The Origin Of Speech

by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Argo, 1981.

“What is the origin of speech?” is a perennial and unanswerable question. In this book, Rosenstock-Huessy uses this riddle as a starting point for an inquiry into the essential features of human speech that people in modern times have tended to disfavor or take for granted. Counter to the intuitions of modern personalism, Rosenstock-Huessy says that real speech, speech capable of transforming lives, must have been in its origin, and still today, formal speech whereby strangers can be assembled, oriented, and sent forth in trust to pool their energies to create durable order and remarkable change. Intimate chitchat and everyday common sense, argues Rosenstock-Huessy, can be nothing more than the residue left behind by formal speaking and the “uncommon sense” of political agreements and multi-generational social projects.

The Origin of Speech declares that human beings require rituals and tangible signs that they live in an orderly universe over which they possess some control. In the process of exerting power through speech, people invariably create both the past and the future as the locations of society’s hopes and fears. Ominously, Rosenstock-Huessy points out that the modern mentality has consistently preferred the informal to the formal, the abstract to the ritualistic, and numerical impartiality to personal address, and hence has forfeited the sources of a “grammatically healthy” community.

The Origin of Speech is Rosenstock-Huessy’s longest sustained essay currently available in English on the subject of speech. Communication scholars and linguists concur: no other writer has approached the problem of formality in language with the fresh insights to be found in The Origin of Speech.

Paperback, 160 pages.