Creating language from scratch.
January 15, 2008 3:02 AM   Subscribe

If left entirely without adult supervision from birth, would a group of newborns develop a new language?

So I've heard tales of kids raised by wolves who never learn to speak, and kids raised in multilingual environments who invent their own distinct pidgin. What I want to know is if I take a group of, say, twenty children, ten boys, ten girls, and raise them from birth in an entirely speech free environment, will they develop their own language to communicate with each other? Obviously these new borns would need some looking after at first, but my dedicated team of nurses wouldn't be allowed to talk to them at all, and any interaction would be kept to a bare minimum. Over the years, this outside interaction would dwindle into nothing, and they'd be left to fend for themselves on an island somewhere.
I'd love to do this experiment myself, but I lack the requisite time, funds and babies, and I've been told it is both illegal and immoral. So what would happen?
posted by greytape to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Here is my two cents.
Yes. they will develop a new language. It won't be perfect. It would probably need few generations to get it right.

Chances are it will start with few grunts and hisses plus a lot of hands gestures.

For example, calling or gesturing food may be something along the lines of "da" or "ma" or something simple... It probably starts with one of more dominate babies who would start gesturing or make sounds eariest. Other babies should follow his or her leads. As time passes and those care takers response to baby/ies' wishes for food, others will notice the pattern and start mimic the one who gets his wishes accomplished..(getting food or what ever..)

By the time they grow up, the group will have sets of sounds/grunt (language)

How their lanugage may sound will be mostly up to what that dominant ones say or do...

I do think DNA or something similar will play some part on what that language may sound like. (millions of years of social habits or sound may be built in to those babies)

For another quick example... one of the more dominate ones may start seeing a big rock and start saying "wow"..or "ah~~" or something.... Then It may be entirely possible for others to start calling what we call a rock ... "wow"......

hmm.... i almost sounded like a scientist.. or just a dumb blabber mouth..:-)
posted by curiousleo at 3:24 AM on January 15, 2008

What I want to know is if I take a group of, say, twenty children, ten boys, ten girls, and raise them from birth in an entirely speech free environment...

One quite feasible way of doing this would be to raise twenty deaf children. Your nurses would have no trouble not talking to them--or at least the children would have no trouble not listening.

Things start to get sketchy at "interaction would be kept to a bare minimum" and "they'd be left to fend for themselves on an island somewhere." The critical aspects of language acquisition happen early enough that were you to cut a group of children off from adult human interaction before they began to take place--say, anywhere between the ages of 6 months and 8 years--they would very likely die for reasons wholly unrelated (or at least orthogonal) to human language and its use, like difficulty obtaining food, shelter, and clothing.

So the closest you're going to get is deaf kids who interact with non-signing adults. You happen to be in luck.

There are some compelling reasons to believe that the cognitive mechanisms underlying the acquisition and use of human language are universal, innate, and domain-specific (there are, of course, dissenting opinions; plainly, no one knows how it is that we speak and understand.). So, even if you object that the deaf Nicaraguan children interacted "too much" with the adults (a silly objection imho), there are likely good theoretical and empirical grounds to believe that the children in your thought experiment would indeed be a part of or spawn a community that possesses natural language.
posted by holympus at 3:36 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

What I want to know is if I take a group of, say, twenty children, ten boys, ten girls, and raise them from birth in an entirely speech free environment, will they develop their own language to communicate with each other?

You may want to read Noam Chomsky's Language and Responsibility, wherein he discusses childrens' innate grammatical abilities.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:41 AM on January 15, 2008

The closest you'll find to real world answers to your question is in Talking Hands by Margalit Fox, which covers many essential questions about language and how it develops with special attention to signed languages and how they spontaneously develop in deaf communities.
posted by plinth at 3:42 AM on January 15, 2008

Here's a page that might be of interest.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:03 AM on January 15, 2008

If you did it with dumb(mute) carers, that might be better than with deaf babies, but there again it might affect the result. So you'd have to do it several times, with dumb carers, dead babies, combinations thereof,
posted by criticalbill at 4:17 AM on January 15, 2008

The medieval chronicler Salimbene di Adam claims that the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, actually performed this experiment. According to the chronicler, the emperor received some unsatisfactory results. From the second link:

"bidding foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the chidren, 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. "

Salimbene seems not to have been a fan of the Emperor, so, of course, none of this may have happened in reality...
posted by Life at Boulton Wynfevers at 4:37 AM on January 15, 2008

Wikipedia has a brief page on previous attempts to do this. It mentions an anecdote about James V of Scotland having children raised by a mute nurse - apparently the children spoke "very guid Hebrew"...
posted by greycap at 4:40 AM on January 15, 2008

The story about James V is a myth.
posted by Flitcraft at 4:48 AM on January 15, 2008

You might be interested in Oliver Sack's Seeing Voices If I remember correctly, what would happen in your situation would be that the children would develop a very primitive language, enough to get food etc but no complex abstract expression. However, if your infants grew up and reproduced (or you airmailed them some more babies, whatever) the new infants would speak a grammatically complete language.
posted by fermezporte at 5:59 AM on January 15, 2008

It is a novel but Dumb House by John Burnside is a very interesting book based on the Gang Mahal myth.
posted by ninebelow at 6:05 AM on January 15, 2008

Look up twin talk. I remember a documentary on twins and one of the interesting things was that twins often develop their own language. It doesn't directly answer your question but at least indicates there is a strong ingrained ability to develop language. Here are a few articles:
posted by substrate at 6:12 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here is a BBC story about the language developed by deaf children in Nicaragua.
posted by DarkForest at 6:36 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

This page claims that an Egyptian ruler, Psammetichus, actually tried this experiment.
posted by amtho at 6:52 AM on January 15, 2008

I would highly recommend Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct." While I'm not sure if he addresses your precise question, the material he covers there about our innate grammar should point you in the right direction.
posted by peacheater at 7:08 AM on January 15, 2008

Slightly off-topic, but:

kids raised in multilingual environments who invent their own distinct pidgin

Can I see a link for this? I was raised in a multilingual environment and up till the age of 4 I didn't speak. I may have said Ma and Pa but then I just stopped. My parents thought I had gone deaf, but my hearing was fine; one psychologist/doctor figured that I was getting confused by all the different languages. Everyone in the family used English exclusively and as soon as I entered (an English) kindy I was fine. Now I can't shut up.

Could it be possible that the kids in your experiment come up with different ways of communication - eye signals, body language, percussion?
posted by divabat at 7:56 AM on January 15, 2008

Seconding The Language Instinct. Pinker's answer would basically be "Yes, and the language they developed would have certain characteristics in common with many pre-existing languages that they had never heard of."
posted by bingo at 8:00 AM on January 15, 2008

If you're really into this stuff, neurobiology is the field, with plenty of specialists who work with normal children to learn about how language develops how much is instinctive and so on. Alternately, the medical field also studies language development in children but with a focus on intervention and correction and mostly collects information on various kinds of language difficulties.

Animal studies on language and communication are also getting better with some degree of implication for human communication studies. (ie, the dumber the animal that has some kind of language, the more instinctive our own ability is likely to be)
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 8:34 AM on January 15, 2008

Response by poster: Great answers here, thanks to all those who answered. I'd heard of those deaf nicaraguan kids before but I don't think I really appreciated the significance of it.

divabat - I meant more in the case of pidgins developing in multilingual societies, that children learn to speak fluently and add sophistication to.

I think I'm going to add the Language Instinct to my Amazon Wish List, this isn't the first time I've heard it recommended. (Of course, that means I won't read it until 2011 or so...)
posted by greytape at 9:49 AM on January 15, 2008

No one knows. I'm trying to find it online (I think it might have been at The Edge?), but I remember that this question was asked to a bunch of psychologists and linguists, and answers were all over the map. I seem to remember that there were more 'no' answers, but maybe I'm making that up. I'll keep hunting.
posted by painquale at 9:57 AM on January 15, 2008

kids raised in multilingual environments who invent their own distinct pidgin

Can I see a link for this?

Divabat, check out The Language Instinct as recommended upthread. I remember Steven Pinker talking about kids inventing their own pidgin in this book, though I have no idea what chapter or anything.
posted by vytae at 11:01 AM on January 15, 2008

I suspect twin talk is strongly related to the language of the surrounding environment. Pinker will get you going and argue for innateness of language, but be aware that he glosses over as straightforward some claims that are in fact still very much debated in the linguistics community.

There are (at least) three schools of thought on how language is acquired. The behaviorist school (think B. F. Skinner here), pretty much discredited these days, would answer your question "No, not really," because in their view language is essentially a cultural acquisition. The kids might actually standardize some ways of communicating things, but to get as developed as language is their system would have to evolve over as many generations as language has. The innatist school (Pinker is one, as is Chomsky) would generally go ahead and claim that a full, grammatically structured language would emerge from your hypothetical colony of kids, with an assist from the Bickertonian creolists who would tell you what kind of grammar to expect. The interactionist school has just come to my attention (Jenny Saffran seems to be a leading light); they say that general puzzle-solving cognition and memory play a considerable role in acquisition, and under that view I reckon their answer would be more like the behaviorists': Without ordered input to jump-start the process, there's no one puzzle to solve—rather, each peer's own idiosyncratic ideas of how to communicate constitute a puzzle that must be approached separately. This resembles what Krashen (from the field of English as a Second/Foreign Language) says: The quantity of comprehensible input is essential.

None of these groups has exactly got a monopoly on correct predictions from theory. There's a widespread consensus that behaviorism doesn't explain the generativity of speech, or our ability to evaluate the grammaticality of a novel sentence with no actual meaning (Chomsky's "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."). Myself, I lean toward the innatist viewpoint, but the interactionists are putting up a good fight. Memory, massive subconscious memory, seems to be a lot more important than the innatists admit; and there are definitely pragmatic/discursive situations in which general cognition and world knowledge play a part, which violates the innatist tenet that language is an encapsulated module of the mind. (The traditional innatist reply to this is to define as "language" only the phenomena that the innatist theory explains.)
posted by eritain at 12:39 PM on January 15, 2008

Not twins, but my brother and I had a private language. He didn't start talking until he was about 4 years old - at least, not in any language my parents could understand. He could understand and comprehend fine; he communicated to me (gestures, postures and short wordforms - more communicated by facial expression and tone/pitch of voice than actual phonetics) and I translated. Put simply, he was being lazy. He had no need to learn to speak, because I was very good at it.

Even today, I occasionally lapse into similar babble, but that's okay. My husband understands.
posted by ysabet at 3:13 PM on January 15, 2008

If left entirely without adult supervision from birth, I surmise a group of newborns would die.

Barring that, I don't know that one could actually say they could "create" a language of any sort. Wittgenstein's thoughts here

I do remember studying cases of pidgin development in some orphanages/etc. I believe its a hotly debated topic as to whether or not a pidgin can develop independently of outside linguistic influence.
posted by s01110011 at 4:05 PM on January 15, 2008

Wittgensteinian private languages don't have anything to do with this question, s01110011. Word meaning would be shared between the children, and we could presumably translate their language into our own (in the same way that a field linguist coming across a foreign culture could attempt translation). So although the children would invent a new language, it would still be a public language, in Wittgenstein's sense.

The existence of pidgin languages is more to the point, but it also doesn't settle this question, because inventors of pidgins have been exposed to other languages. They pick up and tinker with bits of syntax and vocabulary from what they hear around them. The question asks what would happen if the children had no linguistic input.

Eritain's answer is good, but I have one possible worry that his answer brought to mind. I don't think it's right to say that innatists would necessarily answer this question in the affirmative. In fact, I suspect that many, and perhaps even most, self-avowed innatists would think that the children wouldn't gain a language. Every innatist accepts that there is a critical period of language development. Our language faculty might be innate, but if we don't get any linguistic input before puberty or thereabouts, then that faculty will never be triggered and we'll never learn a language. So all innatists must accept you only end up with a grammar if environmental conditions are right. The question up for debate is whether the environmental conditions would be right in the situation described by the poster's question. A society of children who share communicative intent but don't speak a grammatical language might not offer each other the right kind of input to trigger a language module. I don't know what Chomsky (for instance) would say about this question, but I think it's entirely reasonable that he might think you need to hear someone speak a grammatical language in order to gain a grammar.
posted by painquale at 6:02 PM on January 15, 2008

(Perhaps that's what he meant by "the interactionist school", but that seems to emphasize problem-solving and memory. You could be an innatist and think that no inference or problem-solving takes place in language acquisition but that one still needs to hear to grammatical language in order to trigger linguistic competence.)
posted by painquale at 6:07 PM on January 15, 2008

Nu, painquale speaks truth. I guess the question for an innatist is whether the drive to acquire a language is sufficiently strong that the children will take one another's spontaneous vocalizations as input—this is where the situation diverges from, say, Genie, who did not have regular contact with a community of others who vocalized with communicative intent.

I'm fairly persuaded that there is a 'language module' of some sort in the mind (whether or not it handles all and only language acquisition), and I'm persuaded that it works crazy hard to impose regularity on whatever input it's given, so I suspect the kids would develop something much like a normal language: It would have recursion in its grammar, it would (appear to) have phonemes, it would have closed- and open-class morphemes, it would distinguish person, it would be typologically unexceptional. If any proposed principles of Universal Grammar ever actually turned out to be universal, it would abide by them.

On the other hand, I see no reason to expect it would be free of inconveniences, or have a highly nuanced vocabulary, or a complicated phonology. Language acquisition might be a Vygotskian sort of task: You can do it to a certain level on your own strength, but there's a massive zone of proximal development available if you're scaffolded by input from a competent adult.
posted by eritain at 11:21 PM on January 20, 2008

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