13 August 2011

The unusual story of Marc Liblin

“In a small town in the foothills of the Vosges [France], a six-year-old boy is visited by dreams in which he is taught a completely unknown language. Little Marc Liblin soon speaks this language fluently without knowing where it comes from or whether it even really exists.

He is a gifted but lonely child, with a thirst for knowledge. In his youth, he lives on books rather than on bread. At the age of thirty-three, he is an outsider living on the fringes of society when he comes to the attention of researchers from the University of Rennes. They want to decipher and translate his language. For two years, they feed the strange sounds he makes into giant computers. In vain.

Eventually, they decide to trawl through the bars by the harbour to see if any of the sailors on shore leave have ever heard the language before. In a bar in Rennes, Marc Liblin gives a solo performance, holding a monologue in front of a group of Tunisians. The barkeeper, a former navy man, interrupts and says he has heard this tongue before, on one of the most remote Polynesian islands [Rapa Iti, pictured above]. And he knows an elderly lady who speaks it; she is divorced from an army officer and now lives in a council estate in the suburbs.

The meeting with the Polynesian woman changes Liblin’s life. When Meretuini Make opens the door, Marc greets her in his language, and she answers straight away in the old Rapa of her homeland. Marc Liblin, who has never been outside Europe, marries the only woman who understands him, and in 1983 he leaves with her for the island where his language is spoken.”
I found this curious story (boldface mine) in an interesting book entitled Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schalansky.  It's a short book you can read quickly in an evening, featuring images and one-page anecdotes about fifty islands around the world.  The island I find most appealing for a "castaway" fantasy is this one - Tikopia (also in the south Pacific).  Look at that beautiful lagoon in the old caldera:

Rapa Iti image from Satellite Imaging Corporation; Tikopia via Wikipedia.

18 comments:

  1. Fantastic! Thank you again for sharing all these wonderful stories with us, keep going on!

    Greetings from Germany

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  2. Nice story.
    But I'd add a disclaimer warning that it is probably fictional. People are apparently inclined to believe it. (I wonder if they wouldn't be more skeptical if the language was english or spanish, rather than a mystical/mysterious language from a remote island where shamans live)

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  3. Anon, the person Marc Liblin is real, and the story was not made up by this author. Whether he was actually speaking the language of Rapa Iti is another question. One could postulate that he was speaking a word salad or gibberish that sounded like the Rapa language, and that the woman accepted him because of the attention she got etc.

    You can find his photo and other related historical materials with a web search.

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  4. The person certainly is real, and Mrs Schalansky probably didn't make up this story, someone else did (Marc Liblin?).

    If he somehow learned a language from dreams (which seems unlikely given how inconsistent dreams usually are), it wasn't Rapa Iti. If he learned Rapa Iti, it wasn't from dreams.

    If he learned a language from dreams, AND this language actually existed, I'd eat my hat.

    Besides, all I could find on the internet were the same story in several languages, but never with much more information (sometimes stating that the story was "true and verified", without making it clear how and by whom).

    I did find one version that gave the names of two researchers who supposedly studied him, Dr Collin and Prof. Leruz, the first of whom I couldn't find anything about. There was, however, a professor Le Ruz at the University of Rennes around that time, but he was specialized in electromagnetic waves...

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  5. Marc Liblin really existed. He died in 1996, aged 50 years old. For 16 years he lived onthis tiny isolated island, Rapa Iti.
    He worked as a school teachers for quite a few years, and spent countless hours documenting the language and the culture. You can find many references in French.
    As for the academics, since the story dates bqck to 1983, it's not surprising one can hardly find things online... If they were close to retirement, it will be hard to find traces on line, unless catalogs have been updqted and put on line. Hence what bugs me is that I can't find anything in university catalogs, meaning that nothing seems to have been published about him by the academics, at least in known reviews.

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  6. Charming balderdash.

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  7. This reminds me of the stories wherein someone suffers some kind of traumatic brain injury, becomes comatose, then wakes up miraculously speaking a foreign language. While the skeptic in me finds such stories highly unlikely, I wouldn't put anything past the human brain - it truly is a remarkable thing, and we've only just begun to scratch the surface of what it can do.

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  8. I would indeed put it past the human brain. The idea of a language mysteriously finding its way into someone's brain is pure fantasy. Languages don't exist as discreet objects floating in the ether; they are learned, word by word, phrase by phrase, and phoneme by phoneme, by individuals. It is absolutely impossible for Marc Liblin to have learned Rapan without deliberate effort on his part. (Dream-learning doesn't count!)

    I buy the gibberish explanation. There's such thing as auditory pareidolia. More likely, the entire story is exaggerated legend.

    I wish there was recordings of his supposed speech!

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  9. I wonder what geological events shaped Rapa Iti, it has a wonderful multi-faceted look.

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  10. re. Tikopia
    There is a more sobering story about the island of Tikopia:

    http://home.netcom.com/~yellowrose/tikopia/

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  11. Francophones might check out these links:

    http://tinyurl.com/3jp6qdh

    http://www.tahiti-pacifique.com/Articles.divers/Marc%20Liblin.html

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  12. Why do the two aerial photos of the same island look so different?
    (I'm assuming they are the same island).

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  13. @newzea - Obviously they are not of the same island. The top photo is of Rapa Iti, the home of the language allegedly spoken by Mr. Liblin. The lower image is of Tikopia, the favored castaway home of the gracious host of this blog.

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  14. I have to agree with the skeptics on this one. There is no good scientific evidence supporting the existence of xenoglossia.

    It is incredibly difficult to prove since a hoax is so easy. All one would need to do is study a language in secret. Then you would have dozens of friends/family members as witnesses that you never learned the language and never traveled to an area where it was spoken.

    We know that memories and skills are developed by experience which cause certain neural pathways to form and others to disappear. There is no known way for this to have occurred in this case.

    We also know that dreams are somewhat random nerve firings that are associated with consolidation of short term memory into long term memory. Our brains interpret these firings in sometimes strange and surreal ways, but there is nothing spooky about dreams. They don't predict the future or teach us about past lives.

    Additionally our brain has an important built in amnesia for things that we experience in dreams. If we have a real experience that getting punched causes teeth to fall out that provides an important lesson: We should avoid getting punched to keep our teeth. If we have a dream that speaking causes our teeth to fall out that provides a maladaptive lesson and should be forgotten.

    If you could possibly learn a language in a dream you would rapidly forget it.

    In short it just doesn't make sense. If this story is true then everything learned about neurology in the past 100+ years needs to be reevaluated. It is possible that is the case, but I am going to need more than an anecdote from a book about islands before I tell my wife to change her thesis project.

    Here is the Skeptic's Dictionary article on the matter.

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  15. This story comes to mind - http://www.mindpowernews.com/PastLifeBoy.htm

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  16. Some things to consider:

    1. The island Rapa Iti, being part of French Polynesia, has been a French possession since 1889.

    2. Marc Liblin was from France. So the recipient of this supposedly amazing transfer of language just happens to be living in the country most likely to have direct translations of the Rapan language in their universities or libraries. Also note, according to the story, Marc Liblin spent his childhood reading books as a hobby.

    3. Rapa Iti is not much more "remote" than any of the Polynesian islands, and the Rapan language is not only spoken on multiple islands, but Rapan is itself a sub-group of a larger category of languages.

    4. If this sailor doesn't speak the language, what are the odds that he really did nail down the exact dialect on a specific island? Or did he just specify the one island where he heard the general language?

    So take your pick. Miracle? Or maybe a strange-yet-autodidactic child stumbles upon an amusing (but not nearly as obscure as the hype would suggest) foreign language, tells a little lie about it, and keeps playing along into adulthood for the attention until someone recognizes it?

    -Carl.

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  17. For what it is worth, Our host's explanation is far more plausible than then various scams proposed. Consider, Marc spent the rest of his life on the island. If he were running a con I doubt that he would have remained. Likewise, nobody seems to have profited from this to any great extent. (if they had there would likely be more of a record of them) Most likely the woman accepted him because of the attention or because it sounded similar and she wanted to believe, being lonely and far from home. I am amazed how few skeptics are capable of using Occam's razor.

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  18. c.desarzens@bluewin.chJanuary 7, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    Who would like to travel with me to Rapa Iti (winter 2014-2015) to discover this island and investigate (after Rennes university) about Liblin's story ?

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