There isn’t typically that much drama in linguistics. The last speaker of a language dies–a tragedy, but one that we’ve seen before many, many times, and one that we will see more and more of in the future. A language previously thought to be extinct is rediscovered–fantastic. Someone comes up with a new way to glue radiopaque pellets onto your tongue, or filter fMRI data, or calculate distributed semantic representations more efficiently, and we giddily try out the new technology.
There’s an exception to this drama-freeness: pretty much any news about Genie. “Genie” is the pseudonym of a woman who was the victim of what might be the most horrific case of child abuse discovered so far in the United States. Among other things, this involved having almost no contact whatsoever with language of any kind. When she was found, at the age of 13, she had no language at all. There was a huge debate in the linguistics community at the time about whether or not there was an upper limit to the age at which you can learn language. Among the people who worked closely with Genie, giving her intensive language tutoring for years, were a lot of speech/language therapists–and Susan Curtiss, a graduate student in linguistics at the time, and today a faculty member at UCLA, one of the best linguistics programs in the world.
Genie is in her 60s now. She never learnt to speak. She can communicate with pictures, gestures, apparently very eloquent facial expressions, and sometimes words–but, she was never able to learn any language beyond individual words, whether spoken or signed. She has been out of the sight of the world for quite a while, but occasionally some information surfaces in the news.
When that happens, it travels pretty quickly through the linguistics community. Her case is famous–the only one of its kind, at least in modern times. (There’s a French case from the 1800s–Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron–but, it was nothing like Genie’s, either with respect to the horrible abuse that she suffered, or the level at which he was studied (more accurately: wasn’t studied) by scientists or provided with attempts at therapy afterwards.
Genie’s case being an important one in linguistics, you tell it when you teach Linguistics 101. I have told the story many times, and to my best recollection, I have never told it without someone in the class crying. (I used to think that this was a testament to my story-telling skills–now I think that it’s probably just a testament to how very much I am an asshole.)
A story about Genie appeared in The Guardian yesterday, and I know that it will be of interest to my linguistics peeps, so I’m posting a link here. But, if you don’t already know the story: think carefully about how depressed you’re willing to get today before you click on it. You can read the story in The Guardian here. It’s actually pretty mild–some of the details that make me the saddest are omitted. But, it’s more than enough to ruin your afternoon.