Poto and Cabengo

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Poto and Cabengo (names given, respectively, by Grace and Virginia Kennedy to themselves) are American identical twins who used an invented language until the age of about eight.

The girls were apparently of normal intelligence. They developed their own communication as they had little exposure to spoken language in their early years. Poto and Cabengo were the names they called each other.[1]

Poto and Cabengo is also the name of a documentary film about the girls made by Jean-Pierre Gorin and released in 1980.


Grace and Virginia Kennedy were born in 1970 in Columbus, Georgia.[2] Their birth was normal, and they were able to lift their heads and make eye contact with their parents within hours after birth, but both soon suffered apparent seizures.[3] Their father maintained that a surgeon told him the girls might experience developmental disabilities. Apparently misunderstanding speculation for diagnosis, the girls' parents ceased to pay more attention to them than necessary.[citation needed]

Early circumstances[edit]

Both parents were employed (although later characterized by The San Diego Tribune as living on "food stamps and welfare") and spent many hours away from home. The girls were left in the care of a grandmother who met their physical needs but did not play or interact with them. The grandmother spoke only German, while the parents spoke English.[1] They had no contact with other children, seldom played outdoors, and were not sent to school.[4]

Their father later stated in interviews that he realized the girls had invented a language of their own, but, since their use of English remained extremely rudimentary, he had decided that they were, as the doctor suggested, developmentally challenged and that it would do no good to send them to school. When he lost his job, he told a caseworker at the unemployment office about his family; the caseworker advised him to put the girls in speech therapy.[2] At the Children's Hospital of San Diego, in California, speech therapists Ann Koeneke and Alexa Kratze discovered that Virginia and Grace had invented a complex idioglossia.[5]


The twins' language was characterized by an extremely fast tempo and a staccato rhythm, traits the girls transferred to their spoken English following speech therapy. Linguistic analysis revealed that their language was a mixture of English and German (their mother and grandmother were German born) with some neologisms and several idiosyncratic grammatical features.[2]

The story of the "twins who made their own language" made the national newspapers in 1978 and was included in an edition of the People's Almanac. Many speech and hearing experts and psychiatrists offered speculation as to why, in contrast to most idioglossic twins, the girls had failed to pick up English.[citation needed] Alexa Kratze pointed out that the girls had had very little contact with anyone outside their family and that contact within the family had been minimal at best, factors that contributed to the girls' developmental disability.[citation needed]

Once it was established that the girls could be educated, their father apparently forbade them to speak their personal language. He was quoted in Time magazine as saying: "They don't want to be associated as dummies. You live in a society, you got to speak the language." Asked if they remembered their language, the girls confirmed that they did, but their father gently chided them for "lying."[6] Despite being mainstreamed and placed in separate classes, the girls remained affected by their family's emotional neglect. A follow-up as they approached the age of 30 revealed that Virginia worked on an assembly line in a supervised job training center, while Grace mopped floors at the fast-food restaurant McDonald's.[7]

Sample speech extract[edit]

"Pinit, putahtraletungay." (Finish, potato salad hungry.)
"Nis, Poto?" (This, Poto?)
"Liba Cabingoat, it." (Dear Cabengo, eat.)
"Ia moa, Poto?" (Here more, Poto?)
"Ya." (Yeah.)[6]


  1. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (March 25, 1980). "Film: 'Poto and Cabengo,' Story of Unusual Twins:Another Failed Dream". The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-04-30.
  2. ^ a b c Gorney, Cynthia (July 17, 1979). "My Sister, My Self". Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-04-30.
  3. ^ Lackman, Jon (August 23, 2011). "Dugon, Haus You Dinikin, Du-Ah". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2020-04-30.
  4. ^ "Twins' Mysterious Speech Has Many Experts Talking", The San Diego Tribune July 22, 1977.
  5. ^ ‘Retarded’ Twins’ Gibberish Really Private Language.
  6. ^ a b "Ginny and Gracie Go to School", TIME December 10, 1979. [dead link]
  7. ^ The Learning Channel, "Twin stories", retrieved 2007-03-07.

External links[edit]