The Birth of Language or the Necessity of Rule

Martinon, Jean-Paul. 2018. The Birth of Language or the Necessity of Rule. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 81(3), pp. 413-424. ISSN 0041-977X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This essay examines the linguistic and cultural problems one faces when determining the birth of ethics in two radically different contexts: the written and the oral traditions.

As is well known, the Biblical Sixth Commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill,” is intimately linked to the First Commandment, “I am the Lord.” By linking the two at the top of Moses’s two-column table shows that language is given priority: the name of God can be uttered only when the possibility of death has been set aside. In this way, the linking of these two commandments marks not only the birth of language, but also, more importantly, the start of ethics. As such, Commandments One and Six form the basis of practically all western ethics from Kant’s categorical imperative (the unconditional maxim needs a First Word to enter into force) to Lyotard’s language games (for which all utterances are charged with the moral imperative to respond), for example. But how on earth does this famous linguistic and ethical structure fare in a context whereby the written text is not given priority, in a situation where prohibitions are inherited orally? This paper will attempt to expose the thorny issue of the translation of the Sixth Commandment into Kinyarwanda and Rwandan culture. This will imply neither the exposition of the history of the arrival of the Bible in Rwanda nor the way it helped to consolidate the colonial regime. This paper will also not examine the neglect of the prohibition against murder during the genocide of 1994. Instead, the essay will examine the linguistic and cultural problems one faces when determining the birth of ethics in two radically different contexts.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


Biblical Commandments, You Shall Not Kill, Rwandan Genocide, Rwanda, Oral Tradition

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


25 January 2017Submitted
2 November 2018Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

23 May 2017 13:55

Last Modified:

11 Jun 2021 17:29

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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