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Linguistic Deprivation Experiments That Really Happened

February 9, 2014 at 4:54 pm

File this one under further examples of why the Milkweed Triptych isn't nearly as fictional as I thought it was.  (Nor is it, apparently, as fictional as we might prefer.)  First it was a sequence of strange parallels between the imaginary work of Dr. von Westarp to create his battery-powered Übermenschen and real-world tDCS research.  Now it's weird linguistic-deprivation experiments of the Middle Ages.

Just before Christmas, my friend Paul Genesse directed my attention to a piece over at io9 about a bizarre linguistic experiment that took place in the 15th century.   And once again I learned that no matter how strange the things I think I'm weaving from whole cloth, I just can't outpace history.

The warlocks of the Milkweed books speak a lost language known as Enochian.  (That term I took from the works of John Dee, who claimed to have decoded the secret language of angels.)  Enochian enables the warlocks to negotiate with malign entities known as the Eidolons; complications and adventure ensue. 

The origin of Enochian is addressed briefly in Bitter Seeds.   But it was entirely inspired by a conversation with my friend Char Peery, a linguistic anthropologist.   At a Bubonicon a number of years ago, while we were attending a panel on the use of fictional languages in fantasy and science fiction, Char shared a legend that's fairly well-known in linguistic anthropology circles.  She told me the following story that Herodotus relates about the Egyptian pharoah Psamtik I.  According to lore, the king wanted to identify the original language of mankind, and therefore arranged to have two orphans raised in the country with complete isolation from human language.  And, sure enough, the story goes that eventually the kids started speaking Phrygian.  From which Psamtik concluded that the Phrygians were the oldest culture on earth, and theirs the oldest language.

I had never heard this tale, but it blew my mind.  As soon as I heard this story from Char, I knew right away that I had to use it in a book.  In fact I decided on the spot to make it the basis of the magic system in the Milkweed books.  (Which is why Char is acknowledged in the series.  Her knowledge of the lore of strange linguistic experiments in antiquity had a profound impact on the series!  Thanks, Char.)

When thinking through the backstory of the Milkweed books, I decided to recast that linguistic-deprivation experiment and move it into the Middle Ages.  I did that because I knew, based on my own reading and interests, that medieval theologians spent centuries trying to reconstruct the original language of mankind.  Adamic, they sometimes called it—the alleged language of the Garden of Eden.  In other words the pre-Tower of Babel language.  There were efforts to try to reverse-engineer the language of God, the language of "Let There Be Light," from Hebrew.  (There are many books about this, including Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language.)

So, naively believing that the concept of linguistic deprivation experiments conducted on orphans was entirely apocryphal, I imagined that scholars in the Middle Ages actually tried the Psamtik experiment.  (Or perhaps it was John Dee who tried it?)  And that furthermore the experiment worked… except they discovered too late that the Ur-language, the language of creation, the language of Let There Be Light, wasn't a human language at all.

I believed I'd concocted the tale from whole cloth.

But according to the io9 article linked above, it turns out King James IV really tried this very experiment during the Renaissance.  (Or, at least, he did so according to the historian Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie, who relates this tale in James Grant's Edinburgh, Old and New.)  Allegedly, in 1493,  James IV sought to discover the language of the Gods by having a mute woman and two infants transported to the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth.   Some claimed the children naturally spoke Hebrew; others claimed they never spoke at all.  Sir Walter Scott refers to this experiment, too, saying the children probably just learned to emulate the braying of sheep on the island.

So I was particularly struck by parallels between James IV's alleged experiment and the backstory that I'd concocted independently for the Milkweed books.  They're close enough that when I tweeted about this, more than one person responded by saying they had taken it for granted that the Milkweed backstory was an intentional reference to James IV!  But obviously those people gave me way too much credit.  They seemed to believe I knew what I was talking about.  Which is flattering, of course, but not borne out by reality.

Others have pointed out that a very similar experiment was allegedly carried out by Frederick II in the 13th century, motivated by nearly identical pursuits.  There are also tales of a 16th century Mughal emperor who arranged to have such an experiment conducted on a pair of infants.

(Since then, it's been pointed out to me that there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to this subject!) 

Nowadays, in the enlightened age of informed consent, such studies are deemed "The Forbidden Experiment" in the words of Roger Shattuck.  Probably because of the extraordinarily cruel (and probably devastating) deprivation that would have to be visited upon the test subjects.  But who knows?  Perhaps such efforts are forbidden because of the danger of what a successful attempt might uncover…


Alex Brown February 9, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Huh. I'd always assumed you'd based that on James and Frederick Barbarossa. More often than not, truth is stranger than fiction.

Steve Halter February 12, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Now, now Ian--we all know what is going on in your secret mountain fortress in the aptly named "Forbidden Tower." Funny how secrets just always seem to leak out of secret mountain fortresses. 

(And, it is very cool how all these things turn out to have actually happened.)

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