Ludwig Noiré and the Debate on Language Origins in the 19th Century

Jacopo D’Alonzo
Sorbonne Nouvelle & Sapienza Università di Roma

Renato Guttuso, Contadini al lavoro

Renato Guttuso, Contadini al lavoro. Source


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 ([1851] 1888), Plekhanov ([1907] 1976), Mauthner (19122), Bogdanov ([1923] 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 [1951] 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.

The 19th Century Debate on Language Origins

In the 19th century, the debate on language origins was launched by scholars who argued for the assumption of the divine origin of human language. That theory took two forms. One of the most typical strategies regarded language as gift of God and rejected the thesis that humankind could have created language without any help. This was the solution suggested by the German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788).[1] According to other scholars, the problem of language origins lies not in the authority of Divine Word but in a theoretical conundrum. It is impossible to establish a coherent theory of the human origin of language. To invent language, our ancestors already needed to be intelligent. But to be intelligent, they needed to already have language. So, the only rational solution could be a non-human origin of language. Incidentally, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) sympathised with this account.

In the 19th century, the theory of divine origin of human language was supported by the French intellectual Louis-Gabriel-Ambroise de Bonald (1754-1840) in his Mélanges littéraires, politiques et philosophiques (Literary, Political and Philosophical Melange, 1819).[2] De Bonald’s account stimulated the firm reaction of both the French philologist Ernest Renan (1823-1892) and the German linguist Jacob Grimm (1785-1863). In his De l’origine du langage (The origin of language, 1848), Renan disputed De Bonald’s theory. But he equally criticised the Epicurean Theory (see Gensini 1999 and Bourdier 1978) by arguing that humankind never lived in a state of nature and never spoke a natural language composed of facial movements, gestural expressions and cries. For Renan language arose as a whole and not progressively. On the other hand, in his Ueber den Ursprung der Sprache (1851), Grimm reasoned that language evolved progressively. Deeply influenced by Herder, Grimm reckoned that language and thought are interconnected and evolved simultaneously. At the same time, Grimm neglected any continuity between human language and animal communication systems.

In his Essay on the Origin of Language (1860), the English theologian Frederic W. Farrar (1831-1903) quoted Grimm and criticized Renan. According to Farrar, language is a strictly human product. Humankind has progressively created and developed it. Like Grimm, Farrar rejected the possibility of any continuity between animal communication and human linguistic skills. But in opposition to Grimm, Farrar declared that first words were essentially onomatopoeic. These onomatopoeic words must be thought of as expressions of a subjective reaction under the pressure of passions and needs. Such reactions may follow external stimuli such as the sounds of nature. Thus human voice could subjectively interpret and express some features of things through sounds.[3]

Particularly interesting is the influence of Farrar’s theory in the 19th-century debate on language origins. In his Dictionary of English Etymology (1859), the English linguist and cousin of Charles Darwin (1809-1892) Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891) made extensive use of the principle of onomatopoeia and subjective iconism (Piattelli 2014). The idea Wedgwood developed in his work built heavily on Farrar’s research. In turn, Darwin was receptive of Farrar in his Descent of Man. But unlike Darwin, Farrar and Wedgwood did not assume any continuity between animal communication systems and human language.

Nobody can overlook that not everyone was accepting of the theory that language arose slowly. For instance, Renan questioned the validity of that insight. To give just one further example, this criticism was also picked up by the German linguist and professor at Oxford University Max Müller (1823-1900). In his Lectures on the Science of Language (1861 and 1863), Müller regarded language as human product that arose in one fell swoop. By quoting Humboldt’s Ueber das vergleichende Sprachstudium (1820), Müller insisted that humankind and full-formed language are inseparable.[4] Müller denied the gradual development of language. To him, the error underlying this way of understanding human language had to be eliminated definitively. So Müller disagreed with Wedgwood’s theory of onomatopoeia and objected that first words were neither instinctive cries nor other expressions of need (Dowling 1982).

Interestingly, Müller did not totally disapprove of Darwin’s theory of evolution. For Müller, Darwin’s error was the assumption of the continuity between animal communication and cognition and human linguistic and conceptual skills (see Knoll 1986; Gensini 2011). Thus Müller wrote his 1873 Lectures on Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language in order to uncover and refute the linguistic implications of Darwin’s theory. One year later, the English philologist William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894) took a contrary position to Müller in his Darwinism and Language. In Whitney’s view language progressively arose rather than appearing all at once. Nonetheless, Whitney was partly disappointed by some of Darwin’s conclusions. Specifically, Whitney rejected that the beginnings of human speech could be seen among pre-human ancestors. But he accepted that humankind descends from an animal ancestor (Alter 2005, 183).

Specifically, Whitney’s interpretation of Darwin’s theory differed significantly from that of German philosopher and linguist August Schleicher (1821-1868), who in the same years tried to apply Darwin’s theory to linguistic sciences. This led Schleicher to conceive of language as a law-governed, organic phenomenon. Against this, Whitney argued that language escaped the law of nature as well as other actions guided by human will.

At this point we must say a few words concerning Darwin’s theory, since it introduced in the debate on language origins certain elements which radically changed some aspects of the argument. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin suggested the continuity between animal communication systems and human language. The difference between them does not concern semantics – expression of desires and needs – or articulation of sounds – typical of a wide range of species of birds, but rather human “almost infinitely larger power of associating together the most diversified sounds and ideas” (Darwin 1874, 85-86). To Darwin, human language arose from the cognitive capability to fix experiences in sounds. In turn, complexes of sound and experience may amplify the range of actions and understanding. So conceived, Darwin consequently explains, language could progressively reinforce the cognitive skills from which it emerged (see Alter 2007, 2008).

Deeply influenced by the British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-18975), who extended the traditional geological dating in his Principles of Geology (1830-1833), Darwin stated that humankind had evolved from preceding animal species. So our pre-human ancestor was “some unusually wise ape-like animal” who imitated sounds of nature thanks to voice and gestures. Darwin established that human language is rooted in pre-human communication systems. Such an assumption made a decisive impact on the debate on language origins. The argument no longer covered only the history of humankind. Not only did the debate face the issue of human-specific peculiar linguistic skills, it also tackled pre-humans forms of communication. One could say that Darwin reversed the terms of the debate by proposing a proto-linguistic turn. Obviously, not everybody was on Darwin’s side. For example, as has been already seen, Whitney, Farrar and Wedgwood denied that human languages have any relation to animal or pre-human communication systems.

Added to that, Darwin suggested that human use of voice has its natural roots in animal courtship. In this way Darwin overturned the theory set out by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in his The Origin and function of music (1858). To Spencer, music was an evolutionary product of language. By contrast, Darwin argued for the existence of some musical skills in nature, as had already been suggested by the German physiologist Hermann von Helmotz (1821-1894).

To summarize, by virtue of the scientific support of his theory of evolution, Darwin’s re-thinking of the problem of the origins of human language redefined the terms of linguistic naturalism (Formigari 2013). In explaining why human language has a natural and inherited component, Darwin rehabilitated languages of other species. Accordingly, human language emerged progressively in pre-human multimodal communication systems constituted by gestures and vocal imitation. Thus the first traces of language must not be seen only in the history of genus Homo but before. Finally, human language is a quantitative enhancement of some cognitive skills. At the same time language outperforms cognition. So there is a co-evolutionary loop between the former and the latter (Ferretti & Adornetti, 2012, 24).

The German debate

The influence of Darwin’s theory on the German debate on language is best illustrated by the example of Schleicher’s Die Darwin’sche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft (The Darwinian Theory and the Science of Language, 1863). Schleicher showed a desire to reconcile linguistics with the natural sciences. Specifically, Schleicher’s well-known theory of the linguistic genealogical tree (Stammbaumtheorie, family tree theory; first suggested in his Die ersten Spaltungen des indogermanischen Urvolkes, 1853) depended upon the model of botanical taxonomy. After reading Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), Schleicher argued that languages evolved because of competition. For him, languages necessarily pass through a life cycle similar to organisms. Schleicher also asserted that languages are initially simple and become progressively more complex.

Schleicher’s theory was often mentioned by natural scientists of his period. For instance, the English geologist Lyell in his The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863) cited Schleicher’s theory to explain the development of languages (see Taub 1993). Furthermore, Darwin cited Schleicher’s theory of languages as natural organisms in the Descent of Man. But Darwin’s more general linguistic account differed in fundamental ways from Schleicher’s (see Maher 1983). Darwin argued for gradual origins of language from pre-human ancestors until actual humankind, but Schleicher narrowed this down. To him, language arose with humankind during the pre-historical era.

The same disagreement with Darwin’s theory of language origins could be seen in Noiré’s theory. Like Schleicher, Noiré quoted Darwin’s findings with admiration. But he did not totally agree with Darwin’s linguistic views. Noiré set out his theory in a book entitled Ursprung der Sprache (Origin of Language, 1877). The major premise of that book is that language arose gradually. But the minor premise is that only humankind had the skills for creating language. According to Noiré, the necessary skills for creating language did not depend upon rationality. For him, language arose as a result of the unique sociability of humans.

To some extent, Noiré’s theory assumes that humankind has a natural origin. Consequently, our ancestors naturally invented language. Nonetheless, the deep difference between human language and animal communication systems implies at least two consequences. First, human language represents a new stage in the history of animal languages. Secondly, human language uniqueness is embedded within a peculiar feature of humankind. More narrowly, Noiré identified such a feature in cooperation. The unique sociability of humans implied an unprecedented form of cooperation already at an early stage of human development. To simplify, before speaking our ancestors already cooperated to achieve common ends.

Language, Noiré consequently declared, arose in the context of cooperative tasks. Under the pressure of those tasks, physical efforts involuntary involved exclamations. Over time these involuntary vocalisations became shared and recognised by the group. They originally mean some aspects of the action. So involuntary vocal emissions uttered during cooperative tasks could be regarded as the first words of human language.

In the same years, other German linguists did not accept Darwin’s proto-linguistic turn. This is the case of H. Steinthal (1823-1899). Deeply influenced by Humboldt’s philosophy of language, Steinthal refused to consider human language as a developed form of pre-human communication systems. But it should be remembered that Steinthal adopted some aspects of Darwin’s theory in the third and fourth edition of his Der Ursprung der Sprache. Specifically, Steinthal went so far as to suggest that searching for the origin of language could prove that humankind descends from animals (Agard 2004).

To Steinthal (1881), human language is irreducible to other communication systems. He also refused the linguistic evolutionary theory of Schleicher (Pénisson 1998). Specifically, Steinthal accepted only the possibility of creating the taxonomy of languages, but nothing more than this. Steinthal argued for the indissoluble link between humankind and language. And to him, the origin of language must be conceived of in conjunction with the progressive origin of consciousness (Craig 1989). In his Der Ursprung der Sprache (1851, 1858, 1877, 1888), Steinthal (1881, 361) reasoned that vocal reflexes could be the precursors of speech and articulated sounds. According to him, any psychical excitation corresponds to involuntary reflected bodily movement. Thus speech was originally involuntary reflex-actions (Reflexbewegungen). As a matter of fact, voice had the function of motor and mechanical externalization of perceptions and experiences. For this reason, Steinthal labelled voice reflex-sound (Reflexlaut). Communicative intentionality arose later. It controls expressions performed independently from communication.

Among other scholars, the German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) also marked the limits of Darwin’s theory of language origins. Simmel wrote for the journal Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft, which was founded by Steinthal and Moritz Lazarus (1824-1903). In his article Psychologische und ethnologische Studien über Musik (Psychological and Ethnological Studies about Music, 1882), Simmel sharply criticized Darwin’s theory of the musical origins of human language (Agard 2004). Such a theory had recently been endorsed by the German zoologist Gustav Jäger (1832–1917).

To conclude, Darwin’s theory of language origins and in particular his assumption of the continuity between human language and pre-human communication systems rarely found supporters in Great Britain or Germany. Of course, many scholars were ready to defend a naturalist account which excludes any transcendental cause of language origin. But there were not many scholars that argued for the continuist theory of language origins.

Noiré’s theory of language origins

Signature of Ludwig Noiré. Source

Signature of Ludwig Noiré. Source

Noiré’s Ursprung der Sprache begins with a quotation from the German philosopher Lazarus Geiger (1829-1860). Interestingly, Geiger did not simply assume the coincidence of language (Sprache) and reasoning (Vernunft) as Humboldt had done. Geiger (1868, Vorrede) also claimed the primacy of language over thought: “Die Sprache hat die Vernunft erschaffen, vor der Sprache war der Mensch vernunftlos” (Language has created reasoning, before language man was without reason).

Before coming to the core of Noiré’s considerations, we must say a few words concerning Geiger’s theory. The reason for this digression is the fact that Noiré said that he was deeply influenced by Geiger. But Geiger’s theory has been often treated in same way as Noiré’s after the publication of Noiré’s Ursprung der Sprache. Nonetheless, Noiré felt a certain dissatisfaction with Geiger’s theory even if he acknowledged the significant findings of his predecessor.

In 1868 and in 1872 Geiger published the two volumes of his Ursprung und Entwickelung der menschlichen Sprache und Vernunft. In the period between the publication of the first volume and the second one, he wrote a smaller essay devoted to the same topic (Geiger 1869). In essence, Geiger suggested that our human ancestors were speechless, helpless, and without religion, art, and morals. Language arose from gestures which originally were as insignificant as trifling cries (Sprachschreie, interjections). Those cries expressed emotions without purpose or consciousness. For a long time, sounds varied and differentiated. In the meantime, sounds allowed our ancestors to reinforce their familiarity with the world and consequently prepared for the first steps of reasoning. Imitative skills peculiar to humankind had been the precondition for sharing sounds among our ancestors. Thus they began to understand each other and sounds gradually became meaningful. Consequently, Geiger argued that such sounds were the first linguistic roots.

Noiré’s book is deeply influenced by the linguistic reflections of Herder, Humboldt and Geiger. As a matter of fact, their names appear on the first page of Noiré’s Ursprung der Sprache. Indeed Noiré agreed with them by assuming that reason is the peculiar feature of humankind and reasoning cannot be possible without language. Accordingly, Noiré merged the question concerning the origins of humankind and reason with the issue of language origins. It is quite interesting that Noiré juxtaposed the names of Herder, Geiger and Humboldt. On the one hand, Herder and Geiger developed two theories of language origins which were based upon the assumption of the gradual origin of human language. On the other hand, Humboldt refused to consider language origins as a meaningful question. To him, humankind and full-formed languages are indissoluble. The common ground that Noiré sees in the linguistic theories of Herder, Humboldt and Geiger is probably their strong naturalism as well as their thesis of language-thought relation. Despite essential divergences concerning the relation between humankind and other animals, Noiré appropriated Humboldt’s theory of language as Denkorgan (Thought-Instrument) and thus he highlighted the correlation between language, reasoning and human nature.

What Noiré considered his own contribution to the debate on language origins was his assumption that language (and reasoning, of course) originally arose during social goal-oriented actions. So he wrote: “Es war die auf einen gemeinsamen Zweck gerichtete gemeinsame Thätigkeit, es war die urälteste Arbeit unserer Stammeltern, aus welcher Sprache und Vernunftleben hervorquoll” (Language and life of thought arose in the context of shared and common goals posed by common action, that was the original work of our ancestors; Noiré 1877, 331). Our human ancestors lived like animals and tried to survive in wild nature. For this reason they worked together to produce their means of subsistence. Their common activity was mostly physical. So during their common efforts they produced some involuntary sounds. The peculiar feature of these sounds was the fact that they were the same for all of the members of the group. Hence, these common sounds (gemeinsame Laute) originally had social value.

According to Noiré, the same involuntary sounds were uttered during the collective actions. This fact implies that these sounds were recognised and understood as meaningful by all of the members of the group. Noiré (1877, 332) explained this point in the following manner:

Hier ist also der Ursprung des Lautes, der, gemeinsam erklingend, gemeinsam hervorgebracht, gemeinsam verstanden, nachmals zum menschlichen Worte sich entwickelte. Denn seine Eigentümlicheit war und mußte bleiben, daß er an eine bestimmte Thätigkit erinnerte und verstanden wurde (Here one can find the origin of [linguistic] sound. Sounds resounded together, they are performed together, and they are understood by all [of the members during their common efforts]. Thereafter, these sounds turned into human words. Indeed, the peculiar feature of [linguistic] sounds was and had to remain the fact that sounds has been recognized and understood by meaning a given action).

Noiré called Gemeingefühl a common and pre-linguistic sentiment of shared goals and intentions. This sentiment accompanied peculiar human cooperation. At the same time, Gemeingefühl should pave the way for understanding intentions of the others and what the others would communicate. Consequently, Noiré (1877, 333) underlined how Gemeingefühl ensured social character of primitive sounds: “Der Sprachlaut ist also in seiner Entstehung der die gemeinsame Thätigkeit begleitende Ausdruck des erhöhten Gemeingefühls” (With regards to its origin, linguistic sound is moreover the expression of the most elevated common sentiment which follows a common action, 333). Accordingly, Noiré (1877, 334) argued for the priority of Collectivwesen (social being) over individuals. So Noiré (1877, 323) quoted Feuerbach’s Philosophie der Zukunft (Philosophy of the Future, 1843) with regard to the social dimension of thought: “die Gemeinshaft des Menschen mit dem Menschen ist das erste Prinzip und Kriterium der Wahrheit und Allgemeinheit” (The community of humans with humans is the first principle and criterion of truth and general; Feuerbach 1843, 152).

Assuming that Gemeingefühl was a psychological condition for having mutual understanding of sounds, Noiré (1877, 341) explained the way in which phonetic signs represent the objective word. On each occasion, Noiré described sounds in their connection with goal-oriented social activities. Interestingly, sounds were emitted during the same actions: certain sounds constantly corresponded to the same action. This allows, in Noiré’s view, the stability of reference. Further, sounds designated things as object of actions. To Noiré (1877, 342; 1885, 135, 143), first words originally designate action (Verbum) and patient (Objekt) at the same time (as Geiger 1868, 386; Steinthal, [1851] 1888, 295).

Cassirer (198013, 286) noted that for Noiré, “the original sounds originated not in the objective intuition of substance but in the subjective intuition of action”. Actions modified objects and allowed our ancestor to designate them. So designation presupposes social relations and cooperation. As Cassirer notes, “if the phonetic sign had merely expressed an individual representation produced in the individual consciousness, it would have remained imprisoned in the individual consciousness, without power to pass beyond it”. In Noiré’s view, it is important to emphasise that the social nature of linguistic sounds is the unique feature which distinguishes human language from animal communication. Assuming that primordial linguistic sounds depend upon social context, they could change historically. On the contrary, animal cries are uttered independently from social context and do not change over time. In this respect a remark concerning Geiger’s theory is necessary to better understand Noiré’s strategy. Indeed, Geiger (1869, 184-185) had been more open than Noiré to accepting the continuity between animal communication and human languages. For Geiger, the latter is rooted in the former.


Starting from a preliminary overview of the debate on language origins that took place during the 19th century, it is possible to see some implications of Noiré’s theory. Firstly, Noiré, like other scholars (Renan, Grimm, Wedgwood, Whitney, etc.), rejected the divine origin of language and suggested a naturalistic account without invoking transcendent causes.

Secondly, like Farrar, Whitney, Steinthal and others, Noiré argued for progressive origins of human language. Unlike Müller, Noiré did not propose that language arose in one fell swoop. Nonetheless, like many others, Noiré was unwilling to accept any relation between human language and pre-human communication. This point led him away from Geiger’s theory as well as from Darwin’s.

Thirdly, in spite of Schleicher, Noiré refused to reduce language to a law of nature. For him, language opens the dimension of culture and history. But like Steinthal, Noiré considered original sounds as involuntary and non-communicative expressions. But like Steinthal, the link between those sounds and bodily movement is for Noiré not enough to establish reference. Reference needs previous social relations.

Taking his cue from Herder, Geiger, Humboldt and Feuerbach, Noiré was increasingly concerned with a definition of humankind as social, linguistic and rational animal. This led him to suggest a theory of language origins which implied the co-evolution of language and reason in the context of goal-oriented cooperation.

As he implicitly demonstrated through an analysis of language origins, Noiré (1877, 342) rejected the most common theories concerning this topic. He distanced himself from the theory of onomatopoeia (Farrar and Wedgwood). Somehow, the same fate seems to have befallen Steinthal’s theory of reflex-sounds. Noiré criticized Darwin’s theory of imitation as well as Geiger’s theory of pantomime. According to Noiré, all of these theories cannot account for the social context in which language arose.

It would now be useful to quote some lines from Darwin’s Descent of Man. This quote may serve to establish a further comparison between Noiré and another philosopher who suggested a theory of language origins close to Noiré’s.

Darwin (1871, II, 295) mentioned the English philosopher Chauncey Wright (1830-1875) and his hypothesis according to which “the continued use of language will have reacted on the brain, and produced an inherited effect; and this again will have reacted on the improvement of language”. Assuming Darwin’s theory of evolution in his The Evolution of Self-Consciousness (1873), Wright (1873, 217) declared that language “would spring from the social nature of the animal, from the use of mental communication between the members of a community, and from the desire to communicate”. Accordingly, Wright argued that language was rooted in the social life of our pre-human ancestors. In Wright’s view, language was originally composed by gestures and cries. The most fundamental linguistic function was communication. After the repetitive use of primitive signs, the meditative function of language arose and allowed memory, reflection and thought (Pasqua Mocerino 2014).

Like Noiré, Wright reckoned that reason and language are interdependent.[5] More significantly, both of them argued for the primacy of language over reason. In the same way, they suggested that language arose in social context. So Wright and Noiré concluded that humans think because they speak and not vice versa. Like Wright, Noiré explained that self-consciousness arose after the invention of language.

But the theory Noiré proposed only appears to resemble Wright’s. Firstly, Noiré – like Müller – described our human ancestors as physiologically and anatomically like us. The only difference between actual and past humankind concerns language and cognition. Thus the origin of language is to be located among our human ancestors. On the contrary Wright argued for a more Darwinian view. For him, between human and pre-human language there is merely a difference of degree. Secondly, for Wright language arose under the pressure of the need to communicate. Against this, Noiré highlighted that communication is a more recent function of linguistic sounds.

In this way, it would be useful to remember that Noiré was deeply influenced by the thought of his friend Müller.[6] Above all, like Müller, Noiré suggested a kind of evolutionism without considering human language as the result of the development of animal communication systems. Nonetheless, Noiré focused on sociability and cooperation more than Müller. And this is Noiré’s most significant contribution to the debate on language origins. So Noiré’s theory will find supporters among Marxists. In Noiré’s theory some Marxist philosophers – such as Bogdanov, Bukharin, and Thảo – found certain elements which allow them to formulate a Marxist theory of language origins. And Noiré’s theory often completed Engels’ sketched out view of language origins (MEW 20, 305-570). It cannot be denied that Feuerbach represents the meeting point for the two traditions. Marxists were especially interested in the central role Noiré assigned to sociality as well as his identification of labour as the context in which language and cognition arose. But the same is true for the social nature of language and cognition and the dependence of language on labour.


This article has been carried in the context of a PhD project financed by USPC.

[1] In the Old Testament, however, one cannot find any reference to the origins of human language: for the storyteller, language was one of the typical capabilities of humankind (Albertz 1989).

[2] Indeed, in the previous century the German mathematician Johann Peter Süssmilch (1707-1767) suggested a rationalistic and non-theological version of the theory of divine origin. But this version was sharply criticized by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) in his Abhandlung ueber den Ursprung der Sprache (Essay on Origins of Language, 1772).

[3] By the way, such a hypothesis had already been formulated by Leibniz in the third book of Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain (New Essays on Human Understanding, 1765; for Leibniz, see Gensini 1991) and mentioned by De Brosses in his Traité de la formation méchanique des langues (Essay on the mechanical development of languages, 1765; see De Palo 2005; Gensini 2014, 63).

[4] In Germany, the philosophy of language of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) seems to play the main role in ispiring discontinuist theories. In detail, Humboldt stated that language constitutes the main feature of humankind as a natural species. Consequently, drawing links between animals and humankind would lead to a total misunderstanding of human nature.

[5] By the way, Noiré calls such a theory Noology. In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (A271/B327) Noology was a theory of knowledge that explains concepts as result of sensation. Kant indeed used this notion for describing Locke’s account.

[6] The friendship between Noiré and Müller was very close. Müller dedicated his Science of Thought (1887) to Noiré. In turn Noiré shows great respect for Müller in his Die Welt als Entwicklung des Geistes (Noiré 1874, 246) and in his Max Müller & the philosophy of language (1879). Noiré’s theory also influenced some Müller’s linguistic works. For instance, in his Das Denken im Lichte der Sprache (Müller 1888, 371, 571), Müller reduced the roots of Sanskrit to a limited number of simplest human activities. Noiré (1877, 311, 341) argued for the same assumption (for this point see Cassirer 198013, 266). Finally, Müller (1888) is dedicated to Noiré.


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How to cite this post

D’Alonzo, Jacopo. 2016. Ludwig Noiré and the Debate on Language Origins in the 19th Century. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Philosophy

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