Eco: A Dream that Refused to Die

by Esteban


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the Christian interpretation of the Kabbalah and the mystical names of God, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, 1652-4, p. 287. John Mark Ockerbloom curated an entry for all three volumes of this work at the University of Pennsylvania libraries. This illustration courtesy of Stanford University. 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. 


“Even faced with the results of the research of comparative linguistics, however, monogenetic theories refuse to give up the ghost. The bibliography of belated monogeneticism is immense. In it, there is to be found the lunatic, the crank, the misfit, the bizarre mystic, as well as a number of students of unimpeachable rigor.

In 1850, for example, the Enlightenment notion of a language of action received a radically monogenetic reading in the Dactylologie et language primitif restitués d’apres les monuments by J. Barrois.

Assuming that the first language of humanity was a language of action and that this language was exclusively gestural, Barrois sought to prove that even the passages of the Bible which referred to God addressing Adam referred not to speaking in a verbal sense, but instead to a non-verbal, mimed language.

“The designation of the divers animals which Adam made was achieved by means of a special miming which recalled their form, instinct, habit, and qualities, and, finally, their essential properties.” (P. 31).

The first time that an unambiguous reference to verbal speech appears in the Bible is when God speaks to Noah; before this, all references seem vague. For Barrois, this was evidence showing that only slowly, in the immediately antediluvian age, did a phonetic form of language become common.

The confusio linguarum arose out of discord between gestural and spoken language. The primitive vocal language was born closely accompanied by gestures which served to underline its most important words–just as occurs today in the speech of negroes and Syrian merchants (p. 36).

A dactylological language (expressed by the movement of the fingers and deriving from the primitive language of action) was born later, as a form of short-hand support for the phonetic language, when this latter emerged as the dominant form.

Barrois examines iconographic documents of all ages, demonstrating that the dactylological language remained unaltered through various civilizations.

As for the everlasting idea of an original Hebrew, we might cite the figure of Fabre d’Olivet, whose La Langue hébraïque restituée, written in 1815, is still a source of inspiration for belated kabbalists today.

He told of a primitive language that no people had ever spoken, of which Hebrew (the Egyptian dialect of Moses) was but the most illustrious offspring. This insight leads him on to the search for a mother tongue in which Hebrew is carefully combed and then subjected to fantastic reinterpretations.

D’Olivet was convinced that, in this language, every phoneme, every single sound, must have its own special meaning. We will not follow d’Olivet as he re-explores this old terrain; it is enough to say that he presents a string of nonsensical etymologies which, though in the spirit of Duret, Guichard and Kircher, are, if anything, even less convincing.

We might, however, provide just one example to show how traces of an original Hebrew mimology can be discovered in a modern language as well. D’Olivet constructed an etymology for the French term emplacement. Place derives from the Latin platea and from the German Platz.

In both these words, the sound AT signifies protection, while the sound L means extension. LAT means, therefore, a “protected extension.” MENT, in its turn, derives from the Latin mens and the English mind.

In this syllable, E is the sign of absolute life, and N stands for reflexive existence. Together, as ENS, they mean “bodily spirit.” M refers to existence at a given point. Therefore, the meaning of emplacement is “la manière dont uno extension fixe et determinée peut être conçue et se presente aux yeux.”

As one critic has put it, Fabre d’Olivet has demonstrated that emplacement means “emplacement” (cf. Cellier 1953: 140; Pallotti 1992).

And yet. No less a figure than Benjamin Lee Whorf took Fabre d’Olivet as the starting point for a series of reflections on the curious subject of “oligosynthesis.”

He was wondering about the possible applications of a science capable of “restoring a possible common language of the human race or [of] perfecting an ideal natural tongue constructed of the original psychological significance of sounds, perhaps a future common speech, into which all our varied languages may be assimilated, or, putting it differently, to whose terms they may be reduced” (Whorf 1956: 12; see also 74-6).

This is neither the first nor the last of the paradoxes in our story: we associate Whorf with one of the least monogenetic of all the various glottogonic hypotheses; it was Whorf who developed the idea that each language was a “holistic” universe, expressing the world in a way that could never be wholly translated into any other language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 111-3.