Royal investigations of the origin of language
One method applied to the problem of language origins has been an experimental one: to examine the speech produced by a group of children who have been isolated from exposure to language at birth and cared for by (usually) dumb foster-mothers. Three such early investigations are acknowledged — those of Psamtik I of Egypte (663–610 B.C.), Frederick II of Sicily (1192–1250), and James IV of Scotland (1473–1513). A fourth such royal investigation by Akbar the Great (1542–1605) is less well-known. Historical evidence pertaining to each of these investigations is located and analysed, and an estimate is made of their authenticity and plausability. It is concluded that the experiments attributed to Psamtik I and James IV very probably did not take place and that, while Frederick II’s experiment may very well have occurred, nothing can be learned from it. The remaining experiment, that of Akbar the Great, almost certainly did occur, but its outcome remains ambiguous. Finally, the question asked by these ancient experiments is treated as a special limiting case of a more general question, namely, what are the characteristics of the function which relates properties of the child’s language to properties of the language to which he/she is exposed? Some evidence from more recent ‘natural’ experiments is reviewed and it is concluded that there are some grounds for supposing that this function may be augmentative. That is, it may alter or add to the properties of the language to which the child is exposed.
Published online: 01 January 1982
Cited by 10 other publications
Bonvillian, John D. & Susan B. Dell
Grieve, Robert & Robin Campbell
Taylor, Daniel J.
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