"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Tag: 1651

Eco: Eighteenth Century Projects, 2

Fenelon Adventures of Telemachus

François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, aka François Fénelon (1651-1715), frontispiece and title page of the 1715 English translation of Les Aventures de Télémaque, The Adventures of Telemachus, first published in French in 1699. 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 though the primitives were no longer such, they remained a compositional criterion. For instance, given in first position the letter a, which refers to grammar, the depending letters have a mere distinctive value and refer back to grammatical sub-categories.

A third and final letter specifies a morphological termination or other derivation. Thus a list of terms is derived: ava (grammar), ave (letter), alve (vowel), adve (consonant) and so on. The expressions function like a chemical formula, which synthetically reveals the internal composition of its content, and like a mathematical expression in that the system attributes to each letter a value determined by its position.

Nevertheless, this theoretical perspicuity is bought at a dear price because, in practice, the lexicon becomes obsessively monotonous.

Equally, the Pasigraphie of De Maimieux institutes a graphic code of twelve characters that can be combined according to fixed rules. Each combination expresses a definite thought (the model is the Chinese character).

Other characters are placed on the outside of the “body” of the word to modify the central idea. The body of the word can contain three, four or five characters. Words of only three characters signify either “pathetic” terms or connectives linking parts of discourse, and are classified in an indicule.

Words of four characters stand for ideas in practical life (like friendship, kinship, business), and are classified in petit nomenclateur. Five character words concern categories such as art, religion, morality, science and politics, and are classified in a grand nomenclateur.

None of these categories is primitive; they have rather been isolated in terms of common sense as the most manageable way of subdividing contemporary knowledge. De Maimieux went so far as to admit that he had not sought for an absolute ordering but rather any ordering whatsoever, fût-il mauvais (p. 21).

The system, unfortunately, provides no way of eliminating synonyms; they are constitutional, and De Maimieux only says how to identify them. In fact, every expression in the pasigraphy can be connected not to a single meaning but to three or four different contents.

These different meanings can be distinguished according to the position of the characters on a sort of pentagram. This method imposes no small amount of tedium on the reader, who, as the characters display no iconic similarity with their content, is continually forced to consult the indicule, the petit nomenclateur or the grand nomenclateur, depending on the length of the expression.

Thus, to give an example, if we run across a five letter syntagm, we must seek first in the grand nomenclateur

“the class that begins with the first character of the term. Inside this class, we seek for the framework listing the second character of the term. Inside this framework, we seek for the column containing the third character of the term. Finding the right column, we seek the section (tranche) with the fourth character of the term.

Finally, within this section we seek the line containing the fifth character. At this point we will discover that, as the meaning, we have found a line listing four verbal words; it will then be necessary to observe which of the characters in the pasigraphic term is graphically tallest in order to determine which of the four possible words is the one corresponding to the term.” (Pellerey 1992a: 104).

A real piece of drudgery, though not enough to dampen the ardor of the project’s enthusiasts, who, starting with the abbé Sicard and finishing with various contemporary reviewers wishing to favor the diffusion of the system, entered into pasigraphic correspondence with each other and with De Maimieux, who even composed pasigraphic poetry.

De Maimieux spoke of his pasigraphy as an instrument for checking the accuracy of translations. Many theories of translation, in fact, presuppose the existence of a “parameter language” with which one can control the correct correspondence between the original text and the translated one.

De Maimieux aimed at proposing a supposedly neutral metalanguage which could track the correspondence between expressions in System A and those in system B. What was never placed in discussion was the fact that the content of this metalanguage was structured along the lines of Indo-European languages, and of French in particular.

As a consequence we have “the immense drama of ideography: it can identify and describe its contents, which are supposedly ideas or notions in themselves, only by naming them with words from a natural language–a supreme contradiction for a project created expressly to eliminate verbal languages.” (Pellerey 1992a: 114).

As can be seen, neither in technique nor in underlying ideology have we advanced very far from the time of Wilkins.

This disingenuousness is carried to paroxysms in the Palais de soixante-quatre fenêtres [ . . . ] ou l’art d’écrire toutes les langues du monde comme on les parle (1787, by the Swiss writer J.P. De Ria.

(Editorial note: Eco writes “De Ria,” yet Google returns “Jean-Pierre Deriaz” as the author of the work, and beautifully offers the 1787 document as a free eBook. Thank you, Google. Yet, history must agree with Eco, as the title page depicts the author as “J.P. De Ria,” as Eco attests.).

Despite its pretentious title, the book is nothing but a manual of phonetics or, perhaps, a proposal for the orthographic reform of French, written in a febrile, quasi-mystic style.

It is not in the least clear how the reform could be applied to all the languages of the world (it would, for example, be particularly inapplicable to English phonetics); but this is an unimaginable question for the author.

Returning to De Maimieux, the flexibility displayed in his choice of the pseudo-primitives seems to associate his project with the empiricist tendencies of the Encyclopédie; yet, once they were chose, his belief in them, and the self-confidence with which he sought to impose them on everyone else, still reflected the rationalist temperament.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that De Maimieux sought to provide for the rhetorical use of his language and the possibility of oratory: we are, of course, in a time of eloquence where the life or death of a revolutionary faction might depend on its ability to sway its audience by the force of its words.

Where the a priori linguists of the eighteenth-century were most critical of their predecessors, however, was in the matter of grammar. All were inspired by the “laconic” ideal proposed in the Encyclopédie.

In the grammar of De Maimieux, the number of grammatical categories originally  projected by Faiguet is somewhat amplified; in the case of Delormel, however, the grammar is so laconic that Couturat and Leau (1903: 312), who spend long chapters describing other systems, liquidate his in a page and a half (Pellerey’s treatment is more accurate and generous; 1992a: 125).

Hourwitz, whose project remains akin to the seventeenth century polygraphies, produced a grammar that was, perhaps, the most laconic of all: one declension, one conjugation for verbs; the verbs were to be expressed in the infinitive with a few additional signs that specify tense and mood.

The tenses themselves were reduced to a system of three steps from the present, either backwards or forwards in time: thus A 1200 means “I dance;” A/1200 means “I have danced;” A 1200/ means “I will dance.”

If the grammar was made laconic, it followed that the syntax needed to be drastically simplified as well; Hourwitz proposed retaining the direct word order of French. In this respect, the relevance of Count Antoine de Rivarol’s pamphlet, De l’universalité de la langue française (1784), becomes apparent.

What was the need for a universal language, asked the count, when a perfect language existed already? The language was, of course, French. Apart from its intrinsic perfection, French was already an international language; it was the language most diffused in the world, so much that it was possible to speak of the “French world” just as, in antiquity, one could speak of the “Roman world.” (p. 1).

According to de Rivarol, French possessed a phonetic system that guaranteed sweetness and harmony, as well as a literature incomparable in its richness and grandeur; it was spoken in that capital city which had become the “foyer des étincelles répandues chez tous les peuples” (p. 21).

In comparison with French all other languages paled: German was too guttural, Italian too soft, Spanish too redundant, English too obscure. Rivarol attributed the superiority of French to its word order: first subject, then verb, and last object. This word order mirrored a natural logic which was in accordance with the requirements of common sense.

This common sense is, however, linked to the higher activity of our minds: for if we were to base our syntactical order on the order of our perceptions, it is plain that we would start with the object, which first strikes our senses.

The polemical reference to the sensationalism of Condillac is evident when de Rivarol asserts that, if other people, speaking in other tongues, had abandoned the natural, direct word order, it was because they had let their passions prevail over their intellect (p. 25-6).

This retreat from natural reason, moreover, was responsible for the syntactic inversion that had provoked the confusions and ambiguities prevalent in natural languages other than French. Naturally, those languages which tried to compensate for their lack of direct word order with declensions were among the most confused of all.

We might bear in mind that, even though, in 1784, while he was writing his pamphlet, de Rivarol was an habitué of Enlightenment circles, after the advent of the revolution, he revealed himself to be a conservative legitimist.

To a man so spiritually tied to the ancien régime, the philosophy and linguistics of the sensationalists may (quite justifiably) have appeared as a harbinger of an intellectual revolution which emphasized the passions as the fundamental force motivating humanity.

If this were the case, then “the direct word order acquires the value of an instrument of protection [ . . . ] against the inflammatory style of the public orators who, in a few short years, would be preaching revolution and manipulating the masses.” (Pellerey 1992a: 147).

Yet what really characterized the eighteenth century debate was the desire not so much to simplify grammar as to show that there existed a natural and normal grammar, universally present in all human languages. This grammar is not, however, manifestly apparent; it must be sought instead beneath the surface of human languages, all of which are, in some degree or other, derivations from it.

As can be seen, we have returned to the ideal of a universal grammar, only now one is trying to identify it by reducing every existing language to its most laconic form.

Attentive as we have been throughout this story to the issue of side-effects, we ought here to note that without this eighteenth century intuition of an original, laconic grammar, our contemporary notions of generative and transformational grammar would be quite inconceivable, even if their origins are usually traced back to the Cartesianism of Port Royal.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 296-302.

Eco:Eighteenth Century Projects


François Fénelon (1651-1715), Telemachus, or the first page of the first book of Les Aventures de Télémaque, first published anonymously in 1699, and translated into English in London in 1715. 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 under the weight of the Enlightenment critique, the dream of the perfect language refused to die. In 1720 there appeared a “Dialogue sur la facilité qu’il y auroit d’établir un Caractère Universel qui seroit commun à toutes les Langues de l’Europe, et intelligible à différens Peuples, qui le liroient chacun dans la propre Langue” (in the Journal littéraire de l’anné 1720).

As the title itself suggests, the project was for a polygraphy, in the sense we saw in Kircher, and, at most, it is worthy of note in that its attempt to include a contracted grammar points the way to future developments.

In any case, the proposal is distinguished by including an appeal, by the anonymous author, for a commission which would develop the project and for a prince who would impose its adoption.

Such an appeal “cannot help but remind us of a possibility, which must have seemed evident in the year 1720, that a phase of stability for Europe was about to open, and that, consequently, sovereigns might be expected to be more willing to patronize linguistic and intellectual experiments” (cf. Pellerey 1992a: 11).

In his article on “Langue” in the Encyclopédie, even a rationalist like Beauzée had to concede that, since it would be difficult to come to an agreement over a new language, and an international language still seemed to him to be necessary, Latin had to remain the most reasonable candidate.

For their part, the empiricists among the encyclopedists felt duty-bound to consider the idea of a universal language, too. As a sort of coda to the article on “Langue,” Joachim Faiguet wrote four pages on a project for a langue nouvelle. Couturat and Leau (1903: 237) consider this as representing a first attempt at overcoming the problems inherent in the a priori languages and at sketching out an example of the a posteriori languages we will be discussing in the next chapter.

As his model, Faiguet took a natural language–French. He formed his lexicon on French roots, and concentrated on the delineation of a simplified and regularized grammar, or a “laconic” grammar.

Following the authors in the previous century, Faiguet eliminated those grammatical categories that seemed to him redundant: he suppressed the articles, substituted flexions with prepositions (bi for the genitive, bu for the dative, and de and po for the ablative), transformed adjectives (indeclinable) into adverbial forms, standardized all plurals (always expressed by an s); he simplified verb conjugations, making them invariable in number and person, adding endings that designated tenses and modes (I give, you give, he gives became Jo dona, To dona, Lo dona); the subjunctive was formed by adding an r to the stem, the passive by the indicative plus sas (meaning to be: thus to be given became sas dona).

Faiguet’s language appears as wholly regular and without exceptions; every letter or syllable used as endings had a precise and unique grammatical significance. Still, it is parasitic on French in a double sense: not only is it a “laconicized” French at the expression-level; it is French that supplies the content-level as well. Thus Faiguet’s was little less than a sort of easy-to-manage Morse code (Bernadelli 1992).

The most important projects for a priori languages in the eighteenth century were those of Jean Delormel (Projet d’une langue universelle, 1795), of Zalkind Hourwitz (Polygraphie, ou l’art de correspondre à l’aide d’un dictionaire dans toutes les langues, même celles dont on ne possède pas seulement les lettres alphabétiques, 1800), and of Joseph de Maimieux (Pasigraphie, 1797).

As can be seen, De Maimieux’s project was a pasigraphy–that is, a universal written language. Since, however, in 1799 this same author had also formulated a pasilalie–adding rules for pronouncing his language–his project can be considered as an a priori language.

For its part, Hourwitz’s project was for a polygraphy, too–even though he seemed unaware that his was by no means the first project of this type. Still, in its structure, Hourwitz’s polygraphy was an a priori language.

Although all three projects still followed the principles laid down in the seventeenth century tradition, they were different in three fundamental ways: their purposes, the identification of their primitives, and their grammars.

Delormel presented his scheme to the Convention; De Maimieux published his Pasigraphie under the Directory; Hourwitz wrote under the Consulate: every religious motivation had disappeared.

De Maimieux spoke of communication between European nations, between Europeans and Africans, of providing a means of checking the accuracy of translations, of speeding up diplomacy and civil and military undertakings, of a new source of income for teachers, writers and publishers who should “pasigraphize” books written in other languages.

Hourwitz added to this list other purely practical considerations, such as the advantages in the relations between doctors and patients or in courtroom procedures. As one symptom of a new political and cultural atmosphere, instead of using the Lord’s Prayer as a sample translation, Hourwitz chose the opening of Fénelon’s Aventures de Télemaque–a work which, despite its moralizing bent, was still a piece of secular literature portraying pagan gods and heroes.

The revolutionary atmosphere imposed, or at least encouraged, considerations of fraternité. Thus Delormel could claim that:

“in this revolutionary moment, when the human spirit, regenerating itself among the French people, leaps forward with renewed energy, is it too much to hope that perhaps [ . . . ] we might offer to the public a new language as well, a language that facilitates new discoveries by bringing students of various nations together, a language that serves as a common term for all languages, a language easy to grasp even for men with but a slight aptitude for instruction, a language, in short, which will soon make out of all the people of mankind a single, grand family? [ . . . ] The Light of Reason brings men together and thus reconciles them; this language, by facilitating its communication, will help to propagate that Light.” (pp. 48-50).

Each of the authors was aware of the objections made by the authors of the Encyclopédie; thus the a priori languages which they proposed were all ordered according to an encyclopedia-like structure, easy to understand and designed upon the model of the eighteenth century system of knowledge.

Gone was the grandiose pansophist afflatus that animated baroque encyclopedias; the criterion of selection was rather that of Leibniz: the inventors of the languages behaved as if they were conscientious librarians hoping to make consultation as easy as possible, without worrying whether or not their ordering corresponded to the theater of the world.

Absent as well was the search for “absolute” primitives; the fundamental categories were the large-scale divisions of knowledge; under these were listed dependent notions attached as sub-headings.

Delormel, for example, assigned different letters of the alphabet to several encyclopedic classes in a way reminiscent not so much of Wilkins as of the anonymous Spaniard–grammar, art of speech, states of things, correlatives, useful, pleasurable, moral, sensations, perception and judgement, passions, mathematics, geography, chronology, physics, astronomy, minerals, etc.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 293-6.

Eco: Bacon


Paul van Somer (1576-1622), Portrait of Francis Bacon, 1617. Held at the Palace on the Water (Royal Baths Museum) and inscribed “Sr. Francis Bacon Lord Keeper, and afterwards Lord Chancellor of England, 1617.” 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. 

“As the renovator of scientific inquiry, Francis Bacon was only marginally interested in perfect languages. Yet, marginal though they may have been, his remarks on the subject have a notable philosophic interest.

A central theme in Bacon’s works was the destruction of idola, that is, false ideas arising either from human nature, collective or individual, or from philosophical dogmas handed down by tradition, or else–and this is what interests us the most–from the way we use language itself (idola fori).

Such linguistic usages have been determined by the needs of common people, so disturbing our way of reasoning (Novum organum, I, 43), and the idola that common speech imposes are either names for non-existent things, or confused, ill-defined and partial names for existing things (Novum organum, I, 60).

An example of a confused notion is that of the moist: this may signify a great variety of things; it can mean that which spreads rapidly around another body, that which is devoid of cohesion and consistence, that which is easily moved in whatever direction, that which can be divided and dispersed, that which can easily be reunited and gathered up, that which attaches itself easily to another body and moistens it, that which easily passes into a liquid state and dissolves.

To speak scientifically means thus to implement a speech therapy.

The idea of a linguistic therapy was a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. In the Leviathan (1651: IV), Hobbes noted that there are four main uses of speech,

“…First, to register, what by cogitation, wee find to be the cause of any thing [ . . . ] Secondly, to shew to others that knowledge which we have attained [ . . . ] Thirdly, to make known to others our wills, and purposes [ . . . ] Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, or others, by playing with our words, for pleasure and ornament, innocently.

To these uses, there are also foure correspondent Abuses. First, when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words [ . . . ] Secondly, when they use words metaphorically [ . . . ] Thirdly, when by words they declare that to be their will, which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another.”

In the third book of the Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke observed that:

“For since Sounds are voluntary and indifferent signs of any Ideas, a Man may use what Words he pleases, to signify his own Ideas to himself: and there will be no imperfection in them, if he constantly uses the same Word for the same Idea [ . . . ] The chief End of Language in Communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end [ . . . ] when any Word does not excite in the Hearer, the same Idea which it stands for in the Mind of the Speaker.” (III, IX, 2, 4).

For Bacon, signs might be of two types. Signs ex congruo (we would say iconic, motivated)–like hieroglyphs, gestures or emblems–reproduce in some way the properties of the things they signify; signs ad placitum are arbitrary and conventional.

Yet even a conventional sign can be defined as a “real character” when it refers not to a sound, but directly a corresponding thing or concept.

Bacon thus speaks of “Characteres quidam Reales, non Nominales; qui scilicet nec literas, nec verba, sed res et notiones exprimunt” (De Augmentis Scientiarum, VI, 1). In this sense, the signs used by the Chinese are real characters; they represent concepts without, however, bearing any similarity to the signified objects.

We see here that, unlike Kircher, Bacon was unaware of the vague iconism of Chinese ideograms; this, however, was a misapprehension that Bacon shared with a number of other contemporary authors.

Even Wilkins commented that, beyond the difficulties and perplexities that these characters generated, there seemed to be no analogies between their forms and the forms of the things that they represented (Essay, 451).

Probably Kircher had the advantage of knowing the direct reports on Chinese culture of his fellow Jesuits, and was thus able to form a clearer picture of Chinese ideograms than English scholars forced to rely on indirect accounts.

For Bacon, then, Chinese ideograms were examples of signs which, though arbitrary and conventional, stand directly for a signified notion without the mediation of a verbal language. He remarked that, even though the Chinese and the Japanese spoke different languages and thus called things by different names, both recognized them by the same ideograms, and, therefore, could understand each other by writing.

According to an example by Lodwick, if we propose to denote the sky with a 0, such a real character would be distinct from a vocal character…

“…in that it signifieth not the sound or word “heaven” but what we call heaven, the Latin coelum etc., so that the carracter being accepted will by the English be read heaven without respect to what the Latin would name the same thing [ . . . ] A frequent instance hereof we have in the numerical carracters (sic) 1.2.3., which signify not the severall sounds by which the severall (sic) nations in their severall languages expresse (sic) them but that common notion wherein those severall nations agree as to them (MS Sloane 897 f32r; in Salmon 1972: 223).”

Bacon did not think that a character supplied the image of the thing or revealed its intrinsic nature; his characters were nothing other than a conventional sign which, however, referred to a clear and precise notion.

His problem, then, became that of formulating an alphabet of fundamental notions; his Abecedarium novum naturae, composed in 1622, which was to appear as the appendix of the Historia naturalis et experimentalis, represented an attempt to make an index of knowledge, and was not connected to any project for a perfect language (see Blasi 1992: Pellerey 1992a).

Later attempts were none the less inspired by the fact that Bacon decided to associate Greek letters with every item of his index, so that, for example, α meant “dense and rare,” ε “volatile and fixed,” εεεε “natural and monstruous (sic),” οοοοο “hearing and sound.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 211-3.

Eco: Infinite Songs & Locutions


Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), memory wheel, De Umbris Idearum, 1582, reconstructed by Dame Frances Yates, Warburg Institute. Frances Yates wrote Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Chicago, 1964. 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.  

 “Between Lull and Bruno might be placed the game invented by H.P. Harsdörffer in his Matematische und philosophische Erquickstunden (1651: 516-9). He devises 5 wheels containing 264 units (prefixes, suffixes, letters and syllables).

This apparatus can generate 97,209,600 German words, including many that were still non-existent but available for creative and poetic use (cf. Faust 1981: 367). If this can be done for German, why not invent a device capable of generating all possible languages?

The problem of the art of combination was reconsidered in the commentary In spheram Ioannis de sacro bosco by Clavius in 1607. In his discussion of the four primary qualities (hot, cold, dry and wet), Clavius asked how many pairs they might form.

Mathematically, we know, the answer is six. But some combinations (like “hot and cold,” “dry and wet”) are impossible, and must be discarded, leaving only the four acceptable combinations: “Cold and dry” (earth), “hot and dry” (fire), “hot and wet” (air), “cold and wet” (water).

We seem to be back with the problem of Lull: a conventional cosmology limits the combinations.

Clavius, however, seemed to wish to go beyond these limits. He asked how many dictiones, or terms, might be produced using the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet (u being the same as v), combining them 2, 3, 4 at a time, and so on until 23.

He supplied a number of mathematical formulae for the calculations, yet he soon stopped as he began to see the immensity of the number of possible results–especially as repetitions were permissible.

In 1622, Paul Guldin wrote a Problema arithmeticum de rerum combinationibus (cf. Fichant 1991: 136-8) in which he calculated the number of possible locutions generated by 23 letters. He took into account neither the question of whether the resulting sequences had a sense, nor even that of whether they were capable of being pronounced at all.

The locutions could consist of anything from 2 to 23 letters; he did not allow repetitions. He arrived at a result of more than 70,000 billion billion. To write out all these locutions would require more than a million billion billion letters.

To conceive of the enormity of this figure, he asked the reader to imagine writing all these words in huge notebooks: each of these notebooks had 1,000 pages; each of these pages had 100 lines; each of these lines could accommodate 60 characters.

One would need 257 million billion of these notebooks. Where would you put them all? Guldin then made a careful volumetric study, imagining shelf space and room for circulation in the libraries that might store a consignment of these dimensions.

If you housed the notebooks in large libraries formed by cubes whose sides measured 432 feet, the number of such cubic buildings (hosting 32 million volumes each) would be 8,050,122,350. And where would you put them all? Even exhausting the total available surface space on planet earth, one would still find room for only 7,575,213,799!

In 1636 Father Marin Mersenne, in his Harmonie universelle, asked the same question once again. This time, however, to the dictiones he added “songs,” that is, musical sequences.

With this, the conception of universal language has begun to appear, for Mersenne realizes that the answer would necessarily have to include all the locutions in all possible languages. He marveled that our alphabet was capable of supplying “millions more terms than the earth has grains of sand, yet it is so easy to learn that one hardly needs memory, only a touch of discernment” (letter to Peiresc, c. April 1635; cf. Coumet 1975; Marconi 1992).

In the Harmonie, Mersenne proposed to generate only pronounceable words in French, Greek, Arabic, Chinese and every other language. Even with this limitation one feels the shudder provoked by a sort of Brunian infinity of possible worlds.

The same can be said of the musical sequences that can be generated upon an extension of 3 octaves, comprising 22 notes, without repetitions (shades of future 12-tone compositions!).

Mersenne observed that to write down all these songs would require enough reams of paper to fill in the distance between heaven and earth, even if every sheet contained 720 of these 22-note songs and every ream was so compressed as to be less than an inch thick.

In fact the number of possible songs amounted to 1,124,000,727,777,607,680,000 (Harmonie, 108). By dividing this figure by the 362,880 songs contained in each ream, one would still obtain a 16-digit figure, whilst the number of inches between the center of the earth and the stars is only 28,826,640,000,000 (a 14-digit figure).

Anyone who wished to copy out all these songs, a thousand per day, would have to write for 22,608,896,103 years and 12 days.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 139-41.

Eco: Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis


Giuseppe Giusto Scaligero, or Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), this illustration is from the title page of Marcus Manilus, Astronomicon a Ios. Scaligero ex vetusto codice Gemblacensi infinitis mendis repurgatum. Eiusdem Iosephi Scaligeri notae etc. Leiden. Christophorus Raphelengius for Joannes Commelin, 1599-1600, with a handwritten dedication from Scaliger to the mathematician Henri de Monantheuil, courtesy of the Leiden University Library and the Scaliger Institute. This narrative courtesy of the Warburg Institute. 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.

“By now, however, time was running out for the theories of Kircher, Guichard and Duret. Already in the Renaissance, Hebrew’s status as the original and sacred language had begun to be questioned.

By the seventeenth century, a new and complex set of arguments has evolved. We might, emblematically, place these arguments under the sign of Genesis 10. In these, attention moved away from the problem of primordial language to that of matrices linguae, or mother tongues–this was an expression first coined by Giuseppe Giusto Scaligero (Diatribe de europaeorum linguis, 1599).

Scaligero individuated eleven language families, seven major and four minor. Within each family, all languages were related; between the language families, however, kinship was impossible to trace.

The Bible, it was noted, had given no explicit information about the character of the primordial language. There were many who could thus maintain that the division of tongues had originated not at the foot of the shattered tower, but well before.

The notion of confusio could be interpreted as a natural process. Scholars set about trying to understand this process by uncovering the grammatical structures common to all languages: “It was no longer a question of “reduction,” but of a classification aimed at revealing a common system latent within all languages, while still respecting their individual differences” (Demonet 1992: 341, and II, 5, passim).

In his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon, considered one of the founders of modern biblical criticism, discarded the hypothesis of the divine origin of Hebrew, citing the ironic remarks of Gregory of Nyssa.

Language, he wrote, was a human invention; since human reason differs in different peoples, so languages must differ as well. God willed that different peoples speak different languages in order that “each might explain themselves in their own way.”

Meric Casaubon (De quattor linguis commentatio, 1650) accepted the idea of Grotius that–in so far as it had ever existed–the primordial language had long since disappeared.

Even if the words spoken by Adam had been inspired directly by God, humanity had since developed its languages autonomously. The Hebrew of the Bible was just one of the languages that arose after the Flood.

Leibniz also insisted that the historic language of Adam was irredeemably lost, and that, despite our best efforts, “nobis ignota est.” In so far as it had ever existed, it had either totally disappeared, or else survived only as relics (undated fragment in Gensini 1990: 197).

In this climate, the myth of a language that followed the contours of the world came to be rearticulated in the light of the principle of the arbitrariness of the sign. This was a principle that, in any case, philosophical thought had never entirely abandoned, as it formed part of the Aristotelian legacy.

In precisely this period, Spinoza, from a fundamentally nominalist point of view, asked how a general term such as man could possibly express man’s true nature, when different individuals formed their ideas in different ways:

“for example, those who are accustomed to contemplate with admiration the height of men will, on hearing the name man, think of an animal with an erect posture; those, instead, who are in the habit of contemplating some other feature, will form another of the common images of man–man as a laughing animal, as a biped, as featherless, as rational. Thus every individual will form images of universals according to the dispositions of their own bodies.” (Ethica, 1677: proposition XL, scolion I).

Implicitly challenging the idea that Hebrew was the language whose words corresponded to the nature of things, Locke considered that words used by human beings were signs of their ideas, “not by any natural connexion, that there is between particular articulated Sounds and certain Ideas, for then there would be but one Language amongst all Men; but by voluntary Imposition.” (An Essay concerning Human Understanding, 1690: III, 2, 1).

As soon as ideas lost their quality as innate, Platonic entities, becoming nominal ideas instead, language itself lost its aura of sacrality, turning into a mere instrument for interaction–a human construct.

In Leviathan (1651: I, 4, “Of Speech”), Hobbes admitted that the first author of speech could only have been God himself, and that he had taught Adam what to name the animals. Yet, immediately thereafter, Hobbes abandons the scriptural account to picture Adam as striking out on his own.

Hobbes argued that Adam continued freely to add new names “as the experience and use of the creatures should give him occasion.” In other words, Hobbes left Adam to confront his own experiences and his own needs; and it was from these needs (necessity being, as we know, the mother of all invention) that the languages after Babel were born.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 85-8.

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