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Language deprivation experiments

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Language deprivation experiments

Language deprivation experiments have been attempted several times through history, isolating infants from the normal use of spoken or signed language in an attempt to discover the fundamental character of human nature or the origin of language.

The American literary scholar Roger Shattuck called this kind of research study "The Forbidden Experiment" because of the exceptional deprivation of ordinary human contact it requires.[1] Although not designed to study language, similar experiments on non-human primates (labelled the "Pit of despair") utilising complete social deprivation resulted in psychosis.

In history

Ancient records suggest that this kind of experiment was carried out from time to time. An early record of an experiment of this kind can be found in Herodotus's Histories. According to Herodotus, the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I carried out such an experiment, and concluded the Phrygian race must predate the Egyptians since the child had first spoken something similar to the Phrygian word bekos, meaning "bread.".[2] However, it is likely that this was a willful interpretation of their babbling.[3][4]

An alleged experiment carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged "foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which he took to have been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."[5]

Several centuries after Frederick II's experiment, James IV of Scotland was said to have sent two children to be raised by a mute woman isolated on the island of Inchkeith, to determine if language was learned or innate.[6] The children were reported to have spoken good Hebrew, but historians were sceptical of these claims soon after they were made.[7][8] This experiment was later repeated by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who held that speech arose from hearing, thus children raised without hearing human speech would become mute.[9]

In fiction

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Herodotus, History II:2, found in "An Account of Egypt".
  3. ^ Danesi, Marcel and Paul Perron (1999). Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction and Handbook. Indiana: Indiana University Press, p. 138.
  4. ^ McCulloch, Gretchen (2014). Slate Magazine. "What Happens if a Child Is Never Exposed to Language?"
  5. ^ Medieval Sourcebook: Salimbene: On Frederick II, 13th Century
  6. ^
  7. ^ Dalyell, John Graham, ed., , vol. 1, Edinburgh (1814)The Chronicles of Scotland by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie pp. 249-250.
  8. ^
  9. ^ M. Miles, , c1200-1750SIGN, GESTURE & DEAFNESS IN SOUTH ASIAN & SOUTH-WEST ASIAN HISTORIES: a bibliography with annotation and excerpts from India; also from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, Persia/Iran, & Sri Lanka
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