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Why Children, Parrots, and Actors Cannot Speak: The Stoics on Genuine and Superficial Speech

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From the journal Apeiron


At Varro LL VI.56 and SE M 8.275-276, we find reports of the Stoic view that children and articulate non-rational animals such as parrots cannot genuinely speak. Absent from these testimonia is the peculiar case of the superficiality of the actor’s speech, which appears in one edition of the unstable text of PHerc 307.9 containing fragments of Chrysippus’ Logical Investigations. Commentators who include this edition of the text in their discussions of the Stoic theory of speech do not offer a univocal account of the superficiality of the parrot’s, the child’s, and the actor’s speech. In this paper, I offer a reconstruction of the Stoic account of genuine and superficial speech and show that not only is there an account of superficial speech that univocally explains the superficiality of the speech of parrots, children, and actors, but that this account challenges traditional assumptions about the entities at the heart of the Stoic theory of language—lekta. It will turn out that genuine speech is the expression of a lekton by way of performing a speech act, and that this account of superficial speech can be used to explain other linguistic phenomena that are of interest to the Stoics, such as sentences in insoluble sophisms and sentences containing demonstratives that do not refer to anything in the subject term. Importantly, my reconstruction shows, against the near consensus view of lekta, that lekta do not primarily explain what makes an utterance meaningful. Rather, they primarily explain what makes an utterance an instance of genuine speech.

Corresponding author: Sosseh Assaturian, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA, E-mail:


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Published Online: 2020-11-23
Published in Print: 2022-01-27

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