VYGOTSKY / Language in Primitive Society


Exquisite detail and design in Native American clothing that shows the wealth of the so-called primitive mind. Edward Curtis, 1923

Exquisite detail and design in Native American clothing demonstrates the wealth of the so-called primitive mind. Edward Curtis, 1923

Much more at: Works of Lev Vygotsky http://www.marxists.org

I’m including these few excerpts because  the description of primitive language and thinking shows a vivid and startling similarity to the visual brain of Asperger individuals.  

The Connection Between Thought and the Development of Language in Primitive Society”

We find that same path of development (memory) in another equally crucial sphere of the psychology of primitive man – language and thought. As in the case of memory, here again it becomes immediately apparent that primitive man is different from civilized man not only in that his language is poorer, cruder and less developed, as it unquestionably is. At the same time, however, the language of primitive man impresses us with its vast wealth of vocabulary. Such languages are so very difficult to learn and understand primarily because they far surpass those of civilized peoples in terms of the wealth, abundance and luxuriance of various designations completely lacking in our language. Lévy-Bruhl and Pensch rightly point out that there is a close link between these dual characteristics of the language of primitive man and his extraordinary memory. The first thing that impresses about the language of primitive man is precisely the vast wealth of designations at his disposal. Concrete designations pervade such languages; concrete details are expressed by means of a vast quantity of words and expressions. It is my personal experience that communication with social humans is difficult due to the lack of descriptive vocabulary in modern social language. What’s equally frustrating is that the average social human isn’t interested in descriptive language or in the physical environment that requires description. In essence, modern social language leaves visual thinkers without an appropriate language with which to express their rich sensory experience. 

Gatschet writes, “We intend to speak precisely, whereas an Indian draws as he speaks; we classify, he individualizes.” [15] For these reasons, the speech of primitive man, in comparison with our language, truly resembles an endlessly complex, accurate, plastic and photographic description of an event, with the finest details. The development of language is accordingly characterized by a gradual tendency for this enormous abundance of concrete terms to disappear. Yes! Modern social language is so poor in detail and so inflated in empty phrases and clichés – and yet visual concrete thinkers are labeled ‘developmentally disabled!

Tasmanians have no word to designate such qualities as sweet, hot, hard cold, long, short or round. Instead of “hard” they say “like a stone”; instead of “high”, “high legs”; instead of “round”, “like a ball, like the moon”, adding an explanatory gesture. Similarly, on the Bismarck Archipelago there are no words for colors, which are designated in the same way, by naming an object that brings them to mind. This type of language is POETRY, and is retained in modern cultures by a very small group of artists.

According to Powers, “In California, there are no species or breeds. Each oak, each pine, each kind of grass has its own special name.”[17] All of this generates the huge wealth of vocabulary of primitive languages. The Australians have separate names for almost each small part of the human body; for example, instead of “hand” they have several separate words denoting the upper part of the hand, the front of the hand, the right hand, or the left hand etc.

The Maoris have an exceptionally thorough system of nomenclature for the flora of New Zealand, with special names for the male and female trees of certain species. They also have separate names for trees whose leaves change shape at various stages of growth. Coco or Tui birds have four names: two each for the male and the female, depending on the season; there are different word for the tail of a bird, the tail of an animal and that of a fish. There are three word for the call of the parrot, when at rest, angry or frightened.

The Bavenda tribe of South Africa has a special name for each kind of rain. North American Indians also have a huge number of precise, almost scientific definitions for clouds of various shapes and for descriptions of the sky that are quite untranslatable.

Lévy-Bruhl further notes that, “It would be futile to search for anything similar in the European languages.” One tribe, for example, has a special word to denote the sun shining between two clouds. This makes me cry at the paucity of content and connection in modern society. It is almost impossible to count the number of nouns in such languages. One of the northern primitive people., for example, has a host of terms for the different species of reindeer. There is a special word for a reindeer aged 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 years; twenty words for ice, eleven for the cold, forty-one for snow in its various forms; and twenty-six verbs for freezing and thawing, etc. It is for this reason that they oppose the attempt to make them change from their own language to Norwegian, which they find too poor in this regard.” This also accounts for the vast number of proper nouns given to the most different objects.

Among the Maoris of New Zealand, each thing has its own proper noun. Their boats, houses, weapons, even their clothes – every single object is given its own name. All of their lands and roads have their own names, as do the shores around the islands, horses, cows, pigs, even trees, cliffs and springs. In southern Australia every mountain range and every mountain has its own name. The native knows the precise name of each individual hill, so it would seem that the geography of primitive man is far richer than our own. In the Zambezi region, each piece of higher ground, each hill, knoll and peak in a range, just as each spring, plain or meadow, and each area and place is known by a special name. As Livingston observed, it would take an entire lifetime to decipher the meaning of each of these names. Such a wealth of vocabulary is directly dependent on the concreteness and preciseness of the language of primitive man. His language corresponds to his memory and his mentality. He photographs and reproduces all of his experience just as precisely as he memorizes it. He does not know how to express himself abstractly and conventionally, as does civilized man.


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