2

LANGUAGES IN THE WORLD

LANGUAGE ORIGINS

In the Tower of Babel story, in Genesis, the divine punishment for human temerity is the creation of a confusion of languages; this is remedied, in a curious way, with the glossolalia of Pentecost (noted in Acts)—that intriguing ‘speaking in tongues’ which still finds expression in some religious gatherings, but which is hardly a common language in any ordinary sense. Many linguists and others, of course, have felt that linguistic diversity is not a punishment but rather a vital component of human life, and if we go further back than Babel we may find some support for this. The famous injunction, once the flood had receded, to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ has been interpreted as including linguistic diversification; that is, Noah’s descendants were commanded to develop new languages. By the time we reach the Tower of Babel we discover, of course, that they had not done so (‘And the whole earth was of one language, and of one species’: Genesis XI:1) and, thus, God’s dissatisfaction with their presumptions was allied to the idea that they required a firmer nudge towards language diversity. But if diversity first occurred at this point, what was the original language? 1

Herodotus reports that the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik (663-610 BC) arranged for two babies to be nurtured without hearing any language. At the age of two, the infants apparently said becos, a Phrygian word meaning ‘bread’. Frederic II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) attempted a similar experiment, but without success, for it was found that ‘the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments’. Later still, James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) put two infants with a dumb woman, and Lindesay the historian noted that ‘some say they spoke good Hebrew, but as to myself I know not but by hearsay’. All of these attempts were based on the assumption that, if left uninfluenced, children would somehow come out with the original language, an assumption not now widely shared! But the Mogul emperor Akbar (1542-1605) had also challenged it; he believed that children isolated from human speech would not speak themselves and in

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