Signs for Language Origins?

Adam Kendon

Abstract


Taking the recent publication of The Gestural Origin of Language by David Armstrong and Sherman Wilcox as a starting point, this essay discusses a number of issues and difficulties raised by the idea that language first emerged as a gesture-language, only later to become spoken. It is argued that while modern sign languages may throw light on processes that are fundamental to language formation, they cannot be considered representations of an earlier form of language, as some writers seem to suppose, nor does their existence offer any support for a ‘gesture first’ theory. Rather, language must have been, from its first appearance, a multimodal phenomenon. It is pointed out that modern speakers, qua speakers speaking spontaneously, always employ several modalities together in a complex orchestration. However, the model of language generally followed in linguistics, whether the language studied is spoken or signed, does not usually take this into consideration. An abstracted idea of language is usually employed, developed largely because the systematic study of language usually considers language only in its written form, and not as it is manifested when spoken, when it is an activity that involves the whole body, and not just the so-called ‘speech apparatus’.

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