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Tag: 1905

Eco: Esperanto


L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), creator of the IAL Esperanto. This photo from the Congressional Book of the 4th World Esperanto Congress in Dresden, 1908. 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. 

Esperanto was first proposed in 1887 in a book, written in Russian and published in Warsaw at the Kelter Press, entitled The International Language. Preface and Complete Manual (for Russians). The author’s name was Dr. Ledger Ludwik Zamenhof; yet he wrote the book under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (Dr. Hopeful), and this was soon adopted as the name of his language.

Zamenhof, born in 1859, had been fascinated with the idea of an international language since adolescence. When his uncle Josef asked him what was the non-Hebrew name he had, according to custom, chosen for his contacts with Gentiles, the seventeen year old Zamenhof replied that he had chosen Ludwik because he had found a reference to Lodwick (also spelled Lodowick) in a work by Comenius (letter of 31 March 1876; see Lamberti 1990: 49).

Zamenhof’s origins and personality helped shape both his conception of the new language and its eventual success. Born of a Jewish family in Bialystok, an area of Polish Lithuania then part of the Tsarist empire, Zamenhof passed his childhood in a crucible of races and languages continually shaken by nationalist ferment and lasting waves of anti-Semitism.

The experience of oppression, followed by the persecution of intellectuals, especially Jewish, at the hands of the Tsarist government, ensured that Zamenhof’s particular fascination with international languages would become mixed with a desire for peace between peoples.

Besides, although Zamenhof felt solidarity towards his fellow Jews and forecast their return to Palestine, his form of secular religiosity prevented him from fully supporting Zionist ideas; instead of thinking of the end of the Diaspora as a return to Hebrew, Zamenhof hoped that all the Jews could be, one day, reunited in an entirely new language.

In the same years in which, starting in the Slavic-speaking lands, Esperanto began its spread throughout Europe–while philanthropists, linguists and learned societies followed its progress with interest, devoting international conferences to the phenomenon–Zamenhof had also published an anonymous pamphlet, which extolled a doctrine of international brotherhood, homaranism.

Some of his followers successfully insisted on keeping the Esperanto movement independent of ideological commitments, arguing that if Esperanto were to succeed, it would do so only by attracting to its cause men and women of different religious, political and philosophical opinions.

They even sought to avoid any public reference to Zamenhof’s own Jewish origins, given that–it must be remembered–just at that historical moment there was growing up the theory of a great “Jewish conspiracy.”

Even so, despite the movement’s insistence on its absolute neutrality, the philanthropic impulse and the non-confessional religious spirit that animated it could not fail to influence the followers of the new language–or samideani, that is, participating in the same ideal.

In the years immediately following its emergence, moreover, the language and its supporters were almost banned by the Tsarist government, congenitally suspicious towards idealism of any sort, especially after Esperanto had had the fortune / misfortune to obtain the passionate support of Tolstoy, whose brand of humanist pacifism the government regarded as a dangerous form of revolutionary ideology.

Even the Nazis followed suit, persecuting Esperanto speakers in the various lands under their occupation (cf. Lins 1988). Persecution, however, only reinforces an idea: the majority of international languages represented themselves as nothing more than instruments of practical utility; Esperanto, by contrast, came increasingly to gather in its folds those religious and pacifist tensions which had been characteristics of many quests for a perfect language, at least until the end of the seventeenth century.

Esperanto came to enjoy the support and sympathy of many illustrious figures–linguists such as Baudoin de Courtenay and Otto Jespersen, scientists such as Peano, or philosophers such as Russell. Rudolf Carnap‘s comments are particularly revealing; in his Autobiography (in Schilpp 1963: 70) he described feeling moved by a sense of solidarity when he found himself able to converse with people of other countries in a common tongue.

He noted the quality of this living language which managed to unify a surprising degree of flexibility in its means of expression with a great structural simplicity. Simplest perhaps was the lapidary formulation of Antoine Meillet: “Toute discussion théoretique est vaine: l’Esperanto fonctionne” (Meillet 1918: 268).

Today the existence of the Universala Esperanto-Asocio in all of the principal cities of the world still testifies to the success of Zamenhof’s invention. Over one hundred periodicals are currently published in Esperanto, there is an original production of poetry and narrative, and most of the world literature has been translated into this language, from the Bible to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

Like Volapük, however, especially in the first decades, the Esperanto movement was nearly torn apart by battles raging over proposed lexical and grammatical reforms. In 1907, Couturat, as the founder and secretary of the Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, attempted what Zamenhof considered a coup de main: he judged Esperanto to be the best IAL, but only in its approved version, that is, only in the version that had been reformed by the French Esperanto enthusiast, Louis De Beaufront, and renamed Ido.

The majority of the movement resisted the proposed modifications, according to a principle stated by Zamenhof: Esperanto might accept enrichments and lexical improvements, but it must always remain firmly attached to what we might call the “hard core” as set down by its founder in Fundamento de Esperanto (1905).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 324-6.

Eco: Space Languages


Hans Freudenthal (1905-1990). This photograph is assumed to be copyrighted and unlicensed, but qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law to illustrate the subject in question where no free equivalent is available, as Professor Freudenthal is deceased and no free replacement can be made. 

“Almost at the bounds of science fiction, though still with an undoubted scientific interest, is the project of the Dutch mathematician Hans A. Freudenthal (Lincos, 1960) for a language in which eventual encounters with the inhabitants of other galaxies may be conducted (see Bassi 1992).

Lincos is not designed as a language to be spoken; it is rather a model for inventing a language and at the same time teaching it to alien beings that have presumably traditions and biological structure different from ours.

Freudenthal starts off by supposing that we can beam into space signals, which we might picture as radio waves of varying length and duration. The significance of these waves derives not from their expression-substance, but rather from their expression-form and content-form.

By endeavoring to understand the logic that determines the expression-form being transmitted to them, the space aliens are supposed to extrapolate a content-form that will not be alien to them.

During the first phase, the messages consist of regular sequences of pulses. These are intended to be interpreted quantitatively–four pulses standing for the number 4, etc. As soon as it is assumed that the aliens have correctly interpreted these first signals, the transmission passes to the second phase, in which it introduces simple arithmetic operators:

* * * < * * * *

* * * * = * * * *

* * * * + * * = * * * * * *

In the next phase, the aliens are taught to substitute for the pulses a system of binary numbers (in which * * * * = 100, * * * * * = 101, * * * * * * = 110); this makes it possible, using only ostension and repetition, to communicate some of the principle operations in mathematics.

The transmission of temporal concepts presents a more complex problem. Freudenthal, however, presumes that by constantly receiving a signal of the same duration, constantly associated to the same number of pulses, the aliens will begin to compute a certain duration in seconds. Lincos also teaches conversational rules, training the aliens to understand sequences such as “Ha says to Hb: what is that x such that 2x = 5?”

In one sense, we are treating the space aliens like circus animals; we subject them to a repeated stimulus, giving them positive reinforcement whenever they exhibit the desired response. In the case of animals, however, the reinforcement is immediate–we give them food; in the case of aliens, the reinforcement cannot but be a broadcast signal that they should interpret as “OK.”

By this means, the aliens are meant to learn to recognize not only mathematical operations but also concepts such as “because,” “as,” “if,” “to know,” “to want,” and even “to play.”

The project presupposes that the alines have the technological capability to receive and decode wave-length signals, and that they follow logical and mathematical criteria akin to our own.

They should share with us not only the elementary principles of identity and non-contradiction, but also the habit of inferring a constant rule through induction from many similar cases.

Lincos can only be taught to those who, having guessed that for the mysterious sender 2 x 2 = 4, will assume that this rule will remain constant in the future. This is, in fact, a big assumption; there is no way of ruling out that there exist alien cultures who “think” according to rules which vary according to time and circumstances.

What Freudenthal is aiming for is, explicitly, a true characteristica universalis; in Lincos, however, only a handful of original syntactic rules are formulated in the beginning. As to the rest (as to, for example, the rules governing questions and answers), the model implicitly assumes that the interlocutors will use the rules, and even the pragmatics, of a natural language.

We can, for example, imagine a community of angels, each of whom either reads the thoughts of the others or learns truths directly through beholding them in the mind of God: for such beings, the set of interactional rules governing questions and answers would make no sense at all.

The problem with Lincos is that, although provided with a formal structure, it is conceived as an instrument for “natural” communication, and thus it is inherently uncertain and imprecise. In other words, it cannot possess the tautological structure of a formalized language.

Lincos is probably more interesting from a pedagogical point of view: can one teach a language without ostension?

If the answer is positive, Lincos would allow a situation different from that imagined by philosophers of language, when they skeptically imagine a scene in which a European explorer interacts with a native, each party tries to communicate with the other by pointing at bits of space-time and uttering a given sound, and there is no way for the explorer to be certain whether the native is denoting a given object located in that space-time portion, or the fact that something is happening there, or is expressing his or her refusal to answer (see Quine 1960).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 308-10.

Autoeroticism and Tears in Egyptian Funerary Texts


The Gate of Teka-Hra.

The Fifth Division of the Tuat.

“THE boat of the sun having passed through the Fourth Division of the Tuat arrives at the gateway which leads to the FIFTH DIVISION. This gateway is similar to that which guards the Fourth Division, and is guarded by nine gods, who are described as the “Fourth company;” at the entrance to the corridor and at its exit stands a jackal-headed god, the former being called AAU, and the latter TEKMI, each is said to “extend his arms and hands to Ra.”

The corridor is swept by flames of fire, as before. The gateway is called ARIT, and the text says, “This great god cometh to this gateway, and entereth in through it, and the gods who are therein acclaim him.” The nine gods say to Ra, “RA-HERU-KHUTI unfoldeth our doors, and openeth our gateways. Hail, Ra, come thou to us, O great god, lord of hidden nature.”

[ … ]

This door is shut after the great god hath passed through it, and there is lamentation to those who are in this gateway when they hear this door close upon them.”

[ … ]

[Ra saith:—]

‘Draw ye me along, O ye gods of the Tuat, and sing praises unto me, O ye who are at the head of the stars; let your cords be strong (or, vigorous), and draw ye me along by means of them, and let your hands and arms be steady, let there be speed in your legs, let there be strong intent in your souls, and let your hearts be glad. Open ye a prosperous way into the chambers (qerti) of hidden things.”’

[ … ]

Horus saith unto the creatures of Ra who dwell in the Black Land (Qemt, i.e., Egypt) and in the Red Land (i.e., the deserts which lie on each side of the Black Land formed of the mud of the Nile):—

“Magical protection be unto you, O ye creatures of Ra, who have come into being from the Great One who is at the head of heaven! Let there be breath to your nostrils, and let your linen swathings be unloosed! Ye are the tears (or the weeping) of the eye of my splendour in your name of RETH (i.e., men). Mighty of issue (AA-MU) ye have come into being in your name of AAMU; Sekhet hath created them, and it is she who delivereth (or, avengeth) their souls. I masturbated [to produce you], and I was content with the hundreds of thousands [of beings] who came forth from me in your name of NEHESU (i.e., Negroes); Horus made them to come into being, and it is he who avengeth their souls. I sought out mine Eye, and ye came into being in your name of THEMEHU; Sekhet hath created them, and she avengeth their souls.”

The passage which refers to the gods who make stable the period of life (KHERU-AHAU-EM-AMENT) reads:—

Those who make firm (or, permanent) the duration of life stablish the days of the souls [in] Amenti and possess the word (or, command) of the place of destruction. Ra saith unto them:—

“Inasmuch as ye are the gods who dwell in the Tuat, and who have possession of [the serpent] METERUI, by means of whom ye mete out the duration of life of the souls who are in Amenti who are condemned to destruction, destroy ye the souls of the enemies according to the place of destruction which ye are commanded to appoint, and let them not see the hidden place.”

[ … ]

“[Here are] the divine sovereign chiefs who shall destroy the enemies. They shall have their offerings by means of the word [which becometh] Maat; they shall have their oblations upon earth by means of the word [which becometh] Maat, and it is they who destroy and who pass the edict concerning (literally, write) the duration of the life of the souls who dwell in Amenti.

The destruction which is yours shall be [directed] against the enemies, and the power to write which ye possess shall be for the place of destruction. I have come, even I the great one Horus, that I may make a reckoning with my body, and that I may shoot forth evils against my enemies.

Their food is bread, and their drink is the tchesert wine, and they have cool water wherewith to refresh (or, bathe) themselves. [Offerings are made to them upon earth. One doth not enter into the place of destruction.]”

—E.A. Wallis Budge, The Short Form of the Book of Am-Tuat, The Summary of the Book of What Is In the Underworld, from The Book of Gates, 1905, pp. 139-57.

The Seventh Hour, in Which “Stinking-Face” Makes His Appearance

“The Seventh Hour:

The majesty of this great god taketh up his position in the secret place of Osiris, and the majesty of this great god sendeth forth words into this to the gods who dwell therein. This god maketh to himself other forms for this hidden place in order to drive out of his path the serpent fiend APEP by means of the words of power of Isis, and the words of power of SEMSU (?).

RUTI-ASAR is the name of the gate of this City through which this god passeth.

TEPHET-SHETA is the name of this City.

This great god maketh his way over the road of Amentet in the holy boat, and he passeth in it over this road which is without water, without being towed along. He maketh his way by means of the words of power of Isis, and by means of the words of power of SEMSU (?), and the utterances of this great god himself [act as] magical protectors, and perform the slaughters of Apep in the Tuat, in this Circle, in his windings in the sky.

Whosoever shall make [a copy of] these [pictures] according to the similitudes which are in writing at the northern side of the Hidden Palace in the Tuat, they shall act as magical protectors for him that maketh them in heaven and in earth.

And whosoever knoweth them shall be a soul of souls with Ra.

And whosoever shall make (i.e., recite) the words of power of Isis and the words of power of SEMSU, shall make to be driven back the Apep of Ra in Amentet.

Whosoever shall do [this] in the Hidden Palace of the Tuat, and whosoever shall do [this] upon earth, [the result is] the same.

Whosoever knoweth this shall be in the Boat of Ra, both in heaven and upon earth; but he that hath no knowledge of this representation shall not know how to drive back NEHA-HRA (i.e., Stinking-Face).

Now the ridge of earth of NEHA-HRA in the Tuat is four hundred and fifty cubits in length, and he filleth it with the undulations of his body.

The regions which belong to him are made (i.e., kept) for him, and the great god doth not make his way over him when he maketh him to turn aside out of the way for him, from the secret place of Osiris, when this god maketh his way through this city in the form of the serpent MEHEN.

Whosoever shall know this upon earth, the serpent NEHA-HRA shall not drink his water, and the soul of him that knoweth it shall not be evilly entreated by the gods who are in this Circle; and whosoever knoweth it the crocodile AB-SHAU shall not devour his soul.

KHESEF-HAI-HESEQ-NEHA-HRA is the name of the hour of the night which guideth this great god through this Circle.”

—E.A. Wallis Budge, The Short Form of the Book of Am-Tuat, The Summary of the Book of What Is In the Underworld, from The Book of Gates, 1905, pp. 25-7.

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