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The Origin of Language


G.A. Wells


Introductory Information

Chapter 1 The Contribution of the Enlightenment

Chapter 2 Transition from Gesture to Speech

Chapter 3 The Role of Deliberate Invention in Man and Ape

Chapter 4 Ideas and Words

Chapter 5 Language and Social Life

Chapter 6 Concluding Remarks



Supplementary Statement


This web page is a copy of a booklet published in 1999 by The Rationalist Press Association. It is with the kind permission of Professor Wells that it is reproduced here. G.A. Wells is Emeritus Professor in the University of London. He has written on language (in books of 1987 and 1993), on intellectual history, particularly that of Germany, and on the New Testament and early Christianity.


G.A. Wells


The Origin of Language


Published in 1999 by

The Rationalist Press Association.
47 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8SP


© Rationalist Press Association


ISBN 0 301 99001 8


Printed by Aldgate Press, Gunthorpe Street Workshops

Gunthorpe Street, London E1 7RQ, England


The original version of this booklet was given as the 1997 lecture in the series ‘David Oppenheimer Memorial Lectures’, organized by Professor Margaret Esiri of the Department of Clinical Neurology, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford.


Ü     Ü     Ü


Works mentioned or quoted (listed under their authors’ names at the end of this booklet) are referenced in my text and notes simply by the relevant page numbers, prefaced by a date of publication when it is necessary to distinguish between publications by the same author.






y interest in the origin of language began when the late Dr. David Oppenheimer and I adapted the posthumous papers of one of our teachers, Ronald Englefield, into a book on the origin and nature of language that was published in London in 1977. Englefield's argument was strong enough to attract the attention of the new York publisher Scribner, who brought out an American edition of the book in that same year. One of my objects in this booklet is to show that his book deserves more attention than it has received.

Englefield's point of departure was the neglected work of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers, best represented by Condillac, who stressed that man's first efforts at communication must have involved signs that are self-explanatory. In language as it exists today, sound and sense are linked purely by convention, and so one has to know the meanings that have been fixed by convention if one is to understand the words. But this state of affairs could not have obtained at the beginning, because conventions could have been agreed only as a result of communication that was already possible without them. The obvious signs that are intelligible without prior convention are gestures, which can mimic actions.

It may be objected that there is such a thing as onomatopoeia – words which imitate natural sounds and so are universally intelligible. But a vocabulary large enough to be of much use cannot be obtained on this basis. We recognize most objects and actions by their visible aspects, not by their sounds. Admittedly, words in many languages may have (or seem to have) some resemblance to the objects they denote; but this has little to do with their origin, for they can often be traced back to earlier  forms, where any such resemblance is lacking. Because the burden of language on the memory is very great, words of which the meaning is reinforced by any feature of mnemonic value have a survival advantage in competition with synonyms which lack any such feature, and this is why we may find words of which the sound bears some recognizable relation to the meaning.

Condillac, then, posited what he called a “langage d’action” as the starting point, and as we shall see, it involved not only gestures, but also pantomiming imitations of all manner of actions. But for the moment I wish to stress another point he made, because it has so often been overlooked, namely that the very first signs were not made intentionally as signs, but were the normal reactions to particular situations. He envisaged someone trying to reach some object, or to move something heavy and making movements with his arms in his efforts, and he noted that an observer would feel an impulse to come and help him:

The first one did not say to himself ‘I must gesticulate like this to let him [the observer] know what I want and to get him to help me’; nor the second ‘I see from his gestures that he wants something. I will give it to him’; but each acted in accordance with his immediate need, simply by instinct, for reflection could not yet play any part (pp.261f).

Even today, if someone is seen struggling to retrieve a page of his papers from the floor, a nearby spectator will feel an urge to help by picking it up. Having once observed this helpful reaction, he might on a future occasion do little more than initiate his own movements of retrieval in order to draw attention to his plight and elicit the spectator’s help. Hence Condillac argued that, on the basis of the kind of experiences described in the above quotation, movements and gestures would come to be made purposefully. In this way, movements, which originally had not been made in order to alert other persons, became deliberate signals to them, because a secondary effect of these original movements was first observed and then exploited. At this stage, the movements will have been abbreviated. Stretching out the hand towards the object desired (instead of making a serious attempt to reach it) will have sufficed to elicit the observer’s co-operation, so that full-scale action became reduced to a gesture.

Condillac went on to note that the use of signs led to a development of man’s mental powers, and that this in turn led to an improvement in the signs (pp.263ff). Language and reason, then, developed together, just as we say today that every function of an organism develops progressively with the organ on which it depends.

It has often been argued that language cannot have originated as an invention, since no one could have envisaged the advantages which would accrue from its use before it existed. But this impasse can be avoided if, with Condillac, we allow that deliberate communication was not the starting point, but resulted in time from actions which had served some non-communicative purpose. As a generalization one may say that all purposive behaviour that is learnt must be based either on behaviour that was at first spontaneous, or which served some other previously learnt purpose. If man has come to learn the advantage of working together with his fellows, of co-operating with them, he must initially – without purposeful intent – have got into a situation where someone helped him in what he was doing, and where he could in consequence become aware of the advantages of such help.

Condillac’s “langage d’action” included all possible means by which one person may suggest to another an idea of a thing or of an action. For instance, to make someone think of a boat, I could imitate the movements of rowing or hoisting sail or grasping the tiller, and also behave as though I were being rocked about in a boat. To suggest the idea ‘man’ or ‘fish’ I could draw an outline in the air with a finger or make a rough drawing or model. One can represent actions such as chopping or digging most intelligibly if one is holding some object that vaguely resembles the tool. On this basis we may expect not only pantomime, but also rough models and constructions out of all kinds of handy materials. The point is that every possible method would have been resorted to. Pantomime was very expressive, but unsuitable for rapid communication, as it takes too long to perform. Drawing and modelling were also inconvenient, but for a long time every possible means must have been employed, each supplementing the other. Where a simple gesture did not suffice, these other means will have been added to it, until this multiplicity of signs finally conveyed the desired idea.

This view of the origin of language today commands sizable assent. Westcott (p.128) noted “a growing tendency” in favour of it, and Kendon (1991, p.215) agrees that “language began as a sort of pantomime”. However, many scholars, from the late eighteenth century until and including Chomsky and Pinker today, have ignored gesture and made speech the starting point. One reason for this is that the notion of a gesture language was formed from study of the languages of the deaf and dumb, which are highly conventionalized and quite meaningless to the ordinary spectator. Gestures of this kind do not supply any simpler starting point than speech, so it was felt that one may as well begin with this latter, particularly as in either case it has to be explained why sounds came to be made at all. In the case of a gestural origin, re-adaptation is involved to make natural gestures into a gesture-language. Similarly man must have made sounds in the first place before he could think of adapting them so that they became means of communication. Jespersen, who discussed the origin of language without even mentioning gestures, surmised that man will originally have made sounds as a form of play, as activity which “had no other purpose than that of exercising the muscles of the mouth and throat and of amusing oneself and others by the production of pleasant or possibly only strange sounds” (p.437). This would of course not exclude a gestural origin for language. It could still be argued that the fact that noises could be used on a large scale as signs was a discovery, and could not have been made unless the two components – use of signs and vocal acts – already existed. The use of signs will have been already there in the form of gestures and visible representations, and the vocal acts were used in play.

It must, however, be admitted that recent work has established what earlier investigators could not readily have envisaged, namely that some non-human primates employ a limited number of arbitrary sounds to convey meaning. Robin Dunbar instances the work of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, who have analysed on a sound spectrograph the grunts (indistinguishable to the human ear) made by vervet monkeys, and have shown that calls given when approaching an animal dominant in the social group differ from those used when approaching a subordinate, and again from those emitted when sighting another group in the distance, or when about to move into open country from the safety of the trees. The animals hearing these different calls respond in ways appropriate to each of them. These monkeys also use different sounds to warn against different types of predators. The cry which signals danger from an eagle differs from the warning against a leopard, and again from that which indicates the presence of a snake. The behaviour which these cries elicit is again correspondingly different. When warned against eagles the troupe descends from the trees. The warning against leopards prompts the very opposite reaction, while the snake call makes the animals stand on their hind legs and investigate the ground around them. Dunbar infers from all this that “there is no need for a gestural phase” in the origin of language. “It can all be done by voice” (pp.140f). Much of it can indeed, as among ourselves today; but whether this evidence of very limited non-human use of the voice allows the inference that it always was done in this way is questionable.






erhaps the most compelling reason for denying a gestural origin to language is the difficulty of explaining any transition from something like Condillac’s “langage d’action” of self-explanatory signs to the sound languages of today. The gesture can bear a visible relationship to the action or object for which it stands. If I want to convey the idea that yonder hill is very high, I can point to it and express the idea ‘high’ by jumping up high myself. But a sound can have such a close relation to its meaning only in an extremely small number of cases, and the connection between the two must nearly always be arbitrary and  fixed by convention.

Condillac’s view as to how sounds  came into language was that cries of various kinds were among the natural reactions of the first period and came to be used as signs in the same way as did gestures. But in becoming converted to signs they gradually lost their natural emphasis and became controlled or “articulate” sounds. A groan was originally a spontaneous expression of emotion; but when it was deliberately made in order to summon help, it became a simulated groan. More sounds, he says, could be added and made intelligible by being accompanied with self-explanatory gestures; i.e. arbitrary sounds would be accompanied with signs of known meaning. And, most important of all, these sounds would be spoken in situations where both parties – speaker and listener – were engaged on some specific task and were perfectly clear about what they were trying to achieve. One can see the force of this important point if one thinks of a situation in which someone might make the sign for ‘water’. He might mean that he wants a drink or a swim, or that a house is flooded or that the crops need watering. What he actually means will depend on the situation confronting both partners to the conversation – a situation of which they are both aware and where the one knows what can be expected of the other if they are to exploit or remedy it. If each knows that they are both worried about a lost sheep, making the sign for ‘sheep’ and following it with a joyful expression will convey the information that the animal has been found. In a different situation, the same sign could mean something quite different. Condillac put the matter as follows:

In order to understand how men agreed together about the meaning of the first words which were introduced, it is sufficient to observe that they would be uttered in circumstances where everybody would be led to refer them to the same perceptions. In this way they would fix their meaning more precisely according as the circumstances, being repeated, accustomed the mind more and more to attach the same ideas to the same signs. The gesture-language would help to remove ambiguities and uncertainties which, to begin with, would be frequent (p.362).

In like vein, Gordon Hewes has recently observed that “primordial language, gestural or spoken, would have been far more dependent than formal modern speech or written language on the immediate social and environmental context for its decoding” (1976, p.497). Hence it was not necessary that someone or some committee invented words and promulgated an official list. New words would be introduced, or at any rate adopted, only if the circumstances of their first use were sufficiently public. Many would have but a brief existence in the private intercourse of two companions, or perhaps of a family; but some, because they were specially useful or specially easy to remember, would have their use extended beyond the original circle.

In the nineteenth century this kind of explanation was generally rejected as crude and psychologically inconceivable. Max Müller, for instance, complained that “no one has yet explained how, without language, a discussion, however imperfect, on the merits of each word, such as must needs have preceded a mutual agreement, could have been carried on” (p.34). Rousseau’s famous paradox had been formulated with the same objection in mind: “Words would seem to have been necessary to establish the use of words” (“La parole parait avoir été fort nécessaire pour établir l’usage de la parole”, pp.148f); that is to say, the invention of so elaborate an instrument as language, and its adoption by all members of the community, require an intellectual capacity and a degree of co-operation that could have been reached only in a community already in possession of language.

The answer to this paradox is that a spoken language of words never has been the one and only way of conveying ideas, and still is not the only means today. A threatening gesture, a disapproving look, and other self-explanatory signs, such as drawings or models can convey a great deal – just how much has been well brought out by Macdonald Critchley in his Silent Language. Englefield too shows that a great deal can be conveyed without words. In a series of experiments which he carried out on schoolchildren, he found that even simple abstract ideas could be expressed with a combination of gestures. The following are among his examples:

Hot:       boy puts hand near fire and pretends to find it hot, snaps fingers as if burnt,  wipes forehead, eases his collar.

Love:       sits beside another boy, kisses him, puts imaginary ring on his finger.

Empty:    takes off shoe and looks inside; opens empty tin and shows it (pp.175ff).

This is not to say, as did Sayce, that gesture language is “instinctive” (p.93), but rather that man is physically and mentally so constituted as to be able to communicate without convention.

Condillac still leaves us far from understanding how language came to consist almost entirely of sounds. He and other eighteenth-century writers saw clearly enough that, if only sounds can be understood, they have great advantages over all other forms of communication, in that they are easy to make, and to make rapidly, easy to combine, can be heard when gestures would be invisible – at a distance (as when hunting), in mist or darkness (as in the forest), and through obstacles which impede the view. They also radiate in all directions, unlike gestures, which require that the performer has his audience facing him. They employ an organ required for alternative purposes only at meal times, whereas the hands have innumerable other functions to perform. And – unlike gestures – they actually attract attention.

Some scholars write as though these advantages in themselves suffice to explain why arbitrary sounds took over from self-explanatory gestures, as if the transition posed no problem. Thus Corballis lists some of the advantages of sounds, and comments: “These factors may have therefore created a selective pressure that led, eventually, to gestures being superseded by vocal communication” (p.158). Others who allow that language began as a sort of pantomime offer mechanisms for explaining the transition to the vocal mode that are little short of ridiculous. Sir Richard Paget, for instance, held that hand gestures themselves prompt the gesticulators to make sounds. In the late nineteenth century, Lazarus Geiger and Wilhelm Wundt supposed that gestures were, for some reason, imitated by movements of the lips, tongue and mouth – an idea recently taken up by Gordon Hewes, who, however realizes that it is in fact “very weak in accounting for the transformation of gestural language into speech” (1973, pp.10, 19f).

Robin Dunbar is so impressed by the obvious disadvantages of gestural, compared with vocal communication that he finds it “difficult to see how a gestural language of any complexity could get going” (p.135). This objection to a gestural origin has been answered by Englefield, and, more recently, by Kendon. Because the self-explanatory signs of which language will have originally consisted would gradually be abridged through familiarity, they would thereby lose some or all of their original intelligibility except to those who had been making constant use of them and who had thus experienced the gradual process of abridgement. To outsiders they would appear as signs whose meaning depended on conventions. As already noted, the language of the deaf and dumb, as practised today, is conventionalized in this sense, and cannot be understood without knowledge of the relevant conventions. But this abridgement, which cut out the need for laborious pantomime, led not only to loss of universal intelligibility but also to a great increase in efficiency in communication between the initiated. Kendon (1993, pp.57f) illustrates the process with a modern example (from a 1981 paper by Caroline Scroggs) concerning the behaviour of a deaf boy who had no training in sign language: “When ‘motorcycle’ was first introduced into his discourse he gave an elaborate pantomime of mounting the cycle, starting it and revving it up, using hand motions to indicate the twisting of the throttle on the handlebar. In subsequent references to the motorcycle, however, just this hand motion was used. Thus a hand action derived from a pantomime of twisting the throttle came to serve as a symbol for the concept of ‘motorcycle’.” In due course, as a result of economy of action, this single element from the original elaborate pantomime “becomes simplified to such a degree that its image-like or iconic character is no longer apparent. It turns into an arbitrary form”, and, in ceasing to be a ‘picture’ of something, it “becomes available for recombination with other forms and so may come to participate in compound signs or sentences.”

That this can be presumed to be what happened in the beginnings of language can to some extent be confirmed by what is known of the origin of writing once it had become available. Picture-writing became conventionalized and gained in efficiency, while it ceased to be understood by all except the scribes. Englefield added to this argument the significant point that, once the originally self-explanatory signs used for communication had become so abridged and disguised as to be unintelligible to outsiders, the communicating parties will, sooner or later, have become aware that the signs they were using were conventional, that communication does not necessarily require self-explanatory signs, that – given the will to communicate and given that this will is understood by the two parties to the communication – no special relationship between sign and meaning is necessary, and that quite arbitrary conventionalized signs can be understood by those who have learned to use them.

Let me put this important point as follows: A sign cannot be associated with a thing or event or action unless the thing is first indicated in some way. Every act of naming must therefore be preceded by some indication or description of the thing to be named. This part of the process may consist merely in pointing to or presenting the object, or executing the action, or imitating the event. But if this part of the process has been successfully achieved, if the other party has been brought to understand what thing or event is being referred to, then the assignment of a sign to denote it may be perfectly arbitrary. In the case of proper names, it is almost necessarily arbitrary. Dogs in general may be known as bow-wows, but it would hardly be possible that names should be given on a similar onomatopoeic principle to every member of a community. The communicating parties would then in time come to think that, if the signs are to be conventional, they may as well be sounds, because, as we saw, sounds have such obvious advantages over other forms. On this basis, names could be consciously invented, for the will to communicate and the realization of the means were there. Of course, the need to remember a large number of names leads to the practice of choosing, if possible, a name that the object itself suggests, or which suggests the object. Any kind of association will do, and there is no need for any resemblance. Many objects are named from the place from which they come, or from the person who invented or discovered them, or from the use to which they are put.

How difficult scholars find it to account for any transition from gesture to speech is illustrated by Merlin Donald’s book. He favours the view that gesture preceded speech (“mimesis was ahead of language”, p.199) and is aware that, in time, gestures would be standardized and so would develop into “arbitrary symbols” (p.220), with the result that “fairly elaborate systems of gestural symbolism” may well have preceded speech (p.225). He thinks, however, that some additional mental development was required to effect the transition from the one to the other: “Mimetic representation laid the groundwork for language and symbolic thought, but lacked some critical element; the mental modelling apparatus was still incomplete” (p.233). In fact, however, Englefield’s suggestion seems to supply all that was needed to effect the transition – namely an awareness that the gesture language had come to consist of arbitrary symbols, and a realization that, if the symbols can be arbitrary, they may with advantage be sounds.

This assignment of arbitrary sounds as names will have been a slow and protracted business. The advantages of an exclusively oral language would not have become obvious until a considerable vocabulary had been accumulated, and achieving this will have taxed unpractised memories. Moreover, if all were to use the same words with the same meanings, they must have been in fairly close contact; so the whole process could have begun only in a small and compact community. Here again, Englefield has a helpful suggestion, namely that the need of small, tightly-knit groups (perhaps within a larger community) to develop a private or secret means of communication, with a vocabulary restricted  to the special objects of their interest, could have given a significant start to vocabulary-building: “Under such conditions a few intelligent individuals could experiment and build up more or less extensive vocabularies for their private use. By initiating fresh members into their group they could gradually enlarge the usefulness of the new language.” He adds: “There is plenty of evidence of the use of secret languages among primitive peoples….[Such] cases show that one advantage of oral language has often been exploited, namely that by means of an easy substitution of terms one can form a system of communication which is intelligible only to those for whom it is intended. At a later time writing was found to offer the same advantages [with codes and cryptograms]….Gesture [on the other hand] does not so readily lend itself to disguise….And it seems a plausible suggestion that, at a time when communication depended still in the main on the language of movement and visible signs, the special advantages of using conventional sounds as the names of certain things would be exploited” (pp.87-88). In sum, conventional sounds could have been used for the sake of secrecy in restricted groups, “not as a complete language for all purposes, but as a private supplement to the normal language of gesture… But once such a language had come into existence it might be learnt by an ever increasing number of young people, and in time could be degraded into the common language; a new one being invented, if required, for secret communication” (p.94).



and  APE



hat Englefield stresses most is that, while a few names may have resulted from the abridgement of natural or imitative sounds, this could not have produced a vocabulary of any size, and certainly not the enormous number of words found in every known language, so that at some point deliberate invention must have entered into the process. We see here, then, as in other forms of human activity, the increasing influence of reflection: acts which were first performed because experience showed their effectiveness became the subject of scrutiny as to what made them effective, and this led to conscious adaptations and improvements.

Many nineteenth-century anthropologists, misled by the great differences between their own beliefs and the irrational and magical beliefs of “savages”, supposed that early man must have been incapable of such rational reflection – an assessment which overlooks a distinction between beliefs of two different kinds. There are, first, our beliefs about our immediate environment; when these are very incomplete or erroneous, our behaviour is likely to be ill-adapted to our needs, so that we expose ourselves to some immediate unpleasantness. But in this way, attention is called to our mistake, and we may be led to rectify it. If, for instance, we act on the belief that ether is a good fire extinguisher, we shall be in for a rude shock, and if we survive the experience, the belief will not survive with us. On the other hand, any ideas we have formed about the nature of the universe, or about the distant future or past, are unlikely to lead to any noticeably inappropriate reactions on our part, and so we may well persist in erroneous beliefs of these kinds all our lives without ever experiencing the smallest surprise or disappointment. This difference is important, for it explains why even the most primitive peoples sometimes appear to have made considerable progress in the practical arts, while continuing to hold quite groundless beliefs in matters that do not lend themselves to experimental control.

Since chimpanzees can rationally adapt means to ends in solving problems which interest them, there is surely no difficulty in supposing the same to have been true of our human ancestors. De Waal has pointed to "increasing evidence....for cognitive continuity between humans and great apes" (1994, p.264). In fact very substantial evidence for this was marshalled by Wolfgang Köhler more than seventy years ago. The significance of his work is today still widely disputed, underestimated or ignored (as when the fashioning and use of tools by chimpanzees is hailed as a discovery from recent study of these animals in the wild, although Köhler long ago documented it in their behaviour in captivity). Let us review his masterly observations.

When Köhler put food out of reach outside the bars of the cage of his chimpanzees, they realized that they could drag it in if only they had a pole, and so went in search of one. That thinking was involved was clear from their behaviour. They did not try out various possibilities at random on the ground, in the presence of the initial situation, until they happened to hit on some action that would help them. The focus of the situation, the food, was ignored, and the animal turned away from it under the guidance of a new goal, the pole. We assume therefore that he was able to supply in his imagination this feature that was missing in the initial situation, and could see himself, in his mind's eye, converting this initial situation into a favourable one with the aid of this missing feature. In one experiment the animal, during his search, came across an old box in which he recognized a potential pole, and accordingly broke off a slat, with which he returned to the bars of the cage and drew in the food. Other substitutes for poles which these animals sought out included branches from trees, bars broken from a shoe-scraper and screwed up bundles of straw. It is as if the animal had formed for himself an abstract definition of the tool required - not of course in any kind of language, but in terms of the task to be accomplished. He knows, from comparison of visual aspects, that it must be of a certain length; and from his muscular and tactile experience he knows that it must have a certain weight and rigidity, so that a rope or blanket will not do. The animal of course does not always have in mind all the relevant features of what he needs, and so sometimes chooses inappropriate tools - returning, for instance, in triumph with a stick only to find that it is not quite long enough.

There are still scholars who treat Köhler’s findings with considerable reserve. Stephen Walker will allow only that he showed that the chimpanzees can remember spatial features and can manipulate objects (p.348). But surely Köhler showed, as we shall see, that they can manipulate not merely objects but also ideas of objects and can think, for instance, not only of stick and fruit, but also of bringing the one into contact with the other. Against this, Graham Davey objects that “previous experience with some of the objects in a problem-solving situation aided solution of the problem" (p.305). But of course. What Köhler called “insightful” behaviour - that is, first thinking out how a present situation can he converted into a more desirable one, and then putting this plan into action - does not, as Davey seems to suppose, imply a mind devoid of previous experience. Even we humans do not imagine processes or events which we have not, at least in their elements, experienced. Köhler’s observations convinced him that experience which these animals had gained elsewhere, whether in play or business, was deliberately exploited.note 1

 Of great significance is the fact that the bright idea for solving the problem could sometimes come to the animal when neither the problem situation nor the means of solving it were still visible to him. Thus on one occasion fruit had been attached to the roof of the cage, and could easily be reached by standing on a box, but the only available box was out of sight in an adjacent corridor. The ape looked round for something that could serve him as a tool, and lighted upon a long bolt fastened to a door. While trying to detach it, he hung upon the door in such a way that he could not see the fruit; and the box in the corridor was completely out of sight round a corner. This is Köhler’s  account of what then happened:

Abruptly and without external occasion [the ape] stops working at the bolt, remains for an instant motionless, then jumps to the ground, gallops along the corridor and returns immediately with the box (p.38).

Clearly, at the moment when the animal stopped motionless, although both box and fruit were invisible to him, they were represented in his brain, so that, in his mind's eye, he saw himself moving the box to under the fruit. In other words, he performed, in imagination, a manipulation which he then proceeded to carry out in fact. This power to form ideas and to manipulate them internally is the very essence of thinking.

Because Köhler's findings are still imperfectly appreciated, Derek Bickerton can declare that “only humans can work on problems that do not immediately confront them”; and he believes that it is language that makes it possible for man thus to attend to problems not immediately before his eyes. note 2 Now of course the inventions of the ape are closely related to his immediate situation. But we have just seen that a chimpanzee who had previously seen the fruit in one place and the box in another could imagine the box moved to under the fruit at a moment when neither was visible to him. The insight which involves imagining the initial problem situation, as well as the desired one and the means of attaining it, is different only in degree from that which can draw on perception for the initial situation. And language is not necessarily involved in either case.

Köhler repeatedly showed that there is sometimes an interval during which the animal seems to have ceased to concern itself with a problem it cannot solve, yet evidently carries within its mind some trace of this problem; for if during such an interval the ape comes across a possible tool, he will at once abandon his apparent lethargy and, seizing the implement, return with new zest to the task. In man this interval may be longer, so that the terms of one problem may recur to him while he is engaged on the solution of another. While sawing or scraping with wooden tools he may strike fire, and if he then recalls how useful fire is, and how difficult to procure, he may exploit his new discovery. Man has the further advantage over the ape that he can transmit his discoveries to the next generation. Language is not essential for this. What is essential is man's greatly enhanced power of imitation which enables him to learn many forms of behaviour under the guidance of parents and other seniors.note 3 Even today, practical demonstration is often more effective than verbal instruction in teaching someone the use of tools or apparatus. As Hewes rightly insists, "we still mainly learn how to make or wield tools and weapons.…by carefully observing their manipulation by someone already expert" (1973, p.8).

4.  IDEAS  and  WORDS


hy has the whole idea that conscious application to the task of discovery and invention played any significant part in the development of language been so often and so emphatically rejected, even though such conscious application is of obvious and fundamental importance in human behaviour in general, and even in the behaviour of the higher mammals? One answer to this question is that there are two ways of regarding language: first as a means of influencing other people, of stimulating in them the ideas of the speaker. This was the aspect stressed by Condillac and his contemporaries. But language can also be regarded as a means of expressing a single individual's ideas, and if the language involved is verbal, there will then be a close relationship between the words and the ideas. This was the aspect stressed in the nineteenth century, and it came to be supposed that the relationship between ideas and the verbal expression of them is so close that the ideas are impossible without the words.note 4 If so, then words do not result from invention, because invention requires ideas and thinking, for which words must - according to this view - have been there in the first place.

The nineteenth-century vogue of the view that all ideas - at any rate all those worthy of the name - depend on words was partly due to the explosion of metaphysics, particularly in Germany, at the time. It was in an atmosphere saturated with the supposedly deep thinking of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel that Wilhelm von Humboldt and his followers came to hold that ideas are not possible without words. One reason why this view subsequently persisted was that scholars based their notions of the nature of thinking not on what animals or even uneducated humans are capable of, but on what their own thinking is like. A scholar's knowledge is acquired largely by verbal instruction, including reading. What he conceives himself to know about a thing is all that he has heard or seen recorded about it, that is, a number of verbal propositions connected with a name. Even if these are capable of being translated into concrete operations and experience, they are bound together in the memory by the name with which they are all individually associated. With a craftsman, the part played by the name in the mental organization of his knowledge is far less prominent. The practical man, who is not at a loss when he has to contrive a method to deal with a practical problem, may find it difficult to explain in words what he proposes to do. Thus, when scholars see in the name something like the essence of the idea, we may admit that they are accurately describing what they experience in their own minds, at any rate when they are contemplating the kind of ideas that form their special concern. But we cannot concede that there is any general validity in the identification of word with idea. And it is inadmissible to ascribe the origin of speech to a relation which is in truth due to an education based almost entirely on the use of language.note 5

Other mammals, and not only chimpanzees, manage to link quite disparate experiences into a single idea, even though they have no word to effect the linkage. Consider the dog’s idea of the cat. The visible appearance of a cat varies a great deal according to the angle from which it is seen, and also according to how much of it is actually discernible, say in undergrowth. Its cry and smell are different again, yet the dog responds equally readily to any of these aspects, any one of which activates in his mind his idea of the cat. It is, then, quite unconvincing when Derek Bickerton states that we humans need “some kind of arbitrary symbol” - a word, for instance - to tie all the perceived aspects of the cat together in our minds (p.24).

What often leads linguistic experts astray here is that - understandably enough - they feel a desire to seek within their own domain an understanding both of language and of mind. There is nothing new in this. Vendryes, in his Linguistic Introduction to History quotes from Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, French, German and a dozen other languages. At first sight this seems to be in accordance with the normal methods of inductive science: to collect data, classify them, and then look for general principles. But the results, however interesting and instructive in their detailed bearing on historical and archaeological questions, have not led to that understanding of language itself which was one of the chief aims of the inquiry; for what is required is a generalization in which language is included with other psychological phenomena, and this cannot be found by merely comparing one language with another. We try to explain the song of birds, the croaking of frogs and the posturings of all kinds of animals by showing how they are related to sexual or other biological functions. We find that a great variety of noises and gestures serve much the same purpose, and do not expect to discover any special significance in the vocal idiosyncrasies of different species. The song of the thrush is not the same as that of the nightingale, but we are not likely to find any clue to the function of bird-song by a musical analysis and comparison of the two performances. Equally unimportant for the understanding of the principles of language is the fact that many languages use similar or different noises to denote the same thing. What we need to know is how any conceivable set of arbitrary noises can be strung together in such a way as to convey quite complicated ideas. If languages were at some time invented as a substitute for some other form of communication, then it is the psychological principles of invention that we have to consult, not the grammatical, syntactical or phonetic peculiarities of Swahili, Sanskrit or Sumerian. The chimpanzee, seeking a substitute for a stick, must carry in his mind a general idea of the kind of object required. So man, looking for means to express his aim, must have been able to choose a sign in accordance with his notion of what a sign should be; and this notion would be gradually improved with experience.

Today it is something more subtle that exponents of linguistics have come to regard as fundamental to human thinking; not the conventions of English, Chinese or any other language, but something more deep-seated. Chomsky and his followers believe that our ability to learn the language of our parents or guardians when we are very young can be explained only if we are born with an intuitive knowledge of fundamental rules of speech which he supposes to be common to all languages. He is not prepared to accept the view that whatever is common to them all can be accounted for by the common terrestrial environment, by the characters which are common to the vocal organs of all races, and by the common needs of human beings. He thinks instead that there must be some inherited system of grammatical and syntactical rules, more general than those which apply to any particular language, but just as definite. On this basis, he suggests that study of the psychology of thinking depends on knowledge of linguistics; for universal rules, common to every mind, must be of prime importance for the thinking process. This is why linguistics matters so much.note 6 When, however, we ask what these rules are, we do not get very clear answers. Professor Lyons, a strong supporter, admits in his 1991 book on Chomsky that “the results that have been obtained so far must be regarded as very tentative” (p.147). And when we try to learn a language, we rapidly discover that the principal difficulty is not the grammar, but memorizing the vocabulary, by which I mean learning both the words and what they mean (or, in current jargon, their ‘semantic interpretation’). Grammar and syntax are little more than the necessary means of indicating (e.g. by word order, as in English, or by inflection, as in Latin) which words in a sequence are to be taken together and whether a statement pertains to present, past or future. Any commonalities among grammars will be due to the fact that there are a limited number of ways of doing this. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Duane Rumbaugh have noted that, similarly, implements for carrying water have a certain resemblance in widely differing civilizations “because of the constraints placed on possible solutions [to the problem of transporting water] by the demands of the real world”; and so it would be quite unwarranted to infer from such similarities that some innate mechanism existed in the brain for making water vessels (pp.86f, 105f).

During the past two million years, the hominid brain has increased in size and weight very remarkably,note 7 and I am not denying that, in the course of this development, it has become adapted to language,note 8 as the larynx also has.note 9 But these adaptations surely occurred only after man had begun to talk. Many animal genera possess peculiar faculties, served by peculiar anatomical structures, and in every case there is an evolutionary problem to be solved. David Oppenheimer observed, in the ‘Foreword’ we both contributed to Englefield’s book, that early man

was no doubt less fluent, and less reliant on language than his garrulous descendants, just as the ancestors of the bat were less skilled at sonar-controlled flight than their modern progeny. The notion that structure and function develop progressively and simultaneously still seems to be the only alternative to a theory of divine intervention.

Steven Pinker, who stresses that speech is an adaptation resulting from natural selection, confesses that he finds “the first steps towards human language a mystery” (p.351). So they must remain if, with him and with Chomsky, we take vocal language as the starting point.note 10 He denies that language is an invention, and declares that “people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs” (p.18). He is somewhat vague about the nature of thought processes which can be conducted without a specific language such as English, but thinks that something like language must be involved: “People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; they think in a language of thought” which “probably looks a bit like all these languages”. He calls it “mentalese” (p.81), and is clearly among those who are so obsessed with the importance of grammar that they attribute a grammatical basis to the processes of thought itself. He will not have sign language as a precursor because, he says, it is “every bit as complicated as speech” (p.352). Certainly, if by ‘sign language’ is meant the language of the deaf and dumb and similar conventional systems. But the primitive sign communication must have been very different.

5.  LANGUAGE  and 


e can understand why language has, since such primitive sign beginnings, become so much more refined if we consider the way in which the needs of human communities have become complex. Man’s physical weakness compelled him to organize himself in society or perish. Among solitary animals interest in the behaviour of another animal is restricted to the relationships between predator and prey, between the sexes, and between parent and young, and in none of these (except possibly the last) is there much scope for variety of behaviour. Merely gregarious habits also seem insufficient to stimulate the tendency. What is required is social organization, in the form of extensive co-operative enterprises, with inevitable division of labour, restraint and adaptation to the movements of other team members. It is in co-operating for a given purpose, in sharing a task, that the attention of one individual can be concentrated at the same time on what he is doing himself, and what his companion is doing, since his own action must be accommodated to that of his helper. This interest in the actions of his fellow will tend to stimulate in him the wish to interfere, to correct, to guide, and by whatever means he attempts to do this, there is already the beginning of language. At its simplest, co-operation consists in not getting in the other fellow’s way, and even among monkeys and chimpanzees it goes much further than this. Recent studies have shown that in the wild these animals live in social worlds that are far more complex than was hitherto suspected. Köhler’s study of his small captive colony could not reveal this. He found that these chimpanzees would together drag a box too heavy for a single animal to move so as to position it under suspended fruit; but once it was in position the most agile animal would jump on it and secure  the fruit for himself (p.122). Co-operation in a task where the reward for success is sufficient to satisfy only one individual is likely to end in this way even where human beings are concerned.  It is necessary to study cases where the rewards can be more fairly distributed; and it has now been shown that, in the wild, chimpanzees will share prey as food (but apparently not plant foods such as bananas) and will carry food back to a base camp for preparation and sharing (Musonda, p.46). They form groups of two or three or more to hunt arboreal monkeys, and individual member of such groups perform complementary tasks, some driving the prey, others encircling it so as to block its escape to a distant tree. De Waal comments that such “orchestrated hunt is unique among non-human primates” (1996, pp.141f). Kendon has likewise noted that, with primates other than man, co-operation involving a complementary relationship between the behaviour of two or more individuals is largely absent (1991, p.212). Kathleen Gibson points in this connection to the “minimally social” way in which chimpanzees use tools: when they use them for cracking nuts or probing for termites, they do so alone and rarely share the products of these efforts (p.258).

An important condition for progress towards human language was that each person employing signs to influence others should have some awareness of the kind of signs by which he himself was or might be influenced when others made them. If this condition is not fulfilled, each individual would need both to develop his own mode of expressing himself and also to understand all the different signs used by his companions. This state of affairs may well have obtained initially, but the adoption of a common method by all in the social group was essential for economy and clarity. Such adoption requires ability to see into the minds of others, to ascribe knowledge and intentions to them – to have, in fact, what, in today’s psychological terminology, is called “a theory of mind” about them. To a limited extent this seems to be within the capacity of a chimpanzee, who can, for instance, become aware that a desire or intention that he harbours is suspected by one of his hostile or competing fellows, whom he then sets about trying, by his demeanour, to deceive into supposing that he harbours no such desire or intention. Examples of such deception are given by de Waal, who however interprets them with caution (1996, pp.76, 232). Only social habits could have occasioned such ability to look into the minds of others, but it was in turn essential not merely for purposes of deception, but also for the further development of co-operation.

A great advantage which, in man, prompts this further development is his ability to learn not only (as the chimpanzee does) what he can do, by active intervention, in a particular situation and what effects his own reactions have on external objects, but also how these objects react to one another. The chimpanzee’s knowledge is largely restricted to phenomena in which he can intervene directly by his own bodily actions, using, if necessary, tools attached in some way to his own body, whether these be grasped like sticks or stood upon like boxes. He is not able to attend nearly so well to events and to relations between objects which are not so directly related to himself and to his own movements. Because man can do this, he is able to embark on much more complicated enterprises, necessitating a much greater degree of co-operation.

The relatively large size of human social groups, as compared with those of non-human primates, is also something that has necessitated increased co-operation, and is today invoked as having in itself prompted the development of spoken language. Gorillas and chimpanzees live in communities numbering about thirty and sixty respectively. Groups enlarge in order to defend themselves against predation, and as our ancestors invaded more open habitats than those which were currently occupied by woodland- or forest-based primates, they may well have been exposed to greater risks both from their habitual predators and from other human groups. This increase in size put a strain on social cohesion, as it is more difficult to sustain harmony over time in a large group. The cries, grunts and gestures which monkeys and apes employ as means of communication serve much more to promote social cohesion, to regulate their behaviour towards each other, than to convey information about the outside world (Ploog, p.241). Warning cries, indicating danger from predators, form a striking exception. But the principal mechanism for bonding non-human primate groups together is physical grooming of one individual by another. Since harmony becomes more precarious with increase in group size, larger groups require their individuals to spend more time servicing their relationships. To sustain cohesion in a large group by grooming would make impossible demands on time, and so, it is held, grooming came to be replaced by the more efficient and less demanding alternative of language – indeed of spoken language, as itself far more efficient as a means of communication than gesture. On this view “language evolved to facilitate the bonding of social groups, and….it mainly achieves this by permitting the exchange of socially relevant information” (Dunbar, pp.77f, 118-120, 192). Even today, much human speech is no more than chit-chat. Dunbar, then, and an impressive number of scholars on whose work he draws, believe that “living in large groups seems not to be possible without big brains and language” (p.175), by which he means spoken language. Ploog, who follows him, gives the following summary:

If the genus Homo had been provided only with the resources of non-verbal communication, an expanding group size, a larger social community, would not have been possible. But this expansion took place coupled with increasing brain volume, and seems to have been necessary, on ecological grounds, for a community of hunter-gatherers. A savanna territory large enough to furnish adequate nourishment demanded sizable groups of persons communicating and coming to terms with each other. The pressure of selection must have been towards the development of a more effective system of communication (pp.241f).



he quest for the origin of language does not mean seeking out an original language from which all others are derived; for language must have been invented at different times in all parts of the world. To try to identify some primeval ancestor of them all would be as vain as to try to discover the original musical instrument. If such a thing were conceivable it would be possible only with the aid of historical or archaeological documents, and manifestly these do not exist. What I have tried to show is that there is an anthropological problem which admits of a theoretical solution, namely the problem of the origin of speech. Of course we cannot give precise details, but can say only that  this kind of sign would be used and could develop into that kind. The primitive signs themselves we can never hope to know, and if the general account given in this booklet is plausible, it would not even be interesting to know them.

Today it is customary to ignore or belittle practically all that has been done to elucidate the origin of language and the cognitive continuity between man and his closest surviving relatives except what has been produced during the most recent decades. This is partly because the sheer volume of current literature on these subjects completely swamps the past, and  partly also because – as I try to show in my 1987 book – nineteenth-century writers were on the whole very unhelpful in elucidating language origins, so that by the twentieth century the far more lucid work of the Enlightenment on the subject (by Monboddo note 11 and Thomas Reid as well as Condillac) had been lost from sight, giving present-day investigators some justification for regarding themselves incomparably more ‘scientific’ than any predecessors likely to have come to their notice.

Englefield, in contrast, learned much about language from eighteenth-century scholars, and much about the process of reasoning from Köhler. He always insisted, surely correctly, that, whether or not we agree that oral language is a development from an earlier form of communication, there is no reason to suppose any additional power – apart from scope and speed – in the most highly developed language beyond what exists in rudimentary form in the simplest dramatic or imitative gesture. The basis of communication remains what it has always been, namely our shared knowledge of the material world. When we speak to one another, we take for granted a vast amount of knowledge of this world common to speaker and listener. If two people, by similar experiences, have formed similar ideas, then it will as a rule be easy for the one to evoke his own ideas in the mind of the other by very brief verbal formulas. The ambiguity of many of the commonest words would be fatal if communication did not take place in a common environment and context, for it is this real (and not purely verbal) context which removes most of the ambiguities. ‘He took out a’…. What did he take out? A revolver, a licence, a tooth? The meaning of the verb differs in each case, but the context suffices to make clear what is meant – not only the verbal context, but the real context formed by our knowledge of the relation between a man and weapons, between client and official, and between dentist and patient. If our words cannot in this way be brought into connection with this real world, they remain without meaning. All this may seem too obvious to need stating; but Donald (p.229) rightly reiterates it in the face of claims and assumptions that are still being made about language and which betray how little its limitations are properly appreciated. Man, in the course of his history, formed his notions first and invented words for them afterwards. Admittedly, today many notions arise through the misunderstanding of words, and every individual now learns very many words before he or she forms clearly the notions they conventionally stand for. But in the history of language we must expect to see language follow in the train of developing thought and not lead the way. Words multiply as the progressing analysis of the world gives rise to a larger number of ideas, words being made necessary by new discoveries and inventions, new ways of understanding and explaining things. And explaining the meaning of such words to people who have not had the experiences on which the corresponding ideas are based normally involves more than recourse to yet other words. Drawings, diagrams and models will often be necessary, and in the case of words denoting abstractions, the adducing of all kinds of examples.

Language and thought are forms of behaviour which have developed together. They can be best understood if they are studied together, in relation to their origin, their development and mutual influence. If we can understand how the faculty of speech was acquired, this should help us to understand the nature and limits of its function, both as a means of communication and as an instrument of thought.


1.  That this is what Köhler succeeded in demonstrating is rightly emphasized by Kendon (1991, pp.208, 217 n.20). Cf. McGrew, p.20: “Chimpanzees will transport raw materials, tools and items to be processed for hundreds of metres before use, even if the resource or place of use is out of sight”.

2.  Bickerton, pp.59, 90, 100, 103.

3.  Köhler stresses that apes can imitate one another in actions which are part of their common repertoire, but they cannot imitate an action which is new to them. He says that if an ape is faced with a problem which it cannot solve by its own resources, it will very seldom benefit from seeing it solved by another (p.161). Christophe Boesch’s recent field work has convinced him that the technique of using an implement to crack a nut placed on an anvil can be taught, with accompanying gestural communication, by chimpanzee mothers to their offspring. He allows that this is the only known example of explicit animal pedagogy in the wild, and that “recent observations….do seem to support the idea that imitation may be more difficult for primates than previously thought” (pp.171, 178).

4.  Typical is Ludwig Noiré’s statement: “Without words there would be only fleeting, shadowy and disorderly impressions. An idea has never existed in man without its material counterpart, the word” (p.50). On his title page he quotes Max Müller’s aphorism: “No reason without speech; no speech without reason”. This latter proposition is obviously erroneous. Language at first served as a means of communication, but in time people came to think in words; and when the words did not represent any real things, the result of such thinking could not be very valuable.

5.  Randhawa and Coffmann have summarized numerous studies which demonstrate how human thinking often appears as a process of internal manipulation of visual representations of perceptions and actions, just as we have seen to be the case with Köhler’s apes. See also Bloch’s article (pp.185f) and its references to Brown’s “many examples of conceptual thinking in pre-linguistic children”.

6.  I have tried to show in my 1993 book that this exaggerated assessment of the importance of linguistics by Chomsky and others is a reaction against the equally unjustifiable views of the behaviorists,

7.  Man’s hominid ancestors of two million years ago had brains about twice as big as those of present-day apes, yet some 40% smaller than human brains of today (Leakey, 1997, pp.124, 131).

8.  The modern child’s acquisition of language is an example of something widespread in the animal kingdom, namely a “predisposition to learn specific things at specific ages” (de Waal, 1996, pp.35f). If a child has no contact with speaking people before the age of about seven, he will have the greatest difficulty in learning language later in life (Blakemore, p.141). Rumbaugh et al. have shown from their work on captive animals that the capacity of chimpanzees to “acquire an impressive array of language skills” – including not, of course, ability to speak, but “the ability to understand the syntax….of requests spoken to them” – is similarly dependent on their “being reared from birth in a language-saturated environment” where “communication is emphasized” and “language (both speech and lexigrams)….used” (1994, pp.320, 330f).

9.  “Humans are able to make a wide range of sounds because the larynx is situated low in the throat, thus creating a large sound-chamber….above the vocal cords”. In all other mammals “the larynx is high in the throat”, and this “allows the animal to breathe and drink at the same time”. In man this is precluded by the low position of the larynx, so that he is exposed to “the dubious liability for choking” (Leakey, 1994, p.130).

10. Hewes commented on Chomsky that “the notion….that a language system could have come into existence suddenly as the result of a ‘mutation’ seems simplistic and hardly more plausible than the idea that language is a gift from the gods” (1973, p.6). I criticize Chomsky in some detail in my 1993 book. For more recent criticism of both him and Pinker, see Amorey Gethin’s new book.

11. That Monboddo is today remembered only as a joke is well exemplified by Jean Aitchison’s brief mention of him (p.4). His Origin and Progress of Language (2nd edition, 1774), although naïve, is perfectly lucid (in contrast to much of the later literature on the subject) and, as I tried to show in my 1987 book, some of his mistakes are based on awareness of real problems in the issues confronting him. Professor Aitchison’s dismissive attitude is in part prompted by her view that a gestural origin for language is “unlikely”, and that “gestures probably simply aided communication then, as they do now” (p.76). However, she shares Monboddo’s lucidity, and her whole book (with its substantial bibliography) is very clearly set out, each chapter being concluded with a summary of its arguments.


Aitchison, Jean., 1996;
The Seeds of Speech. Language Origin and Evolution, Cambridge: University Press.

Bickerton, D., 1996:
Language and Human Behaviour, London: UCL Press.

Blakemore, C., 1977
Mechanics of the Mind, Cambridge: University Press.

Bloch, M., 1991:
‘Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science’, Man, 26, 183-98.

Boesch, C.,1993:
‘Aspects of Transmission of Tool-Use in Wild Chimpanzees’, in Gibson and Ingold, 171-83.

Brown, R., 1973:
A First Language. The Early Stages, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Cheney, Dorothy L. and Seyfarth, R., 1992:
‘Précis of How Monkeys See the World’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 135-82 (a précis of their 1990 book published by the University of Chicago press).

Condillac, E.B. de, 1746
De l’origine et du progrès du langage; Part 2 of Essai sur l’origine des connoisances humaines, in Oeuvres, Paris, 1798, vol. 1.

Corballis, M.C., 1991:
The Lopsided Ape. Evolution of the Generative Mind, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Critchley, M., 1975:
Silent Language, London: Butterworth.

Davey, G., 1981:
Animal Learning and Conditioning, London: Macmillan.

Donald, M., 1991:
Origins of the Human Mind, London and Cambridge (MS): Harvard University Press.

Dunbar, R., 1996:
Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, London and Boston: Faber and Faber.

Englefield, F.R.H. (Ronald), 1977:
Language. Its Origin and Its Relation to Thought, edited by G.A.Wells and D.R.Oppenheimer, London: Elek/Pemberton; New York: Scribner.

Foley, R.A. (editor), 1991:
The Origins of Human Behaviour, London, etc.: Unwin Hyman.

Gethin, A., 1999:
Language and Thought. A Rational Enquiry Into Their Nature and Relationship, Exeter: Intellect.

Gibson, Kathleen R. and Ingold, T. (editors), 1993:
Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution, Cambridge: University Press.

Gibson, Kathleen R., 1993:
‘Tool Use, Language and Social Behaviour in Relationship to Information Processing Capacities’, in Gibson and Ingold, 251-69.

Grolier, E. de (editor), 1983:
Glossogenetics. The Origin and Evolution of Language, Chur, Paris and New York: Harwood Academic.

Harnad, S.R., et al. (editors), 1976:
Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol.280.

Harris, R. (editor), 1996:
The Origin of Language, Bristol: Thoemmes Press (A reprint of essays published in English between 1861 and 1892).

Hewes, G.W., 1973 and 1976:
1973: ‘Primate Communication and the Gestural Origin of Language’, Current Anthropology, 14, 5-24. 1976: ‘The Current Status of the Gestural Theory of Language Origin’, in Harnad et al., 482-504.

Jespersen, O., 1922:
Language. Its Nature, Development and Origin. London: Allen and Unwin (14th impression 1969).

Kendon, A., 1991 and 1993:
1991: ‘Some Considerations for a Theory of Language Origins’, Man, 26, 199-221.
1993: ‘Human Gesture’, in Gibson and Ingold, 43-62.

Köhler, W., 1921
Intelligenzprüfungen an Menschenaffen, 2nd edition, Berlin: Springer.
(There is an English translation by Ella Winter, entitled The Mentality of Apes, 2nd edition, London: Kegan Paul, 1927. My references are to the German text.)

Leakey, R., 1994 and 1997:
1994: The Origin of Humankind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
1997: ‘Die Bedeutung eines vergrößerten Gehirns in der Evolution des Menschen’, in Meier and Ploog, 121-36. (This essay on ‘The Significance of an Enlarged Brain in the Evolution of Man’ has been translated from the original English, but no indication is given in this symposium that it has been published elsewhere in English.)

Lyons, J., 1991:
Chomsky, 3rd edition, London: Fontana.

McGrew, W.C., 1991:
’Chimpanzee Material Culture’, in Foley, 13-24.

Meier, H., and Ploog, D. (editors), 1997:
Der Mensch und sein Gehirn, Munich: Piper.

Müller, F. Max, 1880:
Lectures on the Science of Language, London: Longmans, 1880, vol.1 (first published in 1861).

Musonda, F.B., 1991
‘The Significance of Modern Hunter-Gatherers in the Study of Early Hominid Behaviour’, in Foley, 39-51.

Noiré, L., 1917:
The Origin and Philosophy of Language, 2nd edition, Chicago and London: Open Court.

Paget, R.A.S., 1953 and 1963:
1953: ‘The Origins of Language’, Cahiers d’Histoire Mondiale, 1, 399-414.
1963: Human Speech, London: Routledge.

Pinker, S., 1995:
The Language Instinct. The New Science of Language and Mind, London: Penguin.

Ploog, D., 1997:
‘Das soziale Gehirn des Menschen’, in Meier and Ploog, 235-52.

Randhawa, B.S. and Coffmann, W.E., 1978:
Visual Learning, Thinking and Communication, New York: Academic Press.

Rousseau, J.J., 1755:
Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmis les hommes, in Oeuvres Complètes, edited by B. Gagnebin et al., vol. 3, Paris, 1964.

Rumbaugh, D.M., Savage-Rumbaugh, E.Sue and Sevcik, Rose A., 1994: ‘A Comparative Perspective of Chimpanzee, Child and Culture’, in Wrangham et al., 319-334.

Savage-Rumbaugh, E. Sue and Rumbaugh D.M., 1993:
 ‘The Emergence of Language’, in Gibson and Ingold, 86-108.

Sayce, A.H., 1880:
Introduction to the Science of Language, London: Kegan Paul, vol.1.

Vendryes, J., 1925:
Language. A Linguistic Introduction to History, English translation (from the French of 1921), London: Kegan Paul.

Waal, F. de, 1994 and 1996:
1994: ‘Culture and Cognition’, introductory ‘Overview’ to the section on Chimpanzees’ Cognition in Wrangham et al., 263-5.
1996: Good Natured. The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, London and Cambridge (MS): Harvard University Press.

Walker, S., 1983:
Animal Thought, London: Routledge.

Wells, G.A., 1987 and 1993:
1987: The Origin of Language. Aspects of the Discussion From Condillac to Wundt, La Salle (Illinois): Open Court.
1993: What’s In a Name? Reflections on Language, Magic and Religion, Chicago and La Salle (Illinois): Open Court.

Westcott, R.M., 1985:
Review of de Grolier in Language in Society, 14, 127-30.

Wrangham, R.W., et al. (editors), 1994:
Chimpanzee Cultures, London and Cambridge (MS): Harvard University Press.

Wundt, W., 1900:
Völkerpsychologie, vol.1, Die Sprache; 4th edition (unchanged), Stuttgart, 1921.


Since I completed this booklet, Professor Corballis has supplemented what he says on the subject in his 1991 book (listed above) with an article advocating ‘The Gestural Origins of Language’, American Scientist, 87 (1999), 138-145. It includes a useful bibliography of relevant work published in the 1990s.


I have argued that language (initially mainly visible, not vocal) was first used in concrete situations for practical purposes, and functioned as statements or questions or commands. The latter were particularly important, in that much early language will have deliberately aimed at influencing the behaviour of other animals. An attacking animal makes movements which cause its prospective victim to flee or resist, but these are not aimed at producing these results. If the mouse flees at the sight or smell of the cat, the latter’s movements or odorous emissions are not language. But when the cat induces his master by cries or gestures to supply food or open a door, this is deliberate adaptation of behaviour to the end of influencing the behaviour of another animal in a particular way.

Some will object that, to say that much in language was at first imperative in meaning (designed to evoke a specific response from someone), gives no basis for explaining what it very largely is today, viz. indicative communication, where the aim is merely to make someone aware of certain facts. But transition from the imperative to the indicative type poses no insuperable problems, since the former, in making clear the type of action requested, often needs in some way to describe that action. When my cat (of long ago) wanted to go out, he sat ostentatiously in front of the door and looked up at the door handle. The request was obvious, but it also indicated what I was requested to do. The more complicated the action requested, the more signs will be needed for its description. The imperative may be a (if not the) primitive mood, but the more elaborate the command, the more it will assume the character of instructions and so involve what we now feel to be indicative or descriptive elements.

Conveying information even without linking it with a request for a particular action will have been possible already at an early stage. In a rudimentary form it can be seen today in communication from man to beast. Englefield tells (pp.35f) that, at the end of a family meal, his two dogs would come and sit one on either side of him to receive biscuits. They stayed until he indicated by word or gesture that there would be no more. What they then proceeded to do varied, but they clearly judged from his words or gestures that the biscuit session was finished, and that they might as well go about their other business. It may therefore be said that his language was indicative. It did not command a particular action, but gave information on which the animals could act according to their judgement.

I have envisaged a stage in which man had advanced to communicating by means of spoken words, and small sequences of them, without having to rely heavily on supplementing them with gestures. If such a small group of words was not understood, a fresh attempt would be made by re-arranging or changing them. But many today believe that this falls short of true language which, they insist, involves not only naming but also syntax. D.F. Armstrong and his co-authors W.C. Stokoe and S.E. Wilcox declare that it is syntax which “transforms naming into language by enabling human beings to comment on and think about the relationships between things and events”; that is to say: “language makes sentences” and “syntax has begun to emerge when the simplest sentences can be made” (Gesture and the Nature of Language, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.19f). These three authors allow that a mere string of words can convey a speaker’s meaning when the things or events signified are “all or mostly all in immediate view or in the top layer of the hearers’ memories” (p.170), i.e. in a specific context of which both parties are aware. Yet “random arrangements of words do not express a relationship. To do that requires syntax, a system for….putting words into certain relationships” (p.172). They seem to overlook the fact that the relationships between different things to which attention may have to be drawn are by no means indefinitely numerous and are to a large extent determined by the nature of the things themselves. The four words ‘dance’, ‘hall’, ‘gas’, ‘stove’ give four ideas to be related, and it might be supposed on mathematical grounds that this would yield a large number of combinations. Yet such is the nature of the ideas presented that it is not difficult to guess that such a concatenation means a stove which burns gas as fuel and is used to heat a hall where people gather to dance. Admittedly, clarity is helped by syntactical features such as word combination (‘dancehall’, ‘gasstove’) and the convention that the final element in a combination gives the basic meaning (a  dancehall is a kind of hall, not a kind of dance). But it seems arbitrary to say that, without such syntax, there is no language. Even under present conditions rules of grammar and syntax may often be ignored without making a brief communication unintelligible. My statement ‘me hungry’ conveys a perfectly clear meaning; and in the case of more lengthy statements, pauses between groups of words which belong together or, in writing, punctuation, can be just as important for intelligibility as word-order, word-composition, inflection and particles.

Armstrong and his co-authors are, however, so convinced  that syntax is essential to language (p.166) that they claim it is present even in individual gestures which, they allow, probably preceded vocal communication. They suggest that “a visible gesture….may contain within itself not just a  word but syntax and language in embryo” (p.178). Or, more emphatically: “Embryo sentences are already inherent in simple visible gestures” (p.161).

Now it is indeed reasonable to suppose that primitive man, like the modern ape, learned much about his environment by manipulating it, and that it was not the movement of the hands, the stretching out of the arm or the bending of the  fingers that interested him, but the bananas and the pole or other tool that would enable him to reach them. What Armstrong and his co-authors have in mind is that, when man represented any thing or event with gesture, he will have become conscious of his bodily movements; he will have analysed or “taken the gesture apart” (p.182), and in this way distinguished the hand (or other body part) that acts from what it does, viz. the action or movement of that part. In this way he will have “found syntax”, for these two elements – what acts and the action it performs – constitute “the structure of a miniature sentence: what is active is the agent or subject or ‘S’, and what it does is the action or verb or ‘V’”, e.g. “grasping or striking another body” (p.89. Italics original). Hence the SVO (subject-verb-object) pattern is present in a manual gesture (pp.179, 184). Stokoe reiterates these views in an article written jointly with M. Marschark in the 1999 symposium Gesture, Speech and Sign, edited by Lynn S. Messing and Ruth Campbell (Oxford University Press, pp.168, 177).

These authors know well enough that the distinction between agent and action is continually impressed on us, as on other animals, independently of the use of language of any sort. (In their 1995 book, Armstrong and his co-authors note, for instance (pp.169ff), that crows know that the likely behaviour of a man with a gun differs from that of a man without one.) But they hold that this distinction had to be discerned in gestural communication before it could be imported into oral sequences as a distinction between nouns and verbs, “i.e. names for things that act and names for actions and states” (1995, pp.183f).

Stokoe and Marschark say in the 1999 symposium that “language had to begin with gestures”, for “only gestures can look like or point to or hold up or otherwise visibly reproduce what they mean”. So much, we saw, was well understood already in the eighteenth century, when gestures were contrasted with vocal sounds on the ground that understanding the latter presupposes knowing the conventions which determine their meaning. But for Stokoe and Marschark, knowing these conventions is not enough, and has to be supplemented by knowing “the rules for connecting the sounds”; for “there is nothing in unaided sound to show that what is meant is a noun or verb or something else. Words get to be nouns and verbs only by being, or having been, parts of sentences” (p.178).

I find it very strange to attach so much importance to grammatical categories (verb, noun, etc.) when even today we often cannot say to what part of speech a word belongs unless we know what it means in a given context, as with the word ‘singing’ in the following examples:

I hear her singing (verb)
A singing bird (adjective)
I hear singing (noun)
We got hoarse singing (adverb)

What matters, then, in any sequence of signs is what they mean; and although syntax and grammar can help very considerably to clarify meaning, it seems arbitrary to say that, without them, there is no language. But such over-emphasis on their importance is characteristic of recent linguistic studies.




The Editor  invites letters or articles in response to the piece above, The Origin of Language

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