Eco: The Monogenetic Hypothesis and the Mother Tongues

by Esteban


Athanasius Kircher, Turris Babel, Amsterdam, 1679. The illustrations in Turris Babel were engraved by C. Decker. This plate was based on an original by Lievin Cruyl (c. 1640-1720) in Rome. This is catalog no. 46, between pages 40-1 from the original work held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This plate was published by the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. Another copy is also held by the University of St. Andrews, under call number r17f BS1238.B2K5. Stanford University also has a copy. 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.

Editorial Note:

The formatting of this section differs from the original because I am tired of wrestling with the WordPress interface. Eco organizes this section with numbered paragraphs. I omit the numbering. Further, I insert paragraph breaks in the middle of Eco’s long paragraphs to ease readability.

The Monogenetic Hypothesis and the Mother Tongues

“In its most ancient versions, the search for a perfect language took the form of the monogenetic hypothesis which assumed that all languages descended from a unique mother tongue.

Before I tell the story of this hypothesis, however, we should note that most of the attempts suffered from a continuous confusion between different theoretical options.

The distinction between a perfect language and a universal language was not sufficiently understood. It is one thing to search for a language capable of mirroring the true nature of objects; it is quite another to search for the language which everyone might, or ought to, speak. There is nothing that rules out that a language which is perfect might be accessible only to a few, while a language that is universal might also be imperfect.

The distinction between the Platonic opposition of nature and convention was not kept separate from the general problem of the origin of language (cf. Formigari 1970). It is possible to imagine a language that expresses the nature of things, but which, none the less, is not original, but arises through invention.

It is also possible to discuss whether language originated as an imitation of nature (the “mimological” hypothesis, Genette 1976) or as the result of a convention, without necessarily posing the question of whether the former is better than the latter.

As a consequence, claims to linguistic superiority on etymological grounds (more direct filiation with an ancient language) are often confused with those on mimological grounds–while the presence of onomatopoetic words in a language can be seen as a sign of perfection, not as the proof of the direct descent of that language from a primordial one.

Despite the fact that the distinction was already clear in Aristotle, many authors failed to distinguish between a sound and the alphabetical sign that represented it.

As Genette (1976) has often reminded us, before the advent of comparative linguistics in the nineteenth century, most research on languages concentrated on semantics, assembling nomenclature families of supposedly related words (often, as we shall see, making up etymologies to match), but neglecting both phonology and grammar.

Finally, there was not a clear cut distinction between primordial language and universal grammar. It is possible to search for a set of grammatical principles common to all languages without wishing to return to a more primitive tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 73-4.