Monday, September 1, 2008

Thomas Hobbes on the Evolution of Language

During my research for my term paper on Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the evolution of language and consciousness I came across a very interesting German book on the debate about the origin of language in the 18th century by Cordula Neis (2003), who has also written an article on the topic in the 14 Volume Elsevier Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics (Neis 2006). In 1769 the Berlin Academy of Science issued a prize contest regarding the origin of language:

"After a long internal discussion, the Academy invited scholars from across Europe to submit their essays on the origin of language. As language was considered an essential component of the natural constitution of man, it was required to reveal how man might have invented it and whether he might have been able to create it on his own." (Neis 2006: 100)
"By announcing the prize topic as being the origin of language in 1769, the Berlin Academy endeavored to find a persuasive solution that defended the possibility of human invention. Scholars considered the question as highly important, 31 essays were submitted to the Academy, an unusually high number of entries." (Neis 2006: 101)

The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder won the contest, and as a result, was the only contributor whose name was made public so that most of the authors of the manuscripts are still unknown. Of the 31 anonymous contributions, only 24 still exist, but all reviews of the judges are still there. Still, posthumous identification is made extremely hard by the fact that contributions were sent in in three different languages (German, French, and Latin. Two contributions were even written in what Neis calls “Fantasy-French:” Due to the fact that French was maybe the most prestigious language at that time, the authors apparently felt obliged to sent in papers in French even if they couldn’t really speak the language…). Apart from that, sloppy 18th century handwriting is extremely hard to read (for me: absolutely impossible to read).:

Nevertheless, there are a lot of topics common to all the manuscripts, for example explicit or implicit references to the influential philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) (to whom I’ll maybe come back in a later post) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes is especially well known for his view of man as being “homo homini lupus” (man is the wolf of man) and his book “Leviathan” in which he argues that only if everybody adheres to a social contract and submits most of his freedom to the state can the natural “bellum omnium contra omnes” (the war of all against all) be stopped. Anyway, even though Hobbes was a man of his time and thus was a creationist who believed that “the first author of speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as He presented to his sight,” some of his thoughts on the topic of language evolution/origin/function are really interesting. Hobbes speculates that Adam couldn’t possibly have invented all words, especially as all speech was confounded after the Tower of Babel incident.

For Hobbes, language is adaptive in that it is shaped by what speakers and hearers need to communicate about:
“And being hereby forced to disperse themselves into several parts of the world, it must needs be that the diversity of tongues that now is, proceeded by degrees from them in such manner as need, the mother of all inventions, taught them, and in tract of time grew everywhere more copious. “
But what I find most interesting is Hobbes’ view of the function of language:
“The general use of speech is to transfer our mental discourse into verbal, or the train of our thoughts into a train of words, and that for two commodities; whereof one is the registering of the consequences of our thoughts, which being apt to slip out of our memory and put us to a new labour, may again be recalled by such words as they were marked by. So that the first use of names is to serve for marks or notes of remembrance. Another is when many use the same words to signify, by their connexion and order one to another, what they conceive or think of each matter; and also what they desire, fear, or have any other passion for. And for this use they are called signs”

Neis, Cordula (2003) Anthropologie im Sprachdenken des 18. Jahrhunderts ‑ Die Berliner Preisfrage nach dem Ursprung der Sprache (1771). New York: de Gruyter.

Neis, Cordula (2006): Origin of Language Debate. in: Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (ELL). Ed. By Keith Brown (Editor-in-Chief). Second edition. Oxford. Elsevier.


Scott Abbott said...

I'm just having students read Herder and Rousseau's essays and then Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther" to see how those theories made their way into a novel.

Love your blog!

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