From Generative Anthropology

An ostensive is a sign issued where and only where its signified (referent) is present on the scene. Ostensives are the most fundamental form of language: they necessarily preceded the development of the imperative and the declarative.


  • Yelling "Fire!" in response to seeing a burning building.
  • Pointing at an object.
  • A baby's first words: "Mommy!" or "Daddy!"


The first ostensive was the originary sign. On the originary scene, members of the group collectively issued the aborted gesture of appropriation, initially as an instinctual gesture inhibited by fear of the others in the group. This gesture did not become the originary sign until each member, after observing the symmetry of the group, performed it again, deliberately and collectively, as a voluntary gesture to other members of the group signaling they have nothing to fear or defend against, while designating the central object of desire as the cause of the gesture. Issuing the originary sign is the origin of joint shared attention and generates linguistic presence.

After the being used on the originary scene, once it is known that use of the originary sign can prevent potential dangerous situations, it becomes possible to identify somewhat less potentially dangerous situations and issue the sign in such situations. This is the way objects and acts would come to be named, and signs differentiated from each other. The process of signs becoming more commonplace is known as the lowering of the threshold of significance.


The intentional structure of the ostensive can be summed up in a few words: The speaker transmits to the hearer an immediately verifiable model of the universe as containing one significant present object.

The ostensive needs no tense because its referent is present to the speaker and verifiably present to the hearer. Similarly, it lacks person because the hearer/s is/are intended to stand in the same relation to the referent as the speaker.

An action is often warranted when an ostensive is issued (ex: when someone yells "Fire!" it is implied that you should quickly get to safety). However, unlike the imperative, the ostensive does not refer to or demand such action, it merely opens up the scenic space for imperatives to be issued and/or carried out.


Today, ostensives are used most notably for teaching new words to children, and ostensives are the first words babies learn. E.g. "Apple", "car", "toy". This gesturing to a central object will continue throughout life in every utterance, and in all scenes we inhabit.


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

Katz, A. (2020). Anthropomorphics.