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Tag: 1641

Eco: John Wilkins


John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. 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. 

“Already in Mercury, a book principally devoted to secret writing, published in 1641, Wilkins had begun to design a project for universal language. It was not until 1668, however, that he was ready to unveil his Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language–the most complete project for a universal and artificial philosophical language that the seventeenth century was ever to produce.

Since “the variety of Letters is an appendix to the Curse of Babel” (p. 13), after a dutiful bow in the direction of the Hebrew language and a sketch of the evolution of languages from Babel onwards (including an examination of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis that we considered in ch. 5), and after an acknowledgment of his precursors and his collaborators in the compilation of classifications and of the final dictionary, Wilkins turned to his major task–the construction of a language founded on real characters “legible by any Nation in their own Tongue” (p. 13).

Wilkins observed that most earlier projects derived their list of characters from the dictionary of one particular language rather than drawing directly on the nature of things, and from that stock of notions held in common by all humanity.

Wilkins‘ approach required, as a preliminary step, a vast review of all knowledge to establish what these notions held in common by all rational beings really were.

Wilkins never considered that these fundamental notions might be Platonic ideas like Lull’s dignities. His list was rather based upon empirical criteria and he sought those notions to which all rational beings might either attest or, reasonably, be expected to attest: thus, if everybody agrees on the idea of a God, everybody would likewise agree on the botanical classification supplied to him by his colleague John Ray.

In reality, the image of the universe that Wilkins proposed was the one designed by the Oxonian culture of his time. Wilkins never seriously wondered whether other cultures might have organized the world after a different fashion, even though his universal language was designed for the whole of humanity.

The Tables and the Grammar

In appearance the classification procedure chosen by Wilkins was akin to the method of the Porphyrian Tree of Aristotelian tradition. Wilkins constructed a table of 40 major genera (see figure 12.1) subdivided into 251 characteristic differences.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240. 

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241.

From these he derived 2,030 species, which appear in pairs. Figure 12.2 provides a simplified example of the procedure: starting from the major genus of Beasts, after having divided them into viviparous and oviparous, and after having subdivided the viviparous ones into whole footed, cloven footed and clawed, Wilkins arrives at the species Dog / Wolf.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242.

I might add parenthetically that Wilkins‘ tables occupy a full 270 pages of his ponderous folio, and hope that the reader will excuse the summary nature of the examples which follow.

After presenting the tables, which supposedly design the whole knowable universe, Wilkins turned his attention to his natural (or philosophical) grammar in order to establish morphemes and the markers for derived terms, which can permit the generation, from the primitives, of declensions, conjugations, suffixes and so on.

Such a simplified grammatical machinery should thus allow the speaker to articulate discourses, as well as to produce the periphrases through which terms from a natural language might be defined entirely through the primitives of the artificial one.

Having reached this stage, Wilkins was able to present his language of real characters. In fact, it splits into two different languages: (1) the first is an ideogrammatic form of writing, vaguely Chinese in aspect, destined to appear in print but never to be pronounced; (2) the second is expressed by alphabetic characters and is intended to be pronounced.

It is possible to speak properly of two separate languages because, even though the pronounceable characters were constructed according to the same compositional principle as the ideograms, and obey the same syntax, they are so different that they need to be learned apart.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 238-42.

Eco: Comenius


Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart, the initial version was completed in 1623, while the first edition was published in 1631. The entire work is posted in an electronic edition. 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 British quest was also influenced by the presence of Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky). In fact Comenius was a member of the Bohemian Brotherhood, a mystic branch of Hussite reformers, and he played a role–albeit a polemical one–in the Rosicrucian story (cf. his Labyrinth of the World, 1623, in Czech).

Thus he was inspired by religious ideals which were alien to the scientific purposes of the English milieu. On this complex cultural geography see Yates (1972, 1979): one is really facing a web of different projects, at once similar and antithetical, in which the search for a perfect language was but a single aspect (see Rossi 1960; Bonerba 1992; Pellerey 1992a: 41-9).

Comenius‘ aspirations must be seen in the framework of the tradition of pansophia, yet his pansophic aims were influenced by educational preoccupations. In his Didactica magna of 1657, he proposed a scheme for reforming teaching methods; for, as he observed, a reform in the education of the young formed the basis upon which any subsequent political, social and religious reform must be built.

It was essential that the teacher furnish the learners with a set of images that would stamp themselves indelibly on their imaginations. This meant placing what is visible before the eyes, what is audible before the ears, what is olfactory before the nose, gustatory before the tongue, and tactical before the touch.

In an earlier manual for the teaching of Latin, Janua linguarum, written in 1631, Comenius was first of all concerned that the learner should have an immediate visual apprehension of what was being spoken of.

Equally he was concerned that the images and notions that the learner was studying in the Latin lexicon be arranged in a certain logical order.

Thus lessons progressed from the creation of the world to the elements, to the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, etc.

By the time of the Didactica magna Comenius had begun to rearrange his notions according to the suggestions of Bacon. In 1658 there appeared the Orbis sensualium pictus quadrilinguis, which represented his attempt to present a figured nomenclature which would include the fundamental things of the world together with human actions.

So important were the images that Comenius delayed publication until he was able to obtain satisfactory engravings that were not mere ornaments, but bore an iconic relation with the things represented, for which the verbal names appeared as nothing but titles, explanations and complements.

This manual was prefaced by an alphabet in which every letter was associated with the image of a particular animal whose voice recalled the sound of the letter–so that the result resembles Harsdörffer’s onomatopoetic fantasies concerning the sounds of German.

Therefore the image of a crow is commented by “Die Krähe krächzet, cornix cornicatur, la cornacchia gracchia, la corneille gazoüille,” or, for a snake, “Die Schlange zischtet, Serpens sibilat, il Serpe fsschia [sic], le Serpent siffle.”

Comenius was a severe critic of the defects of natural languages. In his Pansophiae Christianae liber III (1639-40), he advocated a reform that would eliminate the rhetorical and figurative use of words, which he regarded as a source of ambiguity.

The meaning of words should be fixed, he demanded, with one name for each thing, thus restoring words to their original meanings.

In 1668, in the Via lucis, Comenius offered prescriptions for the creation of an artificial universal language. By now, pansophy was more than an educational method; it was a utopian vision in which a world council was supposed to create the perfect state along with its perfect philosophical language, the Panglossia.

It is interesting to consider that Comenius had in fact written this work before 1641, when, after wandering through the whole of Europe in the course of the Thirty Years War, he had taken refuge in London.

Via lucis certainly circulated, in manuscript form, in the English milieu at that time (see, for example, Cram 1989).

Although Comenius was never to construct his new language in extenso, he had broached the idea of a universal tongue which had to overcome the political and structural limitations of Latin.

The lexicon of the new language would reflect the composition of reality and in it every word should have a definite and univocal meaning, every content should be represented by one and only one expression, and the contents were not supposed to be products of fancy, but should represent only every really existing thing, no more and no less (see Pellerey 1992a: 48).

Thus, on one side we have a utopian thinker, inspired by Rosicrucian ideals, whose goal was to discover a pansophy which aimed at picturing the unmoving and harmonical connection of every element of the creation, so as to lead the human mind to an unceasing quest for God; on the other side, rejecting the possibility of rediscovering the original perfect language, and looking, for educational purposes, for an easy artificial method, Comenius became the forerunner of that search for an a priori philosophical language that would later be implemented by English utopian thinkers whose inspiration was more scientific than theological or mystical.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 214-6.

Eco: New Prospects for the Monogenetic Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece to Magnes sive De Arte Magnetica, 1641 and 1643 editions, digitized by the University of Lausanne and 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.

“Doubting the possibility of obtaining scientific agreement upon an argument whose evidence had been lost in the mists of time, about which nothing but conjectures might be offered, the Société de Linguistique of Paris 1866 decided that it would no longer accept scientific communications on the subject of either universal languages or origins of language.

In our century that millenary debate took the form of research on the universals of language, now based on the comparative analysis of existing languages. Such a study has nothing to do with more or less fantastic historic reconstructions and does not subscribe to the utopian ideal of a perfect language (cf. Greenberg 1963; Steiner 1975: I, 3).

However, comparatively recent times have witnessed a renewal of the search for the origins of language (cf., for example, Fano 1962; Hewes 1975, 1979).

Even the search for the mother tongue has been revived in this century by Vitalij Ševorškin (1989), who has re-proposed the Nostratic hypothesis, originally advanced in Soviet scientific circles in the 1960s, and associated with the names of Vladislav Il’ič-Svitych and Aron Dolgoposkiji.

According to this hypothesis, there was a proto-Indo-European, one of the six branches of a larger linguistic family deriving from Nostratics–which in its turn derives from a proto-Nostratics, spoken approximately ten thousand years ago. The supporters of this theory have compiled a dictionary of several hundred terms of this language.

But the proto-Nostratics itself would derive from a more ancient mother tongue, spoken perhaps fifty thousand years ago in Africa, spreading from there throughout the entire globe (cf. Wright 1991).

According to the so-called “Eve’s hypothesis,” one can thus imagine a human couple, born in Africa, who later emigrated to the Near East, and whose descendants spread throughout Eurasia, and possibly America and Australia as well (Ivanov 1992:2). To reconstruct an original language for which we lack any written evidence, we must proceed like

“molecular biologists in their quest to understand the evolution of life. The biochemist identifies molecular elements that perform similar functions in widely divergent species, to infer the characteristics of the primordial cell from which they are presumed to have descended.

So does the linguist seek correspondences in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and vocalization among known languages in order to reconstruct their immediate forebears and ultimately the original tongue. (Gamkrelidze and Ivanov 1990: 110).”

Cavalli-Sforza’s work on genetics (cf., for example, 1988, 1991) tends to show that linguistic affinities reflect genetic affinities. This supports the hypothesis of a single origin of all languages, reflecting the common evolutionary origin of all human groups.

Just as humanity evolved only once on the face of the earth, and later diffused across the whole planet, so language. Biological monogenesis and linguistic monogenesis thus go hand in hand and may be inferentially reconstructed on the basis of mutually comparable data.

In a different conceptual framework, the assumption that both the genetic and the immunological codes can, in some sense, be analyzed semiotically seems to constitute the new scientific attempt to find a language which could be defined as the primitive one par excellence (though not in historical but rather in biological terms).

This language would nest in the roots of evolution itself, of phylogenesis as of onto-genesis, stretching back to before the dawn of humanity (cf. Prodi 1977).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 115-6.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 3


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), his interpretation of the legendary sphere of Archimedes, using magnets to simulate the rotation of the planets. From Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica, 1643, p. 305. 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.  


“Ideas similar to these were expressed by Schottel (Teutsche Sprachkunst, 1641), who celebrated the German language as the one which, in its purity, remained closest to the language of Adam (adding to this the idea that language was the expression of the native genius of a people).

Others even claimed that Hebrew had derived from German. They repeated the claim that their language had descended from Japheth, who, in this rendition, had supposedly settled in Germany.

The name of the exact locality changed, of course, to fit the needs of different authors; yet Japheth’s grandson, Ascenas, was said to have lived in the principality of Anhalt even before the confusio. There he was the progenitor of Arminius and Charlemagne.

In order to understand these claims, one must take into account the fact that, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant Germany rallied to the defense of the language of Luther’s Bible.

It was in this period that claims to the linguistic primacy of German arose, and many of these assumptions “should be seen within the context of Germany’s political fragmentation after the Thirty Years War. Since the German nation was one of the main forces capable of uniting the nation, its value had to be emphasized and the language itself had to be liberated from foreign influences” (Faust 1981: 366).

Leibniz ironized on these and other theories. In a letter of 7 April 1699 (cited in Gensini 1991: 113) he ridiculed those who wished to draw out everything from their own language–Becanus, Rudbeck, a certain Ostroski who considered Hungarian as the mother tongue, an abbé Francois and Pretorius, who did respectively the same for Breton and Polish.

Leibniz concluded that if one day the Turks and Tartars became as learned as the Europeans, they would have no difficulty finding ways to promote their own idioms to the rank of mother tongue for all humanity.

Despite these pleasantries, Leibniz was not entirely immune himself to nationalist temptations. In his Nouveaux essais (III, 2) he made a good-natured jibe at Goropius Becanus, coining the verb goropiser for the making of bad etymologies.

Still, he conceded, Becanus might not always have been entirely wrong, especially when he recognized in the Cimbrian, and, consequently, in Germanic, a language that was more primitive than Hebrew.

Leibniz, in fact, was a supporter of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis, first advanced in the Renaissance (cf. Borst 1957-63: III/1, iv, 2; Droixhe 1978).

In the course of over ten years collecting linguistic materials and subjecting them to minute comparisons, Leibniz had become convinced that at the root of the entire Japhetic stock there lay a Celtic language that was common to both the Gauls and the Germans, and that “we may conjecture that this [common stock] derives from the time of the common origin of all these peoples, said to be among the Scythians, who, coming from the Black Sea, crossed the Danube and the Vistula, and of whom one part may have gone to Greece, while the other filled Germany and Gaul” (Nouveaux essais, III, 2).

Not only this: Leibniz even discovered analogies between the Celto-Scythian languages and those which we would today call the Semitic languages, due, he conjectured, to successive migrations.

He held that “there was nothing that argues either against or for the idea of a single, common origin of all nations, and, in consequence, of one language that is radical and primitive.”

He admitted that Arabic and Hebrew seemed closer than others, their numerous alterations notwithstanding. He concluded, however, that “it seems that Teutonic has best preserved its natural and Adamitic aspect (to speak like Jacques Böhm [sic]).”

Having examined various types of German onomatopoeia, he finally concluded that the Germanic language seemed most primitive.

In presenting this scheme in which a Scythian language group progressively diffused throughout the Mediterranean world, and in distinguishing this group from the other group of southern or Aramaic languages, Leibniz designed a linguistic atlas.

Most of the conjectures in Leibniz’s own particular scheme were, in the end, erroneous; nevertheless, in the light of comparative linguistic work which would come afterwards, he had some brilliant intuitions (cf. Gensini 1990: 41).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 99-102.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Combinations of the nine universal symbols, from Ars Magna Sciendi Sive Combinatoria, 1669, p. 171. 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.


“Despite its improbability, the so-called “Flemish thesis” proved remarkably long-lasting. It survived even into the nineteenth century. It did so, however, less on its scientific merits than because it was part of a larger nationalistic polemic.

In his La province de Liège . . . Le flamand langue primordiale, mère de toutes les langues of 1868, the baron de Ryckholt proclaimed that “Flemish is the only language spoken in the cradle of humanity” and that “it alone is a language, while all the rest, dead or living, are but mere dialects or debased forms more or less disguised” (cf. Droixhe 1990: for linguistic follies de grandeur in general, Poliakov 1990).

With such a persistent and ebullient Flemish claim, it can hardly be surprising that there should be a Swedish candidacy as well. In 1671, Georg Stiernhielm wrote his De linguarum origine praefatio.

In 1688, his fellow countryman, Andreas Kempe, wrote Die Sprachen des Paradises; this included a scene in which God and Adam conversed with one another, God speaking in Swedish while Adam spoke in Danish; while they were talking, however, Eve was busy being seduced by a French-speaking serpent (cf. Borst 1957-63: III, 1, 1338; Olender 1989, 1993).

We are, by now, close to parody; yet we should not overlook the fact that these claims were made precisely in Sweden’s period as a major power on the European chessboard.

Olaus Rudbeck, in his Atlantica sive Mannheim vera Japheti posterorum sedes ac patria of 1675, demonstrated that Sweden was the home of Japheth and his line, and that from this racial and linguistic stock all the Gothic idioms were born.

Rudbeck identified Sweden, in fact, as the mythical Atlantis, describing it as the ideal land, the land of the Hesperides, from which civilization had spread to the entire world.

This was an argument that Isidore himself had already used. In his Etymologiarum, IX, ii, 26-7, he had suggested that the progenitor of the Goths was another of Japheth’s sons–Magog. Vico was later to comment acidly on all such claims (Scienza nuova seconda, 1744: II, 2.4, 430):

“Having now to enter upon a discussion of this matter, we shall give a brief sample of the opinions that have been held respecting it–opinions so numerous, inept, frivolous, pretentious or ridiculous, and so numerous, that we need not relate them.

By way of sample then: because in the returned barbarian times Scandinavia by the conceit of the nations was called vagina gentium and was believed to be the mother of all other nations of the world, therefore by the conceit of the scholars Johannes and Olaus Magnus were of the opinion that their Goths had preserved them from the beginning of the world the letters divinely inspired by Adam.

This dream was laughed at by all the scholars, but this did not keep Johannes van Gorp from following suit and going one better by claiming his own Dutch language, which is not much different from Saxon, has come down from the Earthly Paradise and is the mother of all other languages. [ . . . ]

And yet this conceit swelled to bursting point in the Atlantica of Olaus Rudbeck, who will have it that the Greek letters came from the runes; that the Phoenician letters, to which Cadmus gave the order and values those of the Hebrew, were inverted runes; and that the Greeks finally straightened them here and rounded them there by rule and compass.

And because the inventor is Merkurssman among the Scandinavians, he will have it that the Mercury who invented letters for the Egyptians was a Goth.”

Already by the fourteenth century, the idea of a German linguistic primacy was shaking the German-speaking world. The idea later appeared in Luther, for whom German was the language closest to God.

In 1533 Konrad Pelicanus (Commentaria bibliorum) set out the analogies between German and Hebrew, without, however, coming to a final judgement over which of the two was truly the Ursprache (cf. Borst 1957-63: III/1, 2).

In the baroque period, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (Frauenzimmer Gesprächspiele, 1641, Niemayer Tübingen, ed., 1968: 335ff) claimed that the German language:

“speaks in the languages of nature, quite perceptibly expressing all its sounds. [ . . . ]

It thunders with the heavens, flashes lightening with the quick moving clouds, radiates with the hail, whispers with the winds, foams with the waves, creaks with the locks, sounds with the air, explodes with the cannons; it roars like the lion, lows like the oxen, snarls like the bear, bells like the stag, bleats like the sheep, grunts like the pig, barks like the dog, whinnies like the horse, hisses like the snake, meows like the cat, honks like the goose, quacks like the duck, buzzes like the bumble bee, clucks like the hen, strikes its beak like the stork, caws like the crow, coos like the swallow, chirps like the sparrow. [ . . . ]

On all those occasions in which nature gives things their own sound, nature speaks in our own German tongue. For this, many have wished to assert that the first man, Adam, would not have been able to name the birds and all the other beasts of the fields in anything but our words, since he expressed, in a manner conforming to their nature, each and every innate property and inherent sound; and thus it is not surprising that the roots of the larger part of our words coincide with the sacred language.”

German had remained in a state of perfection because Germany had never been subjected to the yoke of a foreign ruler. Lands that had been subjected had inevitably adapted their customs and language to fit those of the victor.

This was also the opinion of Kircher. French, for example, was a mix of Celtic, Greek and Latin. The German language, by contrast, was richer in terms than Hebrew, more docile than Greek, mightier than Latin, more magnificent in its pronunciations than Spanish, more gracious than French, and more correct than Italian.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 97-9.

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