November 03, 2003

An Early Language Experiment: Failure or Triumph?

Late in the 16th century, the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great tested his hypothesis that babies raised without hearing speech would be unable to speak. He had twelve infants raised by mute nurses in a house where no speech could be heard. Several years later, he went to the house and found that none of the children spoke. Instead, they conversed only in signs. Akbar's hypothesis seemed to be supported: no oral input, no oral language language learning.

But most accounts of Akbar's experiment miss the most interesting point. The silent house where the children were raised was called the Gong Mahal, the "Dumb House". But Gong (as Gernot Windfuhr tells me) meant not only `dull, stupid'; it also meant `one who converses by signs'. The mute nurses likely conversed with each other in signs; they must have communicated with their infant charges in signs -- and the children must have developed a kind of sign language. So although Akbar was right in predicting that the children would not learn an oral language, it seems likely that they did in fact learn, or create, a sign language -- either from normal signed input from the mute nurses (if the nurses had a fully developed sign language) or by further developing a rudimentary sign language used by the caregivers.

A rather different version of this story holds that Akbar's goal (or at least one of his goals) was to find out what language the children would speak when they grew up, thinking that that would be the world's original language. (This experiment is in the spirit of the similar, though smaller-scale, experiments supposedly conducted by the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichos and by King James I of England.) The fact that the children turned out to converse only in signs was deemd a complete failure of the experiment if that was its goal. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that that result might instead suggest that the world's original language was a sign language, not an oral language. (Unlikely, perhaps, but it would be a reasonable conclusion given Akbar's premises.)

Posted by Sally Thomason at November 3, 2003 07:29 PM