'Unravelling Babel': Mary LeCron Foster on the origins of language

Judith R. H. Kaplan
2021 BJHS Themes  
The origin of human language has been a perennial – and perennially controversial – topic in linguistics since the nineteenth century. Much of this work has engaged themes Charles Darwin set out in The Descent of Man, though few authors acknowledge the text directly. How might we interpret such neglect? This essay contends that Darwin's reflections on language challenged foundational commitments in linguistics about the barrier between the history and prehistory of human communication. These
more » ... mitments are thrown into relief through a detailed study of the dissenting symbolic and gestural theory of language origin put forth by Mary LeCron Foster, who rejected doctrines of linguistic arbitrariness and transformational-generative grammar. Her work on the frontier between animal and human communication is presented through a description of her 'phememic' account of the language origins. The paper also emphasizes the rhythm of Foster's career, which provides a significant counterpoint to standard accounts of the development and institutionalization of American linguistics during the twentieth century.
doi:10.1017/bjt.2021.4 fatcat:7na3pbbzrzd25dm6j3olagfyje