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The origin of language as seen by eighteenth-century philosophy

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Abstract

The eighteenth century constituted a &#8220;turning point&#8221; in our intellectual tradition: the question of the origin of languages became a question for &#8220;natural philosophy&#8221; or speculation, which in most cases avoided recourse to religion. This change had solid philosophical bases. By refusing to accept Descartes&#8217; idea that language could be innate, the empiricists were obliged to discuss its initial appearance or, in the most extreme cases, the faculties that make it possible to obtain ideas and form them into coherent representations. Two influential models are contrasted. In the speculative model, the important thing was to establish a plausible scenario on the basis of minimal hypotheses. The origin of languages is a fundamental building block in the formation of knowledge, as we can see in Condillac&#8217;s <i>Trait&#233; sur l&#8217;origine des connaissances</i> (1744). In the historical model, which continued well into the next century, it is the accumulation of knowledge that necessarily stimulated questions about the nature of language and of humanity. In his <i>Monde Primitif Compar&#233; et Analys&#233; avec le Monde Moderne</i> (1773&#8211;1782), Antoine Court de G&#233;belin relied on comparisons between the grammars and vocabularies of the languages of the world, and on the vast progress in phonetics made in the eighteenth century from a physiological and acoustic perspective. Thus, these Enlightenment scholars placed the question of language origin in a new scientific/natural and secular context; they were devoted to increasing knowledge and discussing hypotheses on the basis of an ever-growing body of linguistic data. From this point of view, we are all the heirs of the Enlightenment.

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