The mimetic origins of language

Merlin Donald

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 The mimetic origins of language

Show Summary Details


This article focuses on one aspect of a comprehensive theory of human cognitive evolution, and that is mimesis. Mimesis is an embodied, analogue, and primordial mode of representation, in the sense that it is a preadaptation for language and also a self-sufficient cognitive adaptation in its own right, which accounts for some of the major features of human cultural and cognitive life. A mimetic act is a performance that reflects the perceived event structure of the world, and is the purest form of embodied representation. It has three behavioral manifestations that include rehearsal of skill, in which the actor imagines and reproduces previous performances with a view to improving them. Other include re-enactive mime, in which patterns of action, usually of others, are reproduced in the context of play or fantasy, and lastly, non-linguistic gesture, where an action communicates an intention through resemblance. The contents of mimetic acts are observable by others, which makes them a potential basis for a culturally accepted “mimetic” vernacular, enabling members of a group to share knowledge, feelings, customs, skills, and goals, and to create group displays of emotions and intentions that are conventional and deliberate. These types of shared representations seem quite limited, when compared to language, but constitute a powerful means of creating culture and sharing custom, feeling, and intent.

Keywords: mimesis; human cognitive evolution; cognitive adaptation; re-enactive mime; non-linguistic gesture

Article.  1424 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.