The Search For The First Language

04/06/2015 12:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Until I began to research a novel about a young clergyman's search for the language Adam spoke in the Garden of Eden, I had no idea that my character's eccentric quest had roots in the earliest civilizations. For as long as tales have been told about how the world began, there have been stories of a Golden Tongue spoken in a Golden Age -- a language that perfectly expressed the nature of what it named, clear as water, free of muddy ambiguity, shared by all humans and, in some versions, animals. Then, after a divine decree or catastrophic event, the universal tongue shattered into fragments and people could no longer understand one another. The result? The chaotic and clamorous world we know. It's no wonder that seekers have been trying to recover that Holy Grail of verbal harmony for millennia.

The search began centuries before Genesis was written. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Pharoah Psammetichus, who ruled Egypt around 664 BC, had such curiosity about the origin of language that he sequestered two infants in a mountain hut with only a silent shepherd to nurture them. When one of the children cried out syllables that sounded like the Phrygian word for bread, the pharaoh had to conclude, perhaps reluctantly, that Egyptian wasn't the oldest language after all. The callous experiment was repeated several times in different eras. In the thirteenth century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II placed babies in the care of foster mothers who were forbidden to talk to them. He spoke six languages himself, and was eager to discover which one God had given to Adam and Eve. Sadly, the poor children died before they could utter words in any tongue. With a poignancy that echoes through the ages, the monk Salimbene wrote that they "could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments." Another multi-lingual monarch, James IV of Scotland, engaged a mute to look after his little prisoners. Well-read in the Bible, the king must have been gratified when they burst into flawless Hebrew.

The Scottish king wasn't the only one whose convictions overcame his reason. Scholars who searched for the language of paradise tended to arrive at the outcome they were looking for. Their speculations were bounded by their own beliefs, which, until the middle of the nineteenth century, were firmly grounded in the Bible. Christopher Columbus, embarking on his first voyage to find a route to the Orient, took along a Jewish convert who spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. He reasoned that the interpreter could converse in God's own tongue with any descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who might have wandered to the New World. In the days when America was still considered the new Eden, the fiery Puritan minister Cotton Mather devoted his Master's thesis at Harvard to a scholarly defense of Hebrew as the first language. Even philologists were not immune. A spiritual awakening in 1808 moved Noah Webster to abandon work on his dictionary for years to pursue the ur-language from Eden. He arranged dictionaries of twenty languages on a circular desk, and spent his days in a state of rotation, stalking the roots of words from one tome to another.

Darwin's theories changed the study of language origins, as they changed the prevailing view of the world. Language was not a gift given by a Creator at the dawn of time but a faculty that developed slowly as the human species adapted to a changing environment. It wasn't a true instinct, as proponents of natural language claimed, but an artful tool for prolonging survival. In a new spin on the old myth of a tongue shared by men and beasts, Darwin drew parallels between animal and human communication, comparing birdsong to the babbling of infants and speculating that singing might have come before speaking. "Do monkeys howl in harmony?" he asked, and imagined an early man bawling melodically to attract the ladies.

The debate -- and the contention -- has been going on ever since. In the late nineteenth century, the linguistic societies of Paris and London threw up their collective hands and banned all discussion of language origins. By 1970, when the subject became respectable again in academia, linguists were still locking horns over old questions, bolstering their arguments with new research. Is language innate, a structure in the brain as Chomsky's universal grammar suggests, or an acquired skill, as evolutionists believe? Is it unique to humans, or can animals be taught complex communication? Nowadays, the pharoah's isolated hut has been replaced by the laboratory, where scientists of many disciplines probe the mysteries of the brain and tongue and larynx. The Holy Grail they seek is no longer the first language, but the reason we have language at all.

I wonder if writers of fiction are among the few still searching for that elusive Golden Tongue. We begin with an idea -- a virgin landscape populated by characters we make from scratch -- and then we struggle to render the world that lives so vividly in our minds with equal precision in words. The clergyman in my novel is obsessed with finding a pure language, a perfect vessel for meaning. In a sense that's a classic writer's quest: the mandate we wake up to each morning, even if we know that much of the time we're going to fall short.

Barbara Klein Moss is the author of The Language of Paradise (W.W. Norton and Company).