Courtney Weiss Smith’s List: Where Does Language Come From?

Enlightenment philosophers were fascinated by questions about where human language came from and how it developed. In wondering about the origins of language, they were asking some of the biggest questions that humans can ask: Is language a divine gift from God or a human creation? Is our language different from animal cries? Does human language merely reflect human thought, or actually help shape it?

I too am fascinated by these questions. I am a mother, living with a baby trying to speak his first words and a kindergartner learning to read. This means that, at the end of the day, when I stop studying Rousseau’s or Herder’s or Monboddo’s musings on where language comes from, I spend an inordinate amount of my free time coaxing language to come. I repeat the sounds “ma-ma” as I exaggeratedly gesture at myself. I gently say things like “the little ‘a’ is the circle with a tail on it.” I even sing: “Every letter makes a sound—the B says ‘buh.’”

All this coaxing has reminded me just how physical language is. It’s easy to forget this—to treat language as something in our minds, as something other than the stuff of the world that it signifies. But Enlightenment philosophy of language started from an insistence that words are a kind of thing. As John Locke explained, words are “external sensible Signs, whereby those invisible Ideas, which” our “thoughts are made up of, might be made known to others.” The thing-like—“external sensible”—qualities of words are what distinguishes them from the ideas they mark, what enables communication with other people.

My kids can be wise when I am not. At every stage of learning, they have grappled gleefully with the external and sensible qualities of language. Though air puffs from my baby’s lips as he babbles “bababa,” he talks to us better with his body: he waves, he shakes his head “no,” and he shows us he is “so big!” And he points. Oh does he point, for there’s so much he needs us to see him seeing. There’s a window! A person! A light! A sandwich! My daughter, when she was two, cracked herself up by repeatedly calling her “elbow” by its rhyme, “Elmo.” Now, she often comes home—like a squirrel heavy with a new acorn—and presents us a new word (“today was eck-stror-din-air-ee”). When the right word won’t come, she’ll creatively repurpose the stuff at hand (“Look at that…uh…finger bracelet”).

I have no grand theory about language’s origins. I only know that I will keep on, over-enunciating my V’s for my son to see and reminding my daughter that E has only three horizontal lines. And, meanwhile, I’ll continue thinking with the following word-things:

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746), translated by Hans Aarsleff (2001): Condillac wrote one of the most influential Enlightenment accounts of the origins of language. He made the groundbreaking argument that language is necessary for human thought. His speculative history starts by nodding politely to Adam and Eve in the garden, before pushing them forcibly offstage with a story about “two children” lost in the wilderness “sometime after the deluge.” Having never having learned language, those two children were forced to invent it anew. In the beginning, the lost children were like animals, their language limited to natural cries over which they had no control. They could barely think, for they were not in control of their memories or even the very stream of their ideas. They managed to get some control, however, by listening and looking. They screamed and gestured in fear, but they also witnessed each other screaming and gesturing in fear. “Frequent repetition” (doing and hearing) taught them to associate the fear with the screaming. Once the association was strong enough in their minds, the two children could use the scream—something, a sound! that they could control—to control their stream of thought, to recall and focus on ‘fear’ deliberately, whenever they wanted. Eventually, they could use the scream as if it was a word they had invented–imitating the scream and its motions to warn one another of something fearful.

Condillac conjectured that, slowly, through this discovery of sound-signs in their control, humans distinguished themselves from animals. People communicated with one another, and they thought in increasingly sophisticated ways—remembering, focusing, making connections, generalizing, abstracting. Condillac celebrated the physical (“external sensible”) nature of the signs that thus enabled complex human thought: “gestures, sounds, numerals, letters—it is with instruments so foreign to our ideas that we put them to work to raise ourselves to the most sublime knowledge.” It all started with a scream.

Michael Tomasello, Origins of Human Communications (2008): If the eighteenth-century interest in reconstructing the misty regions before recorded history seems quaint—the lost children who scream, a ridiculous thought experiment—it’s worth remembering that evolutionary science is still asking the questions that Condillac tried to answer. Tomasello, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, offers a current scientific take. Given the fact that I live with a baby who jabs his finger out, everywhere, as he notices the world, I am fascinated by Tomasello’s argument that “the primordial form of uniquely human communication” was pointing. “[O]ur closest primate relatives,” Tomasello explains, communicate for all kinds of reasons, including to warn and request. But what human infants can do with their outstretched fingers “is extremely rare in the animal kingdom.” Infants point in order to communicate “informatively” and “declaratively,” to convey facts helpfully and “to share experiences and emotions with others.” While in experiments apes have struggled to understand helpful human pointing gestures, I have a “natural tendency” to follow my baby’s finger and gaze and to interpret the gesture “intentionally,” to wonder about “his intention in directing my attention this way.” He points, and we look together at something—forging a common ground, each thinking about what the other is thinking. Tomasello argues that the whole complex of conventional human languages is built on what he calls the “social-cognitive and social-motivational infrastructure” involved in my eyes following my baby’s pointed finger and his understanding that my eyes will follow his pointed finger. Human language, in this account, is not just embodied action—it is social and cooperative. It is something we do for and with one another.

Siraj Ahmed, Archeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities (2017): Theories about language’s origins can seem dry or pedantic; people focused on hypothetical screams or verb conjugations appear to be obsessing about something quite apart from the big sweep of world-historical happenings. But Ahmed’s smart, challenging book reminds us that this just isn’t so. Near the end of the eighteenth century, Sir William Jones gave voice to a major discovery: it turns out that languages that seem quite different—Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and English—are all descended from a common ancestor, “the Indo-European.” This discovery fundamentally changed Enlightenment linguistic study, but it did much more than this. Jones was not only a whiz with languages. He was also an East India Company man, and his work with languages like Sanskrit actually “serve[d]” British “colonial rule.” British colonists reduced rich Indian religious and legal traditions to a few key texts in translation and were able to “present” their own power “as an extension of native sovereignty.” And in the centuries that followed, Jones’s discovery would continue to have a bloody legacy: “The Indo-European hypothesis famously led to the Aryan myth.” The Indo-European languages constituted a big family of languages that was separate from the Hebrew and the Semitic language family; thinking about the differences between two language families “enabled” thinking about Christians and Jews as different races—and we all know, devastatingly, where Aryan thinking about race led.

Ahmed’s book dwells on an uncomfortable truth: even as we condemn the way Jones’s discovery bolstered empire and white supremacy, we aren’t yet free of its legacies. Jones’s distinctive historicist approach to linguistic study crucially shaped some key ideas and methods that literary scholars today have inherited. Ahmed’s book eloquently forces us to reckon with the fact that our own humanist ways of studying “where language comes from” themselves come from deeply problematic eighteenth-century studies of the same.

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words (2017): There had to be a children’s book on this list. My most memorable recent encounters with language have happened squashed into my daughter’s small bed—laughing over stories, talking about pictures, noticing how letters make up words. Though she prefers Fancy Nancy (argh), I think The Lost Words is a masterpiece. In its evocative illustrations but also in the way its poetry lingers over the sounds of nature and of words, the book is a gorgeous reminder of language’s corporeality. Sometimes the poems resemble incantations (the subtitle is “A Spell Book”), and sometimes, fable-like, the creatures come to life. In one poem, a willow tree talks to tell the children that he can’t truly talk to them. Another poem gives me the uncanny feeling that I’m hearing an onomatopoeia for a soundless natural thing (even as I am seeing acrostic play with our own arbitrary ABCs):

Fern’s first form is furled,
Each frond fast as fiddle-head.
Reach, roll and unfold follows.
Fern flares.
Now fern is fully fanned.

Elsewhere, Macfarlane has argued compellingly for the small but potent power of language in the face of environmental catastrophe: children’s dictionaries have been removing nature words, but—he cites Wendell Berry—“to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” The Lost Words enacts this argument: it invites kids to linger over words for things in the world around them in the hope that these words will direct attention and, just maybe, cultivate love or action. Condillac thought of words as instruments. MacFarlane does too. Maybe the words we are losing can play some small part in saving us.

Jennifer Kronovet, The Wug Test (2016)The Wug Test is a book of poems named after a famous experiment that linguist Jean Berko Gleason first conducted in 1958. As Gleason’s question appears in a poem here: “This is a WUG. Now there is another one. There are two of them. / There are two _____.” We can all do it immediately—almost as if we didn’t have to think about it: wugs, plural. Kronovet’s lush book takes linguistics seriously and engages with its major figures—Saussure, Chomsky, Austin, and more. The book, however, is a love letter to both language and a little boy; it is written in the thrall of watching a child come into language, of helping him through that key developmental period that “make[s] language how the mind works.” This book knows that the mind can make wug-words that never were, but also that words can make us. One poem, “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” asks you to imagine yourself walking near “[t]he brain you would / have had if you were you in another tongue.” Kronovet explains: since “[i]n some languages, time moves down, not forward,” “[t]he other you descends while you put one foot in front / of the other.” I responded most powerfully, however, to her meditations on the fact (joyous, alarming, utterly staggering) that her words were making the world for her child. With a line break that deliciously blurs boundaries between a mother’s actions and interior life, she writes: “I feed him while concentrating on the words / I feed him.”

I like ending with a woman writer, with a mother—especially since Enlightenment tracts about how humans came to language were mostly written by men (including Adam Smith: “father of capitalism” but not of any actual children). There are many answers to the question of language’s origins, but—Kronovet reminds me—one is certainly that children learn language by being constantly talked to. They develop the ability to speak and write after countless hours of being coached and corrected as they haltingly make their first, highly physical forays. Language comes from the often underappreciated and undervalued labor of parents and teachers. It comes, in short, from the care of others.

Courtney Weiss Smith is an associate professor of English at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth Century England and editor, with Kate Parker, of Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel Reconsidered. Currently, she is working on a new book, The Sound of Sense in Enlightenment England.

Leave a Reply

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top