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Month: April, 2016

Eco: Dante and Abulafia, 2


Bartolomeu Velho (d.1568), Figure of the Heavenly Bodies, an illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe, from Cosmographia, 1568. Held in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France, Paris. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Yet could Dante have known the theories of Abulafia?

Abulafia visited Italy on several occasions: he was in Rome in 1260; he remained on the peninsula until 1271, when he returned to Barcelona; he returned to Rome in 1280 with the project of converting the pope.

He journeyed afterwards to Sicily, where we lose trace of him somewhere near the end of the 1290s. His ideas incontestably exercised an influence on contemporary Italian Jewish thought. We have a record of a debate in 1290 between Hillel of Verona (who had probably met Abulafia twenty years earlier) and Zerakhya of Barcelona, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 1270s (cf. Genot-Bismuth 1988: II).

Hillel, who had contacts in the world of Bologna intellectuals, had written to Zerakhya to ask him the question first posed by Herodotus: in what language would a child speak if it were brought up with no linguistic stimuli?

Hillel maintained that such a child would naturally speak Hebrew, because Hebrew was humanity’s original natural language. Hillel either did not know, or else disregarded, the fact that Abulafia was of a different opinion. Not so with Zerakhya.

He sarcastically remarked that Hillel had been taken in by the siren song of the “uncircumcised” of Bologna. The first sounds emitted by a child without linguistic education, he asserted, would resemble the barking of dogs. It was madness to maintain that the sacred language could be naturally bestowed on human beings.

Humanity possessed a linguistic potential, but it was a potential that could be activated only through education of the vocal organs. This, however, required instruction.

At this point, Zerakhya brought forward a proof that we shall find in a number of post-Renaissance Christian authors (for example, in the In Biblia polyglotta prolegomena by Walton in 1673, or the De sacra philosophia of 1652 by Vallesio): had there been the primordial gift of an original sacred language, then all human beings, regardless of their native tongue, would have the innate ability to speak it.

The existence of such a debate is enough to show, without needing to invent a meeting between Dante and Abulafia, that Abulafia’s ideas were subject to discussion in Italy, especially in the Bolognese intellectual circles which influenced Dante, and from which, according to Maria Corti, he absorbed his notion of the forma locutionis.

Nor does the Bologna debate constitute the only point of encounter between Dante and Jewish thought.

Genot-Bismuth has given us a vivid picture of the close of the thirteenth century in which we will later find a Yehuda Romano giving a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy for his co-religionists, a Lionello di Ser Daniele who did likewise using a Divine Comedy transliterated into Hebrew script, not to mention the surprising personage of Immanuel da Roma, who, in his own poetic compositions, seemed to launch an attack on Dante’s ideals almost aspiring to produce a sort of counter-Comedy in Hebrew.

Naturally this only establishes the influence of Dante on Italian Jewish culture, not the other way around. Yet Genot-Bismuth is able to show opposing influences as well, even to the point of suggesting that Dante’s theory of the four senses of scripture, found in his Epistula, XIII (cf. Eco 1985), had a Jewish origin.

Such a hypothesis may be too bold: there were any number of Christian sources from which Dante might have drawn this doctrine. What seems less daring, and, in fact, entirely plausible, is the suggestion that, in Bologna, Dante would have heard echoes of the debate between Hillel and Zerakhya.

One could say that in DVE he appears still close to the position of the former (or of his Christian inspirers, as Zerakhya reproaches him), while in Paradise he turns towards the positions of the latter, that is, the position of Abulafia (even though, when writing DVE, he already had the opportunity to know both theses).

However, it is not necessary to document direct links (even though Genot-Bismuth finds the presence of Jewish influences in certain passages of the De regimine principium of Giles of Rome), but rather to demonstrate the existence of a cultural climate in which ideas could circulate and within which a formal and informal debate between the church and the synagogue might ensue (cf. Calimani 1987: viii).

We should remember that, before the Renaissance, a Christian thinker would scarcely wish to admit publicly that he drew on Hebrew doctrine.

Like heretics, the Jewish community belonged to a category of outcasts that–as Le Goff shrewdly observes–the Middle Ages officially despised but at the same time admired; regarding them with an admixture of attraction and fear, keeping them at a distance, but making sure that the distance was fixed near enough so they would always remain close at hand.

“What was termed charity in their regard more resembled the game that cats play with mice” (Le Goff 1964:373).

Before the kabbala was rehabilitated by humanist culture, Christianity knew little of it. It was often simply regarded as a branch of the black arts. Even so, as Gorni has pointed out (1990: vii), in the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to share a great deal of knowledge about magic and divinatory practices (astrology, chiromancy, physiognomy, geomancy, pyromancy, hydromancy and, not least, the black arts of magic themselves).

In one way or another, Dante seems to have been informed about an excluded and underground culture in which, at least according to vulgar opinion, the kabbala somehow belonged.

In this way, it becomes ever more plausible that, even if it does not derive directly from the theories of the Modistae, Dante’s forma locutionis is not a language but the universal matrix for all language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 49-52.

Eco: Dante and Abulafia


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), The Haywain or The Hay Wagon Triptych (1516), held after 1907 as accession number P02052 in The Prado Museum, Madrid. Bosch signed this work “Jheronimus Bosch” in the lower right corner of the central panel. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“If we turn from DVE to Paradise, xxxvi (several years having passed in the meantime), we find that Dante has changed his mind. In the earlier work, Dante unambiguously states that it was from the forma locutionis given by God that the perfect language of Hebrew was born, and that it was in this perfect language that Adam addressed God, calling him El. In Paradise, xxxvi, 124-38, however, Adam says:

La lingua ch’io parlai fu tutta spenta

innanzi che all’ovra incomsummabile

fosse le gente di Nembròt attenta:

ché nullo effetto mai razïonabile,

per lo piacer uman che rinovella

seguendo il cielo, sempre fu durabile. 

Opera naturale è ch’uom favella,

ma, così o così, natura lascia,

poi fare a voi, secondo che v’abbella.

Pria ch’i’ pscendessi all’infernale ambascia 

I s’appellava in terra il sommo bene,

onde vien letizia che mi fascia; 

e EL si chiamò poi: e ciò convene,

ché l’uso dei mortali è come fronda

in ramo, che sen va e altra vene.

“The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work [the tower of Babel] of the people of Nembrot was even conceived: because no product of the human reason, from the human taste for always having something new, following the influence of the stars, is ever stable. It is natural that man speaks; but whether this way or that, nature lets you yourselves do as it pleases you. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I–from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Born of humanity’s natural disposition towards speech, languages may split, grow and change through human intervention. According to Adam, the Hebrew spoken before the building of the tower, when God was named El, was not the same as the Hebrew spoken in the earthly paradise, when Adam called him I.

Dante seems here to oscillate between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11. He must always have known these two texts; what could have induced him to modify his earlier views? An intriguing clue is the strange idea that God had once been called I, a term that not one of Dante’s legion of commentators has ever been able to explain satisfactorily.

Returning for a moment to the last chapter, we remember that for Abulafia, the atomic elements of any text–the letters–had individual meanings of their own. Thus, in the divine name YHWH, the letter Yod was itself a divine name.

Dante would have transliterated Yod as I, and this gives one possible source for his change of opinion. If this is so, it would not be the only idea that Dante seems to have had in common with Abulafia.

We saw in the last chapter that for Abulafia the Torah had to be equated with the active intellect, and the scheme from which God created the world was the same as the gift which he gave to Adam–a linguistic matrix, not yet Hebrew, yet capable of generating all other languages.

There were Averroist sympathies in Dante, too, especially in his version of the Avicennist and Augustinian concept of the active intellect (equated with divine wisdom) which offers the forms to possible intellect (cf. in particular, Nardi 1942: v). Nor were the Modistae and the others who supported the idea of universal grammar exempt from Averroist influence.

Thus there existed a common philosophical ground which, even without positing direct links, would have inclined both Dante and Abulafia to regard the gift of language as the bestowal of a forma locutionis, defined as a generative linguistic matrix with affinities to the active intellect.

There are further parallels as well. For Abulafia, Hebrew was the historic proto-language. It was a proto-language, however, that during their exile, the chosen people had forgotten. By the time of the confusion of Babel, therefore, the language of Adam was, as Dante puts it, “tutta spenta” (entirely extinguished).

Idel (1989: 17) cites an unedited manuscript by a disciple of Abulafia which says:

“Anyone who believes in the creation of the world, if he believes that languages are conventional he must also believe that they are of two types: the first is Divine, i.e. agreement between God and Adam, Eve and their children.

The second is derived from the first, and the first was known only to Adam and was not passed on to any of his offspring except for Seth, [ . . . ] And so, the traditions reached Noah. And the confusion of the tongues during the generation of the dispersion [at the tower of Babel] occurred only to the second type of language, i.e., to natural language.”

If we remember that, in such a context, the term “tradition” can refer to the kabbala itself, it seems evident that the above passage alludes, once again, to a linguistic wisdom, a forma locutionis, regarded as a set of rules for constructing the differing languages.

If, in its original form, this wisdom was not a language, but rather a universal matrix for all languages, we can not only explain the mutation of Hebrew between Eden and Babel, but also understand the hope that this original wisdom might somehow be recuperated and (in different ways, obviously, for Abulafia and Dante) even be made to bloom again.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 46-9.

Eco: The Illustrious Vernacular


Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), Construction of the Tower of Babel, 1620 (I have no idea how this painting can be attributed to van Valckenborch, who died in 1597, while the painting is dated 1620). Held in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, photographed by Sailko, May 2014. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Now we can begin to understand the nature of the illustre vernacular that Dante hunts like a perfumed panther (I, xvi, 1). We catch glimpses of it, evanescent, in the works of the poets that Dante considers the most important; but the language still remains unformed and unregulated, its grammatical principles unarticulated.

Confronted with the existing vernaculars, natural but not universal languages, and with a grammar that was universal but artificial, Dante sought to establish his dream of the restoration of the natural and universal forma locutionis of Eden.

Yet unlike those in the Renaissance who wished to restore the Hebrew language itself to its original magic and divinatory power, Dante’s goal was to reinstate these original conditions in a modern invention: an illustrious vernacular, of which his own poetry would constitute the most notable achievement, was, to Dante, the only way in which a modern poet might heal the wound of Babel.

The entire second part of DVE is therefore to be understood not as a mere treatise of style, but as an effort to fix the conditions, rules, forma locutionis of the only conceivable perfect language–the Italian of the poetry of Dante. (Corti 1981: 70).

The illustrious vernacular would take from the perfect language its necessity (as opposed to conventionality) because, just as the perfect forma locutionis permitted Adam to speak with God, so the illustrious vernacular would permit the poet to make his words adequate to express what he wished, and what could not be expressed otherwise.

Out of this bold conception for the restoration of a perfect language, and of his own role within it, comes a celebration of the quasi-biological force displayed by language’s capacity to change and renew itself over time instead of a lament over the multiplicity of tongues.

The assertion of language’s creativity, after all, stands at the base of Dante’s own project to create a perfect, modern, natural language, without recourse to a dead language as a model. For someone of Dante’s temperament, a conviction that the Hebrew of Adam was the one truly perfect language could only have resulted in the learning of Hebrew and in the composition of his poem in that idiom.

That Dante did not decide to learn Hebrew shows that he was convinced that the vernacular he intended to invent would correspond to the principles of the universal, God-given form better even than the Hebrew spoken by Adam himself.

Thus Dante puts forth his own candidacy as a new (and more perfect) Adam.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 45-6.

Eco: Dante and Universal Grammar


Cornelisz Anthonisz, The Fall of the Tower of Babel, 1547. The text at top right reads “Bablon / Genesis 11.” The text in the top left banner reads, “When it was at its highest / it should not do fall.” The stone at the bottom left reads “1547.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“One solution to the problem has been proposed by Maria Corti (1981: 46ff). It is, by now, generally accepted that we cannot regard Dante as simply an orthodox follower of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

According to circumstances, Dante used a variety of philosophical and theological sources; it is furthermore well established that he was influenced by various strands of the so-called radical Aristotelianism whose major representative was Siger of Brabant.

Another important figure in radical Aristotelianism was Boethius of Dacia, who, like Siger, suffered the condemnation of the Bishop of Paris in 1277. Boethius was a member of a group of grammarians called Modistae, and the author of a treatise, De modis significandi, which–according to Corti–influenced Dante, because Bologna was the focal point from which, either through a stay in the city, or through Florentine or Bolognese friends, such influences reached Dante.

The Modist grammarians asserted the existence of linguistic universals–that is, of rules underlying the formation of any natural language. This may help clarify precisely what Dante meant by forma locutionis. In his De modis, Boethius of Dacia observed that it was possible to extract from all existing languages the rules of a universal grammar, distinct from either Greek or Latin grammar (Quaestio 6).

The “speculative grammar” of the Modistae asserted a relation of specular correspondence between language, thought and the nature of things. For them, it was a given that the modi intelligendi and, consequently, the modi significandi reflected the modi essendi of things themselves.

What God gave Adam, therefore, was neither just the faculty of language nor yet a natural language; what he gave was, in fact, a set of principles for a universal grammar. These principles acted as the formal cause of language: “the general structuring principle of language, as regards either the lexicon, or the morphological and syntactical components of the language that Adam would gradually forge by living and giving names.” (Corti 1981: 47).

Maria Corti’s thesis has been vehemently contested (cf., in particular, Pagani 1982; Maierù 1983). It has been objected that there is no clear proof that Dante even knew the work of Boethius of Dacia, that many of the analogies that Maria Corti tries to establish between Dante’s text and Boethius cannot be sustained, and that, finally, many of the linguistic notions that one finds in Dante were already circulating in the works of philosophers even before the thirteenth century.

Now, even if the first two objections are conceded, there still remains the third. That there were widespread discussions of the subject of universal grammar in medieval culture is something that no one, and certainly not Corti’s critics, wishes to place in doubt.

As Maierù puts it, it was not necessary to read Boethius to know that grammar has one and the same substance in all languages, even if there are variations on the surface, for this assertion is already found in Roger Bacon.

Yet this, if anything, constitutes proof that it was possible that Dante could have been thinking about universal grammar when he wrote DVE. If this is so, he could have conceived of the forma locutionis given by God as a sort of innate mechanism, in the same terms as Chomsky’s generative grammar, which, interestingly enough, was inspired by the rationalist ideas of Descartes and sixteenth-century grammarians who, in their turn, had rediscovered the ideas of the medieval Modistae.

Yet if this is all there is to it, what is the point of the story of Babel? It seems most likely that Dante believed that, at Babel, there had disappeared the perfect forma locutionis whose principles permitted the creation of languages capable of reflecting the true essence of things; languages, in other words, in which the modi essendi of things were identical with the modi significandi.

The Hebrew of Eden was the perfect and unrepeatable example of such a language. What was left after Babel? All that remained were shattered, imperfect formae locutionis, imperfect as the various vulgar Italian dialects whose defects and whose incapacity to express grand and profound thoughts Dante pitilessly analyzed.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 43-5.

Eco: The First Gift to Adam


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Paradise and Hell, circa 1510. These two panels were based on the left and right wings of a triptych called The Hay Wagon or The Haywain. After 1907 the entire triptych was held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, under accession number 2052. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In the pages which follow, Dante affirms that, in Genesis, it is written that the first to speak was Eve (“mulierem invenitur ante omnes fuisse locutam”) when she talked with the serpent. It seemed to him “troublesome not to imagine that an act so noble for the human race did not come from the lips of a man but rather from those of a woman.”

If anything, of course, we know that it was God that first spoke in Genesis: he spoke to create the world. After that, when God made Adam give names to the animals, Adam presumably emitted sounds as well, though, curiously, the whole episode of the naming of things in Genesis 2:19 is ignored by Dante.

Finally, Adam speaks to show his satisfaction at the appearance of Eve. Mengaldo (1979: 42) has suggested that, since, for Dante, speaking means to externalize the thoughts of our mind, speaking implies spoken dialogue. Thus, since the encounter of Eve and the serpent is the first instance of dialogue, it is, therefore, for Dante, the first instance of linguistic behavior.

This is an argument that accords well with Dante’s choice here of the word locutio, whose ambiguous status we have just discussed. We are thus led to imagine that, for Dante, Adam’s satisfaction with the creation of Eve would have been expressed in his heart, and that, in naming the animals, rather than speaking (in the usual sense of the word), Adam was laying down the rules of language, and thus performing a metalinguistic act.

In whatever case, Dante mentions Eve only to remark that it seemed to him more reasonable to suppose that Adam had really spoken first. While the first sound that humans let forth is the wail of pain at their birth, Dante thought that the first sound emitted by Adam could only have been an exclamation of joy which, at the same time, was an act of homage towards his creator.

The first word that Adam uttered must therefore have been the name of God, El (attested in patristic tradition as the first Hebrew name of God). The argument here implies that Adam spoke to God before he named the animals, and that, consequently, God had already provided Adam with some sort of linguistic faculty before he had even constructed a language.

When Adam spoke to God, it was in response. Consequently, God must have spoken first. To speak, however, the Lord did not necessarily have to use a language. Dante is here appealing to the traditional reading of Psalm 148, in which the verses where “Fire, and hail; snow, and vapor; stormy wind” all “praise the name of the Lord,” thus “fulfilling his word,” are taken to mean that God expresses himself naturally through creation.

Dante, however, contours this passage in a very singular way, suggesting that God was able to move the air in such a way that it resonated to form true words. Why did Dante find it necessary to propose such a cumbersome and seemingly gratuitous reading?

The answer seems to be that, as the first member of the only species that uses speech, Adam could only conceive ideas through hearing linguistic sounds. Moreover, as Dante also makes clear (I, v, 2), God wanted Adam to speak so that he might use the gift to glorify God’s name.

Dante must then ask in what idiom Adam spoke. He criticizes those (the Florentines in particular) who always believe their native language to be the best. There are a many great native languages, Dante comments, and many of these are better than the Italian vernaculars.

He then (I, vi, 4) affirms that, along with the first soul, God created a certam formam locutionis. Mengaldo wishes to translate this as “a determined form of language” (Mengaldo 1979: 55). Such a translation, however, would not explain why Dante, shortly thereafter, states that “It was therefore the Hebrew language [ydioma] that the lips of the first speaker forged [fabricarunt]” (I, vi, 7).

It is true that Dante specifies that he is speaking here of a form “in regard to the expressions which indicated things, as well as to the construction of these expressions and their grammatical endings,” allowing the inference that, by forma locutionis, he wishes to refer to a lexicon and a morphology and, consequently, to a determined language.

Nevertheless, translating forma locutionis as “language” would render the next passage difficult to understand:

qua quidem forma omnis lingua loquentium uterertur, nisi culpa presumptionis humanae dissipata fuisset, ut inferius ostenderentur. Hac forma locutionis locutus est Adam: hac forma locutionis locuti sunt homines posteri ejus usque ad edificationem turris Babel, quae “turris confusionis” interpretatur: hanc formam locutionis hereditati sunt filii Heber, qui ab eo sunt dicti Hebrei. Hiis solis post confusionem remansit, ut Redemptor noster, qui ex illis oratus erat secundum humanitatem, non lingua confusionis sed gratie frueretur. Fuit ergo hebraicum ydioma illud quod primi locuentis labia fabricarunt.” (I, vi, 5).

On the one hand, if Dante wanted to use forma locutionis here to refer to a given tongue, why, in observing that Jesus spoke Hebrew, does he once use lingua and once ydioma (and in recounting the story of the confusion–I,vii–he uses the term loquela) while forma locutionis is only used apropos of the divine gift?

On the other hand, if we understand forma locutionis as a faculty of language innate in all humans, it is difficult to explain why the sinners of Babel are said to have lost it, since DVE repeatedly acknowledges the existence of languages born after Babel.

In light of this, let me try to give the translation of the passage:

“and it is precisely this form that all speakers would make use of in their language had it not been dismembered through the fault of human presumption, as I shall demonstrate below. By this linguistic form Adam spoke: by this linguistic form spoke all his descendants until the construction of the Tower of Babel–which is interpreted as the “tower of confusion:” This was the linguistic form that the sons of Eber, called Hebrews after him, inherited. It remained to them alone after the confusion, so that our Savior, who because of the human side of his nature had to be born of them, could use a language not of confusion but of grace. It was thus the Hebrew tongue that was constructed by the first being endowed with speech.”

In this way, the forma locutionis was neither the Hebrew language nor the general faculty of language, but a particular gift from God to Adam that was lost after Babel. It is the lost gift that Dante sought to recover through his theory of an illustrious vernacular.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 40-3.

Eco: Language and Linguistic Behavior


Salvador Dalí (1904-89), Tower of Babel, from the series Biblia Sacra: Ancien Testament, 1967-9, held in the Espace Dali, Dali Museum, Paris. Photo by hanneorla on Flickr. © All rights reserved. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In referring to his conception of the vernacular, in the opening chapter of his treatise Dante uses terms such as vulgaris eloquentia, locutio vulgarium gentium and vulgaris locutio, while reserving the term locutio secundaria for grammar.

We can probably take eloquentia as generically “ability to speak fluently.” Nevertheless, the text contains a series of distinctions, and these are probably not casual. In certain instances, Dante speaks of locutio, in others of ydioma, of lingua or of loquela.

He uses the term ydioma whenever he refers to the Hebrew language (I, iv, 1; I, vi, 1; I, vi, 7) and when he expresses his notion of the branching off of the various languages of the world–the Romance languages in particular. In vi, 6-7, in speaking of the confusion after Babel, Dante uses the term loquela.

In this same context, however, he uses ydioma for the languages of the confusion as well as for the Hebrew language which remained intact. He can speak of the loquela of the Genovese and of the Tuscans while, at the same time, using lingua both for Hebrew and for the Italian vernacular dialects.

It thus seems that the terms ydioma, lingua and loquela are all to be understood as meaning a tongue or a given language in the modern, Saussurian sense of langue.

Often locutio is used in this sense too. When he wishes to say that, after the destruction of Babel, the workers on the tower began to speak imperfect languages, he writes, “tanto rudius nunc barbariusque locuntur.” A few lines later, referring to the Hebrew language in its original state, he uses the phrase, “antiquissima locutione.” (I, vi, 6-8).

Nevertheless, although ydioma, lingua and loquela are “marked” forms (used only where langue in the Saussurian sense is meant), the term locutio  seems to have another, more elastic sense.

It is used whenever the context seems to suggest either the activity of speaking, or the functioning of the linguistic faculty. Dante often uses locutio to mean the act of speaking: for example, he says of animal sounds that they cannot be construed as locutio, meaning by this that they do not qualify as proper linguistic activity. (I, ii, 6-7).

Dante also uses locutio every time that Adam addresses God.

These distinctions are clearest in the passage (I, iv, 1) where Dante asks himself “to what man was the faculty of speech [locutio] first given, and what he said at the beginning [quod primus locutus fuerit], and to whom, and where, and when, and in what language [sub quo ydiomate] were the first acts of linguistic behavior [primiloquium] emitted?”

I think I am justified here in giving primiloquium this sense of “first linguistic behavior” on the analogy of Dante’s use of the terms tristiloquium and turpiloquium to characterize the evil way of speaking of the Romans and the Florentines.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 38-40.

Eco: Latin and the Vernacular


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), with the mountain of Purgatory behind him and the city of Florence to his left, holds the incipit “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” in a detail taken from a painting by Domenico di Michelino (1417-91), 1465. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“An apology for the vernacular, DVE is written in Latin. As a poet, Dante wrote in Italian; as a philosopher and as a political scientist (as we would say today) who advocated the restoration of a universal monarchy, Dante stuck to the language of theology and law.

DVE defines a vernacular as the speech that an infant learns as it first begins to articulate, imitating the sounds made to it by its nurse, before knowing any rule. The same was not true of that locutio secundaria called grammar by Romans.

Grammar meant a ruled-governed language, one, moreover, that could be mastered only after long study to acquire the habitus.

Considering that in the vocabulary of the Schoolmen habitus was a virtue, a capacity to do some specific thing, a present-day reader might take Dante merely to be distinguishing between the instinctive ability to express oneself in language (performance) and grammatical competence.

It is clear, however, that by grammar Dante meant scholastic Latin, the only language whose rules were taught in school during this period (cf. also Viscardi 1942: 31ff).

In this sense Latin was an artificial idiom; it was, moreover, an idiom which was “perpetual and incorruptible,” having been ossified into the international language of church and university through a system of rules by grammarians from Servius (between the fourth and fifth centuries) to Priscian (between the fifth and sixth) when Latin had ceased to be the living language of the Romans.

Having made this distinction between a primary and a secondary language clear, Dante went on to proclaim in no uncertain terms that, of the two, it was the first, the vernacular, that was the more noble.

He gave various reasons for this opinion: vernaculars were the first languages of humanity; “though divided by different words and accents” (I, i, 4) the whole world continues to use them; finally, vernaculars are natural and not artificial.

This choice led Dante, however, into a double predicament.

First, although assuming that the most noble language must be natural, the fact that natural languages were split into a multiplicity of dialects suggested that they were not natural but conventional.

Second, a vulgar tongue is the language spoken by everyone (by vulgus, or common people). But in DVE Dante insists on the variety of the languages of the world.

How can he reconcile the idea that languages are many with the idea that the vernacular was the natural language for the whole human race? To say that learning a natural language without the aid of rules is common to the whole human race does not amount to saying that we all speak the same one.

A way to escape such a double predicament would be to interpret Dante’s argument as if he wanted to say that our ability to learn different natural languages (according to the place of our birth or to the first linguistic training we receive) depends on our native faculty for languages.

This is certainly an innate faculty which manifests itself in different linguistic forms and substances, that is, in our ability to speak different natural languages (see also Marigo 1938: comment 9, n. 23; Dragonetti 1961: 23).

Such a reading would be legitimated by various of Dante’s assertions concerning our faculty to learn a mother tongue; this faculty is natural, it exists in all peoples despite their differences in word and accent, and is not associated with any specific language.

It is a general faculty, possessed by humanity as a species, for “only man is able to speak” (I, ii, 1). The ability to speak is thus a specific trait of human beings; one that is possessed by neither angels, nor beasts, nor demons.

Speaking means an ability to externalize our particular thoughts; angels, by contrast, have an “ineffable intellectual capacity:” they either understand the thoughts of others, or they can read them in the divine mind.

Animals lack individual feelings, possessing only “specific” passions. Consequently each knows its own feelings and may recognize feelings when displayed by animals of the same species, having no need to understand the feelings of other species.


Gustave Doré (1832-83), Inferno, Canto VII, lines 8,9, 1883. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright terms in the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Each demon immediately recognizes the depths of perfidy of another. (By the way, in the Divine Comedy Dante will decide to make his demons talk; they will still sometimes use a speech not quite human: the celebrated diabolical expression of Inferno, vii, 1, “Pape Satan, pape Satan aleppe,” is curiously reminiscent of another expression: “Raphèl maí amècche zabì almi,” Inferno xxxi, 67–the fatal words, spoken by Nimrod, which set off the catastrophe of Babel; even the devils thus speak the languages of the confusion; cf. Hollander 1980).

In contrast to these beings, however, humans are guided by reason. In individuals, this takes the forms of discernment and judgement. Yet human beings also need some further faculty which might allow them to externalize the contents of this intellect in outward signs.

Dante defines the faculty for language as the disposition for humans to associate rational signifiers with signifieds perceived by the senses, thus accepting the Aristotelian doctrine that the relation between outward signs and both the corresponding passions of the soul, and the things that they signify, is conventional and ad placitum.

Dante made it very clear that while the linguistic faculty is a permanent and immutable trait of the human species, natural languages are historically subject to variation, and are capable of developing over the course of time, enriching themselves independently of the will of any single speaker.

Dante was no less aware that a natural language may be enriched through the creativity of single individuals as well, for the illustrious vernacular that he intended to shape was to be the product of just such an individual creative effort.

Yet it seems that between the faculty of language and the natural languages which are the ultimate result, Dante wished to posit a further, intermediate stage. We can see this better by looking at Dante’s treatment of the story of Adam.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 35-8.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Dante


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), De vulgari eloquentia Libri Duo (1301-5). This edition was printed in Paris, Ex libris Corbinelli, 1577. It is held by the University of Mannheim under call number Sch 072/212. This copy includes manuscript notes by Gilles Ménage, Aegidius Menagius, 1613-92. The last private owner of this book was François-Josephe Terrace Desbillons (1711-89). The Latin text of this book is available on the Latin Library website.

“The first occasion on which the world of medieval Christianity had to confront a systematic project for a perfect language was De vulgari eloquentia (hereafter DVE) of Dante Alighieri, written presumably between 1301 and 1305.

Dante’s text opens with an observation which, obvious thought it may be, is still fundamental for us: there is a multitude of vulgar tongues, all of them are natural languages, and all are opposed to Latin–which is a universal but artificial grammar.

Before the blasphemy of Babel, humanity had known but one language, a perfect language, a language spoken by Adam with God and by his posterity. The plurality of tongues arose as the consequence of the confusio linguarum.

Revealing a knowledge of comparative linguistics exceptional for his time, Dante sought to demonstrate how this fragmentation had actually taken place. The division of the languages born from the confusion, he argued, had proceeded in three stages.

First he showed how languages split up into the various zones of the world; then, using the vernacular word for yes as his measuring rod, he showed how languages (within what we today call the Romance area) had further split into the oc, oil and groups.

Finally, within this last subdivision, Dante showed how particular languages were even further fragmented into a welter of  local dialects, some of which might, as in Bologna, even vary from one part of a city to another.

All of these divisions had occurred, Dante observed, because the human being is–by custom, by habit, by language, and according to differences in time and space–a changeable animal.

If the aim of his project was to discover one language more decorous and illustrious than the others, Dante had to take each of the various vernaculars in turn and subject it to a severe critical analysis.

Examining the work of the best Italian poets, and assuming that each in his own way had always gone beyond his local dialect, Dante thought to create a vernacular (volgare) that might be more illustre (illustrious, in the sense of “shining with light”), cardinale (useful as a guiding rule or cardine), regale (worthy of being spoken in the royal palace of the national king–if the Italians were ever to obtain one), and curiale (worthy to be a language of government, of courts of law, and of wisdom).

Such a vernacular belonged to every city in Italy, yet to none. It existed only as an ideal form, approached by the best poets, and it was according to this ideal form that all the vulgar dialects needed to be judged.

The second, and uncompleted, part of DVE sketches out the rules of composition for the one and only vernacular to which the term illustrious might truly apply–the poetic language of which Dante considered himself to be the founder.

Opposing this language to all other languages of the confusion, Dante proclaimed it as the one which had restored that primordial affinity between words and objects which had been the hallmark of the language of Adam.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 34-5.

Eco: The Mother Tongue


The Hebrew alphabet. Compiled and posted by Assyrio on Wikipedia. The copyright holder releases this work into the public domain, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.  

Humiliter dedicata a amico miles Georgius Hand IV, polyglottis et πολυμαθής.

“Despite this, Abulafia did not think that this matrix of all languages (which coincides with the eternal, but not with the written, Torah) corresponded yet to Hebrew. Here Abulafia made a distinction between the twenty-two letters as a linguistic matrix, and Hebrew as the mother tongue of humanity.

The twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the ideal sounds which had presided over the creation of the seventy existing languages. The fact that other languages had more vowels depended on the variations in pronouncing the twenty-two letters. In modern terminology, the new foreign sounds would be called allophones of the fundamental Hebrew phonemes.

Other kabbalists had observed that the Christians lacked the letter Kheth, while the Arabs lacked Peh. In the Renaissance, Yohanan Alemanno argued that the origins of these phonetic deviations in non-Hebrew languages were the noises of beasts; some were like the grunting of pigs, others were like the croaking of frogs, still others were like the sound of a crane.

The assimilation of bestial sounds showed that these were the languages of peoples who had abandoned the right path and true conduct of their lives. In this sense, another result of the confusion of Babel was the multiplication of letters.

Alemanno was aware that there were also other peoples who considered their languages as superior to all others. He cited Galen, who claimed that Greek was the most pleasing of all languages and the one that most conformed to the laws of reason.

Not daring to contradict him, he attributed this fact to affinities he saw as existing between Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Assyrian.

For Abulafia, the twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the entire gamut of sounds naturally produced by the human vocal organs. It was the different ways of combining these letters that had given rise to the different languages.

The word zeruf (combination) and the word lashon (language) had the same numerical value (386): it followed that the rules of combination provided the explanation to the formation of each separate language.

Abulafia admitted that the decision to represent these sounds according to certain graphic signs was a matter of convention; it was, however, a convention established between God and the prophets.

Being aware that there existed other theories which claimed that the sounds which expressed ideas or things were conventional (he could have encountered such an Aristotelian and Stoic notion in Jewish authors like Maimonides), Abulafia, nevertheless, invoked a rather modern distinction between conventionality and arbitrariness.

Hebrew was a conventional but not an arbitrary language. Abulafia rejected the claim, maintained, among others, by certain Christian authors, that, left entirely to itself, a child would automatically begin to speak Hebrew: the child would be unaware of the convention.

Yet Hebrew remained the sacred mother tongue, because the names given by Adam, though conventional, were in accordance with nature. In this sense, Hebrew was the proto-language.

Its existence was a precondition for all the rest, “For if such a language did not precede it, there couldn’t have been mutual agreement to call a given object by a different name from what it was previously called, for how would the second person understand the second name if he doesn’t know the original name, in order to be able to agree to the changes.” (Sefer or ha-Sekhel; cf. Idel 1989: 14).

Abulafia lamented that his people in the course of their exile had forgotten their original language. He looked on the kabbalist as a laborer working to rediscover the original matrix of all the seventy languages of the world.

Still, he knew that it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that all the secrets of the kabbala would be definitively revealed. Only then, at the end of time, would all linguistic differences cease, and languages be reabsorbed back into the original sacred tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 32-3.

Eco: Cosmic Permutability and the Kabbala of Names, 2

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus, or Mensa Isiaca, N. Inv. C. 7155, Museo Egizio, photo by Fuzzypeg from Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), all rights released. The Bembine Table was acquired by Cardinal Bembo after the sack of Rome in 1527, then purchased by the Savoy King Carlo Emanuele I in 1630 in Turin. A Roman interpretation of a bronze and silver altar table in an Egyptian style, early scholars surmised that the table pertained to an Isis cult. Kircher relied upon it for the third volume of his masterwork. It was ultimately determined to be an antique forgery, and not a work of ancient Egypt. This image is in the public domain. The author died over 70 years ago.   


“What justified  this process of textual dissolution was that, for Abulafia, each letter, each atomic element, already had a meaning of its own, independent of the meaning of the syntagms in which it occurred.

Each letter was already a divine name: “Since, in the letters of the Name, each letter is already a Name itself, know that Yod is a name, and YH is a name” (Perush Havdalah de-Rabbi ‘Akivà).

This practice of reading by permutation tended to produce ecstatic effects:

“And begin by combining this name, namely, YHWH, at the beginning alone, and examining all its combinations and move it, turn it about like a wheel, returning around, front and back, like a scroll, and do not let it rest, but when you see its matter strengthened because of the great motion, because of the fear of confusion of your imagination, and rolling about of your thoughts, and when you let it rest, return to it and ask [it] until there shall come to your hand a word of wisdom from it, do not abandon it.

Afterwards go on to the second one from it, Adonay, and ask of it its foundation [yesodo] and it will reveal to you its secret [sodo]. And then you will apprehend its matter in the truth of its language. Then join and combine the two of them [YHWH and Adonay] and study them and ask them, and they will reveal to you the secrets of wisdom . . .

Afterwards combine Elohim, and it will also grant you wisdom, and then combine the four of them, and find the miracles of the Perfect One [i.e. God], which are miracles of wisdom.” (Hayyê ha-Nefes, in Idel 1988c:21).

If we add that the recitation of the names was accompanied by special techniques of breathing, we begin to see how from recitation the adept might pass into ecstasy, and from ecstasy to the acquisition of magic powers; for the letters that the mystic combined were the same sounds with which God created the world.

This latter aspect came especially into prominence during the fifteenth century. For Yohanan Alemanno, friend and inspirer of Pico della Mirandola, “the symbolic cargo of language was transformed into a kind of quasi-mathematical command. Kabbalistic symbolism thus turned into–or perhaps returned to–a magical language of incantation” (Idel 1988b: 204-5).

For the ecstatic kabbala, language was a self-contained universe in which the structure of language represented the structure of reality itself. Already in the writings of Philo of Alexandria there had been an attempt to compare the intimate essence of the Torah with the Logos as the world of ideas.

Such Platonic conceptions had even penetrated into the Haggidic and Midrashic literature in which the Torah was conceived as providing the scheme according to which God created the world.

The eternal Torah was identified with wisdom and, in many passages, with the world of forms or universe of archetypes. In the thirteenth century, taking up a decidedly Averroist line, Abulafia equated the Torah with the active intellect, “the form of all the forms of separate intellects” (Sefer Mafteakh ha-Tokhahot).

In contrast, therefore, with the main philosophical tradition (from Aristotle to the Stoics and to the Middle Ages, as well as to Arab and Judaic philosophers), language, in the kabbala, did not represent the world merely by referring to it.

It did not, that is, stand to the world in the relation of signifier to signified or sign to its referent. If God created the world by uttering sounds or by combining written letters, it must follow that these semiotic elements were not representations of pre-existing things, but the very forms by which the elements of the universe are moulded.

The significance of this argument in our own story must be plain: the language of creation was perfect not because it merely happened to reflect the structure of the universe in some exemplary fashion; it created the universe.

Consequently it stands to the universe as the cast stands to the object cast from it.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 30-2.

Eco: Cosmic Permutability and the Kabbala of Names


Athanasius Kircher, The Ten Sefirot, from Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in three folio tomes in Rome, 1652-54. This was considered Kircher’s masterwork on Egyptology, and it cast a long shadow for centuries until Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone in 1824, unlocking the secrets of the Egyptian hieroglyphs: Kircher was exposed as an erudite fraud. Kircher cited Chaldean astrology, Hebrew kabbalah, Greek myth, Pythagorean mathematics, Arabic alchemy and Latin philology as his sources.     

“The kabbalist could rely on the unlimited resources of temurah because anagrams were more than just a tool of interpretation: they were the very method whereby God created the world.

This doctrine had already been made explicit in the Sefer Yezirah, or Book of Creation, a little tract written some time between the second and the sixth centuries. According to it, the “stones” out of which God created the world were the thirty-two ways of wisdom. These were formed by the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten Sefirot.

“Twenty-two foundation letters: He ordained them, He hewed them, He combined them, He weighed them, He interchanged them. And He created with them the whole creation and everything to be created in the future.” (II, 2).

“Twenty-two foundation letters: He fixed them on a wheel like a wall with 231 gates and He turns the wheel forward and backward.” (II, 4).

“How did He combine, weigh, and interchange them? Aleph with all and all with Aleph; Beth with all and all with Beth; and so each in turn. There are 231 gates. And all creation and all language come from one name.” (II, 5).

“How did He combine them? Two stones build two houses, three stones build six houses, four stones build twenty-four houses, five stones build a hundred and twenty houses, six stones build seven hundred and twenty houses, seven stones build five thousand and forty houses. Begin from here and think of what the mouth is unable to say and the ear unable to hear.” (IV, 16).

(The Book of Creation, Irving Friedman, ed., New York: Weiser, 1977).

Indeed, not only the mouth and ear, but even a modern computer, might find it difficult to keep up with what happens as the number of stones (or letters) increases. What the Book of Creation is describing is the factorial calculus. We shall see more of this later, in the chapter on Lull’s art of permutation.

The kabbala shows how a mind-boggling number of combinations can be produced from a finite alphabet. The kabbalist who raised this art to its highest pitch was Abulafia, with his kabbala of the names (cf. Idel 1988a, 1988b, 1988c, 1989).

The kabbala of the names, or the ecstatic kabbala, was based on the practice of the recitation of the divine names hidden in the Torah, by combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The theosophical kabbala, though indulging in numerology, acrostics and anagrams, had retained a basic respect for the sacred text itself. Not so the ecstatic kabbalah: in a process of free linguistic creativity, it altered, disarticulated, decomposed and recomposed the textual surface to reach the single letters that served as its linguistic raw material.

For the theosophical kabbala, between God and the interpreter, there still remained a text; for the ecstatic kabbalist, the interpreter stood between the text and God.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 28-30.

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, 2

Ilan Sefirot - Kabbalistic Divinity map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI

Ilan Sefirot. Kabbalistic Divinity Map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI. 

“In Christian tradition, the four levels are excavated through a labour of interpretation which brings surplus meaning to the surface. Yet it is a labour performed without altering the expression-plane, that is, the surface of the text.

The commentator tries in many ways to correct scribal errors, so as to re-establish the only and original version according to the alleged intention of the original author. For some kabbalistic currents, by contrast, to read means to anatomize, as it were, the very expression-substance, by three fundamental techniques: notariqon, gematria and temurah.

Notariqon was the technique of using acrostics to cipher and decipher a hidden message. The initial (or final) letters of a series of words generate new words. Such a technique was already a familiar artifice in poetry during the late antique and Middle Ages, when it was used for magic purposes under the name of ars notoria.

Kabbalists typically used acrostics to discover mystic relations. Mosé de Leon, for example, took the initial letters of the four senses of scripture (Peshat, Remez, Derash and Sod) and formed out of them PRDS.

Since Hebrew is not vocalized, it was possible to read this as Pardes or Paradise. The initial letters of Moses’s question in Deuteronomy 30:12, “Who shall go up for us to heaven?,” as they appear in the Torah form MYLH, or “circumcision,” while the final letters give YHWH, Jahveh.

The answer is therefore: “the circumcised will go up to God.” Abulafia discovered that the final letters of MVH (“brain”) and LB (“heart”) recall the initial letters of two Sefirot, Hokmah (wisdom) and Binah (intelligence).

Gematria was based on the fact that, in Hebrew, numbers are indicated by letters; this means that each Hebrew word can be given a numerical value, calculated by summing the numbers represented by its letters.

This allows mystic relations to be established between words having different meanings through identical numerical values. It is these relations that the kabbalist seeks to discover and elucidate.

The serpent of Moses, for example, is a prefiguration of the Messiah because the value of both words is 358. Adding up the letters in YHWH, we get 72, and kabbalistic tradition constantly searched for the seventy-two names of God.

Temurah is the art of anagrams. In a language in which vowels must be interpolated, anagrams are more exciting than in other idioms. Mosé Cordovero wondered why there appeared in Deuteronomy a prohibition against wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.

He found the answer when he discovered that the letters of that passage could be recombined to produce another text which warned Adam not to take off his original garment of light and put on the skin of the serpent, which symbolized demonic power.

Abraham Abulafia (thirteenth century) systematically combined the letter Alef with each of the four letters of the tetragrammaton YHWH; then he vocalized each of the resulting units by every possible permutation of five vowels, thus obtaining four tables with fifty entries each.

Eleazar ben Yudah of Worms went on to vocalize every unit using twice each of the five vowels, and the total number of combinations increased geometrically (cf. Idel 1988b: 22-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 27-8.


Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism



Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1594), Musée du Louvre, Paris. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Our story opened with a reference to an eastern text, the Bible. By the time of the last church Fathers, however, knowledge of the language in which this text was composed had been lost. Thus we were able to begin our story by reading the Bible directly in the Latin of the Vulgate.

The Christian West would begin to come to terms with Hebrew only from the Renaissance onwards. However, in the same centuries in which Hebrew was forgotten by Christian scholars, in the Jewish milieu of Provence and Spain there flowered a current of Hebrew mysticism destined to have a profound influence  on Europe’s search for the perfect language: kabbala, a mystical current that regarded creation itself as a linguistic phenomenon.”

Editorial Note

There are many ways to write Kabbala, but Eco in this text writes it that way. I will include tags for “kabbalah” as well, so you can search for affiliated texts, which are numerous. Other ways to write it include “cabala” and “qabbalah” and “qabala,” but in the case of Cabala and similar transliterations like Cabbala the reference is to a completely separate system of thought which Eco addresses below.

 The Reading of the Torah

“The kabbala (from qabbalah, which might be rendered as “tradition”) was a technique of interpretation grafted onto the practice of commenting  on the Torah, that is, on the books of the Pentateuch, together with the practice of rabbinical commentary known as the Talmud.

In this way, the kabbala appears pre-eminently as a technique of reading and interpreting the sacred text. Yet the actual Torah rolls upon which the kabbalistic scholar labored served him merely as a point of departure: underneath the letters in which the Torah was written, the kabbalist sought to descry the shape of the eternal Torah, created by God before all worlds, and consigned to his angels.

According to some, the primordial Torah was inscribed in black flames upon white fire. At the moment of its creation, it appeared as a series of letters not yet joined up in the form of words.

For this reason, in the Torah rolls there appear neither vowels, nor punctuation, nor accents; for the original Torah was nothing but a disordered heap of letters. Furthermore, had it not been for Adam’s sin, these letters might have been joined differently to form another story.

For the kabbalist, God will abolish the present ordering of these letters, or else will teach us how to read them according to a new disposition, only after the coming of the Messiah.

One school of the kabbalistic tradition, characterized in recent studies as the theosophical kabbala, endeavored to find beneath the letters of the sacred text references to the ten Sefirot, or the ten hypostases of the divinity.

The theosophy of the Sefirot might be compared to the various theories of cosmic chains appearing in the Hermetic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonic traditions; the ten Sefirot were hypostases in the sense of representing either increasing grades of emanation, and, therefore, ten intermediate steps between God and the world, or ten internal aspects of the divinity itself.

In either case, in so far as they represented various ways in which the infinite expands itself, actually or potential, into the finite universe, they also constituted a series of channels or steps through which the soul passes on its journey of return to God.

The kabbalist uses the Torah as a symbolic instrument; beneath the letters of the Torah, beneath the events to which, to the uninstructed, its words seem to allude, there is a text which reveals a mystic and metaphysical reality.

To use this instrument to uncover this reality, however, the text needs to be read not only literally but also in three other senses: allegorical-philosophical, hermeneutic and mystic. This is reminiscent of the four ways of reading scripture in Christian exegetical tradition.

Beyond this point, however, all analogies between the kabbala and Christian exegesis break down, and kabbalism proceeds by its own, radically individual, route.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 25-7.


Eco: Side-Effects


Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1595), held in the Mittelrhein-Museum in Koblenz as Accession Number M31. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.   

“The story of the search for the perfect language is the story of a dream and of a series of failures. Yet that is not to say that a story of failures must itself be a failure. Though our story be nothing but the tale of the obstinate pursuit of an impossible dream, it is still of some interest to know how this dream originated, as well as uncovering the hopes that sustained the pursuers throughout their secular course.

Put in this light, our story represents a chapter in the history of European culture. It is a chapter, moreover, with a particular interest today when the peoples of Europe–as they discuss the whys and wherefores of a possible commercial and political union–not only continue to speak different languages, but speak them in greater number than ten years ago, and even, in certain places, arm against one another for the sake of their ethno-linguistic differences.

We shall see that the dream of a perfect language has always been invoked as a solution to religious or political strife. It has even been invoked as the way to overcome simple difficulties in commercial exchange. The history of the reasons why Europe thought that it needed a perfect language can thus tell us a good deal about the cultural history of that continent.

Besides, even if our story is nothing but a series of failures, we shall see that each failure produced its own side-effects. Punctually failing to come to fruition, each of the projects left a train of beneficial consequences in its wake.

Each might thus be viewed as a sort of serendipitous felix culpa: many of today’s theories, as well as many of the practices which we theorize (from taxonomy in the natural sciences to comparative linguistics, from formal languages to artificial intelligence and to the cognitive sciences), were born as side-effects of the search for a perfect language.

It is only fair, then, that we acknowledge these pioneers: they have given us a lot, even if it was not what they promised.

Finally, through examining the defects of the perfect languages, conceived in order to eliminate the defects of the natural ones, we shall end up by discovering that these natural languages of ours contain some unexpected virtues. This can finally serve us as consolation for the curse of Babel.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 19-20.

Editorial Note

This concludes my coverage of Chapter 1, From Adam to Confusio Linguarum, omitting in its entirety a section that Eco titled A Semiotic Model for Natural Language, pages 20-4.

I omit this section because it is Eco getting into the weeds of his semiotic method, and while he explains himself clearly, I find it boring. Should you need these pages, just ask. I have screenshots of them, and I can either post them as illustrations or attach them to an email. I am not in the mood to rekey these pages as text. Please accept my apologies.

Besides, Eco’s next chapter is titled The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, and it is fascinating. With no further ado, I will resume there, with his Chapter 2.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 4


Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631) & Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), The Tower of Babel. Held in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp under accession number 947, photographed by Paul Hermans and published on Wikimedia. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Why is it, however, that a document asserting the rights and qualities of one language in contrast to others appears at this particular moment? A quick look at the iconographic history increases our curiosity.

There are no known representations of the Tower of Babel before the Cotton Bible (fifth or sixth century CE). It next appears in a manuscript perhaps from the end of the tenth century, and then on a relief from the cathedral of Salerno from the eleventh century.

After this, however, there is a flood of towers (Minkowski 1983). It is a flood, moreover, that has its counterpart in a vast deluge of theoretical speculation originating in precisely this period as well.

It seems, therefore, that it was only at this point that the story of the confusion of tongues came to be perceived not merely as an example of how divine justice humbled human pride, but as an account of a historical (or metahistorical) event.

It was now the story of how a real wound had been inflicted on humanity, a wound that might, in some way, be healed once more.

This age, characterized as “dark,” seemed to witness a reoccurrence of the catastrophe of Babel: hairy barbarians, peasants, artisans, these first Europeans, unlettered and unversed in official culture, spoke a multitude of vulgar tongues of which official culture was apparently unaware.

It was the age that saw the birth of the languages which we speak today, whose documentary traces–in the Serments de Strasbourg (842) or the Carta Capuana (960)–inevitably appear only later.

Facing such texts as Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fine ke ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti, or Pro Deo amur et pro Christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, the European culture becomes aware of the confusio linguarum.

Yet before this confusion there was no European culture, and, hence, no Europe. What is Europe, anyway? It is a continent, barely distinguishable from Asia, existing, before people had invented a name for it, from the time that the unstoppable power of continental drift tore it off from the original Pangea.

In the sense that we normally mean it, however, Europe was an entity that had to wait for the fall of the Roman Empire and the birth of the Romano-Germanic kingdoms before it could be born. Perhaps even this was not enough, nor even the attempt at unification under the Carolingians.

How are we going to establish the date when the history of Europe begins? The dates of great political events and battles will not do; the dates of linguistic events must serve in their stead.

In front of the massive unity of the Roman Empire (which took in parts of Africa and Asia), Europe first appears as a Babel of new languages. Only afterwards was it a mosaic of nations.

Europe was thus born from its vulgar tongues. European critical culture begins with the reaction, often alarmed, to the eruption of these tongues. Europe was forced at the very moment of its birth to confront the drama of linguistic fragmentation, and European culture arose as a reflection on the destiny of a multilingual civilization.

Its prospects seemed troubled; a remedy for linguistic confusion needed to be sought. Some looked backwards, trying to rediscover the language spoken by Adam. Others looked ahead, aiming to fabricate a rational language possessing the perfections of the lost speech of Eden.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 17-9.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 3


Francisco of Holland, 1543-73, De aetatibus mundi imagines, Creation of Man, Biblioteca Nacional de España. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

 “There is one sense in which St. Augustine did have a clear idea of a perfect language, common to all people. But this was not a language of words; it was, rather, a language made out of things themselves.

He viewed the world, as it was later to be put, as a vast book written with God’s own finger. Those who knew how to read the book were able to understand the allegories hidden in the scriptures, where, beneath references to simple earthly things (plants, stones, animals), symbolic meanings lay.

This Language of the World, instituted by its creator, could not be read, however, without a key; it was the need to provide such a key that provoked a rapid outflowing of bestiaries, lapidaries, encyclopedias and imagines mundi throughout the Middle Ages.

This represents a tradition that will resurface in our own story as well: European culture will sometimes seize upon hieroglyphs and other esoteric ideograms, believing that truth can only be expressed in emblems or symbols.

Still, St. Augustine’s symbolic interests were not combined with the longing to recover a lost tongue that someone might, or ought to, speak once again.

For Augustine, as for nearly all the early Fathers, Hebrew certainly was the primordial language. It was the language spoken before Babel. After the confusion, it still remained the tongue of the elected people.

Nevertheless, Augustine gave no sign of wanting to recover its use. He was at home in Latin, by now the language of the church and of theology.

Several centuries later, Isidore of Seville found it easy to assume that, in any case, there were three sacred languages–Hebrew, Greek and Latin–because these were the three languages that appeared written above the cross (Etymologiarum, ix, 1).

With this conclusion, the task of determining the language in which the Lord said “fiat lux” became more arduous.

If anything, the Fathers were concerned about another linguistic puzzle: the Bible clearly states that God brought before Adam all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the air. What about the fish? Did Adam name the fish? Maybe it seemed inconvenient dragging them all up from the briny deep to parade them in the garden of Eden.

We may think this a slight matter; yet the question, whose last trace is to be found in Massey’s Origins and Progress of Letters published in 1763 (cf. White 1917: II, 196), was never satisfactorily resolved, despite Augustine’s helpful suggestion that the fish were named one at a time, as they were discovered (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, XII, 20).

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, when Europe had still to emerge, premonitions of its linguistic future lurked unrecorded. New languages came slowly into being. It has been calculated that, towards the end of the fifth century, people no longer spoke Latin, but Gallo-Romanic, Italico-Romanic or Hispano-Romanic.

While intellectuals continued to write in Latin, bastardizing it ever further, they heard around them local dialects in which survivals of languages spoken before Roman civilization crossed with new roots arriving with the barbarian invaders.

It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. it is contained in an attempt, on the part of Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over learned Latin.

In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (“the precepts of the poets”), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows:

“Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen, and bitumen. . . . These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.”

Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues.

It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius. The canonic account in the Precepts

“shows the action of the founding of this language . . . as a “cut and paste” operation on other languages that the 72 disciples undertook after the dispersion. . . . It was then that the rules of this language were constructed. All that was best in each language, all there was that was grand or beautiful, was cut out and retained in Irish. . . . Wherever there was something that had no name in any other language, a name for it was made up in Irish. (Poli 1989: 187-9).”

This first-born and, consequently, supernatural language retained traces of its original isomorphism with the created world. As long as the proper order of its elements was respected, this ensured a sort of iconic bond between grammatical items and referents, or states of things in the real world.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 14-7.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 2


MC Escher, Tower of Babel, 1928. This image of a drawing is copyrighted by the artist, who died in 1972. Low-resolution images of works of art for purposes of critical commentary qualify for fair use under United States copyright law.

“Despite this, by the second century AD, there had begun to form the suspicion that Latin and Greek might not be the only languages which expressed harmoniously the totality of experience.

Slowly spreading across the Greco-Roman world, obscure revelations appeared; some were attributed to Persian magi, others to an Egyptian divinity called Thoth-Hermes, to Chaldean oracles, and even to the very Pythagorean and Orphic traditions which, though born on Greek soil, had long been smothered under the weight of the great rationalist philosophy.

By now, the classical rationalism, elaborated and re-elaborated over centuries, had begun to show signs of age. With this, traditional religion entered a period of crisis as well. The imperial pagan religion had become a purely formal affair, no more than a simple expression of loyalty.

Each people had been allowed to keep its own gods. These were accommodated to the Latin pantheon, no one bothering over contradictions, synonyms or homonyms. The term characterizing this leveling toleration for any type of religion (and for any type of philosophy or knowledge as well) is syncretism.

An unintended result of this syncretism, however, was that a diffused sort of religiosity began to grow in the souls of the most sensitive. It was manifested by a belief in the universal World Soul; a soul which subsisted in stars and in earthly objects alike.

Our own, individual, souls were but small particles of the great World Soul. Since the reason of philosophers proved unable to supply truths about important matters such as these, men and women sought revelations beyond reason, through visions, and through communications with the godhead itself.

It was in this climate that Pythagoreanism was reborn. From its beginnings, Pythagoreans had regarded themselves as the keepers of a mystic form of knowledge, and practiced initiatory rites.

Their understanding of the laws of music and mathematics was presented as the fruit of revelation obtained from the Egyptians. By the time of Pythagoreanism’s second appearance, however, Egyptian civilization had been eradicated by the Greek and Latin conquerors.

Egypt itself had now become an enigma, no more than an incomprehensible hieroglyph. Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: one is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound.

That such wisdom could exist while still remaining unknown, however, could only be accounted for by the fact that the language in which this wisdom was expressed had remained unknown as well.

This was the reasoning of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in his Lives of the Philosophers in the third century AD:

“There are those who assert that philosophy started among the Barbarians: there were, they claim, Magi among the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts and Galatians” (I).

The classical Greeks had identified barbarians as those who could not even articulate their speech. It now seemed that these very mumblings were of a sacred language, filled with the promise of tacit revelations (Festugière 1944-54:I).

I have given a summary of the cultural atmosphere at this time because, albeit in a delayed fashion, it was destined to have a deep influence on our story. Although no one at the time proposed the reconstruction of the perfect language, the need for one was, by now, vaguely felt.

We shall see that the suggestions, first planted during these years, flowered more than twelve centuries later in humanistic and Renaissance culture (and beyond); this will constitute a central thread in the story I am about to tell.

In the meantime, Christianity had become a state religion, expressed in the Greek of the patristic East and in the Latin still spoken in the West. After St. Jerome translated the Old Testament in the fourth century, the need to know Hebrew as a sacred language grew weaker. This happened to Greek as well.

A typical example of this cultural lack is given by St. Augustine, a man of vast culture, and the most important exponent of Christian thought at the end of the empire.

The Christian revelation is founded on an Old Testament written in Hebrew and a New Testament written, for the most part, in Greek. St. Augustine, however, knew no Hebrew; and his knowledge of Greek was, to say the least, patchy (cf. Marrou 1958).

This amounts to a somewhat paradoxical situation: the man who set himself the task of interpreting scripture in order to discover the true meaning of the divine word could read it only in a Latin translation.

The notion that he ought to consult the Hebrew original never really seems to have entered Augustine’s mind. He did not entirely trust the Jews, nurturing a suspicion that, in their versions, they might have erased all references to the coming of Christ.

The only critical procedure he would allow was that of comparing translations in order to find the most likely version. In this way, St. Augustine, though the father of hermeneutics, was certainly not destined to become the father of philology.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 12-4.


Eco: Before and After Europe


Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-89), The Tower of Babel, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Stories accounting for the multiplicity of tongues appear in divers mythologies and theogonies (Borst 1957-63: I, 1). None the less, it is one thing to know why many languages exist; it is quite another to decide that this multiplicity is a wound that must be healed by the quest for a perfect language.

Before one decides to seek a perfect language, one needs, at the very least, to be persuaded that one’s own is not so.

Keeping, as we decided, strictly to Europe–the classical Greeks knew of peoples speaking languages other than theirs: they called these peoples barbaroi, beings who mumble in an incomprehensible speech.

The Stoics, with their more articulated notion of semiotics, knew perfectly well that the ideas to which certain sounds in Greek corresponded were also present in the minds of barbarians.

However, not knowing Greek, barbarians had no notion of the connection between the Greek sound and the particular idea. Linguistically and culturally speaking, they were unworthy of any attention.

For the Greek philosophers, Greek was the language of reason. Aristotle’s list of categories is squarely based on the categories of Greek grammar. This did not explicitly entail a claim that the Greek language was primary: it was simply a case of the identification of thought with its natural vehicle.

Logos was thought, and Logos was speech. About the speech of barbarians little was known; hence, little was known about what it would be like to think in the language of barbarians.

Although the Greeks were willing to admit that the Egyptians, for example, possessed a rich and venerable store of wisdom, they only knew this because someone had explained it to them in Greek.

As Greek civilization expanded, the status of Greek as a language evolved as well. At first, there existed almost as many varieties of Greek as there were Greek texts (Meillet 1930:4). In the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, there arose and spread a common Greek–the koiné.

This was the language of Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch and Aristotle; it was the language taught in the schools of grammar. Gradually it became the official language of the entire area of the Mediterranean bounded by Alexander’s conquests.

Spoken by patricians and intellectuals, Greek still survived here under Roman domination as well, as the language of commerce and trade, of diplomacy, and of scientific and philosophical debate.

It was finally the language in which the first Christian texts were transmitted (the Gospels and the Septuagint translation of the Bible in the third century BCE), and the language of the early church fathers.

A civilization with an international language does not need to worry about the multiplicity of tongues. Nevertheless such a civilization can worry about the “rightness” of its own.

In the Cratylus, Plato asks the same question that a reader of the Genesis story might: did the nomothete choose the sounds with which to name objects according to the object’s nature (physis)?

This is the thesis of Cratylus, while Ermogene maintains that they were assigned by law or human convention (nomos). Socrates moves among these theses with apparent ambiguity.

Finally, having subjected both to ironical comment, inventing etymologies that neither he (nor Plato) is eager to accept, Socrates brings forward his own hypothesis: knowledge is founded not on our relation to the names of things, but on our relation to the things themselves–or, better, to the ideas of those things.

Later, even by these cultures that ignored Cratylus, every discussion on the nature of a perfect language has revolved around the three possibilities first set out in this dialogue.

None the less, the Cratylus is not itself a project for a perfect language: Plato discusses the preconditions for semantic adequacy within a given language without posing the problem of a perfect one.

While the Greek koiné continued to dominate the Mediterranean basin, Latin was becoming the language of the empire, and thus the universal language for all parts of Europe reached by Roman legions.

Later it became the language of the Roman church. Once again, a civilization with a common language was not troubled by the plurality of tongues.

Learned men might still discourse in Greek, but, for the rest of the world, speaking with barbarians was, once again, the job of a few translators, and this only until these same barbarians began to speak their Latin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 10-2.

Eco: From Adam to Confusio Linguarum, 2


Gustav Doré (1832-83), The Confusion of Tongues (1865-8), engraving, held in a private collection. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“Told in this way, however, the story is still incomplete. We have left out Genesis 10. Here, speaking of the diffusion of the sons of Noah after the Flood, the text states of the sons of Japheth that, “By these [sons] were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations” (10:5).

This idea is repeated in similar words for the sons of Ham (10:20) and of Shem (10:31). How are we meant to interpret this evident plurality of languages prior to Babel?

The account presented in Genesis 11 is dramatic, able to inspire visual representations, as is shown by the further iconographic tradition.

The account in Genesis 10 is, by contrast, less theatrical. It is obvious that tradition focused on the story in which the existence of a plurality of tongues was understood as the tragic consequence of the confusion after Babel and the result of a divine malediction.

Where it was not neglected entirely, Genesis 10 was reduced to a sort of footnote, a provincial episode recounting the diffusion of tribal dialects, not the multiplication of tongues.

Thus Genesis 11 seems to possess a clear and unequivocal meaning: first there was one language, and then there were–depending on which tradition we follow–seventy or seventy-two.

It is this story that served as the point of departure for any number of dreams to “restore” the language of Adam. Genesis 10, however, has continued to lurk in the background with all its explosive potential still intact.

If the languages were already differentiated after Noah, why not before? It is a chink in the armor of the myth of Babel. If languages were differentiated not as a punishment but simply as a result of a natural process, why must the confusion of tongues constitute a curse at all?

Every so often in the course of our story, someone will oppose Genesis 10 to Genesis 11. Depending on the period and the theologico-philosophical context, the results will be more or less devastating.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 9-10.

Eco: From Adam to Confusio Linguarum



Outer panels of Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505, held in the Prado, Accession number P02823. A helpful analysis has been posted by Dr. Sally Hickson on the site of the Khan Academy. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries where the copyright term is the life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Genesis 2, 10, 11

Our story has an advantage over many others: it can begin at the Beginning.

God spoke before all things, and said, “Let there be light.” In this way, he created both heaven and earth; for with the utterance of the divine word, “there was light” (Genesis 1:3-4).

Thus Creation itself arose through an act of speech; it is only by giving things their names that he created them and gave them ontological status: “And God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night . . . And God called the firmament Heaven” (1:5, 8).

In Genesis 2:16-17, the Lord speaks to man for the first time, putting at his disposal all the goods in the earthly paradise, commanding him, however, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

We are not told in what language God spoke to Adam. Tradition has pictured it as a sort of language of interior illumination, in which God, as in other episodes of the Bible, expresses himself by thunderclaps and lightening.

If we are to understand it this way, we must think of a language which, although it is not translatable into any known idiom, is still, through a special grace or dispensation, comprehensible to its hearer.

It is at this point, and only at this point (2:19ff), that “out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them.”

The interpretation of this passage is an extremely delicate matter. Clearly we are here in the presence of a motif, common in other religions and mythologies–that of the nomothete, the name-giver, the creator of language.

Yet it is not at all clear on what basis Adam actually chose the names he gave to the animals. The version in the Vulgate, the source for European culture’s understanding of the passage, does little to resolve this mystery.

The Vulgate has Adam calling the various animals “nominibus sui,” which we can only translate, “by their own names.” The King James version does not help us any more: “Whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”

But Adam might have called the animals “by their own names” in two senses. Either he gave them the names that, by some extra-linguistic right, were already due to them, or he gave them those names we still use on the basis of a convention initiated by Adam.

In other words, the names that Adam gave the animals are either the names that each animal intrinsically ought to have been given, or simply the names that the nomothete arbitrarily and ad placitum decided to give to them.

From this difficulty, we pass to Genesis 2:23. Here Adam sees Eve for the first time; and here, for the first time, the reader hears Adam’s actual words. In the King James version, Adam is quoted as saying: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman . . .”

In the Vulgate the name is virago (a translation from the Hebrew isshà, the feminine of ish, “man.” If we take Adam’s use of virago together with the fact that, in Genesis 3:20, he calls his wife Eve, meaning “life,” because “she was the mother of all living,” it is evident that we are faced with names that are not arbitrary, but rather–at least etymologically–“right.”

The linguistic theme is taken up once more, this time in a very explicit fashion, in Genesis 11:1. We are told that after the Flood, “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.”

Yet men in their vanity conceived a desire to rival the Lord, and thus to erect a tower that would reach up to the heavens. To punish their pride and to put a stop to the construction of their tower, the Lord thought:

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech . . . . Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:7, 9).

In the opinion of various Arab authors (cf. Borst, 1957-63: I, II, 9), the confusion was due to the trauma induced by the sight, terrifying no doubt, of the collapse of the tower. This really changes nothing: the biblical story, as well as the partially divergent accounts of other mythologies, simply serves to establish the fact that different languages exist in the world.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 7-9.

Umberto Eco: Search for the Perfect Language, 3


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Garden of Earthly Delights. The left tablet of the triptych depicts Paradise, with the creation of Eve and the Fountain of Life. The central tablet portrays the pleasures of life, and the rightmost tablet Hell. Held in the collection of the Prado. Accession number P02823, this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries where the copyright term is the life of the author plus 100 years or less.

“Having established the boundaries of my discourse, I must pay my debts. I am indebted to the studies of Paolo Rossi for first awakening my interest in the subjects of classical mnemonics, pansophia and world theaters; to Alessandro Bausani’s witty and learned overview on invented languages; to Lia Formigari’s book on the linguistic problems of English empiricism; and to many other authors whom, if I do not cite every time that I have drawn on them, I hope, at least, to have cited on crucial points, as well as to have included in the bibliography.

My only regret is that George Steiner had already copyrighted the most appropriate title for this book–After Babel–nearly twenty years ago. Hats off.

I would also like to thank the BBC interviewer who, on 4 October 1983, asked me what semiotics meant. I replied that he ought to know the answer himself, since semiotics was defined by Locke in 1690, in Great Britain, and since in the same country was published in 1668 the Essay towards a Real Character by Bishop Wilkins, the first semiotic approach to an artificial language.

Later, as I left the studio, I noticed an antiquarian bookstore, and, out of curiosity, I walked into it. Lying there I saw a copy of Wilkin’s Essay. It seemed a sign from heaven; so I bought it. That was the beginning of my passion for collecting old books on imaginary, artificial, mad and occult languages, out of which has grown my personal ‘Bibliotheca Semiologica Curiosa, Lunatica, Magica et Pneumatica,’ which has been a mainstay to me in the present endeavor.

In 1987, I was also encouraged to undertake the study of perfect languages by an early work of Robert Pellerey, and I shall often be referring to his recent volume on perfect languages in the eighteenth century. I have also given two courses of lectures on this topic in the University of Bologna and one at the Collège de France.

Many of my students have made contributions about particular themes or authors. Their contributions appeared, as the rules of academic fairness require, before the publication of this book, in the final issue of VS (1992), 61-3, ‘Le lingue perfette.’

A final word of thanks to the antiquarian booksellers on at least two continents who have brought to my attention rare or unknown texts. Unfortunately–considering the size prescribed for this book–as rich as the most exciting of these trouvailles are, they could receive only passing mention, or none at all. I console myself that I have the material for future excursions in erudition.

Besides, the first draft of this research totaled twice the number of pages I am now sending to the printer. I hope that my readers will be grateful for the sacrifice that I have celebrated for their comfort, and that the experts will forgive me the elliptic and panoramic bent of my story.

Umberto Eco

Bologna, Milan, Paris”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 5-6.

Eco: Search for the Perfect Language, 2.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569 CE), The Tower of Babel. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. One is kept in the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the second, this one, is held in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, while the disposition of the third version, a miniature on ivory, is unknown. Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569 CE), The Tower of Babel. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. One is kept in the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the second, this one, is held in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, while the disposition of the third version, a miniature on ivory, is unknown. Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.

“Beyond this, I have decided to consider only projects concerning true and proper languages. This means that, with a bitter sigh of relief, I have decided to consider only the following:

  1. the rediscovery of languages postulated as original or as mystically perfect — such as Hebrew, Egyptian or Chinese;
  2. the reconstruction of languages postulated, either fancifully or not, as original or mother tongues, including the laboratory model of Indo-European;
  3. languages constructed artificially for one of three ends: (a) perfection in terms of either function or structure, such as the a priori philosophical languages of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were designed to express ideas perfectly and to discover thereby new connections between the diverse aspects of reality; (b) perfection in terms of universality, such as the a posteriori international languages of the nineteenth century; (c) perfection in terms of practicality, if only presumed, such as the so-called polygraphies;
  4. more or less magic languages, whether they be discovered or fabricated, whose perfection is extolled on account of either their mystic affability or their initiative secrecy.

By contrast, I can give no more than bare notice to any of the following:

  1. oneiric languages, not expressly invented, such as the languages of the insane, or of trance states, or of mystic revelations (like the Unknown Language of Saint Hildegarde of Bingen), as well as all the cases of glossolalia or xenoglossia (cf. Samara 1972); Goodman 1972);
  2. fictitious languages, either in narrative (from Rabelais to Foigny up to Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ and Tolkien), or in poetry (like Chlebnikov’s transmental speech). In the majority of these cases, we are presented with only short stretches of speech, supposedly representing an actual language, for which, however, there is provided neither a lexicon nor a syntax (cf. Pons 1930, 1931, 1932, 1979; Yaguello 1984).
  3. bricolage languages, that is languages that are created spontaneously by the encounter of two linguistically distinct cultures. Typical examples are the pidgins arising in areas of colonialism. As cross-national as they may be, they are not universal. They are, rather, partial and imperfect because they have a limited lexicon and an oversimplified syntax; they are used to facilitate simple activities such as barter, but are unable to express higher types of experience (cf. Waldman 1977);
  4. natural tongues or jargons serving as vehicular languages in multilingual zones. An example of such a language of exchange might be Swahili, the lingua franca of large areas of East Africa. Modern English would be another example. French was formerly an example, if one considers that, during the Convention, the Abbé Gregoire revealed that, out of a population of twenty-six million, fifteen million French men and women spoke a language other than that of Paris (Calvet 1981: 110);
  5. formal languages whose use is limited to special scientific purposes, such as the languages of chemistry, algebra and logic (these will be considered only as they derive from projects defined by category 3(a) above;
  6. the immense and delectable category of the so-called fous du language (see, for example, Blavier 1982; Yaguello 1984). Admittedly, in such cases it is not always easy to distinguish between technical insanity and mild glottomania, and many of my own characters may sometimes show some aspects of lunacy. Still, it is possible to make a distinction. We will not consider belated glottomaniacs. Nevertheless, I have not always been able to keep down my taste for whimsicality, especially when (even though the belatedness was hardly justifiable) those attempts had, anyway, a certain, traceable, historic influence, or, at least, they documented the longevity of a dream.

Similarly, I do not claim here to examine the whole of the researches on a universal grammar (except in cases in which they clearly intersect with my topic), because they deserve a separate chapter of the history of linguistics.

Likewise, this is not (except, again, where the subject intersects with that of the perfect language) a book about the secular, or rather, millennial, question of the origins of language.

There are infinite discussions on the origins of human language which do not consider the possibility or the opportunity of returning back to the language of our origins, either because they assume that it had definitely disappeared, or because they consider it as radically imperfect.

Finally, were it up to me to decide under which heading this book should be filed in a library catalogue (an issue which, for Leibniz, was bound up with the problem of a perfect language), I would pick neither ‘linguistics’ nor ‘semiotics’ (even though the book employs semiotics as its instrument, and demands a certain degree of semiotic interest from its reader).

I would rather pick ‘history of ideas.’ This explains why I make no attempt to construct a rigorous semiotic typology for the various types of a priori and a posteriori languages: this would require a detailed examination of each and every project, a job for students of what is now called ‘general inter linguistics.’

The present book aims instead at delineating, with large brushstrokes and selected examples, the principle episodes of the story of a dream that has run now for almost two thousand years.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 2-5.

Umberto Eco: Search for the Perfect Language


Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569), The Tower of Babel (circa 1563-1565, oil on panel, Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen, Room 06, Rotterdam. Accession number 2443 (OK). Bequeathed to the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen by Daniël George van Beuningen. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. This one is in the collection of the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. A second version is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A third version, a miniature on ivory, is apparently held by a private collector. Its disposition is unknown. The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain”.

This is the first page of my serialization of Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995.

Editorial Note

This book is not available in electronic formats from Amazon or other vendors, and there are no .pdf versions lurking anywhere on the web. The lone electronic version that I did uncover is hosted on, and lending is controlled using Adobe Digital Editions. This so offended me that I digitized every page of the work. Making no apologies, I publish it here.

This book by Umberto Eco was mentioned in an article discussed earlier on this site, by Tzahi Weiss, “On the Matter of Language: The Creation of the World from Letters and Jacques Lacan’s Perception of Letters as Real,” 2009.

My post on this paper is published as Smoke Signals: Comments on Borges, Tzahi Weiss, Kabbalah, “On the Matter of Language: The Creation of the World From Letters and Jacques Lacan’s Perception of Letters As Real,” JJTP 17.1, Brill, 2009.

Eco Begins

With no further ado, Eco opens with several excerpts, one from Herodotus, History, II, I, another from Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, III, pg. 5, and this one, from Leibniz, Letter to Duke of Hanover, 1679, which I excerpt in full.

“If only God would again inspire your Highness, the idea which had the goodness to determine that I be granted 1200 emus would become the idea of a perpetual revenue, and then I would be as happy as Raymond Lull, and perhaps with more reason . . . For my invention uses reason in its entirety and is, in addition, a judge of controversies, an interpreter of notions, a balance of probabilities, a compass which will guide us over the ocean of experiences, an inventory of things, a table of thoughts, a microscope for scrutinizing present things, a telescope for predicting distant things, a general calculus, an innocent magic, a non-chimerical cabal, a script which all will read in their own language; and even a language which one will be able to learn in a few weeks, and which will soon be accepted amidst the world. And which will lead the way for the true religion everywhere it goes.”

Leibnitz, Letter to Duke of Hanover, 1679.

“The dream of a perfect language did not only obsess European culture. The story of the confusion of tongues, and of the attempt to redeem its loss through the rediscovery or invention of a language common to all humanity, can be found in every culture (cf. Borst 1957-63). Nevertheless, this book will tell only one strand of that story — the European; and, thus, references to pre- or extra-European cultures will be sporadic and marginal.

This book has another limit as well; that is, a qualitative one. As I was on the verge of writing its final version, there reached my desk at least five recent projects, all of which seem to be related to the ancient prototypes I was dealing with.

I should emphasize that I will be limiting myself to those prototypes because Borst, whose own study concerns only the historical discussion on the confusion of tongues, has managed to present us with six volumes.

Finishing this introduction, I received Demonet’s account of the debate on the nature and origin of language between 1480 and 1580, which takes up seven hundred thick and weighty pages.

Couturat and Leau analyzed 19 models of a priori languages, and another 50 mixed or a posteriori languages; Monnerot-Dumaine reports on 360 projects for international languages; Knowlson lists 83 projects of universal languages during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and, though limiting himself to projects in the nineteenth century, Porset provides a list of 173 titles.

Moreover, in the few years I have dedicated to this subject, I have discovered in antiquarian catalogues a large number of works missing from the biographies of the preceding books.

Some, by obscure authors, were entirely dedicated to the glottogonic problems; others were by authors known for other reasons, who, none the less, dedicated substantial chapters to the theme of the perfect language.

This ought to be enough to convince anyone that our list of titles is still far from complete; and, that therefore, to paraphrase a joke by Macedonio Fernandez, the number of things which are not in the bibliographies is so high that it would be impossible to to find room for one more missing item.

Hence my decision to proceed by a campaign of deliberated decimation. I have reserved attention for projects which seemed to me exemplary (whether for their virtues or their defects); as for the rest I defer to works dedicated to specific authors and periods.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 1-2.


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