[Note: Although Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818, it is well-
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been famous ever since its publication in 1818 as a vividly related medical-
While this case study is of extreme importance as one of the earliest accounts of language acquisition in linguistic science, its neglect is partly understandable due to large gaps in the account that render the description of research methodology largely a nullity. Moreover, while the original text was clearly in German or French, it was published in an English translation that presents its own philological difficulties: The account was edited by Mary Shelley on the basis of no longer extant third-
However, we must remember that Victor Frankenstein was a brilliant scientist devoted to the truth, and at least in the matter of language acquisition had no discernible motive for meddling with the facts. Therefore, we may provisionally take his basic account as reliable and leave the problems of transmission aside as impossible to settle at the present time while we focus on the linguistic side of his account.
In Chapter 5, Frankenstein related that it was in November of Year 1 (the date is not further specified; we only know that it was in the 18th century) that he infused life into his creature, which soon disappeared. The creature told Frankenstein later of his history, which is related in six chapters. For our purposes, what is important is the creature’s discussion of how he learned language. First, he became aware of language as such and learned rudimentary words (Chapter 12):
By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. But I was baffled in every attempt I made for this purpose. Their pronunciation was quick; and the words they uttered, not having any apparent connection with visible objects, I was unable to discover any clue by which I could unravel the mystery of their reference. By great application, however, and after having remained during the space of several revolutions of the moon in my hovel, I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse; I learned and applied the words, fire, milk, bread, and wood. I learned also the names of the cottagers themselves. The youth and his companion had each of them several names, but the old man had only one, which was father. The girl was called sister, or Agatha; and the youth Felix, brother, or son. I cannot describe the delight I felt when I learned the ideas appropriated to each of these sounds, and was able to pronounce them. I distinguished several other words, without being able as yet to understand or apply them; such as good, dearest, unhappy.
This passage is of great importance as confirming many of the basic claims of theoretical linguistics. First, it is one of the earliest extant statements of the problem of the poverty of stimulus. Second, it gives us a basic indication of the length of the process, which matches the findings of studies of children’s language acquisition.
This process continued for several months and quickened after the arrival of Safie (Chapter 13):
Presently I found, by the frequent recurrence of some sound which the stranger repeated after them, that she was endeavouring to learn their language; and the idea instantly occurred to me that I should make use of the same instructions to the same end. The stranger learned about twenty words at the first lesson, most of them, indeed, were those which I had before understood, but I profited by the others. ... Safie was always gay and happy; she and I improved rapidly in the knowledge of language, so that in two months I began to comprehend most of the words uttered by my protectors. ... My days were spent in close attention, that I might more speedily master the language; and I may boast that I improved more rapidly than the Arabian, who understood very little, and conversed in broken accents, whilst I comprehended and could imitate almost every word that was spoken.
Indeed, the process of learning was so quick that the creature’s speech to the old man would be impossible for almost all adult learners of a foreign language after only a year or two. Clearly, then, the creature learned French through first-
We must remember that while the novel is rather coy about the actual process of vivification, there are revealing details (Chapter 4):
Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic, impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. ... I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-
balls were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.
Thus, while the usual claim by later commentators that electricity was essential to the process is not borne out by what we have to take as our Urtext, nonetheless spare body parts must have been involved, including, no doubt, a spare brain, probably an adult one.2 Unless the source of that brain was a feral child or similar curiosity, then, the brain would have already been primed to speak at least one language. This was not a process of first language acquisition at all, then, but rather the first published study of creolization as governed by Derek Bickerton’s Bioprogram, and it is in this respect that the case study is of such great significance in the history of linguistics.
This is especially true when we consider the ill-
1 Not to mention the way its prestige has led barbarians and louts like science fiction writers to claim laughably that it is in some way a precursor to such rot.
2 And one that must have been quite fresh and carefully preserved, as we know from the research of one of Victor Frankenstein’s followers, Herbert West (Lovecraft 1922).
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