In A Nutshell
How language has formed and evolved over the years has long been of interest to scholars across the centuries. Herodotus recorded what is supposedly the first experiment on what language is embedded into our being as the oldest. Children were allegedly taken from their mothers and raised in almost complete isolation, without being exposed to any human communication, to see what they would speak first. And supposedly, it’s an oft-repeated experiment with outcomes that are said to range from Phrygian to Hebrew.
The Whole Bushel
Language is something everyone uses every day, but it’s really a weird thing when you think about it. The sheer number of languages, the different words that have evolved that some humans know mean certain things . . . not to mention the number of dead languages and languages that we haven’t yet fully decoded. And reason says that language had to start somewhere, with some ideas and some words. It’s not surprising that there are some rather bizarre rumors about those who have tried to determine what the first language in the world was, and what language it is that we will instinctively know without being taught.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the first language experiments were conducted by the Egyptians. King Psammetichus reigned from 664–610 B.C. over a generation of Egyptians who took pride in the longevity of their race. They had long prided themselves on being one of the most ancient of races, and the king decided that he wanted confirmation of this. They had one rival in their claim—the Phrygians.
The king felt that language was going to be the key to determining which race came first; clearly, whichever language was a more natural, instinctual method of conversation belonged to the older race. So, with blatant disregard for any child abuse laws past, present, or future, the king decided to take two children away from their peasant mothers. They were handed over to a herdsman, who was under strict instruction not to speak to the children or let them overhear any words. His only interaction with them was to feed them and perform some basic child-maintenance; otherwise, he would remain outside of the cottage until they were of an age when they should be starting to talk.
Then, the herdsman was to report what words in what language came out of the babble of a baby.
When the children were about two years old, the herdsman reported their first word. He told the king that they cried for “becos” or bread, when he approached. It was a Phrygian word, and the Egyptians gave up their claim to being the oldest race in the face of this seemingly irrefutable evidence.
Herodotus claims to have gotten this information from a number of priests in Memphis and Heliopolis, each corroborating the story. Whether or not it’s actually true is up for debate, but Herodotus presents it as true. And that’s important, because it led to the formation of some long-held beliefs about how language is developed and what it means to have a naturally occurring language.
Interestingly, that’s certainly not the last time the safety and well-being of children have been thrown aside in pursuit of trying to determine what language a person is born with.
In 1499, King James IV of Scotland decided to try a similar experiment. His children would be sent to Inchkeith Island, where they would be raised by a woman who was deaf and mute. Deprived of all normal human communication, it was hoped again that they would begin to develop an actual language out of their babble. The results of the experiment were reported by a Lindesay of Pitscottie, in which it was said the children began speaking Hebrew. Later scholars aren’t sure of how accurate that report was, and writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott have expressed their doubts.