Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

LINGUISTS have discovered that babies babble in the same patterns of sound that occur in hypothetical 'proto-words' (constructed by using linguistic laws to infer what the earliest words must have sounded like if they were to generate the words we use today). The ancient Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Egyptians were working on the same sort of principle some time ago.

Herodotus thought the Egyptians the cleverest of all people and, to prove it, begins his account of their culture by telling how Psammetichus I (664-610 ac) set about deciding which was the most ancient race of all; for up till then, Herodotus tells us, the Egyptians took it for granted that they were.

Psammetichus took two newborn children and gave them to a shepherd to raise in a lonely cottage, with orders that no one should utter a word in their presence; goats were to provide them with their daily milk. Psammetichus' purpose was to discover what word they said first. …

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