The question is: What is the "original" language of mankind?

The experiment is: Raise children, from birth, without talking to them. Theoretically, whatever they start speaking--uninfluenced by their culture, as opposed to how everyone else learns to speak--should be "it".

Unfortunately, if you actually try to do this, the child will probably die (of hospitalism, I expect). Hence the experiment is "forbidden". Don't try this at home, kids.

Herodotus reports that an Egyptian king named Psammetikos raised two children this way, and their first word was "bekos", which turned out to be the word for "food" in Phrygian. Which, I suppose, is as good a guess as any.


Note: Even if there were an "original language" of mankind, a baby would not know it. Do teach your kids to talk.

There are some interesting real-world examples of the forbidden experiment as described by Muke. Some children actually do grow up without language. "Wild Children", who grow up completely on their own, or are intentionally prevented from having any contact with people by neglectful parents, have no such exposure. However, their upbringing tends to traumatic in the extreme, making them poor subjects for any sort of research into natural language.

However, there is another interesting case, that of deaf children born to hearing parents. These children may grow up in a perfectly normal home environment, but because of their lack of exposure to either spoken language or signed language at a young age, have no "native language" at all.

What all of these cases point to, though, is not any mysterious primal language. What actually happens when children grow up without exposure to language is that the areas in their brains devoted to the production and comprehension of language never develop properly, and learning any language at all in later life may be difficult or even impossible, depending on the age at which they are first exposed to language. The critical age for natural language acquisition would seem to be around four years, with some individual variation.

Needless to say, this raises interesting Chicken-and-egg style problems for linguistic anthropologists. The current hypothesis is that humans evolved language through a series of gradual, iterative steps, meaning that there would be no "first language". Even if there were, there are some pretty severe logical flaws in the idea that a baby would know it.

Generally speaking, if a person is left alone, he will not develop a language entirely of himself. However, if two or more people are put together at birth, they will inevitably invent a language of their own. A good example of this is young children, where, although they have no capacity for speech as yet, can communicate with each other. Thus, there might not have been an "original language" as such, but a host of languages each developing from a unique culture.
When a culture has a stable language, it gains in size. The sections branching out start to make their own dialects. When cultures spread out enough, languages become less and less like the "original". Enough that it becomes its own language. This is how we end up with latin based languages (i.e. Spanish, French, Italian etc.) and the many other languages that exist today.

Isolating children so that they would speak in the original language is a bit like closing your eyes and throwing paint at a canvas in the hope of painting the original picture: There is no such thing, and even if there was, you wouldn't find it that way.

Languages change, diverge, merge. We are capable of speaking in many different ways, and none of them are the only right one. Each pair of children in the experiment would invent a new language, albeit a severely stunted one. We have an innate ability to create language, but the kind of language that we create is shaped by external factors.

It is a tautology of evolution that human beings have been talking as long as they have been able to talk, and have able to talk ever since they started doing it.

The true evolution of human language is inevitably intertwined with the history and evolution of the species itself. Look at the languages clustered around Europe -- a handful of them evolved directly from Latin. Still others, while they might have come from older common roots than Latin and its ilk, are inevitably similar on some level because the whole lot of them evovled from Proto Indo European, the granddaddy of all languages west of the Ural mountains -- and then some. I can't speak as such for the eastern languages, but I know that for all their cultural diffrences, Chinese and Japanese are related. The indigenous languages of Africa are related. The indigenous languages of the new world are related, and so on.

Perhaps, though, the Forbidden Experiment was asking the wrong questions. A better start might have been, "how many original languages did mankind have?"

Language, in my humble, non-expert opinion, began with the need for humans to use their evolutionary "edge" - their brains - to their advantage. To do this, they needed to communicate quickly and effectively, to compete in pre-historic times. Brainpower was their survival tactic. If the hunter-gatherers could get to the food sources first, they could feed their tribe. They could increase their population. Necessity is the mother of invention. Language began, because we needed it to survive. Words for things like food, walk, run, eat, drink, sleep, see, yell, hurt, cry, fuck, and so on were the first. They were the most fundamental. They were probably, way back in the past, adapted from grunts and hoots we used to make when we were apes. The first languages probably consisted of a relatively low amount of words, which were not highly defined and probably all sounded somewhat similar, composed of gutteral and phoentic sounds. Ever wonder why all those "basic" words tend to be just one syllable? Ever wonder why profanity tends to be just one syllable?

And so, when we settled down and became agriculturalists, we suddenly had a mess of new, important concepts on our hands. Not only that, but were sedintary. We could have possessions, write down our wisdom, and pass it on to future generations. All of a sudden, one generation could build on the knowledge of the last. We therefore had a ton of new intellectual concepts. We had no words for things like that, but we soon developed them. The more abstract concepts in language were newer. We were smarter, as a culture, so we could handle bigger words. Multisyllabic words became more commonplace. They evolved, though, from those small, basic words that were our first. Like building a house, the foundation comes first.

One could almost say that humans who were more adept at learning and mastering language were, evolutionarily, more fit to survive. Those who had a working command of language would hear the news and know where the food, water, and shelter were. The ones who didn't understand were left out of the loop. They became sickly and died, for lack of adequate resources that they would have otherwise gained by knowing a language. Thus, those who had the gene for a powerful language processing lobe in the brain survived to reproduce. Today, where language has long since become an absolute necessity, we all have such sections in our brains, just as we have nimble fingers.

The reason the forbidden experiment wouldn't work is because we only develop, linguistically, what we need in order to function. Back when we were all hunter gathered, we didn't need too many words. We have more things to deal with in this day and age, so we have more complex words to express and describe it. The development and complexification of language come slowly, just as did our civilization.

And that, my friends, is why good ol' Psammetikos wouldn't have found the original language of mankind, even if his experiment had succeeded. Language development is completely situational. Any language the kids he isolated would have come up with would be influenced by sounds they heard, by the color of the walls where they were kept, by the methods in which they obtained their food and their clothes, and so on. Just like today's languages developed, slowly, as their presence became necessary.

As I know of Psammetiko's experiment, it consisted of the following:

There was this rush among Phrygians and Egyptians about which civilization was older and thus the greater heir of the "ancient knowledge of the gods". Both civilizations sprung fully functional apparently for no cause and the myths of the two intertwine themselves.

Apart from this ancient ideological ego fight, the experiment was to isolate two kids, probably one Egyptian and one Phrygian with a mute Shepherd and watch for the early signs of spoken language. Which language they spoke first(Egyptian or Phrygian) would make the respective civilization winner of the competition. The experiment, as Muke states, ended with the word "bek" or possibly "bekos" which is phrygian for "bread" or "food". The Phrygians were then accepted as the oldest civilization of the World.

The catch is that the kids may have mimicked the sheep's sounds.

It's a dumb experiment for us, but back then it illustrates that even in the ancient civilization, empirical data was valued as the true resource to reach truth, something that was somewhere forgot by the ocidentals during the Middle Ages(or that is what THEY want you to believe).


18/07/2008 UPDATE

THEY HAVE BEEN DOING IT AGAIN.

I was testing Mac OS X on my old and sturdy Toshiba laptop and slacking off. Safari's home page is full of shit, but they've managed to accomplish some nifty user interface advancements. It's really creepy how we geeks are pictured as borg'ed communistopen droids who keep parroting the same lines enshrined in those open ideals while the macheads get the glamour at the same time they are being mindwashed with corporate discourse saying mac mac mac mac mac oooooooooooooooS hit.

But I digress: that must be just part of the nature of memetics. The real problem was one specific "Science" headline about the MIT Speechome project. And I quote:

"When Deb Roy and his wife, Rupal Patel, learned of their impending bundle of joy, they did what many first-time parents do: They got a video camera. Actually, they bought 11 video cameras and 14 state-of-the-art microphones. Then they built a temperature-controlled data-storage room in their basement and loaded it with, among other gear, five Apple Xserves and a 4.4TB Xserve RAID, backup tape drives, and robotic tape changers. No, Roy and Patel hadn’t instantly become the world’s most doting parents; instead, they had hatched a plan to record practically every waking moment of their son’s first three years.

The high-powered academic couple—he directs of the Cognitive Machines Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, and she directs the Communication Analysis and Design Laboratory at Northeastern University—scrambled to convert their suburban Boston home into a state-of-the-art research center that would host the most ambitious study ever conducted on how children acquire language. They named the linguistic data-mining odyssey the Human Speechome Project (HSP), a marriage between “Speech” and “Home.” The name also pays appropriate homage to the grand scale and scientific payoff of the Human Genome Project, which catalogued the complete genetic makeup of the human species. Following on the heels of the Human Genome Project, the HSP was recently singled out by the journal Science as an example of pioneering research. In addition to their roles as primary investigators in the study, Roy and Patel are, along with their now two-year-old son, the central research subjects.

“My ultimate goal is to understand how language works,” Roy explains. That’s a tall order, and the logical place to start, he maintains, is with children. Decades of inquiry involving video and audio recordings of children interacting with caregivers and psychologists in institutional “speech labs” have laid a foundation to begin answering questions about how children develop language skills. The day-in/day-out interactions between children and adults, Roy points out, are key to the way children grasp language. “But for all of the interest in how children learn language, there’s no comprehensive data of even a single child’s development,” Roy says. “Most researchers rely on speech recordings that cover less than 1.5 percent of a child’s complete linguistic experience.”"

Sure, let's just throw our own childs onto the panopticon, all in the name of science, of course. Great! Maybe he can share the data with some of those psychologists, in exchange for some free psychotherapy for his soon-to-be fuckedup son.

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