Getting divorced mostly sucks (speaking from experience here–I do it a lot), but it does have one good side: you clean your basement. Picking through old files from my days of teaching Linguistics 101, I found this old photo from the cover of the National Enquirer, a tabloid that you flip through while waiting in line at the grocery store and then occasionally buy despite yourself.
I found the headline interesting because it touches on a couple of recurrent themes in the history of thought about language, but goes in an unusual direction with it. The themes:
- The original language
- Language deprivation experiments
The original language
There is a very long history of wondering what the original language was. The top candidate in the various and sundry ravings about this is Hebrew. Why? It’s the language of the Bible (specifically, the Old Testament to those of you who are Christianically inclined). Latin often comes up, too.
What would a linguist say about the question? Pretty much nothing. From the Hominidés.org web site:
Depuis le 17e siècle la question se posait : depuis quand l’homme utilisait-il le langage articulé ? De nombreuses théories ont été avancées dont certaines très farfelues (voir ci-contre). En 1866 la Société de Linguistique de Paris (fondée en 1864) mit un coup d’arrêt à ces tentatives fantaisistes et interdit tout simplement la publication de textes relatifs à l’origine du langage.
My translation: Since the 17th century, the question has been asked: from when have humans used spoken language? Numerous theories have been advanced, some of which are quite nutty (or even French French French [too lazy to look up ci-contre on a Saturday morning]). In 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris (founded in 1864) French French French [see preceding bracketed statement] and completely forbad (forbade?) the publication of papers on the origin of language.
Why forbid study of the origin of language? Because your theories are not testable, and if something is not at least in theory testable, it’s not science. Linguists are not even certain that language originated just once–one explanation that has been advanced for the astounding variability in human languages is the polygenesis hypothesis, which proposes that language originated multiple times in different human(-ish) populations. (The single-origin hypothesis is the monogenesis hypothesis.) Hell, we’re not even certain that language originated in spoken form–it could well have been signed. (Yes: signed languages are languages, like any other.)
Language deprivation experiments
The idea behind a language deprivation experiment is to deny children exposure to language and see what happens. I’m not totally convinced that any of the reported language deprivation experiments (see some listed on this Wikipedia page) actually ever happened, but their stated motivations frequently include the belief that children who are not exposed to any language would spontaneously speak “the original language,” and guess what? Latin is often reported as one of the anticipated tongues.
Language deprivation tragedies
In fact there is a depressing number of cases in which children actually have been deprived of exposure to language, either through mishap or through horrific criminal misdeeds. What doesn’t happen when they’re rescued: they don’t speak Hebrew; neither do they speak Latin. They don’t speak anything, and if they’re rescued too late, they never do. (This is often taken as evidence supporting the critical period hypothesis about child language acquisition.)
The weird direction in which the National Enquirer takes their story
…is that they talk not about children who are old enough to have acquired language, but rather babies; they then take the kid-speaks-Latin phenomenon as a way to talk about proof of reincarnation. Not unheard of (see here and here, and here), but not run-of-the-mill, either.
There’s that part of me that wants to talk about the role of two-headed babies in the history of genetics, but my breakfast ice cream is melting, so we’ll have to wait for another time… Breakfast ice cream–yum…
English and French notes:
despite oneself: En dépit de soi-même, I think. …tous mes efforts sont vains, je t’adore en dépit de moi-même. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse, which I am reading at the moment and find hilarious.)
to suck: a borderline vulgar way of saying to be bad in the sense of undesirable. I ran across craindre un max as a French-language equivalent once, but nobody seems to recognize that when I say it.
to forbid: a super-irregular verb. In French: interdire, I think. (Man, I am really lazy today…) From the bab.la web site (and I don’t buy forbid as a past participle at all, although once again, I’m too lazy today to look for actual evidence):