriented paradigmata to biology, evolution and relation-oriented ones. It may also diverge from the politically ← ix | x → correct opinions. Language is but a piece of a larger puzzle, and so my work, which at the beginning was concerned with language(s) alone, deals no longer exclusively with languages and linguists but with other sciences and scientists as well.

A special mention is due to Tiburcio A. Martínez, who earned his living as a lawyer but in 1916 [1994] published his Orígenes y leyes del lenguaje aplicadas al idioma guaraní, in which he adopted a Darwinian stance and intuited an approach of language which is of biological cut (Kirtchuk 2007).4 Another South American, Humberto Maturana, a biologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, understood it as well, half a century after Martínez. Neither, however, was a linguist. The endeavour presented here sprang when I understood that language was a jigsaw puzzle; moreover, one which is but one piece among the pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle and so on. The following step was assembling the puzzle of language with the greatest possible number of relevant pieces. Such pieces are not only linguistic ones, they belong to other realms too. Concerning language, I reached Lamarckian and Darwinian conclusions before having read them, therefore we shall proceed much in the way that Darwin did when he assembled and corrected the jigsaw puzzle of the living, that had been imagined and sketched by his own grandfather Erasmus (1731–1802) and by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). Now, Darwin set sail to South America aboard the Beagle in 1831 and was back in England in 1836, yet his theory was not published until 1859. A quarter of a century is a fair amount of time for a scientific theory (and its author) to attain the necessary maturity.

1 This homonymy inherent to English corroborates and enlarges Lakoff and Johnson (1980). Like many other French loanwords, it was adopted by English to represent the metaphoric meaning, a language we speak, while the original Germanic word tongue kept representing the concrete meaning, the muscle which allows for chewing and participates in speaking (its abstract use is rather literary, save in idioms such as “mother tongue”). Yet English generalized the metaphoric meaning without modifying the form of the word. Hence in English language means both the language ability (Fr. Le langage) and its particular manifestations (Fr. Les langues). This double meaning, which induces a confusion between the ability and its manifestations, keeps doing no little damage to our science, especially since both are often used in the same context. Now the local (a particular language) and the global (the language ability) are not necessarily identical.

2 I thank Claude Boisson, Michel Masson and Nicolas Tournadre, who made most valuable comments on previous drafts and suggested references, information and corrections, both stylistic and otherwise, of the highest interest. Responsibility for the final result rests solely with me, of course.

3 Therefore a term such as “intelligent machine” is an oxymoron, just as “artificial intelligence”. Likewise, “emotional intelligence” is a biased term, since it implies the supremacy and precedence of intelligence over emotion. It would be as appropriate, if not more, to speak about “intelligent emotion”.

4 On its centennial, in 2016, a homage was paid to Martínez in his hometown of Goya, Province of Corrientes, Argentine. I have had the pleasure of delivering the keynote lecture.

| xi →


My deepest gratitude goes to my wife Eliane, who has always supported me (in both the French and English senses of the verb) as well as my children Anahí Ra’hel, Teo Samuel and Alma Judit. Together they provide the warmth needed for fruitful research and life. I am also most indebted to:

José Braunstein, anthropologist, founding director of CHACO (Centro del Hombre Antiguo Chaqueño) who periodically hosted me at Las Lomitas, Province of Formosa, Argentina between 1987 and 1992. He established the contact between me and the Pilaga community, thus facilitating my linguistic enquiry on the Pilaga language, which eventually yielded the present theory.

Julio Suarez, spiritual leader at Campo del Cielo, Francisco Palomo of Pozo del Tigre, and my other informants from the Pilaga community of Formosa, Argentina,

The LACITO (Laboratoire de Langues et Civilisations à Tradition Orale, CNRS, Paris), for counting me among its members from 2010 to 2016. This made this work easier to finish and encouraged discussions with members M.-M. Jocelyne Fernandez-Vest, Zlatka Guentchéva, Martine Mazaudon, Claire Moyse-Faurie, Anne Daladier and especially Nicolas Tournadre, who has always shared with me his intellectual and human generosity.

The Société de Linguistique de Paris, which, over the years, has sent me more than a hundred books to review, which contributed to my reflection.

Alexandra Aikhenvald, whose most enthusiastic words about my research encouraged me to pursue it despite it being way off the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic.

My colleagues and students of Spanish, Hebrew and North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic as well as Semitic, Guaraní, General and Amerind Linguistics ← xi | xii → at the universities where I have had the privilege of teaching, including Lyon 2, Lille 3, Besançon, Paris IV – Sorbonne, INaLCO and the ISTH in France; Ben Gurion of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel; and Santiago del Estero in Argentine. In these institutions I have had instructive conversations with Claude Boisson, Jean Blanchon, Sylviane Rémi-Giraud, Jean-Marie Hombert, José Andrés Rivas, and the late Marcel Pérennec and Domingo Bravo, among other colleagues.

Silvio Liuzzi, a scholar and lifelong friend who introduced me to Guaraní studies, and his sister Asela Liuzzi, founding director of the Ko’embota Institute of Guaraní in Ituzaingo, Corrientes, Argentina, where I had the great opportunity of learning and teaching thanks to my colleagues, students and friends.

Professor Bruno Poizat, who, once he retired, asked me to succeed him as Lecturer of Neo-Aramaic at the Institut National de Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INaLCO), Paris. This is a thrilling experience, which, moreover, allowed me to gather further evidence for this book.

My colleagues and pupils of Hebrew and North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic at the Lycée Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Sarcelles, France, especially Dr Stéphane Larché. Special thanks go to its proviseur, M. Bonneville, who accepted my proposition to teach North Eastern Neo-Aramaic at the Lycée given the high proportion of pupils of Aramaic descent at the school.

Gilbert Lazard and the other colleagues of the research group RIVALC (Recherches Interlinguistiques sur les Variations d’Actance et Leurs Correlats) CNRS, where I took part in debates in the 1980s and 1990s.

My professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: the late Haiim Rosén (Indo-European and General Linguistics), Gideon Goldenberg (Semitic and General Linguistics), Shaul Migron (Sanskrit and Indo-European Linguistics) and Hans Jakob Polotsky (North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic, viz. NENA), as well as Olga Kapeliouk (Ge’ez), Moshé Taube (Old Church Slavonic, Gothic, Lybian Arabic), Hannah Rosén (Latin), Ra’anana Meridor (Greek), Shaul Shaked (Old Persian), Joshua Blau (Arabic Grammar, Judaeo-Arabic), Arieh Levin (Masterpieces of Arabic Grammarians), Moshe Bar Asher (Mishnaic Hebrew, Syriac), Avi Hurvitz (Classical and Late Biblical Hebrew) and Elisha Qimron ← xii | xiii → (Classical Biblical Hebrew and Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls). At the Sorbonne, I would like to thank Bernard Pottier (Amerind Linguistics; Romance and General Linguistics) and the late David Cohen (Semitic Linguistics); at the College de France, Claude Hagège (Linguistic Typology), for their precious encouragement.

Biographical notes

Pablo Kirtchuk (Author)

Pablo Kirtchuk is Professor of Hebrew at the Académie de Versailles and Lecturer in Neo-Aramaic at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO) in Paris. He also lectures in Spanish at ISTH University College, Paris, and is a foreign member of the Guarani Language Academy, Paraguay. He holds a PhD from the Sorbonne. He has previously lectured in linguistics at various universities in France, Israel and Argentina.


Title: A Unified and Integrative Theory of Language