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Tag: 1889

Eco: An Optimized Grammar

Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, 1889

L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), as Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, Henry Phillips, Jr., trans., New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1889. Courtesy of Cornell University Library and 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 twenty eight letters of the Esperanto alphabet are based on a simple principle: for each letter one sound, and for each sound one letter. The tonic accent always falls on the penultimate syllable. There is only one article, la, invariable for words of all genders–thus la homo, la libroj, la abelo. Proper names do not take an article. There is no indefinite article.

Concerning the lexicon, the young Zamenhof had already noted that in many European languages there was a logic of suffixes that produced both feminine and many derivative forms (Buch / Bücherei, pharmakon / pharmakeia, child / childish, rex / regina, host / hostess, gallo / gallina, hero / heroine, Tsar / Tsarina), while the formation of contraries was governed by prefixes (heureux / malheureux, happy / unhappy, legal / illegal, fermo / malfermo, rostom / malorostom–the Russian for “high” and “low.”)

In a letter of 24 September 1876, Zamenhof described himself as ransacking the dictionaries of the various European languages trying to identify terms with a common root–lingwe, lingua, langue, lengua, language; rosa, rose, roza, etc. This was already the seminal idea of an a posteriori language.

Wherever Zamenhof was unable to discover a common root, he coined his own terms, privileging Romance languages, followed by the Germanic and Slavic ones. As a result, any speaker of a European language who examined an Esperanto word list would discover:

(1). Many terms that were easily recognizable as being similar or identical to his or her own;

(2). Terms which, though deriving from a foreign language, were still easily recognizable;

(3). Terms which, though strange at first sight, once their meaning had been learned, turned out to be easily recognizable; and finally,

(4). A reasonably limited number of terms to be learned ex novo.

Here are some examples: abelo (ape), apud (next to), akto (act), alumeto (match), birdo (bird), cigaredo (cigarette), domo (home), fali (to fall), frosto (frost), fumo (smoke), hundo (dog), kato (cat), krajono (pencil), kvar (quarter).

Esperanto also includes a comparatively large number of compound words. They are not inspired by the a priori projects, where composition is the norm, since the terms work like a chemical formula; Zamenhof could find compound words in natural languages (think of man-eater, tire-bouchon, schiaccianoci, to say nothing of German).

Compound words, moreover, permitted the exploitation of a limited number of radicals to the maximum. The rule governing the formation of compounds was that the principal word appeared at the end: thus–as in English–a “writing-table” becomes skribotablo.

The agglutinative principle which governs the formation of compound words allows for the creation of easily recognizable neologisms (cf. Zinna 1993).

From the radical stem, the neutral form is given by the suffix -o. This is not, as might appear, for example, to Italian or Spanish speakers, the suffix for the masculine gender, but merely serves as a mark for singular.

The feminine gender is “marked” by inserting an -in- between the stem and the singular ending -o. Thus “father / mother” = patr-o / patr-in-o, “king / queen” = reg-o / reg-in-o, male / female = vir-o / vir-in-o.

Plurals are formed by adding -j to the singular: thus “fathers / mothers” = patr-o-j / patr-in-o-j.

In natural languages many terms belonging to the same conceptual fields are frequently expressed by radically different lexical items. For instance, in Italian, given the conceptual field of parenthood, one must learn the meaning of padre, madre, suocero, genitori (father, mother, father-in-law and parents) before acknowledging that these terms belong to the same notional family.

In Esperanto, knowing the meaning of the radical patr, it is immediately possible to guess the meaning of patro, patrino, bopatro and gepatroj.

Likewise, in English (as well as in other languages) there are different endings for terms which all express a job or an occupation, like actor, driver, dentist, president, surgeon.

In Esperanto the words for all occupations are marked by the suffix –isto, so that anyone who knows that dento is “tooth” will automatically know that a dentisto is a professional who deals with teeth.

The rule for the formation of adjectives is also simple and intuitively clear: adjectives are formed by adding the suffix -a to the root stem: “paternal” = patr-a; and they agree with nouns in number: “good parents” = bonaj patroj.

The six verbal forms are not conjugated, and are always marked by six suffixes. For instance, for the verb “to see” we have vid-i (infinitive), vid-as (present), vid-is (past), vid-os (future), vid-us (conditional) and vid-u! (imperative).

Zinna has observed (1993) that, while the a priori languages and “laconic” grammars tried, at all cost, to apply a principle of economy, Esperanto follows a principle of optimization. Following the principle of economy, Esperanto abolishes case endings, yet it makes an exception of the accusative–which is formed by adding an -n to the noun: “la patro amas la filon, la patro amas la filojn.”

The motivation for this exception was that in non-flexional languages the accusative is the only case which is not introduced by a preposition, therefore it had to be marked in some way. Besides, the languages that, like English, had lost the accusative for nouns retain it for pronouns (I / me). The accusative also permits one to invert the syntactic order of the sentence, and yet to identify both the subject and the object of the action.

The accusative serves to avoid other ambiguities produced by non-flexional languages. As in Latin, it serves to indicate motion towards, so that in Esperanto one can distinguish between “la birdo flugas en la gardeno” (in which the bird is flying about within the garden) from “la birdo flugas en la gardenon” (in which the bird is flying into the garden).

In Italian “l’uccello vola nel giardino” remains ambiguous. In English, “I can hear him better than you” is ambiguous, for it can mean either “I can hear him better than you can hear him” or “I can hear him better than I can hear you” (the same happens in French with “je l’écoute mieux que vous,” or in Italian with “lo sento meglio di te“).

The Esperanto accusative renders this distinction very simply: the first case is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vi,” while the second is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 327-30.

Eco: The Babel of A Posteriori Languages


Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), Italian mathematician, circa 1910. Photographer unknown. 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. 

“Among the international artificial languages, the project that was presented in 1734 under the pseudonym of Carpophorophilus probably takes the prize for seniority; the next was Faiguet’s Langue Nouvelle; after this, in 1839, was the Communicationssprache of Schipfer. After these, there came a tide of IALs in the nineteenth century.

If one takes samples from a number of systems, a set of family resemblances soon appears. There is usually a prevalence of Latin roots plus a fair distribution of roots derived from other European languages.

In this way, the speakers of any one of the major European languages will always have the impression of being in, at least partially, familiar territory:

“Me senior, I sende evos un grammatik e un verb-bibel de un nuov glot nomed universal glot. (Universal sprache, 1868).

Ta pasilingua era una idioma per tos populos findita, una lingua qua autoris de to spirito divino, informando tos hominos zu parlir, er creita. (Pasilingua, 1885).

Mesiur, me recipi-tum tuo epistola hic mane gratissime. (Lingua, 1888).

Con grand satisfaction mi ha lect tei letter [ . . . ] Le possibilità de un universal lingue pro la civilisat nations ne esse dubitabil. (Mondolingue, 1888).

Me pen the liberté to ecriv to you in Anglo-Franca. Me have the honneur to soumett to yoùs inspection the prospectus of mès object manufactured. (Anglo-Franca, 1889).

Le nov latin non requirer pro la sui adoption aliq congress. (Nov Latin, 1890).

Scribasion in idiom neutral don profiti sekuant in komparision ko kelkun lingu nasional. (Idiom Neutral, 1902).”

In 1893 there even appeared an Antivolapük which was really an anti-IAL: it consisted of nothing but a skeletal universal grammar which users were invited to complete by adding lexical items from their own language; for example:

French-international: IO NO savoir U ES TU cousin . . .

English-international: IO NO AVER lose TSCHE book KE IO AVER find IN LE street.

Italian-international: IO AVER vedere TSCHA ragazzo e TSCHA ragazza IN UN strada.

Russian-international: LI dom DE MI atijez E DE MI djadja ES A LE ugol DE TSCHE ulitza.

Of like perversity was Tutonisch (1902), an international language only comprehensible to German speakers (or, at most, to speakers of Germanic languages like English).

Thus the opening of the Lord’s Prayer sounds like this: “vio fadr hu be in hevn, holirn bi dauo nam.” The author was later merciful enough to provide Romance-language speakers with a version of their own, so that they too might pray in Tutonisch: “nuo opadr, ki in siel, sanktirn bi tuo nom.”

If our story seems to be taking a turn for the ridiculous, it is due less to the languages themselves (which taken one by one are frequently well done) than to an inescapable “Babel effect.”

Interesting on account of its elementary grammar, the Latino Sine Flexione of the great mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano (1903) was wittily designed. Peano had no intention of creating a new language; he only wanted to recommend his simplified Latin as a written lingua franca for international scientific communication, reminiscent of the “laconic” grammars of the Encyclopédie.

Peano stripped Latin of its declensions, with, in his own words, the result that: “Con reductione qui praecede, nomen et verbo fie inflexible; toto grammatica latino evanesce.”

Thus, no grammar (or almost no grammar) and a lexicon from a well-known language. Yet this result tended perhaps to encourage pidgin Latin. When an English contributor wished to write for one of the mathematical journals which, under the influence of Peano, accepted articles in Latino Sine Flexione, he naturally retained the modal future; thus he translated, “I will publish” as me vol publica.

The episode is not only amusing: it illustrates the possibility of an uncontrolled development. As with other international languages, Latino Sine Flexione depended less upon its structural merits than on establishing a consensus in its favor. Failing to achieve this, it became another historical curiosity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 321-4.

Eco: The Mixed Systems


Johann Martin Schleyer (1831-1912), a drawing of the creator of Volapük by Theodor Mayerhofer (1855-1941) in Sigmund Spielmann, Volapük- Almanach für 1888, Leipzig. 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. 

Volapük was perhaps the first auxiliary language to become a matter of international concern. It was invented in 1879 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a German Catholic priest who envisioned it as an instrument to foster unity and brotherhood among peoples.

As soon as it was made public, the language spread, expanding throughout south Germany and France, where it was promoted by Auguste Kerkhoffs. From here it extended rapidly throughout the whole world.

By 1889 there were 283 Volapükist clubs, in Europe, America and Australia, which organized courses, gave diplomas and published journals. Such was the momentum that Schleyer soon began to lose control over his own project, so that, ironically, at the very moment in which he was being celebrated as the father of Volapük, he saw his language subjected to “heretical” modifications which further simplified, restructured and rearranged it.

Such seems to be the fate of artificial languages: the “word” remains pure only if it does not spread; if it spreads, it becomes the property of the community of its proselytes, and (since the best is the enemy of the good) the result is “Babelization.”

So it happened to Volapük: after a few short years of mushroom growth, the movement collapsed, continuing in an almost underground existence. From its seeds, however, a plethora of new projects were born, like the Idiom Neutral, the Langue Universelle of Menet (1886), De Max’s Bopal (1887), the Spelin of Bauer (1886), Fieweger’s Dil (1887), Dormoy’s Balta (1893), and the Veltparl of von Arnim (1896).

Volapük was an example of a “mixed system,” which, according to Couturat and Leau, followed the lines sketched out by Jacob von Grimm. It resembles an a posteriori language in the sense that it used as its model English, as the most widely spread of all languages spoken by civilized peoples (though, in fact, Schleyer filled his lexicon with terms more closely resembling his native German).

It possessed a 28 letter alphabet in which each letter had a unique sound, and the accent always fell on the final syllable. Anxious that his should be a truly international language, Schleyer had eliminated the sound r from his lexicon on the grounds that it was not pronounceable by the Chinese–failing to realize that for the speakers of many oriental languages the difficulty is not so much pronouncing r as distinguishing it from l.

Besides, the model language was English, but in a sort of phonetic spelling. Thus the word for “room” was modeled on English chamber and spelled cem. The suppression of letters like the r sometimes introduced notable deformations into many of the radicals incorporated from the natural languages.

The word for “mountain,” based on the German Berg, with the r eliminated, becomes bel, while “fire” becomes fil. One of the advantages of a posteriori language is that its words can recall the known terms of a natural language: but bel for a speaker of a Romance language would probably evoke the notion of beautiful (bello), while not evoking the notion of mountain for a German speaker.

To these radicals were added endings and other derivations. In this respect, Volapük followed an a priori criterion of rationality and transparency. Its grammar is based upon a declensional system (“house:” dom, doma, dome, domi, etc.).

Feminine is derived directly from masculine through an invariable rule, adjectives are all formed with the suffix –ik (if gud is the substantive “goodness,” gudik will be the adjective “good”), comparatives were formed by the suffix –um, and so on.

Given the integers from 1 to 9, by adding an s, units of ten could be denoted (bal = 1, bals = 10, etc.). All words that evoke the idea of time (like today, yesterday, next year) were prefixed with del-; all words with the suffix –av denoted a science (if stel = “star,” then stelav = “astronomy”).

Unfortunately, these a priori criteria are used with a degree of arbitrariness: for instance, considering that the prefix lu– always indicates something inferior and the term vat means “water;” there is no reason for using luvat for “urine” rather than for “dirty water.” Why is flitaf (which literally means “flying animal”) used for “fly” and not for “bird” or “bee?”

Couturat and Leau noted that, in common with other mixed systems, Volapük, without claiming to be a philosophical language, still tried to analyze notions according to a philosophical method.

The result was that Volapük suffered from all the inconveniences of the a priori languages while gaining none of their logical advantages. It was not a priori in that it drew its radicals from natural languages, yet it was not a posteriori, in so far as it subjected these radicals to systematic deformations (due to an a priori decision), thus making the original words unrecognizable.

As a result, losing all resemblance to any natural language, it becomes difficult for all speakers, irrespective of their original tongue. Couturat and Leau observe that mixed languages, by following compositional criteria, form conceptual agglutinations which, in their awkwardness and their primitiveness, bear a resemblance to pidgin languages.

In pidgin English, for example, the distinction between a paddle wheeler and a propeller-driven steam boat is expressed as outside-walkee-can-see and inside-walkee-no-can-see.

Likewise, in Volapük the term for “jeweler” is nobastonacan, which is formed from “stone” + “merchandise” + “nobility.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 319-21.

Izre’el: Listing the Fragments

Previous Studies and the Present Study

“The scholarly world first became aware of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind when its largest fragment was discovered among the scholarly tablets of the El-Amarna archive in 1887 (Harper 1891; Scheil 1891; cf. Zimmern 1892; Sayce 1892; Izre’el 1997: 1-13, 43-50).

A fragment of the myth (now known as Fragment D) had, in fact, already been published before that time by one of the pioneers of Mesopotamian studies, George Smith (Smith 1876:125-6).

Smith, however, did not have at his disposal enough data to identify this fragment as part of the myth to which it belonged and attributed it to the Ea narrative (for which see Cagni 1969, 1977). While discussing the Berossus account of Oannes, Smith stated that “it is a curious fact the legend of Oannes, which must have been one of the Babylonian stories of the Creation, has not yet been discovered” (Smith 1876: 306).

Sayce, who said he had copied this fragment, “related to an otherwise unknown individual named Adapa,” “many years ago,” was able to attribute this fragment to the Adapa myth only after the discovery of the Amarna fragment (Sayce 1892; cf. Sayce in Morgan 1893: 183-4; Bezold 1894a: 114 n. 1, 1894b: 405 n. 1; Strong 1894; 1895).

We now have at our disposal six fragments of the myth. The largest and most important fragment is the one discovered at Amarna (“Fragment B”) and thus dated to the 14th century BCE (see further pp. 47-9).

Five other fragments (A, A1, C, D, and E) were part of the Ashurbanipal library and are representative of this myth as it was known in Assyria about seven centuries later. Only two of the extant fragments (A and A1) are variants of the same text. Fragments C and D come from different sections of the text.

Fragment E represents another recension of the myth, which also seems to be similar to the known versions.

K 15072, British Museum. Another extremely sparse entry for this Akkadian cuneiform tablet, provenance Nineveh, modern Kuyunjik.<br />

K 15072, British Museum. Another extremely sparse entry for this Akkadian cuneiform tablet, provenance Nineveh, modern Kuyunjik.

The following is a list of the extant fragments edited in this volume, with their museum numbers and main previous editions.

  • Fragment A: MLC 1296 (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York);
  • Scheil 1898: 124-33;
  • Clay 1922: 39-41, pls IV, VI (cf. Clay 1923: 10-11);
  • Picchioni 1981: 112-5, 127-31 (figure 1), tav. 1.
  • Fragment A1: K 15072 (British Museum, London).
  • Parallel to the last extant section Fragment A. Schramm 1974;
  • Picchioni 1981: 114-5, 131, tav. IV-V.
  • Fragment B: VAT 348 (Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin);
  • Winkler and Abel 1889-90: 240;
  • Schroeder 1915: #194;
  • Harper 1894: 418-25;
  • Jensen 1900: 94-9, with comments on pp. 411-3;
  • Knudtzon 1915: 964-9 (= EA 356);
  • Picchioni 1981: 114-21, 131-6, 162-3 (figures 2-3 = Schroeder 1915: #194, tav. II-III;
  • Izre’el 1997: 43-50, copy (= Schroeder 1915: #194 with collations = pp. 177, 179 below), photographs.
  • Fragment C: K 8743 (British Museum, London). Expanded parallel to part of Fragment B.
  • Langdon 1915: pl. IV, #3, and p. 42 n. 2;
  • Thompson 1930: pl. 31;
  • Jensen 1900: xvii-xviii;
  • Picchioni 1981: 120-1, 136-7, 164 (figure 4), tav. IV-V.
  • Photograph also in Böhl 1959: Taf. 12.
  • Fragment D: K 8214 (British Museum, London). Virtual parallel to the end of Fragment B with additions.
  • Strong 1894;
  • Furlani 1929: 132;
  • Picchioni 1981: 122-3, 137-41, 165 (figure 5), tav. VI.
  • Photograph also in Böhl 1959: Taf. 12.
  • Fragment E: K 9994 (British Museum, London). A small fragment probably representing a different recension of the myth.
  • Von Soden 1976: 429-30;
  • Picchioni 1981: 95-6, tav. IV-V.

A cuneiform copy is published here for the first time, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The notation “Fragment E” is introduced here.

In addition to these fragments, one may note a possible title to the myth. The catalogue of literary texts Rm 618 (Bezold 1889-99: 4.1627) lists a title of a work on Adapa (line 3):

Adapa into heaven ( . . . )

Picchioni (1981: 87 n. 244) suggested that this might be an incipit of the first verse of the myth; Talon (1990: 44, 54) agrees (see further Hallo 1963: 176; cf. Lambert 1962: 73-4).

It is difficult to see how this line could have been the opening verse of any of the versions known to us, since both Fragment A and Fragment B seem to have opened differently (cf., for Fragment B, p. 108, and, for a literary analysis of Fragment A, pp. 112-3).

It may perhaps be suggested that this was a title rather than an incipit (thus also Röllig 1987: 50), because we know that Adapa’s ascent to heaven is also referred to elsewhere (p. 4).

British Museum K 10147. Notes on this fragment are sparse. It was sourced at Nineveh, modern Kuyunjik, and marked Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC).<br />

British Museum K 10147. Notes on this fragment are sparse. It was sourced at Nineveh, modern Kuyunjik, and marked Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC).

Von Soden, while suggesting the attribution of K 9994 (= Fragment E) to this myth (cf. also Borger 1975: 62, following Lambert), also made some observations concerning K 10147, saying that although the attribution of this fragment to the myth is doubtful, it may have formed part of the beginning of the text, before the extant Fragment A (von Soden 1976: 431; already Bezold 1894b: 405 n. 1).

This and other small fragments mentioning Adapa or relating to this figure have been collected by Picchioni (1981).”

(Ed. note: Links on this page are far from perfect. I have done my best to at least show a direction if you are seeking a specific citation or a particular work. Many of the cited works are not on the web. If you want them, you will have to complete your citations and then request them through an interlibrary loan at a physical library. If you have updated links to citations or to complete works, or images of the fragments themselves, please share them with me through the comments feature below. It would be a selfless contribution to scholarship if you could scan them and upload them to the internet. I will integrate them into this page. Please remember to mention if you would like to be credited.)

Schlomo Izre’el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language Has the Power of Life and Death, Eisenbrauns, 2001, pp. 5-7.

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