How Not to Study Linguistics

The Greek historian Herodotus recounts a tale about a rather dubious experiment in linguistics supposedly carried out by the Egyptian king Psammetichus.

The point of the experiment was to find out what people or nation in the world was the oldest. It was based on the assumption that the oldest culture’s language would be the language that people who had never heard spoken language before would speak. Further, Psammetichus assumed that the invention of this original language could be artificially recreated. The result of these mistaken assumptions is a bit of a comedy of errors. Here’s how Herodotus tells the tale:

When Psammetichus could not find out by inquiry what people were the oldest, he devised the following plan. He took two newborn children at random and gave them to a shepherd to bring up among his flocks, with orders that they be raised in such a way that no one should make any sound in their presence, that they stay in a lonely hut, and that he should regularly bring his goats there so they could drink their fill, and attend to their other needs. He did these things, and Psammetichus commanded him to notify him at once what word first burst forth from the children, once they had left behind the meaningless babble of infants. And it did indeed happen. When the shepherd had been taking care of the children for two years, once when he opened the door of the hut and went in, both of them fell upon him stretching out their hands and crying: “Bekos!” At first, the shepherd took no notice of what he had heard, but when he kept hearing the same word on his repeated visits, he began to pay attention to it. He sent word to the king, and when ordered, brought the children before him. When Psammetichus heard it for himself, he investigated what people called something “bekos,” and from his investigations he learned that it was the Phrygian word for bread. Taking this fact into consideration, the Egyptians acknowledged that the Phrygians are older than they are.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.2

(My own translation)

As should be obvious (and probably was to Herodotus’ audience), the experiment was in fact a failure. When the children exclaimed “bekos” at the shepherd’s arrival, they were not producing an actual word but simply imitating the bleating of his goats, the only sound they had heard another living creature produce. The fact that Psammetichus did not realize this (and had not accounted for it in designing the experiment) makes this whole story a joke at his expense. The punch line of the joke may be a little lost on a modern audience: the Phrygians were a people who lived in inland Anatolia and spoke a language related to Greek. Phrygians were stereotyped by the ancient Greeks as ignorant country bumpkins. For the Egyptians—proud of the antiquity and sophistication of their culture—to be forced to yield the title of “most ancient people” to the Phrygians was a deflation of their cultural pretension.

Although Herodotus claims to have heard this story from Egyptian priests, like more than a few of the stories he tells about Egypt it sounds more Greek than Egyptian. Specifically, it sounds like a Greek joke told at the Egyptians’ expense. Greeks and Egyptians had close and friendly relations in Herodotus’ day, but it was a relationship in which the Greeks were definitely the junior partners. Egyptians liked to celebrate the antiquity and wisdom of their culture, and we can understand if Greeks occasionally got a bit fed up with being looked down on. This story uses language was a way of turning the tables to suggest that not only were the Egyptians not as ancient a culture as they liked to claim, perhaps they were not as wise, either.

On, of, and about languages.

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