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The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski
Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
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Jan 30, 2003

Inspired by a thread on JL Borges may I quote the Master:

... \"The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.\" -

Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to \"El otro, el mismo.\"

Anthropoetics 5, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1999)

The Little Bang: The Early Origin of Language

Colloquium on Violence and Religion, Atlanta, June 1999

Eric Gans

Department of French

University of California, Los Angeles


...According to the late hypothesis, the first speakers were the so-called

Cro-Magnons, Homo sapiens genetically identical with ourselves. The late

hypothesis could therefore be maintained only if one assumed that our modern

brain and speech-production apparatus could have evolved independently of

language. In this case, language would arise as what Stephen Gould calls an

\"exaptation,\" a mere accidental byproduct of the interaction between

cognitive evolution and pre-linguistic communication systems. (Chomskian

linguists are fond of this position because it seems to justify their idea

of a \"language module\" evolving independently of any overt human behavior.)

In contrast, the originary hypothesis presupposed that language as the first

human act would arise among creatures with no prior brain and vocal tract

adaptations and would itself drive their acquisition of these adaptations.

This is the logic of all evolutionary modifications; the first ancestor of

the whale to take to the ocean would not have had fins designed in advance

for this contingency.

Yet, despite all this, I was attracted to the late hypothesis ...

A possible cure for my dissociation was the compromise hypothesis proposed

by Derek Bickerton, one of the major figures in the study of language

origin. Bickerton is best known for his 1981 book, The Roots of Language...

Thus the emergence of syntactically mature language as we know it, which

Bickerton situates at the time of late origin around 50,000 years ago, would

have reflected evolutionary developments in the brain that were realized in

language all at once in some inexplicable final mutation...The fact that no

intermediate forms of language exist today is no more proof that modern

syntax emerged all at once than the absence of intermediate forms between

lizards and snakes proves that the latter lost their legs all at once. Even

if all modern languages derive from a common ancestor spoken around 50,000

years ago, there is no need to assume that this Ursprache itself emerged in

a single mutational leap beyond primitive pidgin-type languages. Students of

sign language suggest persuasively that the link may be provided by gesture.

Today I have emerged from my dissociative state; I accept the theory of

early origin and reject that of late origin... The originary hypothesis is

an attempt to come to grips with the most salient truth about human

language: that language as we know it, the language of the sign rather than

the signal, represents not a gradual development of animal communication but

a radical break from it. When I wrote The Origin of Language, I was aware of

no other researcher who took this position. Even today, most writers on the

subject have not yet grasped the difficulty it poses. Bickerton and Terrence

Deacon-whose ideas on the subject I will discuss shortly-are virtually alone

even now in treating this radical break as a problem for evolutionary

theory. ...

The core of the originary hypothesis is not the hunting scenario I have

suggested as the scene of the origin of language but the simple affirmation

that there was an event, a minimally unique scene of origin of the human

defined by language. The originary hypothesis proposes that the linguistic

sign, unlike all previous modes of information transfer, from the

persistence of subatomic structures through the genetic code to the

evolution of signal systems among mammals, depends neither on hard-wired

connections nor on learned associations but on the memory of a historically

specific founding event. Animals learn from the past and plan for the

future, but only humans experience events. ...

Taking a position for the early origin of language sharpens the radical

implications of the originary hypothesis that were mitigated by leaving the

moment of origin indeterminate. The originary scene of which we speak must

be the origin not just of language but of all the fundamental categories of

the human. If we are permitted to retain in our imagination the images of

our Cro-Magnon ancestors hunting mammoth, burying their dead, and creating

cave-paintings, statuettes, and carved bone tools, it becomes much easier to

conceive a scene of origin in which all the categories of human culture have

their common root. If, on the contrary, we reject any such imagery and

accept that the first moment of language must have taken place among

creatures not yet adapted to it in either brain nor behavior, who looked and

behaved more like bipedal apes than humans, whose very first \"word\" may well

have been a gesture lacking any phonic component, then we are forced to face

up to just how radical our hypothesis really is. But far from putting the

entire enterprise in doubt, the striking rapprochement between this minimal

formulation of the originary hypothesis and the conclusions of recent

scientific research make it not only plausible but even, I regret to say,

almost respectable. ...

If human monogenesis seems uncomfortably close to the Biblical creation of

man, it is because the Biblical narrative expresses, in however unscientific

a form, a truth of human origin that science has not yet faced up to: that

it must have taken place in and as an event. The origin of the sign is the

origin of a new symbolic consciousness, and this consciousness, even in its

most rudimentary form, could not have emerged unconciously.

What does it mean to say that the origin of language was a \"speciation

event\"? Clearly the genetic constitution of the participants themselves was

not modified. But from this modest but not imperceptible beginning, the

creators of the new symbolic culture separated themselves off from other

bands of hominids who did not have such a culture. The advantage of this

culture that fashioned our ancestors into a new species was, to cite the

one-sentence formula of the originary hypothesis, that culture effects \"the

deferral of violence through representation.\" There are two complementary

elements in the hypothesis that scientific research has not yet assimilated:

the origin of the human sign in an event, and the function of the sign as

the representation of the sacred, which is, as Girard has taught us, the

externalization of the human potential for self-destructive mimetic

violence. We cannot understand the one without the other. For the sign to

commemorate an event as the origin of the human community, this event must

be both absolutely and minimally memorable. I will speak in a moment about

its minimality. But its memorability implies the absolute necessity of the

event for the group\'s survival, which is to say, the deferral of its mimetic

self-destruction and its establishment as a human community.

This does not mean that all other groups of hominids who did not create

language or adopt it from those who did were destroyed by internal conflict.

Because the language users, who were also culture users, had at their

disposal a more stable bulwark against internal violence, they were able to

acquire more potent and potentially dangerous means of violence. Such means

include not only improved weaponry but more elaborate ethical structures

involving differential roles protected by laws, including the marriage laws

that characterize all human societies and that are often referred to in

rather misleading terms either as \"incest prohibitions\" or as rules for the

\"exchange of women.\" Human societies governed by sacred interdictions could

withstand mimetic pressures that in non-human societies would lead either to

breakdown in violence or to the abandonment of communal unity. Hence over

the course of generations the neo-humans would inevitably absorb, kill off,

or drive away their prehuman rivals.

Understood in this manner, early origin only strengthens the originary

hypothesis. The idea that the members of a society that evolved apparently

little over hundreds of thousands of years would have had \"nothing to talk

about\" is true only if we think of language as primarily a means of

conveying information about the world. But if we understand it as first and

foremost a means of deferring violence through the designation of a sacred

mediator, then it becomes perfectly plausible that it could evolve very

slowly without lacking in functionality at any stage. Ritual activity, like

artistic activity, always contains information about the world, but this

information is subordinate to the human order it subserves. As the brain

became increasingly adapted to language, language itself could become

increasingly complex both in vocabulary and in syntax. The complexity of

society could not overstep the limits of the symbolic culture of which

language was the formal underpinning, but the existence of such a culture

would continually move natural selection in the direction of the

language-culture adaptation, with more complex and efficient social orders

continually driving out, killing off, or absorbing their rivals.

Nor, incidentally, does the fact that language reached maturity with the

fully evolved Cro-Magnon brain imply that language since that time has

remained in a steady state. This Chomskian dogma, reinforced by the fear of

appearing to acquiesce in the colonialist stigmatization of \"primitive\"

languages, has only recently been breached. We know of no \"primitive\"

languages; given the appropriate lexicon, all extant and historically

attested languages are equally capable of expressing all thoughts. But, as

Bernard Bichakjian has observed, all languages of whose historical

development we are aware have evolved irreversibly from a more to a less

highly inflected state (for example, from Latin to French) and, in

general-this is Bichakjian\'s major thesis-in the direction of being

assimilable by children at an increasingly early age.

What is not explained by this attractive hypothesis is, if Bickerton\'s

creole studies demonstrate that we \"naturally\" adopt a subject-verb-object

word-order-based syntax, and if, as Bichakjian observes, children learn this

type of language more easily than any other, why the older generation of

languages was so highly inflected. I would suggest that this gives credence

to the idea that language was, until the relatively recent time of the

cultural take-off that inspired the late origin hypothesis, designed

specifically (which does not mean consciously) to be difficult for

children-or adults-to learn. Vestiges of linguistic initiation rites remain

in the institutions of religiously oriented language instruction in our own

society-Church Latin for Catholics, Biblical Hebrew for Jews, Koranic Arabic

for Moslems, not to speak of the sacrosanct Latin and Greek of Eton and

Oxford. The take-off itself, rather than being attributable to our sudden

acquisition of a \"syntax module,\" is perhaps preferably explained in the

inverse fashion as a product of the final liberation of language from the

strict confines of the sacred and its extension to more general social


...I would like to suggest how, thus situated, the hypothesis provides the

key to beginning the arduous process of integrating the humanities,

including religious thinking, with the social sciences.

Let me begin by saying a few words about an important book that appeared in

1997, Terrence Deacon\'s The Symbolic Species. Deacon is a neuroscientist

whose presentation of the emergence of human language is founded on ongoing

research into the structure and evolution of the brain; but unlike most

laboratory scientists, Deacon also has a real grasp of the relevant

anthropological issues. He is keenly aware of the qualitative difference

between human language and animal systems, a difference that he expresses in

the terms of Charles S. Peirce as that between indexical signs-those learned

through association with their object, as in Pavlov\'s famous experiment

where a dog is taught to make the ringing of a bell an \"index\" of the

presence of food-and the symbolic signs of language, which are, as Saussure

called them, \"arbitrary\" because their reference to a worldly object is

mediated through a sign-system in which the signs are interrelated with each

other. Finally, whereas Bickerton views language and thinking strictly from

the perspective of the individual speaker, even refusing Chomsky-like to

define language as a mode of communication, Deacon is sensitive to

language\'s communal nature.

Deacon\'s central point, that the human brain with its unusually large

prefrontal cortex evolved as a result of language rather than being the

cause of its emergence, is not new, although it has never before been

presented in such persuasive detail. But in the domains of greatest concern

to the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, Deacon\'s work makes a number of

decisive advances. His knowledge of the brain\'s \"Darwinian\" internal

structure-dictated not by a genetic blueprint but by the \"survival of the

fittest\" synapses-frees him from the monolithic Chomskian view of syntax to

which Bickerton\'s double-emergence theory still pays tribute. Above all,

Deacon dismisses the traditional \"pragmatic\" scenarios for language origin

and comes very close to my own originary hypothesis.

Deacon\'s explanation for the origin of symbolic representation begins with

the dependency of proto-human societies on meat, procured by all-male

hunting and scavenging parties whose activities would oblige them to be away

from home for long periods of time. Under such circumstances, these

societies would be highly motivated to maintain female fidelity by creating

a symbolic bond of marriage as opposed to the merely \"associative\" bond of

animal monogamy. Such symbolic reinforcement would have clearly advantageous

effects on reproductive fitness, the driving force of evolution.

Deacon\'s reasoning, amazingly daring and subtle by the standards of the

social sciences, does not lead him to propose an originary event as such.

But his discussion includes many key components of such an event:

meat-eating and sharing as essential to proto-human survival

the difficult necessity of maintaining peace among members of the male hunting group

the necessity that hunters refrain from eating their prey on the spot but bring it home to their mates and offspring

the first sign as functioning to establish an ethical insitution

the collective nature of the meanings of language

the reinforcement of symbolic reference through ritual

If we combine these six points in a scene of ritually repeated

renouncement-followed-by-division, mediated by the sign, of the meat of the

sacred animal/victim, we have, for all intents and purposes, the generative

hypothesis of the origin of language.

Reading Deacon\'s book aroused in me mixed feelings. ...

...If human monogenesis seems uncomfortably close to the Biblical creation

of man, it is because the Biblical narrative expresses, in however

unscientific a form, a truth of human origin that science has not yet faced

up to: that it must have taken place in and as an event. The origin of the

sign is the origin of a new symbolic consciousness, and this consciousness,

even in its most rudimentary form, could not have emerged unconciously. ...

(More about Eric Gans and generative anthropology can be found at:

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-31 11:30]

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
A must in language acquisition Jan 31, 2003

Language Acquisition

Steven Pinker

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Chapter to appear in L. R. Gleitman, M. Liberman, and D. N. Osherson (Eds.),

An Invitation to Cognitive Science, 2nd Ed. Volume 1: Language. Cambridge,

MA: MIT Press.



\"Human Uniqueness. A related question is whether language is unique to

humans. At first glance the answer seems obvious. Other animals

communication with a fixed repertoire of symbols, or with analogue variation

like the mercury in a thermometer. But none appears to have the

combinatorial rule system of human language, in which symbols are permuted

into an unlimited set of combinations, each with a determinate meaning. On

the other hand, many other claims about human uniqueness, such as that

humans were the only animals to use tools or to fabricate them, have turned

out to be false. Some researchers have thought that apes have the capacity

for language but never profited from a humanlike cultural milieu in which

language was taught, and they have thus tried to teach apes language-like

systems. Whether they have succeeded, and whether human children are really

\"taught\" language themselves, are questions we will soon come to.

Language and Thought. Is language simply grafted on top of cognition as a

way of sticking communicable labels onto thoughts (Fodor, 1975; Piaget,

1926)? Or does learning a language somehow mean learning to think in that

language? A famous hypothesis, outlined by Benjamin Whorf (1956), asserts

that the categories and relations that we use to understand the world come

from our particular language, so that speakers of different languages

conceptualize the world in different ways. Language acquisition, then, would

be learning to think, not just learning to talk.

This is an intriguing hypothesis, but virtually all modern cognitive

scientists believe it is false (see Pinker, 1994a). Babies can think before

they can talk (Chapter X). Cognitive psychology has shown that people think

not just in words but in images (see Chapter X) and abstract logical

propositions (see the chapter by Larson). And linguistics has shown that

human languages are too ambiguous and schematic to use as a medium of

internal computation: when people think about \"spring,\" surely they are not

confused as to whether they are thinking about a season or something that

goes \"boing\" -- and if one word can correspond to two thoughts, thoughts

can\'t be words. (...)

It is tempting to think that if language evolved by gradual Darwinian

natural selection, we must be able to find some precursor of it in our

closest relatives, the chimpanzees. In several famous and controversial

demonstrations, chimpanzees have been taught some hand-signs based on

American Sign Language, to manipulate colored switches or tokens, and to

understand some spoken commands (Gardner & Gardner, 1969; Premack & Premack,

1983; Savage-Rumbaugh, 1991). Whether one wants to call their abilities

\"language\" is not really a scientific question, but a matter of definition:

how far we are willing to stretch the meaning of the word \"language\".

The scientific question is whether the chimps\' abilities are homologous to

human language -- that is, whether the two systems show the same basic

organization owing to descent from a single system in their common ancestor.

For example, biologists don\'t debate whether the wing-like structures of

gliding rodents may be called \"genuine wings\" or something else (a boring

question of definitions). It\'s clear that these structures are not

homologous to the wings of bats, because they have a fundamentally different

anatomical plan, reflecting a different evolutionary history. Bats\' wings

are modifications of the hands of the common mammalian ancestor; flying

squirrels\' wings are modifications of its rib cage. The two structures are

merely analogous: similar in function.

Though artificial chimp signaling systems have some analogies to human

language (e.g., use in communication, combinations of more basic signals),

it seems unlikely that they are homologous. Chimpanzees require massive

regimented teaching sequences contrived by humans to acquire quite

rudimentary abilities, mostly limited to a small number of signs, strung

together in repetitive, quasi-random sequences, used with the intent of

requesting food or tickling (Terrace, Petitto, Sanders, & Bever, 1979;

Seidenberg & Petitto, 1979, 1987; Seidenberg, 1986; Wallman, 1992; Pinker,

1994a). This contrasts sharply with human children, who pick up thousands of

words spontaneously, combine them in structured sequences where every word

has a determinate role, respect the word order of the adult language, and

use sentences for a variety of purposes such as commenting on interesting


This lack of homology does not, by the way, cast doubt on a gradualistic

Darwinian account of language evolution. Humans did not evolve directly from

chimpanzees. Both derived from common ancestor, probably around 6-7 million

years ago. This leaves about 300,000 generations in which language could

have evolved gradually in the lineage leading to humans, after it split off

from the lineage leading to chimpanzees. Presumably language evolved in the

human lineage for two reasons: our ancestors developed technology and

knowledge of the local environment in their lifetimes, and were involved in

extensive reciprocal cooperation. This allowed them to benefit by sharing

hard-won knowledge with their kin and exchanging it with their neighbors

(Pinker & Bloom, 1990).

Humans evolved brain circuitry, mostly in the left hemisphere surrounding

the sylvian fissure, that appears to be designed for language, though how

exactly their internal wiring gives rise to rules of language is unknown

(see the Chapter by Zurif). The brain mechanisms underlying language are not

just those allowing us to be smart in general. Strokes often leave adults

with catastrophic losses in language (see the Chapter by Zurif, and Pinker,

1994a), though not necessarily impaired in other aspects of intelligence,

such as those measured on the nonverbal parts of IQ tests. (...)

More interestingly, there are syndromes showing the opposite dissociation,

where intact language coexists with severe retardation. These cases show

that language development does not depend on fully functioning general

intelligence.\" Much more:

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-31 16:30]

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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Another perspective Feb 8, 2003

Consciousness, Communication, Speech

- A Condensed View of the Origins of Language -

Walter Koch

Professor Emeritus of English philology

and General Semiotics

Ruhr University

The following bits of thought are to outline a general framework for reconstructing the \'origin\' of language. More particularly, they will dissuade us from indulging in \"single step\" or \"big bang\" kinds of theory. The evolution of language needs many modes and many stages. We should more properly speak of the \"origins\" of language. And, even more specifically, one of the decisive substeps in the evolution of modern oral language is - contrary to widespread theories - proposed to be a trendsetting innovation in the lexicon, rather than in syntax. (...)

11. Evolution of the Lexicon. While it seems obvious that word-like units in pantomime and gestures should be imbued with iconicity, the iconic quality of words in vocal language is held to be of a peripheral kind. Oral language, and, by extension, language in general, is thought to be essentially of an arbitrary nature.[38] My hypothesis is that no mode of language, be it pantomimic, gestural or vocal, creates its words without an iconizing motivation. In order to lend plausibility to this hypothesis I would need quite a few pages. I have to cut my story very short here.[39]

I claim that it is highly likely that ultimately any word or morpheme in any language can be traced back to some iconic etymology. Humans have evolved three primary successive design schemes for word formation: 1. the ta ta scheme (as in words like mama or papa), 2. the bow wow scheme (as in words like cuckoo or bow wow), 3. the ding dong scheme (as in words like weeny, teeny, tiny). Fig. 8 discusses a particular ding dong root (which may be about 30,000 years old), namely, ºKUNA, ºKONA This supposedly ancient homo-sapiens-sapiens root was related to such meanings as \"woman\", \"to give birth to\", \"knee\", i.e. \"the joint in the leg\" etc. Ding dong is the latest and most powerful \"sound-symbolic\" scheme to evolve. It consists in translating a visual sensory stimulus into an auditive motor response. Let us concentrate on the visual scheme I,1 in Fig. 8: An outstretched limb (or more abstractly, a linear segment) tends to be manifested by the consonantal sequence \'kt\' or \'tk\'. The basis of observation is the actogenesis of language (experiments[40] on sound symbolism, interpretation of various types of onomatopoeia in different types of language etc.), ontogenesis (baby talk, \"first words\"[41]) etc. Perceptual schemata that include an \"IN-part\", i.e. a \"joint\" or \"pivot\", have in their vocal equivalent a nasal consonant: n. Protowords such as ºKANAT, ºKUNA, ºKONA, ºGUNA, ºANKA are iconically suitable to render such concepts as \"knee\", \"haunch\", \"finger\", \"chin\", and, by extension, \"angle\", \"anger\", \"queen\", \"gynecology\", \"gene\", \"genesis\" etc. - note that these present-day words have somehow kept the ancient K + N. Fig. 8 lists a series of words containing ºKUNA.ANKA etc. as their deep etymologies. Of course, for normal speakers most modern words have become entirely opaque or arbitrary. But the point is that, at the time of their initial invention, roots were iconic. Thus, the starting-point of our root/concept was some such idea as \"the flexing of a limb\" which, through \"(pressing one\'s) knees\", \"giving birth to\"[42] led to words such as Greek \'gyne\' (long e), Russian zhena, Gothic qino - all meaning \"woman\" - and, of course, also to English quean and queen. Similar roots for \"woman\" can be found in all language phyla of the world.[43] It is highly probable that human vocabularies during the Würm glaciation should have been fairly transparent and iconic. - It goes without saying that there is a specific rationale for the powerful translation trick of the ding dong scheme - which we cannot go into now. (...)

15. Mosaic for the Reconstruction of the Evolution of Language. We will focus on vocal (Fig. 11: v) language, with pantomime and gesture (g) lingering in the background. Fig. 11 shows a reduced format of a mosaic. (A real mosaic should include eco-factors such as social structure, habitat etc.). In the horizontal dimension we have 5 design levels. In the vertical we have 10 design schemes. The first design scheme is called pooh pooh. It is typical of prehuman primates. Its vocalizations are mainly limbic, not cortical. Its communication situation is \"To Whom It May Concern\". There are no definite phonic segments. Syntax is rudimentary in that two phases (Focus (F) and Comment (C)) are merged into one (vocal) call: thus a particular scream says \"I am here and I am angry\", but in one segment. Primate calls are indexical. The next scheme sets in 2 mya. Homo habilis engages in vocal bla bla. It is the equivalent to ontogenetic \"babbling\". Phonic segments emerge, likewise intonation and, especially, face-to-face communication. Protowords resemble primate calls. There is nothing but index. However, the repetitive staccato rhythm of babbling and cooing conveys an emotional-cognitive atmosphere of mutual attention. Phonation becomes more cortical. It becomes regular and syllabic.[54] The mother-infant dyad is the cradle for vocal communication. There is an eco-chain of coevolving factors: Ice-age climate[55] > neoteny[56] and neophily[57] > mother-infant dyad[58] (cf. Fig. 3). While adults probably used pantomime and gestural communication, mother and infant evolved, in their specific emotional-cognitive niche, a vocal strategy which slowly developed one new scheme after the other, until, about 100 kya, the ding dong scheme proved very flexible and was subsequently admitted to the adult sphere. What made ding dong so successful? The preceding schemes made auditive copies of auditive stimuli. ding dong enables humans to copy visual stimuli (i.e. 95 per cent of perception) via the auditive. Phonic acuity becomes extreme. Vowel contrasts enter into the picture: phases of referents come into focus: \"ding\" and \"dong\" etc. Syntax remains iconic in that thematic roles are copied from the cognitive; the standard word order could have been: patient + action + agent. In the course of the following schemes, vocal communication leaves the mother-infant niche behind and becomes more and more integrated into adult communication. Words and sentences lose more and more of their iconicity as soon as texts become longer and the repertoires of word and sentence types grow more numerous (cf. \"convention\" - scheme VIII -). Iconicity becomes the preserve of higher cultural units such as poetry, mythology, while symbolicity (bought cheaply from the mere erosion of icons) has the advantage of a greater range for the collocation of segments. Thus, in contrast to BICKERTON, I assume that the phonic takeover of syntax was relatively undramatic. And symbolic syntax was thus relatively late. BICKERTON\'s main units participating in the crucial step from \"protolanguage\" to language, namely \"phonetic structure\", \"theta rules\" and \"conceptual structure\", constitute themselves crucial innovations which emerge at fairly different times, namely in bla bla and in ding dong, respectively, while the quality of conventionality, in BICKERTON\'s view indirectly the main asset of both syntax and lexicon, is again evolving as a separate phenomenon.

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David Sirett
Local time: 05:49
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Should you post such long 'excerpts'? Feb 9, 2003


Anthropoetics 5, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1999)

The Little Bang: The Early Origin of Language

Colloquium on Violence and Religion, Atlanta, June 1999

Eric Gans

Department of French

University of California, Los Angeles



Here is a statement from the page you cite:

\"Anthropoetics subscribers may copy or download this text from the network, but its distribution or publication shall constitute an infringement of the Author\'s copyright.\"

I\'m no expert on copyrights and intellectual property, but I have a feeling the \'excerpts\' you post are rather too long to satisfy any \'fair use\' or other applicable criterion!


David Sirett

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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Thanks for pointing it out, David Feb 10, 2003


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