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Herodotus on the Origins of Language

Rachel Wong

University of Chicago

The beginning of Herodotus 2 is marked by a lively account of a linguistic experiment involving two children raised among goats, a goatherd, and an Egyptian king inquiring after the origin of mankind. Psammetichus asks the goatherd to report the first word that the children utter, and when it turns out that this word is bekos, a Phrygian for ‘bread’, the Egyptians reluctantly cede that the Phrygians are the race from which all others have descended. On the question of whether Herodotus really believed the children were speaking Phrygian, or else meant his readers to divine that they were bleating like goats, ancient and modern scholarship has been divided.

The purpose of this conference paper is to locate one of the causes of this checkered reception history in the particular genre of account that Herodotus has given here: neither purely reportage nor invention, the account may best be understood as a form of conjectural history. This genre is a particular kind of narrative strategy which, as Christopher Pelling suggests, ‘[analyzes] the logical presuppositions of a functioning system and transposing them, for expositional clarity, into a historicist register.' Herodotus’ narrative strategies interrogate the very same presuppositions on which Psammetichus’ experiment is built: the primacy of language in human development, and the analogy between childhood and the world’s first humans.

Reading Herodotus’ passage alongside Lucretius’ De rerum natura and Plato’s Cratylus, I argue that Herodotus exploits an ambiguity in terms φωνή and ἔπος in order to point out the particular difficulty of determining where language begins and mere sound-making ends. The role of the goatherd as interpreter further highlights how these determinations are often politically motivated, a fact reinforced by Herodotus’ repetitive use of prefix and case to associate the king’s machinations with the goatherd’s thinking. The picture that emerges could plausibly commit Herodotus to a nominalist view of language origin, one that bears greater resemblance to Lucretius’ primitive social compact than to Plato’s concept of the νομοθέτης.

The close reading offered in this paper offers further support to arguments in Rosalind Thomas and Simon Ubsdell about Herodotus’ engagement with the themes of the so-called Greek Enlightenment. For if the primary aim of the movement was to understand human culture as an ‘autonomous, self-developing and self-perpetuating system, whose workings could be accounted for in purely naturalistic terms," then Herodotus’ account of Psammetichus, with its careful unfolding of experimental presuppositions, at least partially fits the bill.

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Greek Historiography

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