[lg policy] The Search For The First Language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Apr 8 15:17:00 UTC 2015

  Barbara Klein Moss <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-klein-moss/>

Author, 'The Language of Paradise'

   -  <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/users/login/>

   -  <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/users/login/>

 The Search For The First Language

   -  Comment 7

    Until I began to research a novel about a young clergyman's search for
the language Adam spoke in the Garden of Eden, I had no idea that my
character's eccentric quest had roots in the earliest civilizations. For as
long as tales have been told about how the world began, there have been
stories of a Golden Tongue spoken in a Golden Age -- a language that
perfectly expressed the nature of what it named, clear as water, free of
muddy ambiguity, shared by all humans and, in some versions, animals. Then,
after a divine decree or catastrophic event, the universal tongue shattered
into fragments and people could no longer understand one another. The
result? The chaotic and clamorous world we know. It's no wonder that
seekers have been trying to recover that Holy Grail of verbal harmony for

The search began centuries before Genesis was written. According to the
Greek historian Herodotus, Pharoah Psammetichus, who ruled Egypt around 664
BC, had such curiosity about the origin of language that he sequestered two
infants in a mountain hut with only a silent shepherd to nurture them. When
one of the children cried out syllables that sounded like the Phrygian word
for bread, the pharaoh had to conclude, perhaps reluctantly, that Egyptian
wasn't the oldest language after all. The callous experiment was repeated
several times in different eras. In the thirteenth century, the Holy Roman
Emperor Frederick II placed babies in the care of foster mothers who were
forbidden to talk to them. He spoke six languages himself, and was eager to
discover which one God had given to Adam and Eve. Sadly, the poor children
died before they could utter words in any tongue. With a poignancy that
echoes through the ages, the monk Salimbene wrote that they "could not live
without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance,
and blandishments." Another multi-lingual monarch, James IV of Scotland,
engaged a mute to look after his little prisoners. Well-read in the Bible,
the king must have been gratified when they burst into flawless Hebrew.

The Scottish king wasn't the only one whose convictions overcame his
reason. Scholars who searched for the language of paradise tended to arrive
at the outcome they were looking for. Their speculations were bounded by
their own beliefs, which, until the middle of the nineteenth century, were
firmly grounded in the Bible. Christopher Columbus, embarking on his first
voyage to find a route to the Orient, took along a Jewish convert who spoke
Hebrew and Aramaic. He reasoned that the interpreter could converse in
God's own tongue with any descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who
might have wandered to the New World. In the days when America was still
considered the new Eden, the fiery Puritan minister Cotton Mather devoted
his Master's thesis at Harvard to a scholarly defense of Hebrew as the
first language. Even philologists were not immune. A spiritual awakening in
1808 moved Noah Webster to abandon work on his dictionary for years to
pursue the ur-language from Eden. He arranged dictionaries of twenty
languages on a circular desk, and spent his days in a state of rotation,
stalking the roots of words from one tome to another.

Darwin's theories changed the study of language origins, as they changed
the prevailing view of the world. Language was not a gift given by a
Creator at the dawn of time but a faculty that developed slowly as the
human species adapted to a changing environment. It wasn't a true instinct,
as proponents of natural language claimed, but an artful tool for
prolonging survival. In a new spin on the old myth of a tongue shared by
men and beasts, Darwin drew parallels between animal and human
communication, comparing birdsong to the babbling of infants and
speculating that singing might have come before speaking. "Do monkeys howl
in harmony?" he asked, and imagined an early man bawling melodically to
attract the ladies.

The debate -- and the contention -- has been going on ever since. In the
late nineteenth century, the linguistic societies of Paris and London threw
up their collective hands and banned all discussion of language origins. By
1970, when the subject became respectable again in academia, linguists were
still locking horns over old questions, bolstering their arguments with new
research. Is language innate, a structure in the brain as Chomsky's
universal grammar suggests, or an acquired skill, as evolutionists believe?
Is it unique to humans, or can animals be taught complex communication?
Nowadays, the pharoah's isolated hut has been replaced by the laboratory,
where scientists of many disciplines probe the mysteries of the brain and
tongue and larynx. The Holy Grail they seek is no longer the first
language, but the reason we have language at all.

I wonder if writers of fiction are among the few still searching for that
elusive Golden Tongue. We begin with an idea -- a virgin landscape
populated by characters we make from scratch -- and then we struggle to
render the world that lives so vividly in our minds with equal precision in
words. The clergyman in my novel is obsessed with finding a pure language,
a perfect vessel for meaning. In a sense that's a classic writer's quest:
the mandate we wake up to each morning, even if we know that much of the
time we're going to fall short.

*Barbara Klein Moss is the author of *The Language of Paradise
<http://www.amazon.com/The-Language-Paradise-A-Novel/dp/0393057135> *(W.W.
Norton and Company). *


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lgpolicy-list/attachments/20150408/d067acf1/attachment.html>
-------------- next part --------------
This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list