August 30, 2007

Memetic mutation and traumatic release

Today's Stone Soup deals with a case of linguistic abilities unlocked by trauma: Max has fallen out of a tree on his head, and he suddenly jumps from babytalk to hyper-formal adult sentences:

This reminds me of a story that I heard long ago, about Thomas Babington Macaulay. Robert Herrick and Lindsay Todd Damon, Composition and Rhetoric for Schools, 1905, give this version in a (sample passage titled) "Theme on Macaulay":

Even in his early childhood Macaulay showed evidences of his coming greatness. At the age of four he had learned to read, and at five he had read the entire Bible. As early as this, too, he began to use those long words which are so much in evidence in his writings. Illustrative of this fact is the following anecdote. While he was dining one day with his father and mother at the house of a neighbor the servant upset a cup of coffee on his legs. On his hostess's inquiry as to whether he was hurt, the young Thomas immediately replied: "Madam, the agony is somewhat abated."

The story is presented in a very different way in Randall Jarrell's 1954 novel Pictures from an Institution. Young Derek doesn't speak, but only growls, and his mother consults a specialist, who tells her that

... "talking is simply a matter of maturation," but advised, as a precauation, "a thorough physical check-up." He went on to say that Carlyle's first words, delivered at the age of three, had been what ails wee Jock? -- that Lord Macaulay's first words had not come until he was four; a lady had spilt hot tea on him at a party, and he had said, drawing back a little from her solicitous caress: Thank you, Madam, the agony is somewhat abated.

Dinner has become a party, and coffee has become (more stereotypically British) tea. And the quotation, no longer the rhetorical fruits of precocious Bible-reading, is now the first utterance of a late talker, who needed the stimulus of scalding to unlock his tongue.

Jarrell's version is the one that I heard at some point in my childhood. I recall that this story was brought out by adults in exactly the context described in Jarrell's novel, as a way of offering support and encouragement to parents of late talkers. I don't know whether I heard people repeating something they had read in Jarrell's novel, or whether Jarrell's novel reproduces a piece of pre-existing intellectual culture.

In any case, I doubt that scalding and concussion ever actually increase mental abilities, but there's something intuitively plausible about such stories, perhaps because of the analogy to awakening from sleep.

[Alejandro Satz writes:

I remembered that I had read the story of Carlyle's and Macualay's first words, almost in the exact words that you copy from Jarrell, in Bertrand Russell's book An Outline of Philosophy. I checked it finding the book in Google Books and making a search of "Carlyle"; the stories come up in page 40. I reckon Jarrell might have copied it from there, or else both him and Russell copied from the same source, because the two anecdotes are there and with very similar wording. Russell's book is from 1927.

In fact, the passage has some independent interest:

Certain philosophers who have a prejudice against analysis contend that the sentence comes first and the single word later. In this connection they always allude to the language of the Patagonians, which their opponents, of course, do not know. We are given to understand that a Patagonian can understand you if you say 'I am going to fish in the lake behind the western hill', but that he cannot understand the word 'fish' by itself. (This instance is imaginary, but it represents the sort of thing that is asserted.) Now it may be that Patagonians are peculiar -- in they must be, or they would not choose to live in Patagonia. But certainly infants in civilised countries do not behave in this way, with the exception of Thomas Carlyle and Lord Macaulay. The former never spoke before the age of three, when, hearing his younger brother cry, he said 'What ails wee Jock?' Lord Macaulay 'learned in suffering what he taught in song', for, having spilt a cup of hot tea over himself at a party, he began his career as a talker by saying to his hostess, after a time, 'Thank you, Madam, the agony is abated.' These, however, are facts about biographers, not about the beginnings of speech in infancy. In all children that have been carefully observed, sentences come much later than single words.

The wider context is a theory of meaning based on conditioned reflexes -- I had completely forgotten this aspect of Russell.

Anyhow, I like his observation that "These ... are facts about biographers, not about the beginnings of speech in infancy." And this leaves me wondering about the origin and progress of the biographical tidbit about Macauley's burn. ]

[Jan Freeman writes:

I dimly recall from college days that the "Stone Soup"/Carlyle storyline -- the hero who is mute as a toddler then suddenly acquires eloquence -- is a folktale motif as well as a later urban legend. Beowulf, maybe? (I'm on deadline, and recovering from a computer catastrophe, or I would do further research.)

But I clipped "Stone Soup" for another reason. The first dialogue balloon illustrates a common agreement problem that baffles many of my peeve-conscious correspondents.

"Max is one of those kids who doesn't talk much . . . but has it all in their heads."

Many people want "one" to govern the following verb, instead of "kids" -- and that makes the rest of the sentence difficult ("has it all in their heads"). But "one of those kids who don't talk much . . . but have it all in their heads," though grammatically correct and simpler, sounds wrong to many people. Can't remember if Language Log has covered this, but it drives my readers wild, whichever version they prefer.

See " One of those who" (6/7/2006) and " One of those people that care(s)" (11/21/2006). ]

[Ray Girvan observes that the Vietnamese hero Thánh Gióng is a good example of the folktale motif of a mute toddler who suddenly acquires eloquence.]

[Jesse Sheidlower writes:

A favorite literary late-speaker is Charles Wallace Murry, the genius hero of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. We are told that he was completely silent until the age of four, when he began to speak in complete sentences, with "none of the usual baby preliminaries." (From memory, but I always found that line memorable.) Later he uses some hard word, is challenged on its meaning, and responds by quoting the definition in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (which definition he disparages). This at the age of five.


[Douglas Davidson writes:

A Carlyle/Macaulay-type anecdote is also told of Einstein, e.g. Reuben Hirsch et. al., The Mathematical Experience, p. 188 (footnote):

Otto Neugebauer told the writer the following legend about Einstein. It seems that when Einstein was a young boy he was a late talker and naturally his parents were worried. Finally, one day at supper, he broke into speech with the words "Die Suppe ist zu heiss." (The soup is too hot.) His parents were greatly relieved, but asked him why he hadn't spoken up to that time. The answer came back: "Bisher war Alles in Ordnung." (Until now everything was in order.)

Allan Wechsler sent in the same anecdote, and adds:

Without a decent research library I can't figure out how reliable the story is, nor who the real source is [...] Perhaps some young intern at Language Log Plaza could be detailed to ascertain the truth of this legend?

I knew there was something missing around here!]

[With respet to the Macaulay quotation "Madam, the agony is somewhat abated", Thomas Thurman writes:

I first encountered this anecdote in a book by the English writer Frank Muir, who added "I think the temptation to spill coffee on such a child must have been quite strong."


[8/31/2007 -- it looks like the thread is going to go on for a while:


[Kathleen Burt writes:

It may be that words always precede sentences, but the child may practice in secret as it were. My second daughter's first noticed speech was the sentence "Here comes Joe on his motorcycle." And sure enough here he came. On his motorcycle in fact. My daughter was under a year old, and could not stand up unaided. We are pretty sure she didn't know she was overheard, and was practicing speech. In later years we knew her as a child who insisted on learning everything by herself, with as little input from her elders as possible.

Max's newfound eloquence didn't entirely surprise me, and I have heard the other examples before. I have to say that the example involving Carlyle strikes me as better founded, because "What ails wee Jock?" is the sort of household utterance that would be heard by people who were well-positioned to hear the child's first speech. Something said at a dinner party might be widely reported by people who had no real idea how well the child was able to speak, and family comments that it wasn't really the first thing he'd ever said might not be heard by those who were spreading the story.


In some cases, an infant may be treating a phrase in a holistic way. At a time when my oldest son was using only single words, and not all that many of them, he came out with the phrase "what's going on here?" It was in an entirely appropriate context, but I've always assumed that he'd learned this phrase as a unit, glossed as an expression of disapproving amazement. But I admit that "Here comes Joe on his motorcycle" is a less plausible candidate for that sort of interpretation.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 30, 2007 07:52 AM