The Experiment in Language Deprivation of Frederick II: What is Everybody’s Natural Language?

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Understanding the Controversial Experiment of Frederick II

Throughout history were conducted experiments involving language deprivation trying to discover the origin of language.

The first attempt is reported by Herodotus, who wrote Pharaoh Psammetichus (probably Psametek) raised two children of deaf pastors, trying to understand what language they eventually spoke without influences.

When the children were brought in front of him, one of them said something that sounded like “bekos”, the Phrygian word for bread.

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So Psammetichus concluded that Phrygian was the first language.

Medieval monarch Frederick II (Holy Roman Emperor, 1194-1250 AD), tried a similar experiment, with disastrous results. He was alleged to have carried out a number of experiments on people. These experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam, an Italian Franciscan friar, in his Chronicles.

Salimbene de Adam, who narrated this episode, was influenced by papal propaganda aimed at portraying Frederick II as a heretic and persecutor of the Church. This was due to the emperor’s strained relations with several popes who had held the papal throne during the first half of the 1200s. Frederick II ruled over the Holy Roman Empire, which encompassed the kingdom of Germany and north-central Italy, as well as the kingdom of Sicily, which included all of southern Italy. The Church State was sandwiched between these two great political entities, and a ruler who would reunite the two kingdoms, as Frederick II intended to do, was considered a threat to the Church. The antagonistic relationship between the papacy and the emperor had divided Italy between the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, who supported the Emperor.

Frederick II had tried to appease the pontiffs by promising crusades to the Holy Land, but these attempts failed due to a plague and the ruler’s unconventional methods. He sought to obtain Jerusalem by agreeing with the learned Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, whom he esteemed intellectually, rather than through bloodshed. Unfortunately, this only fueled Rome’s impatience with him. As a result, Frederick II was excommunicated three times and became the target of ruthless papal propaganda, especially in the last years of his reign. He was identified as the Antichrist or his forerunner in apocalyptic pamphlets that were part of the expectation of the Apocalypse prophesied in John’s Gospel.

Salimbene de Adam was aware of the Joachimite theories that were prevalent during this time, which held that the end of the second age of history, that of the Son, was imminent. According to these theories, the Antichrist, a secular ruler who would chastise the corrupt Church, would reign before the age of the Spirit would begin. The most widely accepted view among historians is that Salimbene, taking his cue from experiments that Frederick actually conducted, invented others that would contribute to the emperor’s reputation as an atheist and heretic, which the Church was striving to give him. These experiments included ornithological research on the feeding of vultures and efforts to perfect the hood of hunting hawks.

The experiment

The marriage of Frederick II

Amongst the experiments included shutting a prisoner up in a cask to see if the soul could be observed escaping through a hole in the cask when the prisoner died; feeding two prisoners, sending one out to hunt and the other to the bed, and then have them disemboweled to see which had digested their meal better.

Frederick II carried out also a deprivation language experiment on young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was an innate natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured.

It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

Salimbene wrote that Frederick encouraged “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.

Frederick II


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