Herodotus and Linguistic Essentialism

Tue Dec 21, 2010

In the second book of the Histories, Herodotus tells us of the Egyptian king Psammetichos, who wanted to discover who were truly the oldest people of the Earth. He took two infants and had them raised by shepherds in isolation from human voices. When they were finally brought out of their huts, they cried “bekos,” a word that means “bread” in the Phrygian language. Thus Psammetichos concluded that the Phrygians were the oldest humans.

I haven’t investigated the matter thoroughly, but I would be interested to know how widely circulated this variety of linguistic essentialism was in Greek thought at the time. Some preliminary rummaging around on the experiment tells me that Albert Churchward’s The Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1922) cites the Herodotean model for a similar argument about Pygmy tongues and the African origin of humans. (There’s also a great deal of ominous-looking material in this book about the exterminating stellar-mythos. . )

I’m reading the Landmark edition of Herodotus, and I noticed that while other translations tend to say something like Peisistratos did not sleep with his wife in the “usual” or “accustomed” way, this one chooses “indecent.” I should check the Greek here, but that sounds a bit more moralizing than Herodotus would tend to be.