Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2010

2 - Figuring it out: the origin of language and anthropomorphism



Jean-Jacques Rousseau begins the second chapter of his Essai sur l'origine des langues (1753) with a meditation on the invention of speech. He maintains that we often misconstrue the fundamental character of the origin of language by mistaking the primacy of passionate poetry for a more rational geometry: ‘The language of the first men is put before us as though it were the languages of Geometers, while we see that they were the languages of Poets. This must have been so. We did not begin by reasoning but by feeling.’ This assertion about the pre-eminence of the poetic is part of a longer story about the broken origins of language and Romanticism. This chapter is, in part, about that story. It shifts our attention from linguistic-architectonic fragmentation (the Babelian tower) to a tropological linguistic fracture, namely anthropomorphism. This provides us with a different case study of how fracture is a particularly powerful notion through which to grasp Romanticism. Within the context of this larger framework, the chapter begins by asking how and why the origin of language and poetry are so often identified with one another. The figural and conceptual strategies employed by Romantic poets, rhetoricians, and philosophers who advocate this conjunction reveal that the fracturing trope of anthropomorphism occupies a special place in the field of linguistic theory and historiography. Anthropomorphism emerges not ‘just’ as a rhetorical figure, but as a linguistic move with deep philosophical implications.