Bodily Mimesis and the Transition to Speech

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapter


The chapter reviews evidence for the bodily mimesis hypothesis, which states that the evolution of language was preceded by an adaptation for improved volitional control of the body, giving our ancestors advantages in the domains of imitation, empathy, and gestural communication. Much of this evidence is also shared by other gesture-first theories of language origins, but they face the problem of explaining the "switch" from a gestural (proto) language to a spoken one. The bodily mimesis hypothesis fares better with this objection, since it (a) emphasizes the non-conventionality and non-systematicity of bodily mimetic signaling, (b) posits a long biocultural spiral of conventionalization and adaptation for speech, and (c) insists that the transition to speech should be seen as only partial. Following Brown (2012), a cognitive-semiotic explanation can further be given as to why speech has eventually taken on increasingly higher communicative load: Vocalization is intrinsically less capable of iconic representation, and given a multimodal gestural-vocal communicative signal, the vocal element is bound to eventually take on the role of symbolic representation, involving higher levels of conventionality and systematicity.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Languages and Literature


  • Cognitive semiotics, Conventionalization, Gesture, Iconicity, Intersubjectivity, Mimesis, Multimodality, Speech, Symbols
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Evolution of Social Communication in Primates: A Multidisciplinary Approach
EditorsMarco Pina, Nathalie Gontier
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-02668-8 (Print), 978-3-319-02669-5 (Online)
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Publication categoryResearch

Publication series

ISSN (Print)2199-3068