Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Xenoglossy

Saul Steinberg cartoon

In the Biographia Literaria (1818), Coleridge talks, inter alia (inter multa alia) about — though he doesn’t call it this — ‘xenoglossy’: that is, the ability manifested by some people to speak in a language other than their own, despite never having learned that other language. The story goes like this: a few years before Coleridge arrived in Germany (in 1798) there was, ‘in a Roman Catholic town’ in the north of the country, a small cause célèbre.

A young woman of four or five and twenty, who could neither read, nor write, was seized with a nervous fever; during which, according to the asseverations of all the priests and monks of the neighbourhood, she became possessed, and, as it appeared, by a very learned devil. She continued incessantly talking Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, in very pompous tones and with most distinct enunciation. This possession was rendered more probable by the known fact that she was or had been a heretic. … The case had attracted the particular attention of a young physician, and by his statement many eminent physiologists and psychologists visited the town, and cross-examined the case on the spot. Sheets full of her ravings were taken down from her own mouth, and were found to consist of sentences, coherent and intelligible each for itself, but with little or no connection with each other. Of the Hebrew, a small portion only could be traced to the Bible; the remainder seemed to be in the Rabbinical dialect. All trick or conspiracy was out of the question. Not only had the young woman ever been a harmless, simple creature; but she was evidently labouring under a nervous fever. In the town, in which she had been resident for many years as a servant in different families, no solution presented itself. [Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ch 6]

I tried to track down further information about this case when I edited the Biographia for EUP, but without success. I presume it was a small-town matter, without any ensuing national or international fame, and had not Coleridge heard about it first-hand it would probably have been forgotten.

It was, however, far from an isolated example. Indeed, ‘Xenoglossy’ is now an area of study in its own right, something I realised having come across Ian Stevenston’s Unlearned language: New Studies in Xenoglossy (University Press of Virginia, 1984). Stevenson was Carlson Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School, so a respectable academic (this book is the sequel to an earlier volume of his called, just, Xenoglossy [1976], which I haven’t seen).

Now Xenoglossy — empirically, a real thing, which is to say, something that happens and is reported in the world — presents us with a problem of explanation that itself entails a different kind of problem: for one mode of explanation of the phenomenon leads us into the Land of Woo: of parascience, reincarnation, telepathy, angelic or demonic possession, and by extension, astrology, crystals, UFOs, belief in the England football team’s world-cup-winning prospects etc. These latter are not respectable academic discourses, although the otherwise-respectable Prof Stevenson found himself drawn magnetically into them, or at least into theorising reincarnation. This is a danger that, I suppose, keeps otherwise interested parties from investigating the phenomenon.

Stevenson’s Unlearned Language gives us two carefully evidenced and accredited case-studies, both from the later 20th-centruy. First is Dolores Jay, a middle-aged American woman married to a Methodist minister. One day her husband, who had studied hypnosis as part of his ‘ministry of healing’, hypnotised Dolores so as to relieve some backache from which she was suffering. Under hypnosis she began speaking German, a language she otherwise did not know, had never studied or spoken before. Intrigued, her husband hypnotised her repeatedly, and discovered not just that Dolores was speaking German, but [a] when speaking German she did not think she was called Dolores (‘Ich bin Gretchen’ she announced) and [b] that the kind of German she was speaking was not contemporary, but bore the traces of an older-fashioned and parochial style and idiom. Stevenson suggests she was speaking the German of about 1860, and of a sort that might be spoken ‘in an isolated rural community in Northern Germany’.

The second case study concerns Uttara Huddar, an Indian woman from Maharati, who taught at the University of Nagpur. Whilst hospitalised for a minor illness Huddar began practising meditation, and was surprised to discover that, in that state, she could speak Bengali, ‘a language that was previously unknown to her’ (her mother-tongue was Marathi). This Bengali-speaking version of Huddar claimed to be called Sharada, a early 19th-century Bengali woman. Huddar did not need to be hypnotised to unlock this language, and unlike Jay did not only speak in reaction to specific questions, but talked for long periods ‘apparently spontaneously’. There was no clear trigger for her Xenoglossy once it had been brought out by her initial meditation, though Stevenson speculates that her Bengali-speaking episodes were related to certain phases of the moon.

Stevenson goes into each case-study in much detail, and provides transcripts of the German and Bengali speechifying of the two women (their xenoglossy was recorded on tape machines) in the book’s appendices. Both women were of good character, without general predilection towards or specific motivation to lie. Both could converse fluently — that is, they did not rely on a few stock phrases, or as parrots do. Stevenson goes to some length to identify what he insists are lexical features that identify the speech as from the 1860s and 1820s respectively (he also quoted other analyses carried out by language experts that he claims support what he says).

How to explain it? One, materialist explanation would occam’s razor these cases by calling them mendacious: these two women were either lying to those around them — that is, they were fakes, who spoke perfectly good German and Bengali but were pretending not to — or else they were lying, as it were, to themselves. It’s possible they both genuinely believed themselves ignorant of these tongues when actually they did have some knowledge. We could speculate that their actions were resolved subconscious urges to which they did not have conscious access.

Stevenson isn’t having any of that. He proposes two explanations, one of which he dismisses. The dismissed one is telepathy: that some other parties, who could speak German and Bengali, were beaming that knowledge into the minds of Jay and Huddar. Stevenson doesn’t believe that’s possible. Which leaves him, he thinks, only one explanation: reincarnation. For Stevenson, the reason American Jay can speak German is that she is the reincarnation of German-speaking Gretchen from the 19th century. In his last chapter he speculates that violent, premature death may make such reincarnation more likely in itself, and more likely to result in a consciousness in which those earlier life-memories are merely dormant, rather than fully subsumed.

I don’t believe this for a moment, I must say. More, I’m not sure this book, though written in a scholarly manner, with citations for all claims and evidence laid out fairly, makes its case convincingly. I’m no Germanist, but even I can see that the Dolores Jay transcripts are mostly Dolores answering ‘ja’ or ‘nein’ to a set of questions, several of which are rather leading. As for Uttara Huddar, here’s William Frawley’s opinion, from his review of Stevenson’s book [in Language, 61:3 (1985), 739]:

With Dolores Jay, the data, given in an appendix [suggests] that the subject cannot carry on anything like German discourse: she is excellent at answering yes/no questions, but that is about all; the lexicon is extremely limited. The Bengali data, also in the appendix, are given in translation, so it is impossible to judge this subject’s ability in Bengali adequately. In each case, one must rely on testimony, with signed affidavits, by speakers of German and Bengali that the subjects can, indeed, speak the xenoglossically manifest languages … Stevenson underplays the fact that, in Case 2, the woman speaks Marathi (related to Bengali), has studied Sanskrit (from which both Marathi and Bengali derive), lives in a town where there are ten thousand Bengalis, and has very poor Bengali pronunciation (as testified by the experts). Could the subject be speaking some form of pidgin Bengali? Science has not been given its due here.

This doesn’t sound so nearly dazzling.

The data still require explanation, of course, but we can perhaps provide one without resorting to theories of reincarnation. It is surely relevant that each women is from a specific culture that, in the case of Jay, is glossolalian (the Pentecost is attested in the Bible after all, and ‘speaking in tongues’ has a high profile and status in many North American churches), and, in the case of Huddar, believes in reincarnation. In both cases we can imagine a motivation, perhaps occluded to the individual concerned, to do with asserting identity, or being heard and noticed, or being connected with the past (and therefore to do with continuity, and belonging), that gets filtered through the respective individual’s cultural priors. This need not be a conscious act of fakery.

Not that fakery can be ruled out, of course, in every case. Here’s one example — I would say— from Ernest Bozzano’s Polyglot Mediumship (1932). A séance was held in London on February 27th, 1924, attended by amongst others the Welsh writer and playwright Caradoc Evans. The medium, an American woman, calling herself ‘Valiantine’, insisted she spoke no Welsh. She addressed Caradoc Evans, in English, claiming to be the spirit of his dead father. Evans replied: ‘speak to me in your own language’, which the medium then did, answering questions about where Evans senior had died and giving a detailed description of the house in Carmarthen where he had lived. The conversation was, we are told, ‘cut short’, although it seems Evans was perfectly convinced he had been speaking to his father. The balance of probabilities here, especially given the widespread evidence of fraudulent practice by so many so-called mediums, is that ‘Valiantine’ actually spoke Welsh and was lying when she said she couldn’t — perhaps she was Welsh and was affecting an American identity for her commercial work — and that, moreover, she had done some research on her celebrated guest, knowing that he would be coming to her séance, being ready to ‘cut off’ all conversation, blaming some spiritualist loss-of-signal, once the questions moved her out of her comfort zone. As Derren Brown has shown over and over, people will do very much more than meet you halfway, and will fill-in a great many blanks with their own preconceptions, hopes and desires, if you are unscrupulous enough to pretend what you are not, and give them a wire-frame with which to work.

What about Coleridge? He was not a believer in reincarnation, and he’s not persuaded that this this case evinces demonic possession; but he does, in the Biographia, offer an explanation for the German housemaid’s surprising abilities in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. STC reports that a young doctor, called to examine the case, proved ‘determined to trace her past life step by step; for the patient herself was incapable of returning a rational answer’:

He at length succeeded in discovering the place, where her parents had lived: travelled thither, found them dead, but an uncle surviving; and from him learned, that the patient had been charitably taken by an old Protestant pastor at nine years old, and had remained with him some years, even till the old man’s death. Of this pastor the uncle knew nothing, but that he was a very good man. With great difficulty, and after much search, our young medical philosopher discovered a niece of the pastor’s, who had lived with him as his house-keeper, and had inherited his effects. She remembered the girl; related, that her venerable uncle had been too indulgent, and could not bear to hear the girl scolded; that she was willing to have kept her, but that, after her patron’s death, the girl herself refused to stay. Anxious inquiries were then, of course, made concerning the pastor’s habits; and the solution of the phenomenon was soon obtained. For it appeared, that it had been the old man’s custom, for years, to walk up and down a passage of his house into which the kitchen door opened, and to read to himself with a loud voice, out of his favourite books. A considerable number of these were still in the niece’s possession. She added, that he was a very learned man and a great Hebraist. Among the books were found a collection of Rabbinical writings, together with several of the Greek and Latin Fathers; and the physician succeeded in identifying so many passages with those taken down at the young woman’s bedside, that no doubt could remain in any rational mind concerning the true origin of the impressions made on her nervous system.

Just as Stevenson finds in his case studies evidence to support his prior belief in reincarnation, so Coleridge finds in this tale support for his prior belief — which was that the human memory is infinitely capacious, that we forget nothing and only suppress it to avoid being overwhelmed by the Niagara-gush of sensation and memory. Coleridge believed that when we die, and rejoin the infinite, absolutely all our life’s memories of absolutely everything, down to the most trivial, will be accessible to us again.

I don’t think our memories are infinite, as Coleridge did, but I’d have to assume that xenoglossy relates in some way to memory. I wonder if, given the well known linguistic plasticity and capaciousness of young brains (something we lose as we grow up), various languages other than the main one(s) spoken at home don’t get, to some extent, taken aboard, stored in some cached way, and are liable to reemerge to surprise even us. But I don’t know.

As for Stevenson, his belief in life-after-death and reincarnation led to some other psychiatrists and academics dismissing him as a crank, although he still has his followers in the parascientific world. Before he died he set-up a combination lock with a secret word or phrase and deposited it in a filing cabinet in his department. He told his colleagues that he would pass the code to them after his death, thereby proving his theories. He died in 2007. According to Wikipedia, his colleague Emily Williams Kelly told The New York Times: “Presumably, if someone had a vivid dream about him, in which there seemed to be a word or a phrase that kept being repeated — I don’t quite know how it would work — if it seemed promising enough, we would try to open it using the combination suggested.” So far the lock remains unopened.

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