Where did language come from? It’s often been described as the fundamental barrier between humans and animals. However, many scientists now believe speech evolved gradually from animal communication. Will Abberley from the University of Oxford argues that some of the most compelling efforts to picture this evolution have been in science fiction, and that these stories still impact on debates about language today.

Link to the BBC Radio 3 podcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04nqtc6



In the Western view, the success of Muhammad’s prophetic mission may be ascribed to social, ideological, or even military, factors. Yet Muslim sources paint a different picture. They emphasize the literary quality of the Qur’an as a decisive factor in the spread of Islam among seventh-century Arabs. They refer to the numerous stories in Muslim literature that recount the overwhelming effect of Qur’an recitation on Muhammad’s contemporaries, tales about people spontaneously converting, crying, screaming, falling into ecstasy, fainting, or even dying, while hearing verses from the Qur’an.


For Muslims, […] the aesthetic fascination with the Qur’an is an integral part of their religious tradition. It is this collective reflection on the aesthetics of the text which specifically defines the religious world of Islam. It is not the aesthetic experience as such -this seems to occur during the reception of any sacred texts. Rather it is the rationalization of aesthetic experience, culminating in a distinct theological doctrine of poetics, the i´jaz, based on the inimitability of the Qur’an. This line of reasoning -highly peculiar from a Christian perspective -involves believing in the Qur’an because the language is too perfect to have been composed by man.

Navid Kermani, ‘Silent Sirens: The language of Islam and how Osama bin Laden betrays it’, The Times Literary Supplement, October 01 2004.



A poet invites, yes calls for, silence;
because he receives the word,
because he remembers.
Truly grotesque,
but silence belongs to poetry,
ever since there have been dictators.
Because silence
is dictatorship’s weapon against the word,
its archenemy.
So we,
in order that our word might outlive dictatorship,
must master both:
our weapon, language,
and the enemy’s weapon, silence.
Our language must make visible the graveyard’s stillness
that dictatorship has produced;
and our silence must not ignore the screams of those who seek to pierce through this stillness.
This seemingly paradoxical situation forces us
into a hazardous balancing act with no net
into a circus ring, where history is the audience.
If we fall,
we sink into the chasm of oblivion,
accompanied by the audience’s jeers;
Lady History always was cruel.

The opening of a speech by SAID, an Iranian-German writer in exile, at a literary symposium entitled ‘Language and Dictatorship’

SAID, Dann schreie ich, bis Stille ist (Tübingen: Heliopolis, 1990), p. 71 [translation by Joseph Twist].


Adorno commenting on Arnold Schönberg’s A Survivor of Warsaw (1947):

The so-called artistic rendering of the naked physical pain of those who were beaten down with rifle butts contains, however distantly, the possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from it.  The morality that forbids art to forget this for a second slides off into the abyss of its opposite.   The aesthetic stylistic principle, and even the chorus’s solemn prayer, make the unthinkable appear to have had some meaning; it becomes transfigured, something of its horror is removed.  By this alone an injustice is done the victims, yet no art that avoided the victims could stand up to the demands of justice.

Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Commitment’, in Can One Live after Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Rodney Livingston and others (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 240-58 (p. 252).


“Literature,” thought of as the interruption of myth, merely communicates – in the sense that what it puts into play, sets to work, and destines to unworking, is nothing but communication itself, the passage from one to another, the sharing of one by the other.  What is at stake in literature is not just literature: in this, it is unlike myth, which communicates only itself, communicating its communion.

[…] literature inscribes being-in-common, being for others and through others.

The Inoperative Community, ed. by Peter Connor, trans. by Peter Conner, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 65-6.