Where Language Comes From

This posting will be a direct quote from The Master and His Emissary, an extremely important book. Basically, the author, Iain McGilchrist, is answering the question “What went wrong?”.

The following is from page 122. This is a long paragraph, with a complex structure. I have sub-divided it, making it easier to read online.

To recapitulate, then: language originates as the embodied expression of emotion, that is communicated by one individual ‘inhabiting’ the body, and therefore the emotional world, of another; a body skill, further, that is acquired by each of us by imitation, by the emotional identification and intuitive harmonization of the bodily states of the one who learns from the one from whom it is learnt.

A skill moreover that originates in the brain as an analogue of bodily movement, and involves the same processes, and even the same brain areas, as certain highly expressive gestures, as well as involving neurones (mirror neurones) that are activated equally when we carry out an action and when we see another carry it out (so that the process we can almost literally be said to share another’s bodily experience and inhabit one another’s bodies).

A process finally that anthropoligists see as derived from music, in turn an extension of grooming, which binds us together as physically embodied beings though of form of body language that is emotionally compelling across a large number of individuals within the group.

One can say that it forms bridges, as any mode of communication has to, between individuals, at every stage of its development and practice, historically and individually, and it does so by relying on our common corporeality, within a group – the image of which, furthermore, is the body.

We call a group of people ‘a body’, and its constituents are seen as limbs, or ‘members’. Their relationship within the group is not additive merely, as it would be in a mechanical assembly of items, but combinatory, producing a new entity that is more than the sum of its parts. If it were a chemical, one would say it were a compound, rather than a mixture.

He does not believe in Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. The belief that the structures of language are hard-wired into our brains.

He says this perpetuates the idea that the brain is a cognitive machine, a computer that is fitted with a rule-based program for structuring the world, rather than being an inextricable part of a embodied, living organism that develops implicit, performative, skills through an empathic process of intelligent imitation.

I can immediately sense where he is coming from, because I have been there myself. Back in the early Seventies, Gestalt therapy was popular, and I knew people who were intimately involved with it. I lived with an ex-wife of Fritz’s publisher in his ranch in Utah, to be explicit. When Gestalt was no longer ‘in’, he switched to NLP, which assumes explicitly that people can be ‘reprogrammed’ – just like a computer.