The California man in 1892 who knew Arabic and Turkish “hereditarily.” Could it be true?

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In 1892, the Washington Post wrote of a Mr. Watson from California – who was reputed to be able to speak Turkish and Arabic despite never having had any exposure whatsoever the language.

Here is the full article typed out:  

A story is told in this city which presents an interesting problem in psychology and raises some new points in connection with the doctrine of heredity, says the San Francisco Chronicle. We do not vouch for the truth of the story. We only tell it as it was told to us.

A gentlemen of this city whom, for convenience, we may call Mr. Watson, is the son of parents who were missionaries to some place in Asia Minor. Mr. Watson’s father died there before Mr. Watson was born, and his mother, within a few months after his birth, returned to the United States, was an infant, so that he has no memory at all of his mother. He is now a man of about thirty five, who has received a fair education, but has never devoted himself at all to the study of languages. This much for a necessary preclude to the story.

About a year ago, Mr. Watson happened to be in the office of the Turkish consul in this city when that official, through an interpreter, was inquiring into certain complains by some Turkish sailors who had come to this city. Mr. Watson was looking at the Turks, purely from curiosity, when some expression in Turkish, used by one of them seemed to have a familiar sound. His attention being attracted, he listened carefully, and to his intense astonishment found that he was able to comprehend a considerable part of what they were saying, and the longer he listed the clearer it became to him. As he expressed it, it was as though a veil had been removed from his comprehension or a new faculty of understanding added to his mind.

Nor is this all. A few weeks later a circus troupe was in the city and among the performers were a number of Arabs. Mr. Watson, curious to know how far his new and strange linguistic gift extended went to the circus and was enabled by arrangement with the manager to hear the Arabs conversing among themselves in their own language. The same experience was repeated, except that he found that is knowledge of Arabic, if that be the word for it, was inferior to his comprehension of Turkish, and that he could understand only words and phrases here and there.

Trying the same kind of experience with European languages, Mr. Watson found he could do nothing with them. To the same ear to which Turkish had come with a clear understanding and Arabic with a partial comprehension, French, Spanish, German and Italian were a jumbling of unmeaning sounds. It should be added that Mr. Watson positively disclaims ever having studied a word of Turkish or Arabic, and that there is no chance of his ever having heard either language spoken, since his father died before he was born, and he was educated partly in New England and partly in California, in the public schools, where Turkish and Arabic do not form part of the curriculum.

If we assume this story to be true, how are the facts to be accounted for? Will heredity explain a man’s understanding languages which he had never studied and had never even heard spoken? But if not why not? Nature reproduces mental traits and physical resemblances with an accuracy sometimes startling. Is it too much to believe that the power of comprehending a spoken language may be transmitted from one generation to another, albeit imperfectly, and that it may lie dormant for years until someone arouses it? Who can tell?

Could this story possibly be true? 

Three possible scenarios:

(1) Cool story. However, no way it could be true.

(2) I believe it. True genuis while rare does exist

(3) Something in between.

My vote is for #3.

We only have the facts of the story to work with. Yet I think it’s plausible.

After all, there is no doubt that it is possible for someone to excel at a sport, say basketball or football, “hereditarily.” Within a few hours of picking up a ball for the first time they can and do dominate. I could list 50 examples of where this has happened.

That’s not too much of a leap from what Mr. Watson apparently achieved with language skills. Some people do have a certain rare natural ability that makes it easier for them. They pick stuff up and can get from skill level A to C almost instantly, whereas mere language mortals, like myself, have to grind it out over time.

On the other hand, it is hard for me to see how this guy could just “understand” if he really had not a single hour of language instruction as the story suggests. Which leads to suspect that Watson conveniently left out a detail or two to produce a better story. Perhaps he did in fact have some basic exposure to the language.

I can not find any follow-up stories on this Mr. Watson. If I do will be sure to blog about them.

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