Wittgenstein on ‘Primitive’ Languages

Roy Harris


Is there anything of value to be salvaged from the notion of ‘primitive’ languages introduced by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations? Setting up ‘primitive’ languages is evidently not an idle jeu d’esprit, but is intended to throw intellectual light on the mechanisms to be found in less ‘primitive’ languages, such as German, English, etc. Wittgenstein seems to have been pondering this idea since at least the early 1930s, since we find references to such languages ‘complete in themselves’ cropping up the Brown Book. There students are already invited to imagine such a language as ‘the entire system of communication of a tribe in a primitive state of society’. But whether we can imagine this is not something that can be taken for granted. It turns out that the linguistic competence required for the operation of a ‘primitive’ language involves rather more than perhaps Wittgenstein realized, at least if its users are to be regarded as engaged in a rational activity, and not merely as humanoid counterparts to Pavlov’s dogs. As presented by Wittgenstein, the simplified semiology of such languages is a hindrance, rather than a help, to understanding the more complex semiology typical of human linguistic communication.


20th century philosophy; linguistics; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; communication; grammar; language; language game; primitive language; rule; Philosophical Investigations

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