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  • Cited by 6
  • Print publication year: 2000
  • Online publication date: November 2009

8 - The Role of Mimesis in Infant Language Development: Evidence for Phylogeny?


Donald (1991, 1993, 1998) has proposed an imaginative evolutionary scenario involving a preverbal ‘mimetic’ stage of symbolic culture. Although nonverbal symbolic expression continues to play an important role in human mental life today (in art, athletics, crafts, social ritual, theater), it tends to be overlooked due to the vastly more salient role of verbal symbols. Donald characterises mimesis as the ability to reproduce or reenact an event or activity, in order to consider it, analyse it, preserve it in memory, recall it at will, compare it with other events, and refer to it at will, i.e. to communicate it to others – all without the use of language.

Such a symbolic capacity in the preverbal predecessors of Homo sapiens would have prepared the way for the relatively rapid development of language as a consequence of the later descent of the larynx and subsequent vocal tract changes that made the phonetic production of speech as we now know it physiologically possible. The goal of the present chapter is to think through the possible relevance, for Donald's concept of an evolutionary stage of preverbal symbolic communication or mimesis, of what is currently understood regarding the biological, social and individual origins of language in the child, bearing in mind the considerable differences in principle between the problems of phylogeny as against ontogeny.

Mimesis as Donald describes it involves a sophisticated ‘modeling’ of bodily posture, expression, and gesture.