Vico on the Origin of Language

One of those questions that intellectuals in the 18th and early 19th century seem to have taken really seriously, one that perhaps we don’t, is the question of how spoken and written language began.  My sense is that most contemporary linguists, historians, psychologists – whoever would be exploring that question now – have largely decided there are too many chicken-and-egg problems, and too little empirical data to go on.  We instead focus on the development of language within specific individuals, or perhaps the diffusion of words and concepts through culture over a relatively short stretch of time – and we’ve got plenty of data to explore that.

Now Vico, it seems, shared no such preference for data.  There’s a lot that looks absurd about Vico, from our data-focused (maybe even data-obsessed or data-addled) 21st century perch: he seems to reason by hunch, analogy, mythology and etymology in a lot of places where we’re inclined to call BS.  Nonetheless, Vico’s account of the origins of language is striking in its general outline, and also sheds quite a bit of light on the reading of Finnegans Wake.

Here’s a programmatic statement Vico makes during his discussion of language in Book Two of his New Science (“Poetic Wisdom” – Book I was a more introductory “Statement of Principles”):

The philologians have all accepted with an excess of good faith the view that in the vulgar languages meanings were fixed by convention.  On the contrary, because of their natural origins, they must have had natural significations.  This is easy to observe in vulgar Latin… which has formed almost all its words by metaphors drawn from natural objects according to their natural properties or sensible effects.  And in general metaphor makes up the great body of the language among all nations. But the grammarians, encountering great numbers of words which give confused and indistinct ideas of things, and not knowing their origins… they have drawn in Aristotle, Galen and other philosophers, and armed them against Plato and Iamblichus” (147-148).

I don’t know who Galen and Iamblichus were, but I believe Aristotle was much more on the word-meanings-are-fixed-by-convention side of things, as opposed to Plato, in whose Cratylus Socrates contests the conventional theory of language (I’ve not read this latter very thoroughly, but I’m pretty sure it’s anti-conventional, which is what Vico means by the last clause quoted above).

Vico here expresses a preference for reversing some ordinary ways we understand language: note that here, “metaphor” is the cause of language, and that words have “natural,” not merely conventional meanings.  The story is something like this: at first, people could make only grunts and gestures.  Those grunts and gestures were inherently monosyllabic, and expressions of emotions.  Over time, those expressions of emotion came to be associated with natural phenomena that caused them.  Those words are thereby metaphorical in the sense that they create crude analogies between the pre-linguistic emotions that people experienced and the linguistic words they adopt.

Vico explains in some depth how all of the traditional tropes of rhetoric can be derived from this transition.  Onomatopoeia is the first of these – monosyllables that sound like what they mean.  We can get all sorts of metaphors from here too (metonymy, synecdoche, personification, etc.).  But the point is that all the words are NOT conventional in meaning, this only happens later, at a much higher level of abstraction.

He’s got a neat sequence from which the traditional parts of speech arise:  first, there were interjections (i.e., onomatopoetic and monosyllabic expressions of emotion), then pronouns, then particles, then prepositions, then nouns, and then finite verbs.  This is precisely the opposite of how you were probably taught a foreign language.  I know my Latin textbook goes more in the order of noun -> verb -> prepositions -> pronouns.  Interjections are never specifically taught, which perhaps is some sort of verification of Vico’s notion of their primacy: we just don’t need to learn about them: in Latin or in any other language, their meanings are clear.

In summary Vico argues that “figurative language” precedes literal language, poetic diction precedes prose, song precedes speech, and poetry precedes philosophy.

Whether this is historically reasonable or not (I suspect not) it does shed light on something I’ve always thought was weird: I’ve heard child-development and education people say that children can’t really understand figurative language until a certain age.  This has already felt backwards to me – children seem more than willing to understand and deploy metaphors and all sorts of linguistic playfulness that we later on lose.

It also makes a lot of sense of Finnegans Wake – the move of the book very much is to begin in poetry and myth (Book I, the prominence of Shem), through a phase of obscure learning (Book II), and then towards rationalized law, politics, philosophy, religion (Book III, the “four watches of Shaun”) on through Book IV’s “ricorso.”

Beckett’s blurb about Finnegans Wake is apropos:

Here words are not the polite contortions of 20th century printer’s ink. They are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear.

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