Monday, November 13, 2006

Herder and the Philosophy of Language

In all aboriginal languages, vestiges of these sounds of nature are still to be heard

Children, like animals, utter sounds of sensation. But is not the language they learn from other humans a totally different language?

Condillac, with his hollow explanation of the origin of language, provided Rousseau, as we all know, with the occasion to get the question in our century off the ground again in his own peculiar way, that is, to doubt it.

Because sounds of emotion will never turn into a human language, does it follow that nothing else could ever have turned into it?

In lieu of instincts, other hidden forces must be dormant in it [the human infant] ...No, I am not jumping ahead. I do not suddenly ascribe to man - as an arbitrary qualitas occulta - a new power providing him with the ability to create language.

I do not ... proceed on the basis of arbitrary or social forces but from the general animal economy.

The sound of bleating perceived by a human soul as the distinguishing mark of the sheep became, by virtue of this reflection, the name of the sheep... And what is the entire human language other than a collection of such words?

These numerous unbearable fallacies ... The point here is that it is not the organization of the mouth that made language .. The point here is that it is not a scream of emotion, for not a breathing machine but a reflective soul invented language... Least of all is it agreement, an arbitrary convention of society".

Who can speak shapes? Who can sound colors?

There was a sound, the soul grasped for it, and there it had a ringing word.

The tree will be called the rustler, the west wind the fanner, the brook the murmurer - and there, all finished and ready, is a little dictionary.

The first vocabulary was thus collected from the sounds of the world. From every sounding being echoed its name

Feelings are interwoven in it; What moves is alive; what sounds speak

Whence comes to man the art of changing into sound what is not sound? What has a color, what has roundness in common with the name that might evolve from it ...? The protagonists of the supernatural origin of language have their answer ready-made: "Arbitrary! Who can search and understand God's reason for why green is called green and not blue?.. I trust no one will blame me if in this case I cannot understand the meaning of the word arbitrary. To invent a language out of one's brain, arbitrarily and without any basis of choice, is - at least for a human soul that wants to have a reason, some reason for everything - is no less of a torture than it is for a body to be caressed to death." ... An arbitrarily thought-out language is in all senses contrary to the entire analogy of man's spiritual forces.

For who can compare sound and color or phenomenon and feeling? We are full of such interconnections of the most different senses. ... What remarkable analogies of the most diverse senses ... in nature all the threads are one single tissue.

The soul, caught in the throng of such converging sensations and needing to create a word, reached out and grasped the word of an adjacent sense whose feeling flowed together with the first. Thus words arose for all senses.. Lightning does not sound ... a word will do it that gives the ear, with the help of an intermediate sensation, the feeling of suddenness and rapidity which the eye had of lightning. Words like smell, tone, sweet, bitter, sour, and so on, all sound as one feels, for what, originally, are the senses other than feeling?

The sensations unite and all converge in the area where the distinguishing traits turn into sounds. Thus, what man sees with his eye and feels by touch can also become soundable.

Extracts from: Herder Johann Gottfried. 1986 [1772] Essay on the Origin Of Language in On the Origin of Language Two essays. Jean-Jacques Rousseau Johann Gottfried Herder, pp. 87-166. Trans. with Afterwords by John H. Moran and Alexander Gode. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Blogger Esrever said...

I don’t understand the argument that language is created “arbitrarily and without any basis of choice.” I can see how this would be true for modern day language because ridiculous words like “bootylicious” can now be found in American dictionaries. However, I highly doubt that language originated from randomness and that there was no meaning behind the creation of words. If there was no meaning, then how did spoken language survive? How would anyone know what others were talking about if their language had nothing to do with the topics of discussion? I honestly think the creation of speech most likely started with something like baby-talk. Babies call a car a vroom-vroom because they imitate its sound, so language seemingly had to have been created on the basis of sound alone—it’s naturally tendency to communicate thoughts, needs, and wants through the imitation of sound, which isn’t “arbitrary” at all. I’m sure the original language (whatever that may have been) lost much of its meaning when being translated into other languages, but by that time it didn’t matter. All we need to know is that vroom-vroom is being changed to car and we’re set. This change may no longer display the sound of an object, but the main point of language is to provide a medium through which we can communicate our thoughts to one another, regardless of whether our words are seemingly random or not.

9:01 PM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

Hilarious and awesome all at once. Too bad this guy never heard the Swahili click dialect- he'd have had a field day or an anuerism one.

I like how he compares children and animals- did you hear the one about the king and the sheep boy? Supposedly, in some Prussian kingdom, a king had a child taken away from all humans except the man who took care of it, and ordered that man to keep strict silence. The ruler was hoping to discover the original language. The man who took care of the child eventually heard it saying "Maa", which, to the king, sounded like a word in Aramaic, which he decided was the original language all humans shared before the Tower of Babel fell.

The joke? The boy was kept in the sheep's pen by the shepherd to make sure no one ever talked to him. What sound do sheeps make?

Anyway, getting back to subject, I love how this man immediately stops what he's doing to say he's not giving man some "arbitrary qualitis occulta". That's somehow really funny to me, as in the old days of science and learning, almost every other discovery was totally new, and probably seemed *very* arbitrary at the same time.

Also, I enjoy his reasoning for language. We probably developed our word for wool when an ancient human put his or her hand on a sheep and went "wooo" because it was soft, and the name stuck.

Actually, probably not, but the thought tickles me anyway.

4:59 PM  
Blogger wishlahaylagon said...

Alright, I'm going to have to go for a medium of sorts between these language actually being arbitrary or if there was actually meaning to it. At first, it would be easy to say that words were obviously not derived from any complex thought or meaning. However, I think that while the complex meanings for the men who began rudimentary language may not meet the standards of today, it still had a process of becoming a word. So what if a word might have came from something as odd as a sound being uttered because of a reaction of the senses? There was reasoning behind it and the use of it after the initial utterance made it valid. Through so many people then using the word it is no longer random or anything of the sort. One thing that does worry me though is the compromise of language nowadays. I realize that language has evolved over time, but it breaks my heart to see how it is seemingly butchered today. I'm sure that people from previous ears felt the same, and it is a necessity due to the changing culture and times. It still sucks thoguh because we lose so much of the good old stuff.

6:55 AM  
Blogger AimerVoyage said...

I have to agree. If you believe in an evolutionary origin of man, as I do, then you recognize that the most basic forms of language existed before man was really capable of complex thought. I doubt that man looked up and saw a tremendously beautiful red sky that evoked lots of emotion, and because of that, out popped the word "red" or "pretty" and everyone knew what he was referring to. It is more likely that since that evoked such emotion, the person needed an outlet for that emotion, opened his mouth for the sole purpose of saying SOMETHING. It might have sounded something like "red", whoever he was with interpreted it as this, and because of association, it stuck. I don't think that language evolved because of some complicated process that occurs in the human brain. Animals, as the humans that used the first forms of language were, do tend to imitate their surroundings, such as sounds. Without words, how would they be able to convey to eachother what they were referring to without imitating it's sound? Since language evolves, that morphed into an actual word instead of a mimic, which then lead to a name for something. The process continues from there. Of course, at some point, there did have to be conscious thought and planning of what a word should be, but then that isn't the ORIGIN of language, is it?

3:30 PM  
Blogger pinkismyfavoritecolor said...

I am definitely in favor of the idea that language is something that originates from purely the use of a voice. Like the idea of an infant using sounds to voice what it needs or wants, though they may make no sense as an individual word they still get the point across. Now, looking at the many languages in the world today it is obvious that their full development took intellect and a long process of the tradition of passing the words on, but the start of those few words that arose individualy in seperate nations with no contact with one another (such as the Native American Language verses the Japanese, both originated seperately from each other without influence). These original words, spoken for the first time, are interwoven with the emotions they represent. But through time, the languages we have today are so bogged down with such a mass population speaking them, that many of them have no meaning at all. So I guess I have sort of contridicted myself here. Let me explain. Words originate as purely sounds, expressions of our desires. As more and more words are forumuated into a collection which can be used to form simple sentences, there is a certain level of intelligence and knowledge that must be present in the minds of the speakers in order for them to make proper use of this new language. However, as time goes on the language is taken advantage of and overused to the point that it requires little intelligence at all to speak it or to make up new words. The new words are purely for convience and mostly have no purpose. Which shows that humans today have basically ruined language due to our ignorance.

5:06 PM  
Blogger elle_ecrit87 said...

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3:08 PM  
Blogger elle_ecrit87 said...

I agree with aimervoyage. Man was making sounds way before any complex thought was tied to them. They had to communicate somehow, so they mimicked sounds to each other to try and convey what they saw or what they were feeling. AS time went on I'm sure for convenience sake they all naturally began to use the same sounds to mean the same things, and then languages derived from there. Language did not just come from nothing. As man became more capable for more complex thoughts the language would have evolved more and more to include more sounds and words as well as an eloquent way to arrange them. However, I am in agreement with pink in that I do feel like our language today is taking some major steps backward. People don't want to think anymore when they speak or write so they figure out any way to make a word or phrase more simple. It's turning ugly, and some Americans are in desperate need of a trip to Europe or China where they can see the art behind the slop they allow to come out of their mouths.

3:09 PM  
Blogger daltonRussell said...

I will have to agree with a few others here in saying that I feel that our language was begun through the use of noises or grunts as communication tools. Still to this day we are sometimes speechless in describing our emotions. When something is so stunning to our senses we usually still make just plain noise. Or when we see something so breath-taking, we usually have a very hard time putting our true feelings in words.

I think the language we have developed today is fine. To me, it sounds like Herder is saying that our language has evolved for the worst because we can not find ways to pinpoint things through language. Also, with the point brought up about our modern day language being not what it used to be, I agree to an extent. By having more and more shortcuts in our language, we are not having to exercise our minds as much to communicate with one another. We must make sure we have certain words in our vocabulary to be able to communicate certain ideas to one another, this is essential.

9:36 PM  
Blogger swiffer_mop1234 said...

First of all, I don't really know why it matters if we know what the origin of language is. But if I had to guess, I'm going to go out on a limb here and contradict everything that everyone else has said. I think that when God created mankind, He gave us the ability to speak. He gave us the intellect to make sense of the world through speaking. I suppose the point of trying to figure out where language came from is just something to talk about. However, if I was going to agree with the other side of the argument, I like the thought of imitating how things sound.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Krangor said...

Come on guys, we all know all our current languages where created in their modern forms when we made a really tall tower thousands of years ago, which for whatever reason pissed off an all loving god, who shattered the tower and threw the builders to the corners of the Earth, and scrammbling their languages to prevent them from unifying again.

Seriously though, I think Herder is on the right track, but I think he devalues emotional names for things to much. The first names we came up for things most likely were either our best interpertation the sounds the objects made themselves or some elaboration on an emotional reaction to the object. Eventually though, most likely after at least a vauge concept of language and a dedicated effort to name things was prevalent, things begin to be arbirterally named. What kind of relevent sound or emotion does a pot elicit? Or a hut? Or the multitude of abstract concepts that must have at least had a founding in this era.

4:43 PM  
Blogger AubergineClementine said...

I enjoy this because I've often wondered if anyone had any theories or explanations about the origin of language. I think that words came out of the emotions that certain sights invoke. In accordance with wishalahaylagon, the reasoning behind language is what must be examined. In other words, to use someone else's example, when we see a tree we think is beautiful, we think of the sensory feelings and imagery that floods our eyes and minds. The beauty and colors of the leaves invoke emotions that must be manifested into vocal expression. Even in tribes mentioned in another post, some kind of sound is emitted, but developed vocal language has simply been more refined.
The question of whether language is actually arbitrary plagues me. I think it is in the way that we select words randomly, but they may have some phonetic roots in what we're naming. What I think is arbitrary is the development of grammar. Wow.

6:30 PM  
Blogger bob_barker_is_my_hero said...

Herder has an interesting view that language comes from reflection on different sounds and emotions. When I think about it that’s where a lot of words nowadays come from. They didn’t have cars in 1772 but we have words about them like honk. You couldn’t very well say a car horn bleats. Then you have words like cool that have different meanings today. Cool is used a lot of times today as a way to express a feeling. That’s cool or that potato is pretty cool. I think that words like “oh” are words that come from emotion, and they are part of our language. I think this is something that would have sparked Naom Chomsky’s view that we all are born with innate structures for acquiring language.

7:34 PM  
Blogger thisismyname said...

I think languages of all kinds are fascinating. However, my brain wants to explode whenever I try to comprehend how we came to call each and every object what their individual name is today, and how that gets translated into however many languages people speak all over the world. I'm not sure if I can agree with Herder and the creation of languages as arbitrary, but then I'm not sure how else we could explain how they developed. All I can say is that it would take an exceptionally long time to develop a language that could be spoken by millions of people. You need nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc... This doesn't even include the idea of languages evolving throughout time, too. If languages don't adapt, then they will go extinct.

Oh, and speaking of evolving languages reminds me of this quote: "English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." (You can find the full quote here:

9:33 PM  
Blogger Magic Chicken said...

This is a rather interesting topic. I've never really thought all that much about how language came into being, but I think Herder's view is valid. I believe languages were created as a method of verbal communication originally. Granted we do have accompanying written languages now, they could not have happened unless there was something to base them on. Verbal language is obviously verbal, thus, it had to have originated from sounds of some sort, as Herder says: “There was a sound, the soul grasped for it, and there it had a ringing word.” These sounds were caught by other people that then used the same terms. A logical structure was not really applied at this point. Obviously, this is fairly simplistic, but we are merely talking about the beginnings to a language. The structures that are familiar within the modern era were obviously set with logic at later points in time. Of course, the problem with language is probably these very building blocks... as multiple things can make the same sounds and have the same emotional responses. Additionally, different people can have different emotional responses. I think this is why the English language is so convoluted in the modern era: it's a mixture of several eras and peoples of sounds and emotional responses that have only been added onto, not updated.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Larogoth said...

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11:54 PM  
Blogger Larogoth said...

I found "Herder and the Philosophy of Language" to be a very interesting post. I enjoyed reading how Herder perceived that language came into being. Upon reading the comment made by esrever I agree with them in that I also feel that language more than likely originated with meanings behind the words that were created; such as the use of onomatopoeia to imitate sounds heard through the use of ones voice. Gf brought up the Swahili click dialect, when I read this in their comment I had a laugh out of it, just trying to picture how this particular language came into being. I mean, there is no imitation of sounds or anything of that nature, just series of clicks which are being used as a form of communicating - rather mystifying in my mind.

4:44 AM  
Blogger FriendofAll said...

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6:54 AM  
Blogger FriendofAll said...

Language is a pretty interesting aspect of human existence to me. Herder proposes some ideas about language that seem to accurate but I really don't have enough background on the subject to be able to provide an informed opinion. I can provide plenty of uniformed ones though. My agreement is with the idea that we used the impact or the feeling of a thing to make a word/sound to describe it. It seems like this would be a logical way for a human being to translate between sound and things like color, taste, and such. Everything we detect with senses creates a particular impression on us and that impression could be vocalized by our unique interpretation of it. That being said the development of the many languages spoken around the world is entirely plausible to me, but I can't see how, without a way to spread your ideas through an intermediary that other people could interpret your language, or how languages between peoples are understood. I didn't really pick up on the sounds of emotion part of the writing but the way I understand it today is that many words have an understood emotional connotation to them. You say genocide and the emotional responce is generally negative, you hear laughter and you might smile even without out knowing whats funny. Language provides symbols through which people can share their existence and interpret it to one another and emotion is a large part of the human experience so I would argue that a great deal of language was, if not produced by emotion, soon after inundated with it.

6:56 AM  
Anonymous Nate Sallee said...

I've never really found myself critically thinking about the origin of language but now that's it has been brought to my attention it is a very good question. Each person has to have a different opinion on how languages began because many people have varying viewpoints on how this universe was created to begin with, much less how living things communicate with each other. It is really thought provoking how speech has changed and developed over thousands of years to bring us to our current place today. Unfortunately there are more questions than answers when considering language and how people in the past expressed themselves. Regardless I'm sure there are somewhat naturally sounds we make when we consider something funny, frightening, surprising, confusing, etc. and from what can see these are essentially universal. But something had to happen along the way to distinguish languages across international borders. Was it a divine being that created ways of communicating or is language virtually human made? I like the reference to arbitrary in this piece because through my business law class it became more evident than ever before that governments simply make up the rules as they go! There are many laws that are named after people because the law originated with an incident involving them. "Miranda" rights for example is named after a person who had a crazy situation that eventually led to a new bill/law. Are the words we speak today fundamentally just something someone else made up?

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seemed pretty interesting to me and I agree with some of what it says. I like the fact that is basically says in the beginning of human languages the word for something as basically the essence of what it was. If knew what it was then you KNEW what it was, if that makes sense.

But I really did enjoy this and it made me start to think about the words that we use today that don’t really have a meaning… at all. And how they came to be used and how they became to be so popular or even how we use words that mean one thing in a completely wrong context. Even the sarcasm behind the words we say today instead of just getting to the point we add a lot of fluff to everything. We try to make ourselves sound smarter, ditsy, the list is endless. So why make all this seem real when the trust is practically sitting right there in front of us all we have to do is spit it out!

8:50 AM  

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