LINGUIST List 6.520

Thu 06 Apr 1995

Sum: Sturtevant on lying & the origin of language

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Larry Horn, Summary: Sturtevant on lying & the origin of language

Message 1: Summary: Sturtevant on lying & the origin of language

Date: Tue, 04 Apr 95 11:47:39 EDSummary: Sturtevant on lying & the origin of language
From: Larry Horn <>
Subject: Summary: Sturtevant on lying & the origin of language

Content-Length: 3537

Thanks to those who responded--John Limber, Joanne Sher Grumet, Geoff Nathan,
Dan (Moonhawk) Alford, and especially Karl Teeter, Victor Golla, Julia Falk,
and Becky Moreton, all of whom located the relevant citation in E. H. Sturte-
vant's "Introduction to Linguistic Science (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1947),
pp. 48-9. (That was why I couldn't find it in Sturtevant's Linguistic Change.)
Mea culpa!
 Sturtevant develops his argument through reconstructing two prehistoric
scenarios, one involving a blueberry-gathering mother who, feeling languid one
day, deceives her child by making as if to reach for berries she has no inten-
tion of picking, and the other involving a man who deceives his mate (whom he
has previously battered into submission) by feigning anger (shaking his fist
at her and so on) to get her to cross the river. (Wonder what Sturtevant's
personal life was like...) It is the voluntary control over these previously
involuntary expressions of intentions and emotions that results in insincerity
and thus language:
 The mother pretended that she was going to pluck berries when she
 had no intentions of doing so, and the man feigned anger which he
 did not feel. All real intentions and emotions got themselves
 expressed involuntarily, and as yet nothing but intention and
 emotion had called for expression. So voluntary communication can
 scarcely have been called upon except to deceive; language must have
 been invented for the purpose of lying. When once the intent to
 communicate had become familiar, men [sic] no doubt renewed or
 intensified the expression of genuine emotion when other men
 approached. Just so children cry louder if they have an audience.
There's a curious footnote that qualifies this claim by noting that non-human
animals (who otherwise don't have much to say) are adept at lying too. He
credits his brother Alfred H. Sturtevant for pointing out to him how blue jays
lie by emitting an alarm cry in the absence of danger "to produce consternation
in their feathered neighbors", how a cock makes a food noise when no food is
present to attract a mate, and how one dog may habitually convince another to
join him in jumping up and barking at a (non-existent) stranger so he could
steal his fellow's mat. But, EHS notes, "apparently this sort of cheating has
had no further development among animals other than man"
 Then there's an extended discussion of how imitation and analogy come into
the picture. Not entirely convincing perhaps ("A man who howled like a wolf
and galloped on all fours was understood to say 'wolf runs'...With this much
accomplished, the development of an elaborate syntax would be only a matter of
time.")--but fun.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue