Sunday, April 7, 2013

Poto and Cabengo

Isn't it hard? Isn't it hard, being human? Having a past? Why can't we be recreated with every wakening? Renewed, reformed, regenerated. Resurrected. Why not? Because the past is gravity, and holds the universe together.

Consider, then, Poto and Cabengo. The world would have known them as Gracie and Ginny, if the world knew them at all. But it didn't, until it was, sadly, too late. Two little girls, identical twins, born in 1970, diagnosed early as retarded. Well, not actually diagnosed. The twins had suffered violent convulsions shortly after being born. A neurosurgeon told the father that it might be years before retardation could be ruled out. The father failed apparently to hear the nuances in this communication. "A man of his standing," he said, "knows what he's talking about." And so the girls, defective, were left to the ministrations of a severe Prussian grandmother who spoke no English. Largely ignored. They were not sent to school. They did not learn to speak English, neither German.

Idioglossia. A unique and private language, rarely but usually developed between twins. We would have to assume, twins who are severely neglected by adults. It is not "twin speech," fairly common with very young twins -- a hash of idioms and slurred common words. Idioglossia goes far beyond that; it is a kind of creole, a unique language, complete with grammar and syntax and neologisms.

The language of Poto and Cabengo was a mishmash of English and German, gleaned from the impersonal and other-directed speaking of highly neglectful parents, and the German grandmother. All of whom had given up on the retarded little girls. Who used prepositions as verbs, and had 30 different ways to say potato; "pintu" (pencil), "nieps" (knife), "ho-ahks" (orange), "toolaymeia" (spaghetti -- o sole mio). The girls were listening, you see. They spoke no English. They spoke only to each other. "Poto" (Grace), "Cabengo" (Virginia).

The fact that they were of at least average intelligence is neither here nor there. The early label determined their fate. Back in the late '70s, after the girls had been "discovered" and "treated," a speech pathologist observed, "It was obvious these kids hadn't had much exposure to anything. They wanted attention." No duh. They had never seen anyone climb a tree -- a picture of this rare phenomenon provoked bafflement. With attention, their IQs moved up 30 points, to 80. Still awfully low. But it was still the 1970s.

After many months of intensive intervention, the girls were asked by a visitor if they still remembered their language. "Yes," one answered quickly. "No, you don't!" corrected the dad from the livingroom couch. "I don't know why you are lying about that! You live in a society, you've got to speak the language," he explained helpfully. "They don't want to be associated as dummies now."

The girls were born with normal intelligence. As of 2007, Cabengo worked on a supervised assembly line at a job training center; Poto cleaned tables and floors at a fast-food restaurant.

Yes. The past is gravity. It crushes us if we're over-burdened, and it keeps us from flying.

Tomorrow I'll be driving my father to some health-related appointment he has. I haven't seen him in 14 years. Should I shine my shoes? I've had the notes up for Poto and Cabengo for several months. Every time I turned on the computer, there they were. I wonder why I didn't get to it. There are a few other bits and pieces as well. Something on Prohibition. Something on the Depression.

moved from 12 12 09


Anonymous said...

their parents were not highly neglectful, they were over protective because the girls were considered retarded by some doctors, so the girls stayed at home with no contact with the outside world

Jack H said...

I just disagree. Regardless of parental motives, over-protective, the girls were not retarded, but became so because of how they were treated. They were treated with neglect. Extreme neglect. Otherwise they would have known how to speak a human language.

We can't let emotion twist our judgment in these matters, for all that it may color our judgment. It's not about blame. It's about cause and effect.

ella said...

if it had only been sheltering, they still would have learned to speak what their family spoke... unless their family didn't talk to them much.

You don't have to develop your own language just because you're not allowed out to play. Its painfully clear this is a case of neglect.

byebons said...

Thank God these girls had each other. If the parents had misunderstood the neurosurgeon on a single baby and gave up on her development, it would have been so much worse. These little girls were able to have a meaningful relationship (and language!!) with each other in those important early years. It was not enough to bring them up to their full potential. I only hope they are still close.

Anonymous said...

You say it's safe to assume that the cause for their invented language was severe neglect. I just want to keep an open mind and point out two things:
1) Watching the documentary and reading up on these girls, "neglect" doesn't necessarily mean the girls were treated harshly. They were just not given the right amount or type of attention.
2) Even that could be wrong. I think one of the things that fascinated linguists was that there was reason to believe that they invented their language (or whatever) not because they "had" to... so it might have happened "just because" or for reasons unknown to us, and not because of the parents actions.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, neglect need not imply violence. But, of course, by definition, it is a form of abuse.

As for "just because", any linguist who posits this is considering only the specifics of his narrow discipline. A slightly broader understanding would see that when a child mispronounces a word, attentive adults correct it. "Reasons unknown" violates a fundamental of empirical method, Occam's razor. Easy answer that give full explanations are to be favored over hard answers, or none at all.

I'm noticing a trend to want to excuse the parents. I suppose incompetence and stupidity are excuses, perhaps unanswerable. Maybe we're all stuck. I seem to be. But let's be stuck without ruining lives.


Anonymous said...

I too had y own language which I used through age 9. My family spoke many languages and I created a mashup as well. It was only because of television that I was able to understand and learn English before going to school. I was also sheltered and yet once in school and with family finally acknowledging that they had to participate and let us experience the world I never suffered what those girls suffered. They didn't get the chance to break free of a confinement that limited their independence and growth. Parents are often too busy and too worried to remember that a child needs to be interacted with and exposed to new places and things actively. Since the twins relied so heavily on each other it would have been even harder if their parents were resigned to just let it be. I blame the parents in all honesty.

Anonymous said...

I think the mother said it all in her statement of the "...two dingbats that are pretty alive"...that is neglectful to speak of your children as though they don't exist. I have a child who experienced a great deal of illness and was often overlooked by society at large, mistreated in the schools, within even my own family. I work with him daily. After keeping him out of school in a home school environment (because he too was labeled and treated accordingly) to help him calm down, heal and grow without stigma, I enrolled him back in school for the socialization only such environments can offer (he is an only child and no amount of homeschooling in 10 languages can replace the opportunity to play, learn and grow with one's peers who will be around long after mom and pop are generationally dead). He is in a resource class that helps him with behavior (which mostly stems from the over stimulated effort and expectation of wanting simply to be accepted and to belong), but his enrolling observation stated they were "surprised" he was on target for reading, writing and math. If I had listened to the idiots who were targeting my child, not helping him and refusing his rights to an education then my child might be in the risk category of Poto and Cabengo. My heart goes out to these girls, but also to the family because the ideology of chasing the "perfection" of reality isn't anything other than your own perception and interpretation of the world around you. I sadly think the mother was interested in her American lifestyle, her husband being more than who he was and ignorantly perceiving her children as already non-productive. I'm not sure whose right and whose wrong, but those children had the basis of creativity no matter where their start began. Linguists, therapists and all the others usually stick labels on folks and keep it moving with their label sticking tools, causing discord in the Universe which always makes order out of disorder. Hence the saying, "Out of Chaos comes order". Jean-Pierre was so right, one needs to hear the voices to understand the influences. The film never got made the way the mother thought, the media started a frenzy and the parents got caught up. The mother came from that stoic, German background and the dad seemed to sympathize with the girls, but I betcha that house was tight controlled by Mamma Dear! I watched the film and started searching for more opportunities for my own child to grow successfully despite his delayed start. Also to be protected from the ignorance that breeds scenarios like that which this poor family faced!