‘No voglio petit-déjeuner. Enleve. Tired. Voglio dormir. Ne dors pas noche. Je veux dormir adesso.’
Italian, French, English. Bertha knew all those languages. But why should she want to start speaking them now? And why jumble them all together like this? Mrs Pappenheim clenched her hands and stepped further into the room. ‘Bertha, what’s all this nonsense? Speak German, please.’
‘I am speaking German,’ Bertha said in English. She closed her eyes."
From Guises of Desire by Hilda Reilly
"For alongside of the development of the contractures there appeared a deep-going functional disorganization of her speech. It first became noticeable that she was at a loss to find words, and this difficulty gradually increased. Later she lost her command of grammar and syntax; she no longer conjugated verbs, and eventually she used only infinitives, for the most part incorrectly formed from weak past participles. And she omitted both the definite and indefinite article. In the process of time she became almost completely deprived of words. She put them together laboriously out of four or five languages and became almost unintelligible."
From Studies in Hysteria by Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer
The disruption of Bertha's speech faculty was undoubtedly complex and it's perhaps not surprising that Breuer was at a loss to explain it in anything other than psychogenic terms. In addition to the difficulties described above, she went on to lose her command of German completely and for a while could speak only in English.
One of the obstacles to arriving at a neurological interpretation of Bertha's symptoms may have been the theory of retrograde amnesia formulated around the same time by French neurologist Theodule Ribot. According to this, any damage to memory areas of the brain would result in newer memories being affected before older ones. Extending this to the language function, it was therefore expected that languages learned later in life would be affected before earlier ones and that the mother tongue would be the last to suffer.
However, subsequent cases of multilingual patients affected by strokes and the like have not borne this out. American neuropsychologist Laurence Miller reports that the order in which languages are recovered in such cases is variable, and that individual patients can even exhibit different types of aphasic syndrome in their different languages. Research carried out by neurosurgeon George Ojemann while operating on bilingual patients indicated that, although some brain areas were common to both languages, there were also peripheral areas involving only one of the languages. This kind of anatomical distribution of language function makes it easier to see how language disruption could manifest itself in seemingly aberrant and arbitrary ways.
Perhaps the most fascinating writing on the subject is to be found in the reports of those who have had personal experience of language impairment as it gives insight into what the condition feels like.
In Stroke: A Diary of Recovery, Douglas Ritchie describes it thus:
"I could day-dream……. I could think, actively, without using words, and coming down to earth, I rehearsed speeches silently. But there was the blank wall. The minute I rehearsed speeches with my tongue, even though I kept silent, the words would not come……
It was like starting a motor car. The engine ticked over and speeded up, but the moment one sought to put the car into gear, something went wrong with the clutch, the gear crashed with an ugly sound the engine stopped."
In Auto-Observation of Aphasia by French doctor Jacques Lordat, written in the 19th century, Lordat describes being at times in a state of what he called paramnesia "a faulty use of known and remembered sounds. Thus when I wanted to ask for a book, I pronounced the word for handkerchief. However, immediately after having uttered this word, I retracted it, feeling that another was indicated."
Equally intriguing is The Man Who Lost His Language by Sheila Hale in which she writes of the aftermath of her husband's stroke. John Hale never recovered his power of speech, or at least as the term is generally understood, yet he managed a form of communication based on constant repetition of the syllables da woahs, modulated and infused with emotion as if in normal conversation, apparently believing that the sounds he was uttering were making perfect sense to his listeners.
Works such as these were of more help to me than the case history in getting to the raw feel of what Bertha's experience must have been like. The personal perspective is invaluable as a complement to the medical one.
- Hale, Sheila, The Man Who Lost His Language (Allen Lane, 2002)
- Riese, Walter, Auto-Observation of Aphasia, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 28 (1954)
- Ritchie, Douglas, Stroke: A Diary of Recovery (Faber and Faber, 1974)