Over the centuries there have been several cases of children who grew up isolated from any human contact. Some of them grew up in the wild, adopted by an animal family, feral children, and some were excluded from almost any human contact or stimulus, attic children. Some of these cases have been studied in detail in order to learn more about the process of language acquisition, as in the cases of Victor of Aveyron, Kaspar Hauser, Amala and Kamala and Genie.
At the time of their discovery most of them had no linguistic abilities and show signs of a lack of socialization.
Victor of Aveyron was a French feral child found at 12 years of age. He was exposed to society and education by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who adopted him. At first he was only able to spell ‘lait’ and ‘oh, Dieu’. He was taken to doctors to find out if he was deaf, which he was not, but they couldn´t make him speak although he showed signs of empathy towards human feelings. Some scholars state that he showed symptoms of autism. The case is shown in François Truffaut’s film ‘L’enfant sauvage’.
Kaspar Hauser allegedly grew in complete isolation. He was discovered at age 16 and lived locked up since 3. During his confinement he was only taught to write his name and say some sentences which he should say when released. Due to his confinement his legs were half-paralised for lack of exercise. In six weeks he was able to talk fluently although there was no sign of his use of language when he was released. Once he learnt to speak, he talked about his memories which described his life in a palace. His origins were never discovered and there were lots of theories linking him to aristocracy and Napoleon. Werner Herzog filmed ‘The enigma of Kaspar Hauser’.
Amala and Kamala, the feral girls from Bengal, India were allegedly raised by a family of wolves. They were taken to Joseph Amrito Lal Singh’s orphanage, where they displayed a wolf-like behaviour, showing calluses in hands and knees from walking on all fours. They howled and did not speak and were said to be nocturnal. But according to Serge Aroles, who studied their case, their behaviour could be but a hoax. He stated that the photos taken of the girls behaving like wolves were taken after their death, that they were other girls posing on all fours at Singh’s request and that the journal kept by Singh had been written after their death as well. Singh was also reported for having beaten Kamala in order to make her act as he described in front of visitors so that he obtained money for his orphanage. According to scholars, Kamala may have been afflicted with Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder which impairs normal development.
Genie was discovered in 1970 at age 13 1/2. Daughter of a dysfunctional family, he started to speak late and a doctor suggested that she may have some intellectual impairment. Thinking that the authorities would take the child from him, her father locked her up in a room. Until she was 13 she hardly had human contact. She remained locked in a room, most of the time tied to a chair that also served as a potty, and tied and encaged at night. She was forbidden to produce any sound and if she did she was beaten up. She was hand feeded and had no access to TV or radio. At age 13 she only understood 20 words, most of them orders or words with a negative connotation like ‘stop it’, ‘no more’ and ‘no’. The rest of the family did not live far better, as they had to remain inside the house, although they could go outside from time to time always watched by their armed father. Also the father forbade them to address any word to Genie. She was a victim of severe neglect. Her family lost her custody in 1975, but when the budget for Genie’s study were cut down, she was sent back to her mother. Then she found that taking care of Genie was too burdensome for her, and Genie was sent to six different foster homes were she was mistreated and experienced regressions; after vomiting she was so severely punished that she refused to open her mouth again and as a concequence stopped speaking.
Oxana Oleksandrivna (1991) was neglected by her alcoholic parents at an early age and lived surrounded by dogs. After treatment she learnt to subdue her dog-like behaviour and learnt to speak fluently but remains somewhat intellectually impaired.
The “feral woman” Ro Cham H’pnhieng, aged 27 was discovered on the edge of the Cambodian jungle when she was trying to steal food left under a tree. She was identified as a local village girl who disappeared at age 8 while herding buffalo. She couldn´t speak more than a few grunts and walked hunched like an animal; she could only say ‘father’, ‘mother’ and ‘stomachache’. Finally she escaped back into the jungle in 2007.
These cases and others have been subject to studies focused on the Critical Period theory, stating that if a person does not receive linguistic stimulation between ages 2 and puberty, crucial in lateralization -language being linked to the left hemisphere of the brain-, this ability will be severely impaired. This theory was firstly developed by ethologists to be then applied by Eric Lenneberg to language acquisition.
In fiction, Paul Auster deals with ‘attic children’ in The New York Trilogy.
Other feral children:
Wolf-child of Hesse, 1344, discovered at 7
Wolf-child of Wetteravia, 1344, discovered at 12
Bear-child of Lithuania, 1661, discovered at 12
Sheep-child of Ireland, 1672, discovered at 16
Calf-child of Bamberg, 1680
Bear-child of Lithuania, 1694, discovered at 10
Bear-child of Lithuania, discovered at 12
Kidnapped Dutch girl, 1717, discovered at 19
Two boys of Pyrenees, 1719
Peter of Hannover, 1724, discovered at 13
Girl from Sogny, 1731, discovered at 10
Jean of Liège, discovered at 21
Tomko of Hungary, 1767
Bear-girl of Fraumark, 1767, discovered at 18
Victor of Aveyron, 1799, discovered at 11
Kaspar Hauser of Nuremberg, 1828, discovered at 17
Sow-girl of Salzburg, discovered at 22
Child of Husanpur, 1843
Child of Sultanpur, 1848
Child of Chupra
Child of Bankipur
Pig-boy of Holland
Wolf-child of Holland
Wolf-child of Sekandra, 1872, discovered at 6
Child of Sekandra, 1874, discovered at 10
Wolf-child of Kronstadt, discovered at 23
Child of Lucknow, 1876
Child of Jalpaiguri, 1892, discovered at 8
Child of Batsipur, 1893, discovered at 14
Child of Sultanpur, discovered at 12
Amala of Midnapore, 1920, discovered at 2
Kamala of Midnapore, 1920, discovered at 8
Leopard-child of India, 1920
Wolf-child of Maiwana, 1927
Wolf-child of Jhansi, 1933
Leopard-child of Dihungi, discovered at 8
Child of Casamance, 1930s, discovered at 16
Assicia of Liberia, 1930s
Confined child of Pennsylvania, 1938, discovered at 6
Confined child of Ohio, 1940
Gazelle-child of Syria, 1946
Child of New Delhi, 1954, discovered at 12
Gazelle-child of Mauritania, 1960
Ape-child of Teheran, 1961, discovered at 14
Genie, USA, 1970, discovered at 13
Over 50 cases recorded since 1970.
Sources: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. David Crystal.