An experiment in the seventh century B.C.
A most unusual man, Psamtik I, King of Egypt. During his long reign, in the latter half of the seventh century B.C., he not only drove out the Assyrians, revived Egyptian art and architecture, and brought about general prosperity, but found time to conceive of and conduct history’s first recorded experiment in psychology.
The Egyptians had long believed that they were the most ancient race on earth, and Psamtik, driven by intellectual curiosity, wanted to prove that flattering belief. Like a good psychologist, he began with a hypothesis: If children had no opportunity to learn a language from older people around them, they would spontaneously speak the primal, inborn language of humankind—the natural language of its most ancient people—which, he expected to show, was Egyptian.
To test his hypothesis, Psamtik commandeered two infants of a lower-class mother and turned them over to a herdsman to bring up in a remote area. They were to be kept in a sequestered cottage, properly fed and cared for, but were never to hear anyone speak so much as a word. The Greek historian Herodotus, who tracked the story down and learned what he calls “the real facts” from priests of Hephaestus in Memphis, says that Psamtik’s goal “was to know, after the indistinct babbling of infancy were over, what word they would first articulate.”
The experiment, he tells us, worked. One day, when the children were two years old, they ran up to the herdsman as he opened the door of their cottage and cried out “Becos!” Since this meant nothing to him, he paid no attention, but when it happened repeatedly, he sent word to Psamtik, who at once ordered the children brought to him. When he too heard them say it, Psamtik made inquiries and learned that becos was the Phrygian word for bread. He concluded that, disappointingly, the Phrygians were an older race than the Egyptians.
We today may smile condescendingly; we know from modern studies of children brought up under conditions of isolation that there is no innate language and that children who hear no speech never speak. Psamtik’s hypothesis rested on an invalid assumption, and he apparently mistook a babbled sound for an actual word. Yet we must admire him for trying to prove his hypothesis and for having the highly original notion that thoughts arise in the mind through internal processes that can be investigated.