Akbar and the Silenced Children: Language as Heritage, or Language as Community?



Chinese Parrot, c. 1700, collection of Marie-Antionette, 1785

As part of the process of assembling, expanding, and (re)writing the material for Book 2, I’ve returned to the problem of “feral children,” which I first visited here six years (!) ago, when I first stumbled across the Wolf Child of Hesse. It’s now been ten days since I decided language deprivation experiments needed to be part of this discussion. 

The form of this chapter will therefore be two studies of isolated children – first, feral ancestors, like Romulus and Remus, isolated from mundane humans; next, the child raised in silence, a supposedly true representation of the human condition, because they have been isolated from the secondary, cultural accumulation of the larger society – and then, finally, a study of a small set of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century feral children stories in which the children find community with wolves: from isolation to a lupine, more than human sociality.

I now have a lot of material on Herodotus, and its classical afterlife in commentaries on Aristophanes, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and even, perhaps, Quintilian, which I might share here; I have my material on Salimbene de Adam’s record of Frederick II, and even that barest reference to James IV’s deprivation experiment that we find Robert Lindsay’s Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. Outside of the historical texts, speculations about isolation and language appear in Pedro Mexia’s Silva de varia lección, the Qabus-nama, and in the medieval Islamic philosophical novels translated into Latin as Philosophus Autodidactus and Theologus Autodidactus. On the topic of isolation, Avincenna’s famous “floating man” thought experiment may be cited too. Once we abandon simplistic notions of historicity and recognize that thought experiments themselves are also “historical,” the archive fills and expands and fills and so on.

In the interests of your time, though, I’m sharing only my material on Akbar’s experiment. This is all new for me, a medievalist trained in the later Middle Ages and English, French, and Latin materials: it’s not just that the sixteenth-century Emperor Akbar is early modern; it’s that the primary materials outside of Europe on his experiment are all in Persian, so I have had to rely on translations, perhaps disreputable, by Victorian Orientalists. But I had my quarry when I stumbled across a story about “Rege terrae Magor” while searching for early modern references to Herodotus. What could this Magor be?

Of course it’s the Mughals. You already knew that, but learning the obvious took me more than a day to figure out, and that here in Paris, where a day has more value than crummy old Brooklyn. In the process, I reconstructed a chain of witnesses to the experiment, tracking the story’s changes from one version to the next, from the late sixteenth through the early eighteenth century. I also determined that credulous, sloppy repetitions of stories of language deprivation experiments run from the present all the way back to Tertullian and even Quintillian and probably Herodotus himself, and that almost no one almost no one can keep the story straight from one telling to the next. That is, all these tellers always get it exactly right for whatever their needs are at the moment.

The story of Akbar’s experiment has often been told. This lengthy post is better cited than most tellings, so even without my final interpretations, it may have some value. My real interest here, however, is in attempts to think through the problem of the origin of language. Language, as a sign, proof, and indispensable tool of reason, attests to our human existence as being more than merely biological, in there being something in or of us that is mere than bare life. Where could the extra thing possibly come from? Answering this question is the concern of these and so many other language deprivation experiments: not to take something away from us, but to discover, within the crucible of this experiment, what our core self might be. The deprivation experiment wants to give us the gift of ourselves, what we really are once all that might be thought to be only secondary to us has been burnt away.

But what is finds itself is catastrophe. Or, despite itself, community.

The first account of Akbar’s experiment appears the Akbarnama of Abul Fazl, Akbar’s own court historian, which may be the only version that has any claim to being an eye-witness account: to prove that speech comes from hearing, Akbar had several children raised by “tongue-tied” wetnurses, confined to a building that came to be called the “dumb house.” When Akbar visited the house in 1582, four years after the children were first interred, he heard “no cry…nor any speech…no talisman of speech, and nothing came out except the noise of the dumb.” Much the same story (but without anything said about nurses or guards) would be told decades later, the anonymous Dabestan-e Mazaheb (“School of Religions), written between 1645 and 1658, which finished with a wonderful assertion about the deep time of human cultural development: the experiment proves that “letters and language are not natural to man,” but only the result of instruction and conversation, and that therefore (!) “the world is very ancient.”

The anti-Akbarian Montaḵab al-tawārīḵ of ʿAbd-ul-Qadir Bada’uni lays the foundations of the story’s several European versions. This work, the Selection of Chronicles, worries over Akbar’s disdain for religion, and Islam in particular; like Salimbene writing about Frederick II, Bada’uni may be portraying an impious tyrant who goes too far in his curiosity. First, however, Bada’uni attributes the experiment to Akbar’s astonished encounter with a man who can hear, despite having “no ears nor any trace of the orifice of the ear”: to test the origins of language, he has several infants locked up, with “well-disciplined” (rather than mute) nurses, who are commanded not to give the children “any instruction in speaking.” Then, without any transition or explanation, Bada’uni changes Akbar’s motivation: he now wants to test the idea that “everyone that is born is born in a state of nature” (George Ranking translation) or that “everyone that is born is born with an inclination to religion” (Lowe? translation). Twenty children are locked up in what comes to be called the “dumb house,” and “three or four years” later, none can speak. Nothing more is said about the earless man.

The language deprivation experiment is absent from several of the early European accounts of Akbar’s court. Giovanni Battista Peruschi’s 1597 Informatio del regno, et stato del gran re di Mogor (published in Latin the following year, with additional material on Japan) limits itself to worrying over possibilities for gaining the Emperor for Roman Catholicism, while the thirteen pages of the True Relation without all Exception, of Strange and Admirable Accidents, which lately happened in the Kingdome of the Great Magor, from 1622, are little but an exoticizing fantasy about the possibilities unleashed by absolute royal power: thus it devotes several of its thirteen pages to the story of a problem-solving ape, like a cleverer Hans, frolicking among the Mughal courtiers, including his two hundred “Boyes…which hee keepeth for unnaturall and beastly uses.”

Instead, the story first enters Europe via the letters of another Jesuit missionary, Jerónimo Xavier (d. 1617), who draws on either on Bada’uni or one of Bada’uni’s own informants to establish one of the main lines of the story’s European reception. Claiming to have had it from Akbar himself, Xavier explains that “nearly twenty years ago,” Akbar closed up “thirty children,” and “put guards over them so that the nurses might not teach them their language.” There is nothing about an earless man, nor any received wisdom about natural religious inclinations. Instead, Akbar had decided “to follow the laws and customs of the country whose language was that spoken by the children.” Since “none of the children came to speak distinctly,” Xavier calls the experiment a “failure”; for Akbar, it may have been something else, since it allowed him to justify following “no law but his own.” Here Xavier presumably means the short-lived, syncretic faith of Dīn-i Ilāhī, designed by Akbar himself.  What had been a story about the origins of language becomes one about what we might call the natural voice of divinity, and, more practically, about the early modern Roman Catholic failure to make Akbar their Prester John, that imaginary medieval Christian king of Asia or “Ethiopia” that Europe hoped would swoop in and crush Islam from what Europe must have thought of as “behind.”

European speculative scholarship happily stuffed the story into a set of examples that invariably, as they still do, began with Herodotus. In a discussion considering the immutability of language, Christop Besold’s 1632 updated version of his De natura populorum tells it exactly as Xavier does, but without saying anything about the muteness of the (thirty) children’s keepers. We find it again in August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem (1693)on whether the Hebrew language is natural, where Pfeiffer cites Besold, and then references Hebrew masters who claim that the Hebrew language was “implanted naturally” (naturaliter impantatam) in the first human. In English, we find the story preserved in these essentials in the chapter “Of the Great Mogor, or Mogoll” of Samuel Purchas’s 1626 travel writing.

Secularized, greatly shortened versions of the story appear in a 1632 entry in the journal of the English traveler Peter Mundy (“hee caused little children to brought up by dumb Nurses to know what languages they would naturally speak, but it is sayd that in a long time they spake nothing at all”), and on the very first page the Danish scientist Ole Borch’s 1675 On the Causes of the Diversity of Languages, whose Latin is repeated word-for-word in Christian Augustus Ludwig’s 1730 Brief Commentary on the Property of NamesLike so many more recent retellings of the story, both writers fold the story in among citations of the few other language deprivation experiments they know – Herodotus and Quintilian in this case – and in Borch, even the sheep-boy of Ireland, whose preference for the choicest pasture was recounted in 1641 by Rembrandt’s famous Doctor Tulp. Borch’s inclusion of this story amid his examples may be the first time an animal-raised child was deliberately understood not as a wonder, but as just one more, sad example of linguistic deprivation.

In virtually none of these versions do the children ever acquire anything but inarticulate noises. The one exception is François Catrou’s 1708 Histoire générale de l’empire du Mogol (General History of the Mughal Empire), which he claims to have based on Niccolao Mannuchi’s 1698 Storia do Mogor (The History of Mughal India), itself based in turn on accounts of Xavier and others. Like Borch, Mannuchi holds that Akbar is seeking the original language. Some thought it would be Hebrew, others “Chaldean” (meaning Syriac? Persian?); and others Sanskrit, “which is their Latin.” Mannuchi has only twelve children, and says nothing about their nurses, only that no one, “under pain of death,” is to speak to the children “or allow them to communicate with each other” (!). When the children turned twelve, they were questioned, but responded only by cringing, and remained “timid [and] fearful” for the rest of their lives.

With one enormous change, Catrou reproduces Mannuchi’s story of Akbar’s “bizarre” experiment, inspired, Catrou says, by Akbar having heard that Hebrew was a “natural language.” The emperor shuts up twelve children with twelve mute nurses, and a male porter, also mute, who is never to open the doors of the “château” in which they have all been confined. Twelve years later, to witness and deliver the verdict, Akbar has filled his court with judges, led by a Jew who will question the children in Hebrew. Another “failure”: all are astonished (“on fut tout étonné”) that they speak no language. This may just be garbled; or Catrou may have drawn these details from now lost manuscripts, used to supplement Manucchi’s account; or – continuing the longstanding habit of scholars of language deprivation experiments – he may have simply dramatized the story further, or folded into it what he expected to find.

However it happened, what Catrou provides astounds: for in this version, for the first time, the children do in fact acquire language. In no earlier version of any account that pretends to be a true history – in neither Herodotus nor Quintilian nor Salimbene nor Robert Lindsey – are the children able to communicate anything but their distress, or some fundamental language. But here they have sign language, taught to them by their nurse; “they express their thoughts only by gestures, which they use in place of words”: in Catro: “Ils avoient appris de leur Nourrice à s’en parler. Seulement ils exprimoient leurs pensées par des gestes qui leur tenoient lieu de paroles,” or, as the 1826 English translation strangely expands the passage, “they had learnt, from the example of their nurses, to substitute signs for articulate sounds. They used only certain gestures to express their thoughts, and these were all the means which they possessed of conveying their ideas, or a sense of their wants.”

This detail has been understood by some writers as evidence that the Akbar story might be more than just another mutated iteration of the story that first appears in Herodotus; to put it simply these writers – linguists and advocates for the disabled among them – want this story of a sign language community passed on from nurses to children to be evidence that Akbar really conducted this experiment. Thus it could be a heroic story about Akbar underestimating his “mute” nurses, who had a language he and his philosophers were unable to understand. Community had survived after all, even amid this deprivation. I reluctantly doubt it: though certainly important to the history of disability, negotiation, and accommodation, this element of the story arrived late in its tradition, and likely has much more to do with developments in sign language in Europe than it does with the history of disability in the Mughal court.

This is not to say it lacks all truth. None of these stories should be taken as facts in any simple sense. All should be understood as being as legendary as any other bizarre tale about powerful rulers. They are nonetheless still true, in that they are true records of an interest, as real a record as any other fiction, which, as Anna Kłosowska observes of the truth of medieval stories, correspond “to an absolute reality–not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being… and [the] continuing desire for it performed by readers.”

The true record here is not the events but the concern, of course, with the relation between the authentic, the natural, and origins. Consider the version of the story in the “things omitted” section of Daniel Sennert’s medical manual, his Paralipomenon (written after 1631), the first time the story appears outside a missionary text or a travel narrative. Sennert tells the story as Xavier does, but then slides, surprisingly, into an anecdote about parrots, which, as he explains, likewise cannot learn to talk without being taught (“nunquam sua sponte ullam humanam vocem profereunt”). He concludes with an incidental tidbit of parrot lore from Apulius’s Florida 12 (teach a parrot to curse, and it will curse unceasingly, day and night, unless you cut out its tongue or send it back to the forest). With this, Sennert has recognized that speech originates in imitation, and indeed taught imitation. Sennert does not imagine that parrots spontaneously imitate language. They need instruction. At the same time, certain parrots (those with five toes, like humans) are better than others at learning languages: what has to be taught is not merely a cultural activity, but an interaction between bodily affordances and training. As Haraway writes in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs”: “one is too few, but two is too many.” Go back far enough, and what’s found is just this: accommodation, where language acquires the character of seeming natural by an entanglement of training and imitation that coalesces with bodies given the chance to thrive amid conditions designed for them. A “dumb house” is not one of these spaces, unless the nurses subvert the experiment.

Recall as well August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem, which follows its Akbar story with “others argue with those Hebrew masters who say that the Hebrew language was implanted in the first human” (Ebaorum Magistri alias disputant contra illos, qui Ebraeam linguam, ut primam homini naturaliter implantatam esse dicant). This strange metaphor (one might instead expect a metaphor of respiration) at least implicitly recognizes the manufactured character of humans in the Genesis creation myths. If being natural requires springing from or being born from itself or something like itself (as the word “nature” comes from “nasci,” to be born), if it requires spontaneity, humans are not, at their root, natural (barring a few outlying philosophers). Like the rest of organized creation, like everything after the first waters over which God’s form floated, humans are a manufactured product. Language, reason, and the soul: none of this is any more “natural” than we are.

Barring Robert Lindsey, where the children definitely speak Hebrew, and perhaps Herodotus, where the children are understood to have spoken Phrygian, the hunt for an origin, whether of ethnicity (Herodotus), religion (Akbar, in many instances), or language (Frederick II, and often Akbar), gets us nothing but nonsense. Language must be passed on in groups. The hunt for origins reveals not purity, not a definitive answer, but a community, and then, past that, nothing but the most wretched helplessness, a community that has arrived too late for help.

Isolation gets us only noise; being comes with the break into the noise, the wave-form collapse, the phenomenon. The hunt for origins is often a hunt for an excuse, a way past responsibility, to find things as they “really are.” But what we find instead is only one more requirement to have made a decision. What we find is the necessity of care.