Language and Giving
Since we use language throughout our daily lives, and
much of our thought takes place in language, it seems obvious that
it would have a strong effect on us--not only as a process
or instrument, but as a model. Language also has the power
of having come from others, from the many. It is a deep
connection that we have with other people in our society. It is an
important part of our socialization as children.
The fact that all human societies have languages does
not have to imply that language is genetically based. There
is something else that all societies have in common: the
caregiving done by mothers. This social constant does not depend so
much upon the biological nature of mothers as upon that of
children, who are born completely dependent. If someone does not
take care of their needs, they will suffer and die. The satisfaction
of their needs must also take place without exchange,
because infants cannot give back an equivalent of what they receive.
Their caregivers are thus forced into what we might call
a kind of functional altruism. Society usually interprets
the biological abilities of women--such as pregnancy, birthing,
and lactation--to assign the role of mother and caregiver to
women. Girls are brought up with the values that allow them to act in
the other-oriented ways necessary for that role.
If we look at co-munication as the material nurturing or
free giftgiving that forms the co-munity, we can see the nurturing
that women do as the basis of the co-munity of the family unit.
The nuclear family, especially the relation between mother
and children, is just a vestige of what a community based
on widespread giftgiving may have been at some time in the past,
or could become in the future. The isolation of pockets
of community from each other keeps the gift model weak, while
the scarcity in which most of us are forced to live makes
giftgiving difficult, even self-sacrificial and, therefore, 'unrealistic.'
While material nurturing is made difficult by scarcity, there
is one thing of which we have an unlimited abundance, for
which almost all of us possess the 'means of production.' That
unlimited supply is language, with which we are able to produce
ever-new sentences. Our vocabularies are finite, though almost
infinitely re-combinable. We receive words and sentences free from
other people and give them to others without payment.
Language functions as a sort of free gift
economy.1 We do not recognize it as such, because we do not validate giftgiving in our economic
lives and, in fact, we usually recognize the existence of
nurturing specifically only in the mother-child relation. It, therefore,
does not occur to us to use giftgiving as a term of comparison
for language. With language, we create the human bonds that
we have stopped creating through material co-munication.
Language gives us an experience of nurturing each other in
abundance, which we no longer have--or do not yet have--on the
This idea has led me to think that, if language is what
made humans evolve, perhaps it is the giftgiving-in-abundance
aspect, not the abstract system, that made the difference. If we were
able to reinstate a material giftgiving co-munity, perhaps we
would evolve again, as New Agers and many others hope. In fact,
I believe it is the exchange economy itself that is impeding
The logic of mothering requires that the nurturer
give attention to the needs of the other person. The reward for
this behavior is the well-being of the other. There are many
different kinds of needs, and it is sometimes a challenge to understand
and provide for them. Giving and receiving in an on-going way
create expectations and rewards, a knowledge of the other and of
the good that satisfies the need, a commitment to further caring,
an expectation that it will occur--an on-going relationship.
Each participant is somewhat altered by the experience.
Even when material goods are not available or not
being used, a need for bonding with the other person may still arise.
I would call this a communicative need, a need to bond, a need
for the relationship. Words are the social verbal items that have
been devised to satisfy communicative needs. Since we use words
to satisfy communicative needs regarding something, we
can consider words as gifts. The mother first nurtures her child
with goods and services, but she also nurtures her with words.
The child is actually able to participate in turn-taking with
the mother, verbally giving her communicative gifts before she is
able to give her material gifts.2
Words as Gifts
A question arises here about the materiality of the verbal
gift. Although we can identify a word as a repeatable sound unit,
and it shares this character with other words, it can only be used
for satisfying communicative needs, not for satisfying material
needs directly. The word 'bread' does not satisfy the need to
eat. However, communicative needs can sometimes be
indirectly functional to the satisfaction of material needs. For
example, 'There is bread in the cupboard' can be seen as a service
that helps someone to satisfy her material need for bread. Saying
the word 'bread!' as a request satisfies the listener's need to
know what we want. We could consider the lexicon as a collection
of gifts satisfying different communicative needs. Each word is
a sequence of phonemes, a program of vocal behaviors which
may be identified by the communicative need, or needs, it satisfies.
Boiling an egg is a sequence of behaviors having to do
with various material objects, which satisfies the need to eat a
cooked egg. Saying the word 'egg' is a series of vocal behaviors
which satisfies a communicative need, establishing a relation with
regarding an egg or eggs. The ability to give information
derives from the specification of experience through the use of
these word-gifts, because the relation established is not only to
the words themselves, but to things on other levels of reality, as
well. The ability to receive information based on the use of words
gives those words a value in the satisfaction of material needs, as well
as in the satisfaction of communicative needs.
Whether we should consider word-gifts as goods or as
services is something like the question whether light is made up
of particles or waves. The kinds of communicative needs the
word-gifts satisfy have proliferated to make use of them, much as
the eye and the visual cortex have developed on our planet to
make use of the light. It is useful also to consider the materiality
of words as somewhere between goods and services, because the
gifts on the nonverbal plane which they re-present, may also be
of varying degrees of materiality.
From loving to the color green, from the moon to
capitalism, all kinds of nonverbal things are re-presented by verbal
things, creating verbal co-munication, and the formation of
linguistic, and sometimes of material
co-munities.3 Just as material giftgiving-and-receiving of goods forms the physical bodies of
the people in the community, verbal
giftgiving-and-receiving contributes to their formation as social subjects,
with psychological identities.
Giving and receiving word-gifts organized in sentences
and discourses creates a human relation among people with regard
to things in the world. Communicative need is the need for
the relation to others with regard to something. We cannot
ourselves make the other person relate herself to something. However,
we can interpret her lack of a relation as a need for a means to
relation, and we can satisfy that need--with a word-gift.
The need arises from the circumstances in which people
find themselves, to talk about something. One person gives to
the other word-gifts which re-present (give again) the pertinent
parts of the world. We are social beings, and language allows us
to include others in experiencing the world with us.
If I say, 'Look at the sunset,' I satisfy the need of the
listener to know the sunset is happening, and to know that I think it
is something worth looking at. By providing her with these
words (which she already knows) in the present, I satisfy her need for
a momentary relation to me and to the sunset, which is the same
as my need for a relation to her and the sunset. Presumably, I
would already be perceiving the sunset, so the motivation of my
speech would be to include the other person in that
experience, satisfying what I understand as her need to be put in that
relation. The word 'sunset' has been supplied by the society in general
to everyone, as a word-gift which can be used to
satisfy communicative needs about sunsets.
The listener's creative reception of that word-gift places
her in an inclusive human relation with me and, at the same
time, draws her attention to the sunset, so that we can include
each other, not only with regard to the words, but by relating
ourselves in similar ways through our attention to a shared
nonverbal experience. The relation to the nonverbal experience is also
to some extent a gift, which we usually call 'information.'
While looking at a sunset together can be a positive experience for
both participants and, therefore, a need-satisfying aesthetic
experience, there are many pieces of information which seem
For example, 'I hate you' creates a common relation
between us to my negative emotion towards you. This
emotion is certainly not itself a gift to you, but it is useful to you to know that I have
it and, thus, my phrase could be considered a gift or service in
spite of its negativity. I believe there are many levels of gifts in life,
as in language, but they have been hidden from us, because we
have not been looking at them. We can say positive things to
other and nurture each other in that way, but even when we
say things that are negative or neutral, the listener has many ways
of receiving what has been given to her, transforming them into
gifts by her creative use of them.
The phrase by Karl Marx that I have used on the
frontispiece of this book, "language is practical consciousness that exists
also for other men and for that reason alone it really exists
personally for me as well," identifies a logic of other-orientation as the
logic of communication. It also brings up the second grail
question, "Whom does the Grail serve?" or in simpler terms, "Who is
it for?" This question, always pertinent to giftgiving, often
remains unasked and unanswered in our profit-based society.
General and Particular Processes
One aspect of communication through language is that
it narrows down the range of possible experience at the moment
to a shared present which, of course, may include mention of
other times and places, as well. It often provides a theme or story
line around which we can organize our behavior, revisit and
interpret our experience together. The story line, and the topics of
our conversations, are also gifts of common ground from which
our diverse subjectivities grow.
I believe the way language works is by combining
constant and general items in particular and contingent ways. We
can identify the constant and general items by taking them out of
the flow of speech in naming and definition. Their generality is
in evidence when they stand 'alone' in this way. 'Dogs are
four-legged tail waggers that bark' lets us consider dogs in general
and the word 'dogs' in its generality. However, it is the use of words
by the many in innumerable combinations in particular
sentences that gives them their generality. Words are the common
products of the collective, but so are general communicative needs.
When any 'thing' becomes pertinent or valuable enough
to the many, so that people often need to form inclusive
relations with each other in its regard, a word arises socially to fill
need. If the need to form the inclusive relations is
only contingent and fleeting, we satisfy it by creating a
sentence--combining words that satisfy needs regarding the constant
aspects of the thing or topic. A contingent and fleeting
communicative need can arise regarding any part of on-going experience.
In 'After the storm, the sun made the water drops sparkle,'
a contingent communicative need for a relation with
others regarding a particular transitory situation is satisfied by
combining words, which are also used elsewhere in other sentences
regarding other contingent situations. The elements of those situations
are relevant to the society of verbal communicators repeatedly,
so that a common need arises for a verbal gift that can be given
for them, and a constant word arises to satisfy the
need.4 A single word can also be used to satisfy needs regarding different kinds
of things in homonymy. One kind of 'thing' can become related
to different words in synonymy.
Needs build upon each other, and communicative needs
can arise with regard to verbal as well as to nonverbal contexts. If
the situation giving rise to a contingent communicative need
is complex, we can put together a discourse by
combining sentences, which we use to satisfy a variety of
contingent communicative needs regarding that situation. Sentences
work together in discourses to bring forward a common topic and
to satisfy a variety of communicative needs arising in its regard.
Giftgiving is the Ur-logic
Linguists and philosophers have sometimes thought
of explaining language in terms of underlying logical
structures--either a simpler language, which would still not explain
how language itself works, or some other elementary structure
or process. One such process was that of cause and effect. It
was thought that it might be possible to reduce
subject-verb-object structures to an underlying cause-and-effect structure.
One example that was often used was 'John killed Mary,' which
was given a 'translation' in cause-and-effect terms: 'John caused
Mary to die.' I am often horrified at the (probably
unconscious) hostility to women that can be found in linguists'
examples. Perhaps it is evidence of the guilt they feel in denying
the mothering paradigm (Mary?) as an explanation for
language. Cause-and-effect was found by most linguists not to be
an appropriate process to which to reduce language, perhaps
because it is not informative enough. It certainly does not carry with
it the human relational consequences that giftgiving does.
I am proposing giftgiving as the logical process to which
to reduce language. Not only can words be seen as
need-satisfying gifts, but the syntactic structure of subject, predicate, object
can be seen as deriving from giver, gift (or service), receiver.
For example, in 'The girl hit the ball,' 'girl' is the giver, 'hit' is
the gift, 'ball' is the receiver. The 'translation' would be, 'The
girl gave a hit to the ball.'
The intentionality of giftgiving can be found in many
human actions and in the intentionality of speaking. A sense of
motion and completeness which comes to us from a simple
transitive sentence is similar to the motion and completeness that
take place in giftgiving. In fact, giftgiving is transitive, a motion
of something from one place or person to another. In the
passive sentence 'The ball was hit by the girl,' emphasis is placed on
the receiver rather than the giver of the gift.
Mothering is the necessary social process in the beginning
of life, and this is also the time in which language learning
takes place. Mothering is a cultural universal, required by the
biologynot of adults, but of infants. To each different
culture, mothering must appear simply part of the nature of things but, for
the mothers, the need to nurture is social and its accomplishment
is intentional. Women's ability to give milk is a
biological advantage that makes caretaking more convenient, but they
must do the caretaking in a cultural context within social
parameters. In mothering, there is an intentional transfer of goods
and services from adult to child, from giver to receiver.
This experience is fundamental for children, because their lives depend upon it, and it is important and formative for the caretakers as well--if nothing else, because it is enormously time-consuming. It is not surprising that half of humanity is socialized from birth to do caretaking, because it requires a great deal of attention and commitment. A recent book, The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker,5 attributes our linguistic capacity to a biological endowment. Similarly, mothering was considered instinctual until recently. In both cases, the logic of the gift is what is being covered by denial.
The caretaking situation is more fundamental than the condition of objectivity. The experience of free gifts given by the mother and received by the child is more basic to the human being than is the knowledge of cause and effect. The mother is the giver--her care is the gift or service--and the child is the receiver. This process is laid down when the child is learning language in alignment with a syntactic structure of subject (giver), predicate (gift), object (receiver).6
If words are verbal gifts that satisfy constant social communicative needs, in the structure of an interpersonal speech situation, the speaker would be the giver, the words and sentences the gifts, and the listener the receiver. Sentences are combinations of words, satisfying contingent communicative needs. It would not be far-fetched to think that the word combination process might also take place according to the logic of the gift.
The hypothesis that language is based on giftgiving and receiving allows us to look at many different levels at which they may occur, so that aspects of language which seem to be mysterious can be explained as elements of a gift process at some level. First, there is the level of material co-munication--the mother gives gifts or services to the child. Second, there is verbal
communication--the mother talks to the
child.7 Third, words are social gifts, each satisfying a constant communicative
need. Fourth, words are combined into sentences, which
satisfy contingent communicative needs. Fifth, the message and
the topic may also be considered gifts, as when we satisfy
someone's need to know something or to talk about something. Sixth, at
the level of syntax (within the sentence), the relation
between subject, predicate and object re-traces the relation between
giver, gift, and receiver.
It is important to look at this as a syntactic relation
taking place at the level of words themselves, because at the level
of things the words re-present, the 'gift' may be negative, as in
'The boy hit the girl,' or even 'John killed Mary' (translation:
'John gave death to Mary'). At the level of material
communication, such violence is contradictory and harmful, causing more
grievous needs rather than satisfying needs. Nonetheless, at the level
of sentence structure, the gift process can function
independently from the level of experience. Thus, 'The girl hit the ball,'
'Mother made a cake' and 'John killed Mary' all have the same giver,
gift, receiver sentence structure though on the level of reality, they
are very different events.
At the syntactic level, we can also look at the
relations between adjectives and nouns, adverbs and verbs, as
relations between gifts and receivers. In 'The brown dog ran fast to
the gate,' 'brown' is given to 'dog' and 'fast' to 'ran.' Philosophers
used to say 'brown' was a 'property' of the dog, and fast would be
a 'property' of its running. Brown can be called a 'property'
because . . . it is given to the dog. This happens by allowing the
word 'brown' to modify the word 'dog,' joining them as transposed
gift and receiver in order to satisfy a contingent communicative
need, arising from a dog of that color.
Linguists are used to following a mathematical, algebraic
or scientific model, not a life model--but they still talk about
words 'filling the slots' of other words in a phrase. We could look at
the 'slots' as needs and the words as gifts satisfying them. If a
word can only be related to a specific kind of other words (for
instance, a determiner like 'the' can only be related to nouns), it is a
kind of gift that can be given only to a certain kind of receiver.
Only that kind of receiver has a need ('slot') for it. Some words
or groups of words have to attach themselves to others; they
cannot give their gifts alone, but serve or are served by another group.
For example, 'to the gate' has to serve; it cannot stand
alone. It is not itself a gift transaction, or even a giver, but a gift to a
gift. If bonds are formed between the receiver and the gift, perhaps
we attribute the same process to our words. 'Brown' is given to
'dog' by the speaker for the moment, satisfying the
communicative need arising from a brown dog. 'Dog' receives the gift of
'brown' and bonds with it for the present.
Transparency and Giving-Way
Gifts are given at the verbal level, which interpret 'reality'
by re-presenting it in terms of giftgiving, but they are
actually transparent to experience. In our example, they are transparent
to the dog's being brown (it had that color), bringing it forward
as part of an experience or topic the interlocutors can
share.8 The transparency of the gift structure recalls another characteristic
of giftgiving--the giver gives-way, self-effacing in order to give
value to the receiver. We may, therefore, notice only that what we say
is a gift--as when some information that we transmit is
understood and used by the listener. We do not notice that the way we say
it is a gift process at many levels.
At the 'reality' level, things which could have been gifts
in co-munication give way to the word-gifts which take their
place. They graciously stand aside and let words take over. In fact,
lack of competitiveness makes us forget that many of them
never could have been actually transferred from one person to
another anyway. Abstract ideas, huge material objects, creatures of
fantasy, subjective states, etc. all stand aside with equal
equanimity, allowing their places to be taken and giving value to the
words that take their places.
At another level, the emotions that accompany our
speech, or sometimes the very act of speaking to others, may also be
said to nurture them, creating bonds. However, we do not
usually notice gift structures in language because, in fact, they also
stand aside; they give way in order to give value to what is being
said and to the listener, the receiver of the verbal gifts.
Another reason we do not usually see gift structures is that they
are different from definition-exchange structures, and their levels
are usually not formed the same way. Definition structures
overtake gift structures like military facilities built on women's
The interpretative capacity of giftgiving has been denied
and overtaken by viewing interpretation as a kind of 'penetration'
by the mind. Phrases such as 'the way words are hooked on to
the world' and even 'filling the slots' suggest metaphors of
male sexuality.9 Instead, from a mother-based feminist point of view,
we can see the relation between words and the world as the
relation among gifts at different levels, where reality itself is a gift, all
the way from sense 'data' to experiential givens. The world is
made accessible to humans by the gifts of language at many
different levelsresulting in the sending of messages, the transmission
of ideas and information, and the handing-down of culture. In
fact, from this point of view, we could call our species, not homo sapiens, but homo donans. Giftgiving and receiving are prior to
and necessary for our human way of knowing. They are the basis of
a universal 'grammar,' not only of language, but of life.
Still another level at which we can see giftgiving is that
of logical transitivity. The syllogism upon which the discipline
of logic was founded "If 'A' then 'B,' and if 'B' then 'C,' if 'A'
then 'C' could be seen as the transposition of the transitivity of
the gift: "If 'A' gives to 'B,' and 'B' gives to 'C,' then 'A' gives to
'C.''' Logic, like language, could thus be seen as deriving
from mothering, not from the capacity for abstraction.
Logical connectors (articles, prepositions, parts of speech,
prefixes, suffixes) alter the kinds of gifts that words are, being given
to them and becoming attached to them from time to time
in various ways. The answers to questions about 'how,'
'where,' 'when,' etc. satisfy communicative needs that grow up around
the capacity to give and receive itself.
When an experience being described is not a complete
gift transaction, we may nevertheless use the gift structure to give
our message to the listener: 'The brown dog ran fast to the gate'
is 'intransitive.' The dog is only given ostensively; it
'presents (gives) that behavior' to us to perceive. The
additional information given by 'to the gate' increases the useful character
of the sentence by saying where the running behavior was
directed. 'To the gate' serves 'ran' by giving it a location, making it
Patriarchy has assigned 'activity and creativity' to men
and 'passivity and receptivity' to women, because it has been blind
to the creativity of giftgiving and of receiving. Both giftgiving
and receiving are creative. The use of what has been given to us
is necessary to make what has been given into a gift. If we do
not use it, it is wasted, lifeless. The fact that the capacity to receive
is as important as the capacity to give is manifested in our ability
to transform sentences from active to passive and from passive
to active. Moreover, the receiver in one moment can become
the giver in the next, passing the gift along: 'The girl hit the
ball, which hit the window.'
The speaker herself could be considered the receiver of
an experience, which she is transmitting again to the
listener. Perhaps the speaker might be considered as the middle term in
a gift transaction, 'A gives to B, and B gives to C.' The speaker
(B), by describing an event, passes on to another (C) the gift that
has been given to her by life, by 'the way things are,' reality (A).
She gives a gift which also involves her own creative receptivity:
she has already necessarily selected some of the features of
her experience as more important than others. Her
re-presentation gives value to the elements she has selected.
The listener too will emphasize some of the elements in
what she has been given. She actively collaborates in the creation
of the product she receives. The stereotyping of gender and
the emphasis on exchange in our society make it seem as if there is
a great deal of (male) human activity which is not a gift, not
need-directed. Reinstating the gift paradigm to its central place in
the group of interpretative registers through which we address
the world, lets us see that most human 'activity' is oriented
towards the satisfaction of a need at some level. Language
consequently appears, not as a mechanical concatenation of (verbal)
activities, but as a collection of gifts and of ways of giving and receiving,
in alignment with communicative needs, which arise
from experience and proliferate at many levels, given that there
are abundant means available for their satisfaction.
1Many of the words we use to talk about language are gift words: 'attribute' a
property, 'convey' a meaning, a message, 'transmit' information. Language, the
collective means of expression, has been talking about itself, but we have not been
paying attention because we have been listening to patriarchy. Language was not
saying what we expected it to say. Instead we have looked at it according to a
postal metaphorthe packaging or encoding of information, sending and then unpacking
or decoding it. I think the postal metaphor is just a way of keeping the gift under wraps.
2We look at the world through the glasses of exchange so we may tend to see
turn-taking as exchange. The motivation in turn-taking is not constrained reciprocity,
but sharing, alternating giving and receiving, and communication.
3The O.E.D. says that the word 'thing' derives from the old Norwegian word
for 'court' which to me implies a collective judgment about the value of cultural items.
I feel justified in thinking of both words and nonverbal things of varying degrees
and kinds of materiality, in terms of a collective judgment about their value.
4The needs that give rise to idiomatic expressions can be seen as somewhere
between the constancy of the word and the contingency of the sentence.
5Steven Pinker, The Language
Instinct, Penguin Books, London, 1994.
6The fact that there is variation in the ways these functions are expressed in
different languages in word order and syntax does not undermine the hypothesis that
giving and receiving could constitute universal behavioral structures from which they
7There is a great deal of nonverbal communication as well which occupies a
spectrum between material nurturing and language. However it is the more abstract end of
the spectrumlanguage, that needs to be understood first in order to see
nonverbal communication in its light.
8Similarly 'the sick woman' attributes sickness to a woman according to a
gift structure, creating a shareable topic though sickness is not a gift to be shared.
9Gifts, whether verbal or nonverbal, are not arbitrary, in that they are given to
satisfy needs and to create relations. However, the substitute gifts do not have to look
or sound like the originals.