On royal curiosity and language deprivation experiments
August 4, 2008 8:23 AM Subscribe
Frederick...made linguistic experiments on the vile bodies of hapless infants, "bidding foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no wise to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."
Emperor Frederick II was not alone in his curiosity on this score: Both Psammetichus I
(664-610 BCE) and James V
(1513-1542 CE) also organized their own versions of the experiment.
We tend to think of such research as having been abandoned wholesale by the time of the 20th century, though there have been cases
of “feral children”, even very recently.
(And other, similarly cruel experiments have been performed, for example, in an attempt to discover the source of stuttering.
) Yet the grandiose questions about language that perplexed both the royal “scientists” organizing such experiments as well as the more contemporary scientists studying feral children, remain largely unanswered. This indicates to some that "the forbidden experiment may belong to a...group of experimental problems that persistently seem meaningful but are not."