Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Girls Who Spoke For Themselves : Part 1 : Meet Poto and Cabengo

"Dug-on, haus you dinikin, du-ah."

"Snup-aduh ah-wee die-dipana, dihabana."

Can you understand the above sentences? Odds are you cannot, unless you happen to be one of the two girls pictured above, and who knows if even they can still remember what these cryptic utterances meant. They are the only two persons on Earth who ever spoke this mysterious language.

The two girls are named Poto and Cabengo. At least, those are the names they gave themselves. Their given English names are, respectively, Grace and Virginia Kennedy. When they were children in the 1970s, they became briefly famous for something wholly remarkable yet which came entirely naturally to them, given their circumstances: they invented their own language.


I first became intrigued by the Kennedy girls (identical twins) when I read about them in The People's Almanac in the late seventies. They were born in 1970, the same year as me, and in different circumstances, they could have been girls that I went to school with. For most of my life, they have lingered deep in my subconscious memory, a symbol of the mystery and wonder of childhood imagination and genius, and have given rise to at least one fictional story idea, yet to be written.

Now, with fuller knowledge of their remarkable history, I am fascinated and impressed more than ever by what these neglected little girls accomplished in creating a language for themselves. Their story is equal parts tragic and inspiring, and my purpose in this series is to give that story a new telling, and to meditate on the many philosophical questions and human meanings that the Kennedy girls' experience brings forth in my intellect, imagination, and heart.


Grace and Virginia Kennedy were born in Columbus, Georgia, and upon birth seemed quite normal. However, shortly after being born, they apparently suffered seizures of some sort. According to their father's account, a doctor informed him that the girls might possibly become mentally retarded (a medical term that was used at the time and in fact is still in official use today). Sadly, the parents interpreted this to mean that their daughters were in fact mentally retarded, and did not think it necessary to pay much attention to them other than ensuring that their physical needs were met.

Both parents worked and the girls were left in the care of their grandmother, who spoke only German. The grandmother, like the parents, did not pay much emotional attention to the girls, taking care of their physical well-being but not playing or interacting with them. The girls did not go outside much, and did not play with other children. In essence, they were socially and emotionally abandoned from an early age and left to grow up in a bubble of isolation, experiencing only minimal and peripheral contact with the larger human world.

These two lonely and neglected little girls were given deplorable circumstances in which to grow and develop as human beings, but they managed to do something incredible with those sorry circumstances. Without the full socialization of interactive and attentive adults or engagement with other children, the Kennedy girls figured out how to speak for themselves.

They didn't create their language out of thin air, although the above sample of their speech and others may sound, as some have put it, "like Martian". They used what little scraps of English and German to which they were exposed, and built upon that foundation with their own native intelligence and invention (for instance, they made up entirely new words and used some of their own unique grammatical and syntactical rules).

The process by which they accomplished this feat may always remain mysterious, but it at least demonstrates not only their own intelligence and marvelous linguistic capabilities, but also that which is natural to all children. Young children's acquisition of language is always a miraculous achievement, but the Kennedy twins' demonstration of this feat even in their socially isolated situation illustrates this miracle all the more clearly.

Some have tried to downplay the girls' achievement as a negative, a mere lack of proper mastery of English. But I think the truth is far more positive, and that is one concept I wish to explore in this series. Their experience brings up many questions about the nature of language and the way it makes us who and what we are, and how language determines the way we relate to other people and to the larger society. In a way, for human beings, to speak (whether with the mouth or the hands, or in writing or whatever other form of expression it may take) is to be, and more specifically is to be human. The wondrous and beautiful thing about Poto and Cabengo is that they rose above their social and emotional abandonment, their seemingly less-than-fully-human status, and taught themselves how to be, and how to be human.

Part 2

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