Volume 34, Issue 1
  • ISSN 0302-5160
  • E-ISSN: 1569-9781
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Herodotus recounts the attempt of the pharaoh Psammetichus I to determine which among the peoples of the earth was the oldest. He isolated two children at birth, assuming that their spontaneous speech would reveal the identity of a primordial human language. Although Psammetichus’ inquiry was not explicitly designed to address linguistic issues, it has long been passed down in western reflection on language. This article reviews some of the most significant roles that the story of Psammetichus has played. The story was abundantly cited in 16th-century literature that conceptualized a first human language. It has also contributed to debate about the origin of language, especially during the mid–19th century. Moreover, the story of Psammetichus’ inquiry has been retold in discussion of language acquisition as has taken place since the 1970s. In this context, it is represented as the “ultimate language-learning experiment” (Gleitman & Newport 1995), which constitutes “an incisive bit of scientific prescience” (Rymer 1993). Enlarging on the third, most recent, context for re-telling the story, this article shows how some scholars assimilate it into modern linguistic research, while conceding that it is flawed on ethical grounds. In doing so, they often seem to make the past both inappropriately familiar (therefore less threatening), and inappropriately strange (therefore less valuable). As a result, contemporary citations of this anecdote from the distant past have the paradoxical effect of contributing to fashionable ahistoricity.


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  • Article Type: Research Article
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