Invited Speaker: Prof Adam Kendon


Semiotic and Modality Diversity in Languaging: Implications for Some Debates about Language Origins

Adam Kendon

University of Cambridge and University College London

In language origins discussions the debate between “gesture firsters” and “speech firsters” has arisen because all involved think of  “language” as an abstract semiotic system, monomodalic in its realisation: either kinesic (sign/gesturaI) or oral-aural (speech). The “gesture firsters” think that humans must have “switched” from sign language to spoken language, but cannot well explain how or why this happened. The “speech firsters”, while they have no “switch” problem, largely ignore gesture use and have yet to integrate sign languages into any language origins scenario. However, close observation of a person engaged in languaging shows that there is always at play an orchestrated diversity of articulations and semiotic processes (languaging is multimodal!). This must always have been so. Over the eons during which capacities and methods of symbolic or referential communication elaborated, a differentiation into partially separated specialised systems took place. “Language” as conceived of since Saussure, for example, is one such specialisation. The question of its origin can be re-cast as a question about the processes of differentiation and specialisation which, it will be seen, are as much the outcome of social processes as they are of processes of biology.