The inquiring Pharaoh

by Terence MacNamee

Recently a large statue of a Pharaoh was unearthed in Egypt. The find caused great excitement. After some study the idea gained ground that it was not one of the more famous pyramid-building Pharaohs, but Psammetichus I.

This Pharaoh is himself far from forgotten or anonymous. We know about him from Herodotus, who reports several stories about him. Psammetichus lived in a troubled period of the late history of the Egyptian kingdom, but he managed to establish himself as ruler of the whole country with the help of Greek mercenaries. After this, he rewarded the mercenaries with grants of land. But he was concerned that the Greeks would not integrate properly with the Egyptians. So he commanded Egyptian children to be recruited and fostered out to the Greek residents. They would become a caste of bilinguals who could mediate between the peoples in future.

Another story is told of him. He wanted to know what was the most ancient language, the first language spoken by humanity. He commanded two babies to be fostered out to an isolated shepherd and his wife, who were to raise them but were not to speak a word to them in any language. After two years, the couple reported that when they arrived, the children would greet them with cries of “bekos!” The Pharaoh inquired of his learned men what this meant. After some consultation they told him this was the Phrygian word for “bread”. So he acknowledged the Phrygians as being the oldest nation – not the Egyptians as he had of course hoped.

These stories speak of a keen inquiring mind at work. Of course, being Pharaoh he could commandeer youngsters at will for his linguistic experiments. He realizes the importance of bilinguals for intercultural communication, as we would call it today. He realizes, too, that this is a biological matter: you need to start them young if they are to have a chance of being truly bilingual. He also wonders about the roots of the speech faculty in man. He clearly thinks it is innate, because he thinks he only has to wait before the children come out with language themselves. And when they do, whatever they produce will be the oldest language. Man, he reasoned, would still speak this language if he was left to his own devices. To put it in modern terms, ontogeny repeats phylogeny.

The story of Psammetichus reminds us that language, although the glue of social life, is something biological; and culture, like language, also has its roots in the biological. His idea about there being an original language buried in the unconscious was fanciful, of course; but on the whole, he wasn’t doing too badly for an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh.