Language Origins

From Mythology to Science

by Przemysław Żywiczyński (Author)
©2018 Monographs 250 Pages
Series: Dis/Continuities, Volume 18


The science of language evolution appeared at the end of the last century but topically belongs to language origins – the domain of investigation that is concerned with the beginnings and diversification of language. Language evolution as a research area contrasts with the antiquity of language origins, which can be traced back to the earliest forms of traditional reflection. Language evolution emphasises its scientific orientation, whereas throughout most of its history language origins constituted a complex mixture of mythology, philosophy of language, as well as religiously and scientifically inspired speculation. This work is the first book-long attempt to document the whole history of language origins and situate language evolution in this wide intellectual context.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 0.1 Motivation for the book
  • 0.2 Organisation of the material
  • 0.3 Methodological problems
  • 0.4 Main sources
  • 1 Divine origins of language and languages
  • 1.1 Glottogonic myths
  • 1.2 Glossogenetic myths
  • 2 The problem of the Adamic language
  • 2.1 Definition of the Adamic problem and its textual basis
  • 2.2 The Kabbalah
  • 2.3 The forbidden experiment
  • 2.4 Dante’s “illustrious vernacular”
  • 2.5 Etymological eccentricities
  • 2.6 Babel reinterpreted
  • 2.7 Beyond Adam and Babel
  • 3 Language and language origins in ancient and medieval philosophy
  • 3.1 Plato’s mimetic naturalism
  • 3.2 Aristotle’s linguistic conventionalism and objectivism
  • 3.3 Epicureans and Stoics on language and its origin
  • 3.4 The problem of universals
  • 3.5 Augustine’s linguistic scepticism
  • 3.6 Aquinas and the speculative grammarians
  • 4 Naturalistic glottogony
  • 4.1 Epicurean inspirations
  • 4.2 The search for a new definition of humankind
  • 4.3 Lord Monboddo’s scientific speculations
  • 4.4 Empiricists vs. rationalists and the problem of language
  • 4.5 The Mandeville-Condillac thought-experiment
  • 4.6 Rousseau on human evolution
  • 4.7 Herder on representations and language origins
  • 4.8 Les Idéologues
  • 5 Linguistics, Darwinism and the twilight of traditional language origins
  • 5.1 Humboldt’s conception of language as activity
  • 5.2 The rise of comparative philology
  • 5.2.1 Comparative philology, biology and Darwinism
  • 5.2.2 Comparative philology and language origins
  • 5.3 Darwin on linguistic change, anthropogenesis and the origin of language
  • 5.4 How language origins became a taboo: from bans on glottogonic speculation to de Saussure
  • 5.5 Jespersen’s plea against the taboo
  • 5.6 Tylor’s natural language and the orofacial hypothesis
  • 6 The science of language evolution
  • 6.1 Linguistics, gesture studies and language origins
  • 6.2 The Chomskyan factor
  • 6.3 The empirical factor
  • 6.3.1 Primate ethology and ape language experiments
  • 6.3.2 Genetics
  • 6.3.3 Palaeoanthropology and archaeology
  • 6.3.4 Neuroscience
  • 6.4 Modern evolutionism: the Kuhnian factor
  • 6.5 The science of language evolution: a new era of language origins
  • 6.6 SLE’s characteristics
  • 6.7 Terminological conundrums
  • 6.8 In what sense is the science of language evolution a science?
  • Concluding remarks
  • References
  • List of figures and tables
  • Index of names
  • Index of subjects
  • Series index

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Language evolution is an interdisciplinary area of research concerned with the evolutionary processes that brought about language in our phylogeny and the evolutionary processes that are responsible for language change.1 The term “evolution” in “language evolution” has three principal meanings, all of which are derived from modern evolutionism:

the evolutionary emergence of language as a human-specific trait (as in Pinker and Bloom 1990 or McMahon and McMahon 2012),

language change viewed as a culturally adaptive process (as in Croft 2000, Blevins 2004 and Ritt 2004) and

language variation, particularly with a focus on how the natural as well as social environment impacts patterns of linguistic variation (e.g. Lupyan and Dale 2010, Dediu et al. 2017).2

Language evolution appeared at the end of the last century but topically belongs to language origins – the domain of investigation that is concerned with the beginnings and diversification of language. The youth of language evolution as a research area contrasts with the antiquity of language origins, which can be traced back to the earliest forms of traditional reflection. Language evolution emphasises its empirical and scientific orientation, whereas throughout most of its history language origins constituted a complex mixture of mythology, philosophy of language, as well as religiously and scientifically inspired speculation.

In a decade or so since its inception, language evolution, or the science of language evolution as it perhaps should and will be referred to in this book (henceforth also SLE),3 became ripe for synthesis into secondary and tertiary literatures, which include monographs devoted to various problems investigated by SLE researchers (e.g. two books by Hurford: Hurford 2007 devoted to the evolution of meaning and Hurford 2011 to the evolution of grammar) as well as ← 11 | 12 → textbooks (Johansson 2005, Fitch 2010, Hurford 2014) and a handbook (Gibson and Tallerman 2012). The synthesising works have appeared in both English and other languages: French (Dessalles 2000), Italian (Ferretti 2010), Polish (Żywiczyński and Wacewicz 2015) and Russian (Burlak 2011). These publications testify to the fact that the dynamic growth of SLE is accompanied by an increasing need to subject its research to internal reflection.

However, this internal reflection has not yet included the historical context out of which the science of language evolution grew. Textbooks or introductory literature are either completely silent about pre-scientific language origins (Johansson 2005; Hurford 2014) or limit treatment of the subject to cursory mentions (Fitch 2010). Among these works, only the Polish introduction to SLE by Żywiczyński and Wacewicz (2015) dedicates a separate chapter to discussing reflections on language origins that preceded the appearance of the science of language evolution. There is also a volume of articles focused on language origins The Origins and Development of Language: A Historical Perspective, edited by Gensini (2016), but given its form it is able to present only a fragmentary picture of this very rich and long tradition. Initially, a lack of comprehensive treatments of pre-scientific language origins was understandable, as SLE was trying to assert its scientific character, often in opposition to earlier, more speculative approaches to the problem. Today, however, when it possesses all the hallmarks of a mature scientific enterprise, this lack is less excusable.

Does this mean that a history of language origins should contain an extensive discussion of various views that are unrelated to the problems and methods used in the modern science of language evolution? Someone may answer “no” because – to use an analogy – no one expects a history of chemistry to contain an extensive discussion of alchemy. There is however an important difference between the two: chemistry is not part of alchemy, whereas SLE topically belongs to language origins and hence a book on language origins should present a whole history of this area of investigation, also including elements that have little do with modern theoretical commitments or research practices. Even more importantly, the success of a science in giving a viable explanation of a selected research issue does not merely depend on the quality of research. It equally depends on a sense of belonging that comes with the realisation that one is engaging in a scientific programme together with other researchers. Knowledge of predecessors’ efforts in such a programme or its previous versions constitutes an important factor that generates this sense of belonging. That’s why the science of language evolution needs a dose of reflection on historical language origins, and the present work is the first attempt to administer it. ← 12 | 13 →

0.1 Motivation for the book

This book is primarily directed to language evolution scientists, and as such it ends where most of the literature mentioned above begins – with the appearance of the science of language evolution. It provides an overview of various intellectual traditions that form the history that eventually culminates in this appearance. In doing so, it seeks to provide contexts in which views on the origins of language were formulated, along with analyses of detailed discussions of the views themselves and the consequences they had for views formulated later. The manner of presentation is also designed to offer readers a chance to formulate their own interpretations and to facilitate the use of the material included here in their research – hence, there are numerous and often lengthy quotations, as well as a bulky bibliography of both primary and secondary sources.

But this work has also a riskier agenda, which consists in reconstructing the dynamics of the reflection on language origins. As such it is not only concerned with documenting historical views, but also with how such historical views are organised into larger motifs and how these motifs compete with and promote each other, disappear and reappear, evolve and give birth to new motifs. The goal of describing these processes is risky because it necessarily involves the presentation of a particular vision of language origins and its development. The most important assumption lying behind this project is that language origins have always constituted an independent area of reflection. Of course, they have been part of many different intellectual traditions: theologically inspired reflection, philosophy of language, and – after the inception of science – language origins have been discussed within such disciplines as linguistics, psychology, anthropology or comparative studies. But language origins have nevertheless constituted a distinct area of investigation, having distinct explanatory targets and often distinct explanatory methods. Specifically, the history of language origins should be seen as distinct from the history of linguistics, although – as it will be shown – the paths of these histories often criss-cross. Hence, histories of linguistics (e.g. Robins 1967, Helbig 1973, Itkonen 1991) are of limited applicability in presenting the history of language origins, unless they focus on the express relation between language origins and linguistic theories (see 5.2, 6.1, 6.2). Next, since the endpoint of the story to be presented here is the science of language evolution, the story will only focus on the motifs belonging to the historical course that finishes there. Therefore, non-Occidental reflection on language origins, apart from a survey of mythologies, will not be discussed in this book, except for a few comments of a comparative nature (see 1.1, 1.2, 4.8). Finally, when discussing historical views, references will occasionally be made to contemporary positions, ← 13 | 14 → for example, to Chomsky in the context of the stoical notion of logos (3.3), to Lakoff in the context of Vico’s idea of original language (4.1), or to Mithen in the context of Humboldt’s musical conception of language origins (5.1). These references serve to highlight either recurrent motifs (as in the cases of Chomsky or Mithen) or more local similarities (as in the case of Lakoff). In either case, readers should consider the similarities between historical and contemporary views critically, giving due consideration to the historical and theoretical contingencies of each position discussed here.

0.2 Organisation of the material

The book sets out with mythological narratives (Chapter 1). As we are going to see, language origins constitute an important and universal motif of creation myths. Specifically, myths are preoccupied with two problems – the glottogonic problem related to the origin of language and the glossogenetic problem related to diversification of language. Glottogonic myths usually highlight the divine provenance of language and report its origin as part of the creation process uniquely dealing with the appearance of human beings (1.1). The most common version of glossogeny describes the original state of linguistic and ethnic unity, which is brought to an end by divine fiat; additionally, glossogenetic myths often provide a supernatural explanation of the ethnic identity of a group and its claims to a particular territory (1.2). This chapter serves to show that the biblical glottogonic and glossogenetic myths on which the Occidental tradition is founded – Adam’s naming of the animals in the Garden of Eden and the fall of Babel – do not differ much from other mythological narratives.

Viewed from the historical perspective, the content of these myths does not explain the subsequent popularity of language origins in the Occidental intellectual traditions. In the next chapter, we identify the problem of the Adamic language as the motif responsible for promoting language origins to the position of a key area of Western reflection on human nature. Although Adamic debates (i.e. debates about the properties of the language used by Adam in the Garden) primarily relied on biblical exegesis, which sometimes involved sophisticated methods of text analysis (as in the Kabbalah, 2.2), they also sought inspiration in pseudo empirical methods of investigation, for example traditional etymology (2.5) or deprivation experiments (i.e. the forbidden experiment, 2.3). The Adamic line of reflection resulted in the discussion of more general problems pertaining to the nature of meaning and the requirements that a perfect language should meet (2.1, 2.4, 2.7). ← 14 | 15 →

Adamic reflection co-existed and interacted with the developing philosophical tradition, in which language was discussed in an increasingly sophisticated way (Chapter 3). Language origins did not lie at the centre of this tradition (though see, for example, the epicurean and stoical conceptions of language emergence, 3.3), but the philosophy of ancient and medieval Europe established an infrastructure of ideas and theories that was used in debates about language origins. The foundational text, Plato’s Cratylus, began a philosophical debate about linguistic meaning (3.1), which has ever since engaged successive generations of thinkers. Reflection on meaning uncovered a range of concerns that were of great interest to language origins, such as the relation between language, reality and mind (see the debate on universals, 3.4, and the work of speculative grammarians, 3.6), and the related question about the limits of linguistic description (3.5).

Language origins in modern times combined a depth of philosophical reflection with the flare characteristic of Adamic debates. However, inspiration came from science, which was then being born in Europe. The origin of language started to be discussed as a larger debate about grand scientific problems, most notably in the context of a search for a new, scientifically acceptable definition of man (4.2). These changes gave rise to a unique form of language origins – naturalistic speculation about the beginnings of language. This naturalistic glottogony, as it is referred to in Chapter 4, gained prominence during the Enlightenment, when innumerable thinkers of varying abilities and philosophical persuasions used the form of the thought-experiment to describe how language could have been invented without divine intervention (see the thought-experiments by Condillac, 4.5, Rousseau, 4.6, and Herder, 4.7). Naturalistic glottogony had a strong philosophical bent: it appealed to ancient thought (4.1) but, more importantly, it actively participated in the contemporaneous discussions, such as the great epistemological debate between empiricism and rationalism (4.4). Certainly, speculativeness was its greatest weakness, but in the 17th and 18th centuries comparative studies (4.2) and anthropology (4.2, 4.8) were in a state of infancy and could not inform debates about language origins to any significant degree. Besides, no scientifically viable proposal had yet appeared that could be used in explaining the origin of language.

Such a proposal was formulated only in the mid-19th century by Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859), which explained the mechanism of natural selection (1859), and The Descent of Man (1871), where he discussed sexual selection (5.2.1, 5.3). The application of Darwinian principles to discussions about language origins ushered in truly scientific attempts to build scenarios of language emergence, as evidenced by Darwin’s own account (5.3), Jespersen’s ← 15 | 16 → proposal (5.5) or less mainstream lines of thinking such as the orofacial hypothesis inspired by Tylor’s anthropological work (5.6). In the meantime, the rise of linguistics and specifically comparative philology contributed to the understanding of developmental processes of language (5.2). Soon, however, linguists realised that their newly developed methodology (such as the comparative method, 5.2) was not able to shed light on the beginnings of language (5.2.2). In the course of time, this realisation generated a feeling of distrust towards attempts to address glottogonic problems within linguistics (5.4). On the other hand, comparative linguists were quite hopeful about the application of Darwinism to explain language changes, but with the shift in linguistic theory initiated by de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics evolutionary thinking was ousted from the mainstream of this discipline (5.4).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Creation myths Adamic problem Philosophy Naturalistic glottogony Comparative philology Darwinism
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018., 249 pp., 7 fig. col., 4 fig. b/w, 1 tables

Biographical notes

Przemysław Żywiczyński (Author)

Przemysław Żywiczyński is Associate Professor of Linguistics at the Department of English, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland. He is Co-founder and Head of the Center for Language Evolution Studies as well as Vice-President of the Polish Society for Human and Evolutionary Studies.


Title: Language Origins
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