Sorbonne Nouvelle & Sapienza Università di Roma
Linguistic naturalism was one of the main positions taken in linguistic research during the 19th century (for France, see Auroux 1984 and Desmet 1996; for England, see Aarsleff 1983; for Germany, see Knobloch 1988). Although the origin of language is a traditional question of linguistic reflection, linguistic naturalism paid special attention to this topic. According to Auroux (1989, 123), the 19th century was one of the most fruitful periods in the history of the question of language origins. But the 19th Century was also the epoch of the well-known official interdiction of that topic promoted by the Linguistic Society of Paris (Société de Linguistique de Paris, founded in 1866). Article 2 of its constitution states, “the Society does not admit any communication regarding language origins as well as the creation of a universal language” (quoted by Auroux 1989, 123). The scepticism concerning that topic was not limited to France. In 1873 the president of Philological Society in Britain, Alexander J. Elis (1814-1890), declared the question of language origins to be “out of the field of philology proper” (quoted by Aarsleff 1983, 230).
Such scepticism was almost certainly reinforced by the main goal of linguistics during the 19th century. Linguistics wanted to appear as a science and to strengthen its own academic position (Auroux 1989). Questions of a more philosophical nature, such the origins of language, were officially left out. Nonetheless, almost all of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, biologists and sociologists of the period were more or less interested in the issue of language origins.
Among the scholars who tackled topics of this kind, the German philosopher Ludwig Noiré (1829-1889) deserves special mention. Noiré’s theory appears as one of the most eccentric in that Noiré linked language origins with collective labour. To him, the unique sociability of humans implies cooperation and in turn cooperation involves language. Remarkably, Noiré’s theory deeply influenced the debate on language origins until the 1950s. Noiré’s theory was also mentioned by scholars who did not directly deal with the question of language origins but needed a provisional theory of language origins which would be suitable for their theoretical aims. To give a few examples, Noiré’s theory was meticulously described by Steinthal ( 1888), Plekhanov ( 1976), Mauthner (19122), Bogdanov ( 2015), Cassirer (198013), Jespersen (1922), Janet (1934) and others. Some traces of Noiré’s theory could be seen in no less than the theory of language origins suggested by the Vietnamese philosopher Trần Đức Thảo (1917-1993). Thảo’s theory, set out in his Phenomenology and Dialectical Materialism (1951), clearly reflected the influence of Noiré’s account. In this case, a philosopher who was interested in a dialectical-materialist theory of the human being argued for a theory of language origins somehow similar to Noiré’s one (see Thảo  1985, 169-170).
Before offering some theoretical and historical explanations for the enduring influence of Noiré’s theory, it is necessary to describe the general features of his theory and the context in which it arose. After dealing with the German-English debate on language origins during the 19th century, a section will be especially devoted to Noiré’s theory of language origins. Finally, we will suggest a comparison between Noiré’s insight and the naturalistic framework of the 19th century. Read more ›