From Generative Anthropology

An imperative is a command derived from a misplaced ostensive: an ostensive used in absence of its referent.


  • "Run!"
  • "[Give me the] Scalpel!"


The first imperative was derived from a misplaced ostensive. However, the misplaced ostensive could not have been issued as a result of the speaker "wanting the hearer to supply him with the object," because this presupposes the availability of the imperative. Instead, the misplaced ostensive can be explained by what participants in a sign community desire above all: to maintain linguistic presence.

In an ostensive language, the only means of maintaining linguistic presence is through the ostensive, which can only be issued when its referent is present on the scene. In the case of the first imperative, the speaker issues an ostensive in absence of its referent object, with the desire to actualize linguistic presence, to which the hearer, who can only interpret this as the speaker expressing his desire for the object, responds by supplying the speaker with the object. In this scenario, the ostensive language becomes an imperative language, and, within this new language, the hearer's refusal to fulfill the imperative can only be understood as a refusal of linguistic presence. Thus, in imperative languages, performance is the only satisfactory response to the imperative.

Operator of Negation, Negative Imperative, and Negative Ostensive

To the extent that an ostensive sign can be used imperatively to demand an object, there would arise a need for an operator of negation to permit the speaker to make explicit his supplementary interdiction of the object to his interlocutor.

The notion of interdiction (the act of prohibiting or forbidding something) is available as early as the originary scene - the originary sign can be seen as a negative imperative, indicating that its referent, the central object, is not to be appropriated by any members of the group. From this perspective, in the passage from ostensive to imperative, a communal interdiction is transformed into one imposed by individual desire. Just as the object of the ostensive is in general not to be appropriated, the object of the imperative is designated for appropriation by the speaker, and by the same token, refused by the hearer. It is the explicit formulation of this refusal, once the ostensive can be used "inappropriately" as an expression of desire, that will constitute the negative imperative. Thus, the negative imperative consists of the name of the object and the operator of negation.

Negative imperatives are characterized by an indefinite prolonging of the imperative scene in what is called normative awaiting, which means that they cannot be terminated by any specific performance. The operator of negation acts only on the performance requested by the imperative, and can be represented by the following equation:

Perf(~X) = ~[Perf(X)]

Where "Perf" refers to the performance requested by the speaker, and "~" refers to the sign of logical negation. In interdiction, the performance of the addressee is the negation of a possible "positive" performance, but the fundamental elements in the imperative intentional structure remain the same, the nature of awaiting merely being altered to fit the non-performative nature of the request.

The negative ostensive is a crucial for the development of the declarative. The situation which gives arise to it goes as follows. The first speaker uses the word as an imperative, and the second is aware that the speaker awaits the desired object. However, the object is unable to be retrieved, so to fulfill this awaiting is impossible; all the second speaker can do is produce its name. However, there is an awaiting that would be filled by the absence of the object: the negative imperative. In the second speaker's thought, this utterance would only invoke the name of the object-as-absent, and he is aware that to invoke the object will not necessarily make it appear. But to say the name of what is, even if all there is, is the absence of the object, is to the name not as an imperative but as an ostensive. This ostensive, in its negativity, is already fulfilled, but at the same time, by presenting in ostensive form the object requested by the first speaker, even if it is presented-as-not-present, his utterance has the potentiality of putting an end to the awaiting created by the original imperative.


The intentional structure of the imperative is a verbal request which establishes an awaiting of performance by its hearer, compliance with which abolishes the awaiting and terminates the prolonged presence that it maintained.

Like the ostensive, the imperative is derived from something currently present at the scene. The imperative makes more explicit the command in any ostensive.


Gans, E. L., Katz, A. L. (2019). The Origin of Language: A New Edition

Katz, A. (2020). Anthropomorphics.