Augustine on language acquisition

October 27, 2009

i’m busy studying for my final psychology and linguistics exams, but Augustine is more interesting right now.  This is from Confessions, Book I, Chapter VIII.  Confessions is one of those true gems that i will never tire of reading.

That a child learneth not to speak by rules, but from the gesture and words of his parents.

Passing hence from infancy, I came to boyhood, or rather it came to me, displacing infancy. Nor did that depart,—(for whither went it?)—and yet it was no more. For I was no longer a speechless infant, but a speaking boy. This I remember; and have since observed how I learned to speak. For my elders did not teach me words (as, soon after, other learning) by any set method; but I, longing by cries and broken accents and various motions of my limbs to express my thoughts, that so my will might be obeyed, and yet unable to express all I willed, or to whom I willed, did myself, by the understanding which Thou, my God, gavest me, go through the sounds in my memory. When they named anything, and to suit the word turned towards it, I saw and remembered that the called what they desired to point out by the name they uttered. And that they meant this thing and no other, was plain from the motion of their body, the natural language, as it were, of all people, expressed by the countenance, the glance of the eyes, the movement of the limbs, and the tone of the voice, indicating the affections of the mind, as it purses, possesses, rejects, or shuns. And thus by frequently hearing words, as they occurred in various sentences, I collected gradually for what they were the symbols; and having broken in my mouth to these symbols, I thereby gave utterance to my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me these symbols of our wills in utterance, and so launched deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life, yet depending on parental authority and the beck of elders.