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Chapter 2

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 material plane.

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 our evolution.

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, and 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 others 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 that 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 decidedly negative.

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 each 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 that 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, their 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 sacred springs.

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 more specific.

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 are derived.

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.

For-Giving Chapter 3

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