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



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].


Silence can take many shapes. Silence can be touched, sliced, it can be uncomfortable, if experienced for too long,… it can be used as a break to relax and enjoy the company of one’s selves living in one’s body. It very often embodies resistance itself… it can be used as a weapon to break someone’s spirit in a session of torture.

“Torture means severe pain,” they had warned me in our “training sessions” in my political party’s cell… no training session prepared me for this intense pain… my pain… the one I did not choose… all this alienation, this empty vacuum…, my body, my mind, my pain… this is not happening… I am a little speck in the universe… which universe?… the world is not anymore… I am… disintegrating… bit by bit… yell by yell… electrode by electrode…


You yell, you piss yourself and you are saying “it is hurting so much I cannot put it into f****** words!,” because the pain is deeper than flesh and bones; it travels beyond your physical body, into some space within yourself which cannot make meaning of what is happening outside. You say to yourself: “I am losing the only way I have known until now to describe what is going on inside me, I am losing my tongue, I am losing meaning.”

Political activist Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes on being tortured by the Pinochet regime. From Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes and Lynda Birke, ‘Talking With/In Pain: Reflections on Bodies under Torture’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 24:6 (2001), 653-668, pp. 665 and 661.


“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.


I am an idiot by the suppression of thought, by the malformation of thought; I am vacant by the stupefaction of my tongue. […]

All the terms in which I choose to think are for me TERMS in the literal sense of the word, that is, true terminations, borders of my mental          , of all the states to which I have subjected my thinking. I am truly LOCALIZED by my terms, and if I say that I am LOCALIZED by my terms, I means that I do not recognize them as valid in my thought. I am truly paralyzed by my terms, by a series of terminations. And however ELSEWHERE my thought may be at these moments, I have no choice but to bring it out through these terms, however contradictory to itself, however parallel, however ambiguous they may be, or pay the penalty of no longer being able to think. […]

What I lack is words that correspond to each minute of my state of mind.

‘The Nerve Meter’, in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, ed. by Susan Sontag, trans. by Helen Weaver (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 83-84.