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Tag: 1544

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), an excerpt from p. 157 of Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio. confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Amsterdam, Jansson-Waesberge, 1679. A table portraying ancient alphabets, in which Kircher asserts that modern alphabets resemble ancient versions. 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. 


“Another alternative was to accept that Hebrew had been the original perfect language, but to argue that, after the confusio, the crown of perfection had been bestowed upon other languages.

The first text which countenances this sort of “nationalistic” reconstruction of linguistic history is the Commentatio super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium of 1498 by Giovanni Nanni, or Annius, which tells how, before it was colonized by the Greeks, Etruria had been settled by Noah and his descendants.

Nanni is here reflecting on the contradiction between Genesis 11, the story of Babel, and Genesis 10. In 10:5, the sons of Japheth settle the “isles of the Gentiles  . . . every one after his tongue.”

The notion of a lineage ascending from modern Tuscan through Etruscan to the Aramaic of Noah was elaborated in Florence by Giovann Battista Gelli (Dell’origine di Firenze, 1542-4), and by Piero Francesco Giambullari (Il Gello, 1564).

Their thesis, fundamentally anti-humanist, accepted the idea that the multiplication of tongues had preceded Babel (citing what Dante had had to say in Paradise, xxvi).

This thesis was passionately received by Guillaume Postel, who, we have seen, had already argued that Celtic had descended from Noah. In De Etruriae regionis (1551) Postel embraced the position of Gelli and Giambullari concerning the relationship of the Etruscan to Noah, qualifying it, however, by the claim that the Hebrew of Adam had remained–at least in its hieratic form–uncontaminated throughout the centuries.

More moderate were the claims of Spanish Renaissance authors. The Castilian tongue too might claim descent from one of Japheth’s many sons–in this case Tubal. Yet it was still only one of the seventy-two languages formed after Babel.

This moderation was more apparent than real, however, for, in Spain, the term “language of Babel” became an emblem of antiquity and nobility (for Italian and Spanish debates, cf. Tavoni 1990).

It was one thing to argue that one’s own national language could claim nobility on account of its derivation from an original language–whether that of Adam or that of Noah–but quite a different matter to argue that, for this reason, one’s language ought to be considered as the one and only perfect language, on a par with the language of Adam.

Only the Irish grammarians cited in the first chapter and Dante had had, so far, the audacity to arrive at such a daring conclusion (and even Dante–who had aspired to create a perfect language from his own vernacular–made sarcastic remarks on those who consider their native language as the most ancient and perfect: cf. DVE, I, vi).

By the seventeenth century, however, linguistic nationalism had begun to bud; this prompted a plethora of such curious claims.

Goropius Becanus (Jan van Gorp) in his Origins Antwerpianae of 1569 agreed with all claims made about the divine inspiration of the original language, and about its motivated and non-arbitrary relation between words and things.

According to him there was only a single living language in which this motivated concordance existed to an exemplary degree; that language was Dutch, particularly the dialect of Antwerp.

The ancestors of the burghers of Antwerp were the Cimbri, the direct descendants of the sons of Japheth. These had not been present under the Tower of Babel, and, consequently, they had been spared the confusio linguarum.

Thus they had preserved the language of Adam in all its perfection. Such an assertion, Becanus claimed, could be proved by etymological demonstrations. He produced a string of arguments whose level of etymological wishful thinking matched those of Isidore and Guichard; they later became known as “becanisms” or “goropisms.”

Becanus further claimed that his thesis was also proved by the facts that the Dutch had the highest number of monosyllabic words, possessed a richness of sounds superior to all other languages, and favored in the highest degree the formation of compound words.

Becanus‘ thesis was later supported by Abraham Mylius (Lingua belgica, 1612) as well as by Adrian Schrickius (Adversariorum Libri III, 1620), who wished to demonstrate “that Hebrew was divine and firstborn” and “that Teutonic came immediately afterwards.”

Teutonic here meant the Dutch spoken in Antwerp, which, at the time, was its best-known dialect. In both cases, the demonstration was supported by etymological proofs little better than those of Becanus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 95-7.

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia

Guillaume Postel, The Great Key, Eliphas Levi, The Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861

Guillaume Postel (1510-81), The Great Key, in Eliphas Levi (1810-75), La Clef des Grands MystèresThe Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861.

“A special place in the story of the renewal of Hebrew studies belongs to the French utopian thinker and érudit, Guillaume Postel (1510-81). Councillor to the kings of France, close to the major religious, political and scientific personalities of his epoch, Postel returned from a series of diplomatic missions to the Orient, voyages which enabled him to study Arabic and Hebrew as well as to learn of the wisdom of the kabbala, a changed and marked man.

Already renowned as a Greek philologist, around 1539, Postel was appointed to the post of “mathematicorum et peregrinarum linguarum regius interpretes” in that Collège des Trois Langues which eventually became the Collège de France.

In his De originibus seu de Hebraicae linguae et gentis antiquitate (1538), Postel argued that Hebrew came directly from the sons of Noah, and that, from it, Arabic, Chaldean, Hindi and, indirectly, Greek had all descended as well.

In Linguarum duodecem characteribus differentium alphabetum, introductio (1538), by studying twelve different alphabets he proved the common derivation of every language. From here, he went on to advance the project of a return to Hebrew as the instrument for the peaceable fusion of the peoples of differing races.

To support his argument that Hebrew was the proto-language, Postel developed the criterion of divine economy. As there was but one human race, one world and one God, there could be but one language; this was a “sacred language, divinely inspired into the first man” (De Foenicum litteris, 1550).

God had educated Adam by breathing into him the capacity to call things by their appropriate names (De originibus, seu, de varia et potissimum orbit Latino ad hanc diem incognita aut inconsyderata historia, 1553).

Although Postel does not seem to have thought either of an innate faculty for languages or of a universal grammar, as Dante had done, there still appears in many of his writings the notion of an Averroist active intellect as the repository of the forms common to all humanity, in which the roots of our linguistic faculty must be sought (Les très merveilleuses victoires des femmes du nouveau monde together with La doctrine du siècle doré, both from 1553).

Postel’s linguistic studies were connected to his particular vision of a religious utopia: he foresaw the reign of universal peace.

In his De orbis terrae concordia (1544:I) he clearly states that his studies in language would help to lay the foundations upon which a universal concord could be created. He envisioned the creation of a linguistic commonwealth that would serve as living proof to those of other faiths that not only was the message of Christianity true, but equally it verified their own religious beliefs: there are some principles of a natural religion, or sets of innate ideas held by all peoples (De orbis, III).

Here was the spirit that had inspired Lull and Nicholas of Cusa. Yet Postel was convinced that universal peace could only be realized under the protection of the king of France: among the world’s rulers the king of France alone held a legitimate claim to the title of king of the world.

He was the direct descendent of Noah, through Gomer, son of Japheth, founder of the Gallic and Celtic races (cf. particularly Les raisons de la monarchie, c. 1551). Postel (Trésor des propheties de l’univers, 1556) supported this contention with a traditional etymology (see, for example, Jean Lemaire de Belges, Illustration de Gaule et singularitez de Troye, 1512-3, fol. 64r): in Hebrew, the term gallus meant “he who overcame the waves;” thus the Gauls were the people who had survived the waters of the Flood (cf. Stephens 1989:4).

Postel first attempted to convert Francis I to his cause. The king, however, judged him a fanatic, and he lost favor at court. He went to Rome, hoping to win over to his utopian schemes Ignatius of Loyola, whose reformist ideals seemed kindred to his own.

It did not take Ignatius long, however, to realize that Postel’s ambitions were not identical to those of the Jesuits. Accepting Postel’s project might have placed their vow of obedience to the pope at risk.

Besides, Ignatius was a Spaniard, and the idea of turning the king of France into the king of the world would hardly have appealed to him. Although Postel continued long afterwards to look upon the Jesuits as the divine instrument for the creation of universal peace, he himself was forced to leave the company after a mere year and a half.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 75-7.

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