linguistics a case study of Genie



Louise Vytopil
Humanities 132
Introduction to Linguistics
M. Trommelen

Language acquisition: Nature or Nurture?
A case study: Genie

Based on a book by Russ rymer:
‘Genie, a scientific tragedy’

The story of Genie is undoubtedly one of the saddest ones one can imagine. What has been done to her is something no one would ever wish to anyone, not even to their worst enemies.
Her story begins on November 4th, 1970, when she and her blind mother walk into the general social services office early in the morning. Her mother had not been seeking help for Genie, but for herself. Three weeks before that she had finally been able to flee from an abusive marriage, and that morning she did not have the intention to go to the general social services office. Instead she had wanted to go to the services for the blind. By fate or simply by luck for Genie she stumbled into this office. The eligibility worker noticed Genie, and thought he had found an unreported case of autism: this girl had a manner of walking and standing to her that was very unnatural. He alerted his supervisor, he noticed the girl was not autistic, but that there was something unmistakenly wrong. A social worker visited her home, and had her transferred to the Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.
Genie, the daughter of Clark and Irene was the victim of an abusive father. Her parents had already had two babies die in their early years: one baby died after having been locked up in a garage because she cried, the second one died of Rh-blood poisoning soon after birth. Genie had an older brother, who had also suffered from severe neglect. However, his grandmother put him back on track. With Genie, there was no one to put her back on track. She had developmental problems, just like her brother. She was lagging behind in her physical stature and habits. When the family moved after Clark’s mom had died in a car accident, Genie was confined to a small bedroom, harnessed to an infant’s potty seat. She was tied-up there during the day; during the night she was placed in a restraining sleeping bag. The reason her father put her tied-up at all times was because her father believed she was retarded from birth on and felt this was the good solution, so that she would not and could not be exploited. She was beaten for making noise. So she learned to keep silent and to suppress all vocalization. Genie’s father was convinced that Genie would die. He was so convinced of this that he promised Irene that if she would live beyond the age of twelve, she could seek help for Genie. Genie survived, but her father abandoned his promise. Finally, when Genie was 13 ½ years old, Genie’s mother got into a violent argument with Clark, and she threatened him to leave unless he called her parents. He did. Later that day mother and child moved out, and found their way to the general social services office. Her parents were then charged with abuse. The morning they were supposed to appear in court on charges of willful abuse or injury to the person or health of a minor, her father committed suicide.
Genie, looking as if she was 6 or 7 was in reality a teenager. She weighed only 4 stone, and was four and a half feet tall. She was incontinent, could not chew food, she could not focus her eyes beyond twelve feet and she could not cry. She could not hop, skip, climb or do anything requiring the full extension of her limbs. She showed no perception of heat or cold.
Furthermore, and most interesting to scientists, she could not speak. And that is what this paper is about.
However before I start to elaborate on Genie’s performance in learning language, I will explain something about the history of linguistics and language acquisition.
Until the high renaissance European philosophers related language to the Bible. It was thought that any human attribute must be as inevitably mysterious and divine beyond investigation as the creator it reflected. Descartes came up with a very unorthodox view of human beings: he divided man in half, in that he thought mind was a completely separate thing from