February 01, 2004

Stupid Dead People Communication Tricks

Geoff Pullum's recent discussion of stupid fake pet communication tricks reminded Bill Poser of research, I mean "research", on "languages" of "reincarnation" (hereafter I'll dispense with the shudder quotes; just imagine them). Bill thought that languagelog ought to take note of this research, which has also, now and then but as far as I know not at the moment, been reported with insufficient skepticism by the popular press. He passed the buck to me because I'm probably the only linguist who has ever published an article called "Do you remember your previous life's language in your present incarnation?". The idea is that you get hypnotized and age-regressed not just to childhood but beyond, back to one or several earlier lives, and then you provide evidence of the super-successful age regression by speaking the languages of those earlier lives, languages that you have had no opportunity to learn in your nonhypnotic life. This is xenoglossy, which is defined by its most prominent proponent, Professor Ian Stevenson, as "speaking a real language entirely unknown [to the speaker] in his ordinary state" ("Xenoglossy: A review and report of a case", in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1974, p. 1). Stevenson holds (or held?) a chair in Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, which helps make him a voice to be heeded.

The BBC might fall for Stevenson's claims and "evidence" (oops, sorry, there I go again), and at least one philosopher finds them appealing, but no linguist is likely to. Stevenson seems quite sincere -- he goes to great lengths, for instance, to rule out the possibility that his subjects were lying when they said they hadn't ever studied their earlier-lives' languages in their current lifetimes -- but he doesn't know much of anything about language. He succeeds in showing that his two main American subjects had no systematic exposure to German or Swedish in their unhypnotized state; where he fails is in his efforts to demonstrate that they speak the languages at all. He emphasizes what he calls "responsive xenoglossy", an ability to carry on a conversation.

To test his subjects' conversational abilities, he sets up sessions in which they answer questions posed to them by native speakers of their purported earlier lives' languages. As experiments, these sessions are eyebrow-raising. Not only are the native-speaker testers believers in reincarnation, but they often repeat their questions in English when the subject doesn't respond immediately to the foreign-language question. Many of the questions are yes/no questions, and of course there's no way to know whether the answers are correct, since the questions are about the subjects' own earlier lives and nobody else can be presumed to know any details about those lives. An example: "Hast Du eine Puppe?" "Ja." ["Do you have a doll?" "Yes."] (Stevenson does not dispute the claim that the subjects had minimal present-life exposure to German and Swedish, enough to have learned a few words.) With content questions, the subjects often give bizarre answers, like "my wife" in response to a question about what the subject would pay for an article at the market.

Stevenson surmises that the previously German subject's German conversational abilities suffered from the linguistic deficits to be expected from an illegitimate, illiterate servant girl , as if education, legitimacy, and high social position are requisites for fluency in any language. All this is entertaining (except when the press takes it seriously), but it raises a few questions of potential linguistic interest. For instance: just how much can one understand of a language one doesn't know, after minimal exposure? More than you might think, it turns out. And there are real-world consequences of successful guesswork about what someone just said to you in a language you don't know -- especially in the horror stories about American judges who, in order to determine whether a defendant requires an interpreter, bark questions like "What is your name?" and "Do you understand me?" Said judges have been known to conclude from appropriate answers to such obviously guessable questions that the unfortunate defendant understands spoken English just fine and therefore needs no interpreter. So although Stevenson's brand of linguistic ignorance may just be amusing, it's a common brand -- and it can kill, literally.

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 1, 2004 09:03 AM