The Origin of Speech (Book Review)

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Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy wrote some amazing books, and this might be my favourite so far. In The Origin of Speech, ERH illustrates that speech, and its creation, is the power which holds a civilization together.

For this book review, I’ll start by copying the Editor’s Postscript found on page 128…

Speech begins with vocatives and imperatives. It begins with formal speech which moves men to action and is embodied in ritual. Our grammar books on the other hand begin with the nominative and the pronoun I. The nominative is only usable when an experience is over. I can only respond as an I after I have been addressed as thou. I is the last pronoun a child learns to use.

We discovered that our systems of formal logic are skewed by accepting this distortion of our grammarians. The beginning vocative and lyric stages of all experience are thus called illogical even though they are essential before the narrative and nominative (abstract) modes can be applied. Common sense or daily talk is a derivative of formal speech.

Gender identifies the required participants in living interaction and is not synonymous with sex. Neuter is not a third sex but refers to all dead things. Thus grammar is a mirror of the stages of human experience. Inspiration through a vocative or imperative addresses us as thou, then forces us to respond as an I, makes us report as we, and at the end a story speaks of us as they. Thus we are conjugated through the stages of experience.

Instead of mental health, we propose grammatical health. Grammatical health requires the ability of command, the ability to listen, the ability to act, and finally the ability to free ourselves from the command by telling our story. Only then are we ready to respond again. We demonstrated that grammatical ill health can lead to war, dictatorship, revolution and crisis — and showed how formal speech can overcome these four.

We used the image of a time cup created to be fulfilled and to be discarded in time. All social order depends on the power of invoked names to create never-ending series of such time cups.

The grammatical method does not supply a rule book for our behaviour but a method to help us understand our history, to differentiate between valid and invalid names, and to determine the response appropriate to the stage of a particular experience or event. It should create a whole series of new social sciences unhampered by our skewed logic which has been dominated by nominatives and I’s.

Grammatical experience changes us. In the world of today, there are people at many different stages of grammatical development, and our method offers them the hope of more successful cooperation and understanding. It gives us all a common history, a history aware of timing, and a foundation for a possible peace among men.

***

Rosenstock-Huessy describes the difference between “pre-formal” speech, “formal” speech, and “informal” (or post-formal) speech. Pre-formal speech is akin to animal speech: grunting and growling, pointing and nodding. Formal speech is man’s high speech: the naming of things, ceremonies, political structures. Informal speech is somewhat of a combination of pre-formal and formal, in which we relax things a bit to make it more “low brow”. In formal speech I call my parents Mother and Father; in informal speech I can call them mama and papa. Pronouns are then considered informal speech as well. The informal is founded on the formal.

ERH lists four diseases of speech: war, revolution, decay, and crisis. These diseases arise when speech is no longer possible, or is being suppressed. War occurs when two sides are no longer willing to speak to each other and the tension between them grows to violence. Revolution occurs when a young generation, wanting change, is not yet able to articulate through speech the change it wishes, and so turns to shouting, protests, and violence. Where the young create revolutions, the old create counter-revolutions. The values of the past are held up against the revolution, but they have grown hollow and meaningless. Those praising the old values do not themselves live them out, and haven’t for some time. This leads to decadence and decay. A crisis in society occurs when those with knowledge do not speak to those who have no knowledge — they do not tell them what to do.

Of course all four of these diseases are interrelated. The unwillingness of the revolutionary to respect the “old ways” is countered by the old genaration’s unwillingness to embrace the new. The unwillingness of two parties to speak in war, but yet still willing to speak within their own communities, is met with the unwillingness of the “haves” (re: knowledge) to speak with the “have-nots” within their own communities.

ERH offers remedies to these diseases: to the deafness of war, a willingness to listen; to the incoherent shouting of revolution, the ability to articulate; to the crisis of muteness, a willingness to entrust; and to the decadence of hollow lip service, the rejuvenation of values through new representatives. “If this is true,” ERH writes, “the original character of all language should be connected with man’s victory over these evils.” (Page 17) New speech is generated when one or more of these diseases occurs. In fact, it must if a solution to the disease is to be found.

ERH covers many other topics related to speech in this book. All of it is quite illuminating, and I highly recommend giving it a read. I give the book 5/5 stars.

For a set of notes covering the whole book, click here: ERH Fund, Notes on The Origin of Speech

Related reading…

Past & Future ~ Connected by Speech

The Relevance of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

One Miracle of Speech

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