Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language

Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language

Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language

Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language

Synopsis

The origin of language is one of the deep mysteries of human existence. Drawing upon the work of the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, Marcel Danesi fashions a persuasive, original account of the evolution and development of language. Seeking to reconstruct the primitive mind that generated language and the evolutionary events that must have preceded the advent of speech, he takes Vico's insight that mind, culture, and language evolved from the uniquely human faculty known as fantasia ('the imagination') and sketches a 'primal scene' of compelling interest. Danesi identifies metaphor, the feature of mind that transforms iconic, perceptual thinking into conceptual thinking, as the crucial event in the Vichian scenario. The description of this scenario forms the core of the book. Danesi then evaluates the Vichian reconstruction of the origin of language in light of contemporary research in the cognitive, social, and biological sciences and with competing theories.

Excerpt

In 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris imposed a ban on all discussions related to the question of the origin of language. A similar prohibition was endorsed by the Philological Society of London a half century later in 1911. Such drastic actions were motivated, no doubt, by the endless speculations, conjectures, and unfounded theories that were being bandied about at the time. For most of the latter part of the nineteenth century, and for the greater part of the twentieth century, language scientists have, in fact, tended to shy away from engaging in any kind of debate related to the seemingly insoluble enigma of the phylogenesis of speech.

In the early 1970s, however, interest in this conundrum was rekindled, probably because of the intriguing and suggestive findings that were being accumulated in such interrelated fields of inquiry as archeology, paleography, animal ethology, sociobiology, psychology, neurology, anthropology, semiotics, and linguistics. Language scientists came to see these as tantalizing bits and pieces to the puzzle of language origins. The result of this new awareness was a disciplinary cross-fertilization and the birth of a new branch of the language sciences, glottogenetics, known vicariously as glosso‐ genetics (e.g., Grolier 1983; Crystal 1987: 290). Today, the aim of this new domain of scientific inquiry is to do exactly what the Linguistic Society of Paris and the Philological Society of London had dismissed as impracticable : namely, to conduct meaningful research forays into the origin (or origins) of language and to formulate theories on the etiology of speech in the human species. In the words of Landsberg (1988a: vii), glottogenetics has developed, in a very short time, into an interdisciplinary form of investigation that brings together "anthropologists, biologists, archeologists, linguists, prehistorians and inhabitants of adjacent intellectual realms" in the common goal of determining to what extent it is "possible to gather objective and verifiable data about the genesis of human language."

Glottogenetics has indeed begun to unravel and put together some of the intriguing pieces to the mystifying puzzle of language origins. The proliferation of anthologies of studies that this science has spawned—e.g., Wescott (1974), Harnad, Steklis, and Lancaster (1976), Grolier (1983), Skomale and Polomé (1987), Landsberg (1988a), Gessinger and Rahden (1988), Koch (1989), Raffler-Engel, Wind, and Jonker (1989), Shevoroshkin (1989)— provides samples of the kinds of fascinating scientific work that this fledg-

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