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For centuries, ideas about language origin have frothed up like soap bubbles, then burst into nothing. Over 2000 years ago, the Egyptian king Psamnietichus, reportedly gave instructions for two new-born children to be brought up in total isolation: to his disappointment, their earliest word was bekos, the Phrygian word for bread. The king reluctantly concluded that the Phrygians predated the Egyptians. But according to John Webb, a 17th century writer, Chinese was possibly the original language of humankind. Happily, it was spoken by Noah and his family in the Ark, he assumed, and so survived the flood. In the mid-nineteenth century, Abbot O'Donnelly, a Frenchman, claimed a 'new and prodigious discovery of the original universal language' supposedly found on an Egyptian obelisk. His translation, he boasted, 'was sufficient to open the eyes of a mole'. But no one listened, he lamented, with his 'words and results being blown away by the wind'.

As one weird idea after another bubbled up, language origin was regarded as a playground for cranks, and the topic was banned in 1866 by the Linguistic Society of Paris, the most prominent linguistic association of the time. And disapproval continued: 'The greater part of what is said and written upon it is mere windy talk', said the linguist William Dwight Whitney in 1893. The origin of the language web has become a serious field of enquiry only in the last ten years or so, and will be the topic of today's lecture.

Jean Aitchison, The Reith Lectures, 1996

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