The first biolinguist?
A forgotten (and forgettable) episode in thought about the evolution of human language
In 1930s Germany, Georg Schwidetzky (1875–1952) produced several works attempting to derive modern human languages by reconstruction from the vocalizations of non-human primates. This work was suppressed by other biologists under the Third Reich, not just because both the biology and the linguistics were ridiculously bad, but because Schwidetzky’s views on the origin of races were in conflict with Nazi ideology. While almost comically wrong-headed, there are nonetheless a few parallels between this project and some modern thought about the evolution of language. On the one hand, Schwidetzky stressed the need to think about the evolution of human language in terms of the biological evolution of our species, a branch of Naturwissenschaft, and not a purely humanistic activity, Geisteswissenschaft, as opinion among German linguists of the time saw it. Indeed, he was probably the first to characterize his agenda as the development of Biolinguistik. On the other hand, his attempt to maintain continuity between human language and the communicative vocalizations of non-humans fails to take into account the unique, species-specific character of human language.
Published online: 17 March 2020
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