From Body to Language: Gestural and Pantomimic Scenarios of Language Origin in the Enlightenment

Topoi 41 (3):539-549 (2022)
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Gestural and pantomimic accounts of language origins propose that language did not develop directly from ape vocalisations, but rather that its emergence was preceded by an intervening stage of bodily-visual communication, during which our ancestors communicated with their hands, arms, and the entire body. Gestural and pantomimic scenarios are again becoming popular in language evolution research, but this line of thought has a long and interesting history that gained special prominence in the Enlightenment, often considered the golden age of glottogony. We highlight several themes key to this line of reflection, such as the idea of innate communication that consists of visual bodily signs and non-linguistic vocalisations; the division of labour between these two semiotic resources ; or the developmental trajectory of this bi-modal system of communication determined by its transmission through generations of users and the intervention of social factors. We confront these ideas with problems discussed in current language evolution research, focusing on polysemioticity, sign function, conventionality and modality transition.



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