Mind Self and Society

Section 9  The Vocal Gesture and  the Significant Symbol

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The concept of imitation has been used very widely in the field of the vocal gesture. There we do seem to have a tendency on the part of certain organisms to reproduce sounds which are heard. Human beings and the talking birds provide illustrations. But even here "imitation" is hardly an immediate tendency, since it takes quite a while to get one bird to reproduce the song, or for the child to take over the phonetic gesture of the human form. The vocal gesture is a stimulus to some sort of response; it is not simply a stimulus to the calling out of the sound which the animal hears. Of course, the bird can be put into a situation where it may reach the mere repetition of that which it hears. If we assume that one sound that the bird makes calls out another sound, when the bird hears this first sound it responds by the second. If one asked why one note answers to another, one would have to go to some process where the vocal gesture would have a different physiological significance. An illustration is the cooing process of pigeons. There one note calls out another note in the other form. It is a conversation of gestures, where a certain attitude expressing itself in a certain note calls out another attitude with its corresponding note. If the form is to call out in itself the same note that it calls out in the other, it must act as the other acts, and use the note that the other makes use of in order to reproduce the particular note in question. So you find, if you put the sparrow and the canary together in neighboring cages, where the call of one calls out a series of notes in the other, that if the sparrow finds itself uttering a note such as a canary does, the vocal gesture here must be more or less of the same type. Where that situation exists, the sparrow in its own process of vocalization makes use of such notes as those which the canary makes use of. The sparrow is

(62) influencing not only the canary, but also in hearing itself it is influencing itself. The note that it is making use of, if it is identical with the note of the canary, calls out a response in itself that the canary's note would call out in itself. Those are the situations that have become emphasized and maintained where one has what we term "imitation." Were the sparrow is actually making use of a phonetic vocal gesture of the canary through a common note in the repertoire of both of them, then the sparrow would be tending to bring out in itself the same response that would be brought out by the note of the canary. That, then would give an added weight in the experience of the sparrow to that particular response.

If the vocal gesture which the sparrow makes is identical with that which it hears when the canary makes use of the same note, then it is seen that its own response will be in that case identical with the response to the canary's note. It is this which gives such peculiar importance to the vocal gesture: it is one of those social stimuli which affect the form that makes it in the same fashion that it affects the form which made by another. That is, we can hear ourselves talking, and the import of what we say is the same to ourselves that it is to others. If the sparrow makes use of a canary's note it is calling out in itself the response that the canary's note calls out. In so far, then , ad the sparrow does make use of the same note that the canary makes use of, it will emphasize the vocal responses to this note because they will be present not only when the canary makes use of it but also when the sparrow makes use of it. In such a case it is presupposed that the particular stimulus is present in the form itself, that is, that the vocal stimulus which calls out the particular note which is learned is present in the repertoire of the sparrow as well as in that of the canary. If one recognizes that, then one can see that those particular notes answering to this stimulus will be, so to speak, written in, underlined. They will become habitual. We are supporting that one note calls out another, a stimulus calls out a response. If this note which calls out this response is used not only by the canary but also by the

(63) sparrow, then whenever the sparrow hears the canary it makes use of that particular note, and if it has the same note in its own repertoire then there is a double tendency to bring about this particular response, so that it becomes more frequently made use of and becomes more definitely a part of the singing of the sparrow than otherwise. Such are the situations in which the sparrow does take the role of the canary in so far as there are certain notes to which it tends to react just as the canary does. There is a double weight, so to speak, upon this particular note or series of notes. It is in such a fashion that we can understand the learning by the sparrow of the canary's song. One has to assume a like tendency in the two forms if one is going to get any mechanism for imitation at all.

To illustrate this further let us go back to the conversation of gestures in the dog-fight. There the stimulus which one dog gets from the other is to a response which is different from the response of the stimulating form. One dog is attacking the other, and is ready to spring at the other dog's throat; the reply on the part of the second dog is to change its position, perhaps to spring at the throat of the first dog. There is a conversation of gestures, a reciprocal shifting of the dogs' positions and attitudes. In such a process there would be no mechanism for imitation. One dog does not imitate the other. The second dog assumes a different attitude to avoid the spring of the first dog. The stimulus in the attitude of one dog is not to call out the response in itself that it calls out in the other. The first dog is influenced by its own attitude, but it is simply carrying out the process of a prepared spring, so that the influence on the dog is simply in reinforcing the process which is going on. It is not a stimulus to the dog to take the attitude of the other dog.

When, however, one is making use of the vocal gesture, if we assume that one vocal clement is a stimulus to a certain reply, then when the animal that makes use of that vocal gesture hears the resulting sound he will have aroused in himself at least a tendency to respond in the same way as the other animal responds. It may be a very slight tendency-the lion does not ap-

(64) -preciably frighten itself by its roar. The roar has an effect of frightening the animal he is attacking, and it has also the character of a challenge under certain conditions. But when we come to such elaborate processes of vocalization as those of the song of birds, there one vocal gesture calls out another vocal gesture. These, of course, have their function in the intercourse of the birds, but the gestures themselves become of peculiar importance. The vocalization plays a very large part in such a process as wooing, and one call tends to call out another note. In the case of the lion's roar the response is not so much a vocal sound as it is a flight, or, if you like, a fight. The response is not primarily a vocal response. It is rather the action of the form itself. But in the song of birds, where vocalization is carried out in an elaborate fashion, the stimulus does definitely call out a certain response so that the bird when singing is influenced by its own stimulus to a response which will be like that which is produced in another form. That response which is produced in itself, since it is also produced by the influence of others, gets twice the emphasis that it would have if it were just called out by the note of others. It is called out more frequently than the response to other sounds. It is this that gives the seeming evidence of imitation in the case of sounds or vocal gestures.[1] The stimulus that calls out a particular sound may be found not only in the other forms of the group but also in the repertoire of the particular bird which uses the vocal gesture. This stimulus A calls out the response B. Now if this stimulus A is not like B, and if we assume that A calls out B, then if A is used by other forms these forms will respond in the fashion B. If this form also uses the vocal gesture A, it will be calling out in itself the response B, so that the response B will be emphasized over against other responses because it is called out not only by the

(65) vocal gestures of other forms but also by the form itself. This would never take place unless there were an identity represented by A, in this case an identity of stimuli.

In the case of the vocal gesture the form hears its own stimulus just as when this is used by other forms, so it tends to respond also to its own stimulus as it responds to the stimulus of other forms. That is, birds tend to sing to themselves, babies to talk to themselves. The sounds they make are stimuli to make other sounds. Where there is a specific sound that calls out a specific response, then if this sound is made by other forms it calls out this response in the form in question. If the sparrow makes use of this particular sound then the response to that sound will be one which will be heard more frequently than another response. In that way there will be selected out of the sparrow's repertoire those elements which are found in the song of the canary, and gradually such selection would build up in the song of the sparrow those elements which are common to both, without assuming a particular tendency of imitation. There is here a selective process by which is picked out what is common. "Imitation" depends upon the individual influencing himself as others influence him, so that he is under the influence not only of the other but also of himself in so far as he uses the same vocal gesture.

The vocal gesture, then, has an importance which no other gesture has. We cannot see ourselves when our face assumes a certain expression. If we hear ourselves speak we are more apt to pay attention. One hears himself when he is irritated using a tone that is of an irritable quality, and so catches himself. But in the facial expression of irritation the stimulus is not one that calls out an expression in the individual which it calls out in the other. One is more apt to catch himself up and control himself in the vocal gesture than in the expression of the countenance.

It is only the actor who uses bodily expressions as a means of looking as he wants others to feel. He gets a response which reveals to him how he looks by continually using a mirror. He registers anger, he registers love, he registers this, that, or the

(66) other attitude, and he examines himself in a glass to see how he does so. When he later makes use of the gesture it is present as a mental image. He realizes that that particular expression does call out fright. If we exclude vocal gestures, it is only by the use of the mirror that one could reach the position where he responds to his own gestures as other people respond. But the vocal gesture is one which does give one this capacity for answering to one's own stimulus as another would answer.

If there is any truth in the old axiom that the bully is always the coward, it will be found to rest on the fact that one arouses in himself that attitude of fear which his bullying attitude arouses in another, so that when put into a particular situation which calls his bluff, his own attitude is found to be that of the others. If one's own attitude of giving way to the bullying attitude of others is one that arouses the bullying attitude, he has in that degree aroused the attitude of bullying in himself. There is a certain amount of truth in this when we come back to the effect upon one's self of the gesture of which he makes use. In so far as one calls out the attitude in himself that one calls out in others, the response is picked out and strengthened. That is the only basis for what we call imitation. It is not imitation in the sense of simply doing what one sees another person doing. The mechanism is that of an individual calling out in himself the response which he calls out in another, consequently giving greater weight to those responses than to the other responses, and gradually building up those sets of responses into a dominant whole. That may be done, as we say, unconsciously. The sparrow does not know it is imitating the canary. It is just a gradual picking up of the notes which are common to both of them. And that is true wherever there is imitation.

So far as exclamatory sounds are concerned (and they would answer in our own vocal gestures to what is found in those of animals), the response to these does not enter into immediate conversation, and the influence of these responses on the individual are comparatively slight. It seems to be difficult to bring them into relationship with significant speech. We are not con-

(67) -sciously frightened when we speak angrily to someone else, but the meaning of what we say is always present to us when we speak. The response in the individual to an exclamatory cry which is of the same sort as that in the other does not play any important part in the conduct of the form. The response of the lion to its roar is of very little importance in the response of the form itself, but our response to the meaning of what we say is constantly attached to our conversation. We must be constantly responding to the gesture we make if we are to carry on successful vocal conversation. The meaning of what we are saying is the tendency to respond to it. You ask somebody to bring a visitor a chair. You arouse the tendency to get the chair in the other, but if he is slow to act you get the chair yourself. The response to the vocal gesture is the doing of a certain thing, and you arouse that same tendency in yourself. You are always replying to yourself, just as other people reply. You assume that in some degree there must be identity in the reply. It is action on a common basis.

I have contrasted two situations to show what a tong road speech or communication has to travel from the situation where there is nothing but vocal cries over to the situation in which significant symbols are utilized. What is peculiar to the latter is that the individual responds to his own stimulus in the same way as other people respond. Then the stimulus becomes significant; then one is saying something. As far as a parrot is concerned, its "speech" means nothing, but where one significantly says something with his own vocal process he is saying it to himself as well as to everybody else within reach of his voice. It is only the vocal gesture that is fitted for this sort of communication, because it is only the vocal gesture to which one responds or tends to respond as another person tends to respond to it. It is true that the language of the hands is of the same character. One sees one's self using the gestures which those who are deaf make use of. They influence one the same way as they influence others. Of course, the same is true of any form of script. But such symbols have all been developed out of the specific vocal

(68) gesture, for that is the basic gesture which does influence the individual as it influences others. Where it does not become significant is in the vocalization of the two birds.2 Nevertheless, the same type of process is present, the stimulus of the one bird tending to call out the response in another bird which it tends to call out, however slightly, in the bird itself.


  1. An attempt was made by Baldwin to carry back imitation to a fundamental biological process - a tendency on the part of the organism to reinstate a pleasurable sensation..... In the process of mastication the very process of chewing reinstates the stimulus, brings back the flavor. Baldwin would call this self imitation. This process, if it takes place at all, does not by any means meet the situation with which we are dealing (1912).
  2. [See Supplementary Essay III for discussion.]

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