"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

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.

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