Genevieve Vaughan | Gift in The Heart of Language Review – Susan Petrilli
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Susan Petrilli

On The Gift in the Heart of Language, by Genevieve Vaughan*

Genevieve Vaughan’s writings present a series of books including For-Giving. A Feminist Criticism of Exchange, 1997 (translated into various languages – Italian, Spanish, German, Turkish and Albanian), two collective volumes, The Gift. A Feminist Analysis, 2004, and Women and the Gift Economy, a Radically Different Worldview is Possible, her ebook, Homo Donans, 2007, and her most recent book, The Gift in the Heart of Language. The Maternal Source of Meaning, 2015, which is the specific object of my reflections in what follows.

Vaughan’s work provides a magnifying lens and critical eyeview on the dynamics of social behavior and interpersonal relationships, with a special focus on problems connected with language and communication. When we speak about “language” and “communication” we are not referring to isolated spheres of human behavior, nor to objects of study exclusive to the sign specialist, whether verbal or nonverbal. To discuss language and communication is to discuss human life in its globality insofar as it is perfused with signs, indeed is engendered in signs.

In Vaughan’s research a pivotal concept is “gift logic”. She thematizes the gift economy as the foundation of a different paradigm from that based on the logic of equal exchange now dominant over the globe, of giving for the sake of a return. Not only: gift logic is described as the very condition of possibility for the reproduction of the current social form of production, as paradoxical as this may seem. But the relation between exchange economy and gift economy is one of exploitation and alienation, as Vaughan makes very clear. What this means is that in order to subsist and flourish, the exchange economy exploits the gift economy, plunders it. In other words, the gift economy is the basis of the exchange economy, but the exchange economy is its distortion and in terms of social praxis the gift economy is relegated to the margins.

* Paper delivered at the conference “The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy”, organized by the Centro Studi Femminista per l’Economia del Dono and by International Feminists for a Gift Economy, 25-27 April 2015, Casa Internazionale delle Donne, Via della Lungara 19, 00165, Rome, Italy.

From the point of view of our own approach to studies in philosophy of language and semiotics, Vaughan’s critique amounts to recognizing that otherness is inscribed in the sign, in the very body, ultimately in life, and this amounts to acknowledging that the other is inevitable, inescapable, whether we like it or not. We could even go so far as to claim that the lack of awareness, of consideration of the human capacity for otherness (and of the inexorable presence of the other) and for gifting, is largely the cause of deviations in human behavior throughout history as much as in the world today.

In the face of impending global disaster throughout the biosphere, affecting human and nonhuman, nature and culture, the sign’s vocation for the other should be recovered and replenished in consonance with what has been happily described as the “humanism of otherness”. The health of life globally requires nothing less. I have dwelt upon such issues in a series of books of which the most recent include Sign Crossroads in Global Perspective. 2010, Expression and Interpretation in Language, 2012, The Self as a Sign, World, and the Other, 2013, Sign Studies and Semioethics, 2014, The Global World and Its Manifold Faces, 2016. This work has its foundations in another book in English, co-authored with Augusto Ponzio, Semiotics Unbounded, 2005.

To focus now on the main topic of the present paper with special reference to Genevieve Vaughan’s book, The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning, the part I find especially interesting is where she deals with language. I would say that this is the gift offered by this book that I most enjoyed. This part is closely connected to the rest of the book given that the problem of language is completely embedded in its overall structure, as much as to my own research in the spheres of philosophy of language and semiotics.

Language is clearly of central important in human interactions. As much as these human interactions are based on exchange at a surface level – or, better, only at a superficial glance – in reality, they are structured as gifts, so that we could claim that to speak of language as a gift is to go to the heart of social relationships, not only as they exist, but also in the processes of their becoming, as they form and take shape.

At the basis of all human interactions there is a form of interaction that is no less than fundamental, namely the relationship between mother (or motherer) and child, the mother who nurtures the child and the nourishment. All humans who survive have been mothered to some extent. And in this context, nurturing also involves what Vaughan evidences with the expression verbal nurturing. An understanding of the infant’s needs, which are vital survival needs, is based on a mother capacity to listen to somebody who does not yet know how to speak, the infant, in- fans (non speaker), precisely. To this “material” gift, the gift of nurturing, of gifting nourishment, which is situated in an interactive communication relation, is gradually added the gift of speaking, verbal nurturing, vocal gifting.

Vaughan distinguishes between “language” (Fr. langage; It. linguaggio) and “mother tongue” (Fr. langue; It. lingua), in both cases reference is to the level of verbal language. What she understands by “language” here is a gift-giving device, that is to say a device modelled on the giving and receiving of gifts/nurture, and not just a device for conveying gifts. The different “mother tongues” (historical natural languages and the special and sectorial languages forming each mother-tongue) are different constructions based on this model in various ways. “Language” in Vaughan’s description may be associated to what an English scholar from the Victorian era, Victoria Welby,1 calls “mother sense” – she in fact distinguishes between “mother sense” and “intellect,” between what she specifies as the “givings” of mother sense and the “constructions” of the intellect (see the epigraph at the opening of this paper) (see Welby 1983, 1985; and Petrilli 2009, 2015).

The necessary giving and receiving of material gifts of nurture is the a priori with respect to verbal language, to the production of specific sign systems for communication; a device, a modeling mechanism, characterized by the actual practice and experience of gifting and creativity. Such a device is an integral part of the construction of the social and of the sign systems we employ to express ourselves and produce sense.

1 Victoria Welby (1837-1912) developed a theory of meaning which she denominated “Significs”. She dedicated her research to the relation between signs and values, language and sense, and evidenced how meaning is not constrained to any one type of sign, language, field of discourse or area of experience. “Mother sense” is a central concept in her research. She discusses it at depth in her correspondence with interesting figures of the time such as Mary Everest Boole, Ferdinand C. S. Schiller, and Charles S. Peirce. Welby’s two main theoretical books are What Is Meaning? (1903, new ed. 1983) and Significs and Language (1911, new ed. 1985). A substantial collection of her writings, some previously published others from the archives unpublished, is now available in the volume, Signifying and Understanding, 2009, edited by myself. This is followed by my monograph, Victoria Welby and the Sciences of Signs, 2015.

On this account Vaughan speaks of an “altercentric” capacity, a faculty that finds full expression in the condition and in the practices of mothering – from the verb to mother – whatever the sexual gender. And given that like myself, Gen lives both her everyday and professional life in two worlds at least, in two languages (English and Italian), let me point out that this English verb with all its implications is difficult to translate appropriately into Italian: to mother – to act as a mother, to care as a mother, to love as a mother would, beyond gender boundaries (fare da madre, curare, amare come farebbe una madre).

Linguists and scholars of verbal language generally (with Vaughan when we speak of “language” we are discussing verbal language), semioticians included, postulate a faculty of speaking, a faculty of (verbal) language, understood as an innate mechanism (a concept Vaughan disputes, see The Gift in the Heart of Language, pp. 63, 103, 110-117, 197, 298, 309-310). Among the distinctions posited by Ferdinand de Saussure between langue and langage, fundamentally there is that whereby langage stands for the faculty of language: there is the langue, or multiple langues, because all human beings are endowed, at the level of species, with langage, a specific, special faculty.

In Thomas Sebeok’s global semiotics as well (see, for example, his book of 2001) a fundamental distinction is that between language and speech, where language however is not simply the faculty of speaking, but rather an innate species-specific device. This device appears much before the appearance of homo loquens, that is, of homo sapiens. From an evolutionary perspective it is antecendent with respect to verbal language, speech, which indeed is based on this device and arises thanks to it, just like the languages of nonverbal communication.

The maximum degree in hypostatization of this dichotomous vision between the faculty of speaking, interpreted for the occasion as “innate universal grammar” and (speaker) linguistic competence, accompanied by relative linguistic usage (utterance), can be traced in Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory. With Chomsky it is no longer just a question of an innate linguistic faculty, but even of innate grammatical rules.

In The Gift in the Heart of Language, conceptions of language learning that not only belittle, but even deny the paramount importance of material gifting by the mother, and of verbal nurturing, are extensively, carefully, and very closely called to question. We could maintain that the mother does not simply gift language (langue) in the sense of the mother tongue, but rather she gifts language (langage) itself, the very faculty of speaking, and langage is gifting.

On this account Vaughan speaks of virtualization: the schema, we could say in the Kantian sense, is the schema of gift giving. It follows that it is not correct to say that the sign is that which stands for something that it replaces. The relation is not one of substitution. There are two levels that run parallel to each other: the level of material things and the level of words. Thanks to the maternal gift, these two levels enter into a relationship that is not static, but rather dynamical and continuously renewed, because it is based on gifting interaction, precisely.

In verbal gift giving as it gradually emerges in the mother-child relationship, the mother’s gifting finds a correspondence in the child’s gifting, in a relationship that is completely outside the exchange paradigm, given that each time the child makes a request, an observation, expresses something, underlines one of its needs, or plays with words, it “gifts” an expansion of the mother’s visual, experiential, imaginative space. It satisfies her cognitive and communicative needs. That is from the beginning the child’s cries and gestures help the mother to know what the child needs, so she can give her the appropriate gift.

Without interpreting language as gift giving it is not possible to explain the human imagination, if not only partially, and in this case too only by resorting to innate faculties. The imaginary rises from the fact that language is not at all based on equal exchange relations: rather than evolving out of equal exchange relations, language always involves a sort of excess. Such excess can only be explained if we abandon the semiotic “standing for” schema. This “standing for” paradigm contradicts and obstacles any explanation of the imaginative use of language. In verbal language there is always a presence-absence relationship, and it is also in this capacity of rendering the absent present, of bringing absence into presence that the gift mechanism functions.

Vaughan’s hypothesis is that it is possible to converse with words only thanks to the gift mechanism that subtends them, beginning from the mother’s original gifting to the child – so that education to gifting is linguistic education and education to language is education to the gift. To explain all this Vaughan contrasts her concept of gifting to Marx’s concept of “the commodity form of value” in market exchange, which she believes contradicts and compromises the gift mechanism. Moreover the materiality of exchange is not sufficient to explain exchange itself. In this sense, Vaughan speaks of the virtualization of language and its devirtualization into commodity exchange.

Through the gift schema and the virtualization of the shared world through language (see Vaughan 2013), we can at last adequately explain linguistic situations like dialogue where, if it is effectively a dialogue – in other words, where each partner “grows,” so to say, in the relationship – obviously what occurs is not a mere exchange, equal exchange, giving to receive, reciprocal exchange, for the sake of receiving: in this case too we are in the gifting turntaking mode.

The same principle applies when we wish to understand how the relationship between writing and reading functions. The gift mechanism is at work here too. The writer is a giver and reading is not mere reproduction, repetition, it is not the mere sonorization of the text, re-citation of the text. Instead, we could claim that reading is “responsive understanding,” to the extent that the reader puts the maternal gift of speaking, understanding, welcoming and listening back into circulation.

Vaughan reflects on such issues explaining, researching and re-elaborating. In addition to these considerations relatively to dialogue and reading, I would like to mention another linguistic practice that necessarily involves gift giving. My allusion now is to the practice of translation. This is a problematic I address regularly and directly in the classroom given that I teach courses in Semiotics of translation. The translator as well is a giver. As such to translate is not merely to represent a text in another language; translation is not mere reproduction. I could make the claim that translation is a feminine practice. This is not because translators are mostly women, as Jacques Derrida once pointed out in an essay entitled Qu’est-ce que c’est une traduction rélevante?, but rather because in the practice of translation the gift of language which was originally received in the relationship with the mother is recovered and put back into circulation.

These are only some areas of the gift, but the central idea in Vaughan’s conception of language as gift giving is that all of life, as she says, is based on gift giving, on the mother’s material and verbal nurturing, on vocal gift giving, on verbal gift giving: all of life is based on the gift, on gifting. This is because gift giving and language which is based upon it, organize life, distinguish among relationships, establish orientations, orient responses, decide on behaviors, modify situations, indicate ways out, etc.

Vaughan dedicates a part in her book, The Gift in the Heart of Language, to clarifying that the function of language is not only that of naming. This is something that in a sense Saussure also maintained, that is, that language is not a nomenclature. But here, in Vaughan’s book, we are not talking about this or that other language, we are not talking about mother tongues, so that as Saussure rightly claimed, learning a language does not mean only learning a nomenclature. Instead, we are talking about language as a gift, about language as gift giving, the gift of the faculty of language itself. And the aim is to clarify that the primary function of language is not that of naming things, but of constructing a world, a human world prone to transformation and growth, where the role of the imagination is of central importance. The fundamental function of language is neither to nominate nor to interpret. However, Vaughan dissents on this point to which in an email of 16 April 2016 she responded as follows: “I don’t agree. I think we have to learn the word gifts to which diverse world gifts are related. I also think that projecting the giving and receiving relation on to the world is the way we know it and this is a kind of primordial interpretation of which we are not usually conscious”. My own reelaboration in response to Vaughan is available in the paper “Maternal Gift of Language, Imagination, and Relationship. The Gift Economy with Genevieve Vaughan” (forthcoming).

We could perhaps maintain instead that the main function of language is the imagination, as we referred to it above. The mother imagines what the infant’s needs are. In speaking each partner in the interaction imagines what the others’ communicative and cognitive needs are in giving and responding to the other. In everyday life we each imagine a better life. What we have is a flow of gifts in which the gift is never a question of symmetrical exchange, but rather an extensive process of responding to and anticipating what we imagine are the needs and desires of the other, beyond the limits of equal exchange logic, beyond the boundaries of symmetrical exchange. What we experience is a succession of gifts, a gift giving process in which gift giving is never a conditional giving of this for that: “I give you this, only if you give me that,” but rather a unilateral gifting mechanism where the bids are always higher in open-ended turn-taking interactional processes.

This book is not only an important contribution to a reconsideration of the role of the maternal for life, whether in the private sphere or the public sphere, the social: it is also a fundamentally important contribution to linguistics (consider the space dedicated to scholars in the sector), to philosophy of language (an analogous space is dedicated to scholars in this area as well), and to the language sciences in general, socio-linguistics and psycho-linguistics included (see, for example, the attention focused on studies on the relationship between thought and language by Lev Vygotsky).

If we wish to say what this book is in synthesis, what this book deals with, we could even say that it is a critique of political economy in a Marxian sense, but a critique founded on the gift economy and in the last analysis on the maternal gift of language.


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