Lost Words: Narratives of Language and the Brain, 1825-1926

Lost Words: Narratives of Language and the Brain, 1825-1926

Lost Words: Narratives of Language and the Brain, 1825-1926

Lost Words: Narratives of Language and the Brain, 1825-1926


In the mid-nineteenth century, physicians observed numerous cases in which individuals lost the ability to form spoken words, even as they remained sane and healthy in most other ways. By studying this condition, which came to be known as "aphasia," neurologists were able to show that functions of mind were rooted in localized areas of the brain. Here L. S. Jacyna analyzes medical writings on aphasia to illuminate modern scientific discourse on the relations between language and the brain, from the very beginnings of this discussion through World War I. Viewing these texts as literature--complete with guiding metaphors and rhetorical strategies--Jacyna reveals the power they exerted on the ways in which the human subject was constructed in medicine. Jacyna submits the medical texts to various critical readings and provides a review of the pictorial representation involved with the creation of aphasiology. He considers the scientific, experimental, and clinical aspects of this new field, together with the cultural, professional, and political dimensions of what would become the authoritative discourse about language and the brain. At the core of the study is an inquiry into the processes whereby men and women suffering from language loss were transformed into the "aphasic," an entity amenable to scientific scrutiny and capable of yielding insights about the fundamental workings of the brain. But what became of the subject's human identity?Lost Wordsexplores the links among language, humanity, and mental presence that make the aphasiological project one of continuing fascination.


This book is a series of readings in a body of medical literature. the second half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new genre of writing dealing with the relations between language and the human brain; during this period a new condition known as “aphasia” emerged as an object of intense investigation. As a study of the writing by nineteenth- and twentieth-century doctors about this topic, Lost Words is a contribution to the history of a medical specialty; research into aphasia was central to the generation of an intellectual identity for neurology. the book is also relevant to wider issues of the relation of patient and practitioner in modern Western societies. Because aphasia studies were indispensable to any attempt to localize language in the cerebral cortex, it necessarily touches on major themes in the history of what are now known as the neurosciences. the subject matter of Lost Words is, moreover, relevant to current concerns with the cultural history of the self: it describes a moment when crucial aspects of personality were shown to be dependent on material organization.

It is possible to assign an inception date to the literature on aphasia: 1861. As soon as this date is proposed, however, a variety of alternative starting points occur. While I am of the view that the 1860s are the decisive decade in initiating the literature with which this book deals, the study begins by considering a number of earlier texts. One of these (that of Bouillaud) was retrospectively awarded a status within the corpus of aphasia studies. More important, it already displays some of the necessary preconditions for what might be called mature aphasiology.

While the literature of aphasia possesses a starting point—or rather several more or less plausible beginnings—it has no terminus. Aphasiology is very much an ongoing enterprise as the most casual survey of current medical bibliographies will reveal. the decision to conclude this study in 1926 with Henry Head’s Aphasia and Kindred Disorders is therefore to some extent, though not entirely, arbitrary.

The book does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey of the literature of aphasia between 1825 and 1926. Instead it takes certain texts from that literature—some of them “classics,” others more obscure—and subjects them to a variety of readings. the expression “medical literature” is

For useful collections of some of the major texts in this literature see: H. Hecaen and J. Dubois, La naissance de la neuropsychologie du langage 1825–1865 (Paris: Flammarion, 1969); Paul Eling, Reader in the History of Aphasia: From [Franz] Gall to [Norman] Geschwind (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1994).

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