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The Genesis of Language

The assignation of particular names, to denote particular objects; that is, the institution of nouns substantive, would, probably be one of the first steps towards the formation of language.

Adam Smith (1767)

Three-fourths of our language may be said to consist of worn-out metaphors. In no other way can terms be found for the spiritual and the abstract. Spirit is itself ‘the breath’; the abstract that which is ‘drawn apart’. Our knowledge grows by comparing the unknown with the known...

Archibald Henry Sayce (1880)


Adam Smith suggests that language begins in the naming of the things around us. Marquez gently lampoons that idea in A 100 Years of Solitude, where the inhabitants, attempting to stem their forgetfulness, attach labels to the objects around them. Such naming no doubt contributes to the genesis of language, but more recent writers acknowledge a rich diversity of other factors - including cognitive, Ba Hai in her beer bar in Tinh Gia. Disentangling the concept of thought, from that of language, is difficult; a page towards this end. social, and anatomical - which must have developed in tandem for language to have been able to arise. Amongst this complexity is the action of metaphors which allow words to name the unknown. An image which should puzzle at first glance. The page on Emergence introduces the problem of coming to know that which we do not know. Sayce, standing midway between Smith and ourselves, suggested we substantially construct our languages, not out of names, but out of metaphors; as with the abstract ‘spirit’ stemming from the concrete ‘breath’. Such building with metaphors also sets pitfalls: The Houses of Parliament across the Thames. Beyond this local pitfall is a bigger one: language's general air of self-entitlement. 'All the world' may be a stage, but it might be contested that humanity therefore has a producer. Snow covered eastern Turkey from above. A page on the unsayable, which owes much to metaphor, and its relation to Kantian noumena. Recognising the work metaphors do, and don’t do, is vital to clarity.

Smith’s Considerations concerning the first formation of languages and the different genius of original and compounded languages was appended to the third edition of his larger work The Theory of Moral Sentiments and commences with the words above. Maybe he sets this idea up as a straw man; rather as some of his arguments about the basis of economics might be to initiate discussion rather than conclude it. Sayce’s Introduction to the Science of Language made this claim on page 181 of Vol I of the first edition of his work.

In the photograph the words Christening the water are ‘Suối Lê-nin’ (River Lenin), and above (out of sight) on the cliff there is the equivalent of ‘Marx Hill’ emblazoned in yellow. These features are denominated at Pác Bó where Vietnam borders China near the cave in which Hồ Chí Minh lived for a few weeks when he re-entered his country on the way to becoming president in 1940.

Above, hovering on blue introduces a link: click to go, move away to stay.


Saturday 19th March 2022

Murphy on duty to this site