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Tag: 1914

Eco: The International Auxiliary Languages

Couturat & Leau, Histoire de la Langue Universelle, 1903

Louis Couturat (1868-1914) & Léopold Leau (1868-1943), Histoire de la langue universelle, Hachette, Paris, 1903, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 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 dawn of the twentieth century witnessed a revolution in transport and communications. In 1903 Couturat and Leau noted that it was now possible to voyage around the world in just forty days; exactly one half of the fateful limit set by Jules Verne just thirty years before.

Now the telephone and the wireless knitted Europe together and as communication became faster, economic relations increased. The major European nations had acquired colonies even in the far-flung antipodes, and so the European market could extend to cover the entire earth.

For these and other reasons, governments felt as never before the need for international forums where they might meet to resolve an infinite series of common problems, and our authors cite the Brussels convention on sugar production and international accord on white-slave trade.

As for scientific research, there were supranational bodies such as the Bureau des poides et  mesures (sixteen states) or the International Geodesic Association (eighteen states), while in 1900 the International Association of Scientific Academies was founded.

Couturat and Leau wrote that such a growing of scientific information needed to be organized “sous peine de revenir à la tour de Babel.”

What could the remedy be? Couturat and Leau dismissed the idea of choosing a living language as an international medium as utopian, and found difficulties in returning to a dead language like Latin.

Besides, Latin displays too many homonyms (liber means both “book” and “free”), its flexions create equivocations (avi might represent the dative and ablative of avis or the nominative plural of avus), it makes it difficult to distinguish between nouns and verbs (amor means both love and I am loved), it lacks a definite article and its syntax is largely irregular . . . The obvious solution seemed to be the invention of an artificial language, formed on the model of natural ones, but which might seem neutral to all its users.

The criteria for this language should be above all a simple and rational grammar (as extolled by the a priori languages, but with a closer analogy with existing tongues), and a lexicon whose terms recalled as closely as possible words in the natural languages.

In this sense, an international auxiliary language (henceforth IAL) would no longer be a priori but a posteriori; it would emerge from a comparison with and a balanced synthesis of naturally existing languages.

Couturat and Leau were realistic enough to understand that it was impossible to arrive at a preconceived scientific formula to judge which of the a posteriori IAL projects was the best and most flexible. It would have been the same as deciding on allegedly objective grounds whether Portuguese was superior to Spanish as a language for poetry or for commercial exchange.

They realized that, furthermore, an IAL project would not succeed unless an international body adopted and promoted it. Success, in other words, could only follow from a display of international political will.

What Couturat and Leau were facing in 1903, however, was a new Babel of international languages invented in the course of the nineteenth century; as a matter of fact they record and analyze 38 projects–and more of them are considered in their further book, Les nouvelles langues internationales, published in 1907.

The followers of each project had tried, with greater or lesser cohesive power, to realize an international forum. But what authority had the competence to adjudicate between them?

In 1901 Couturat and Leau had founded a Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, which aimed at resolving the problem by delegating a decision to the international Association of Scientific Academies.

Evidently Couturat and Leau were writing in an epoch when it still seemed realistic to believe that an international body such as this would be capable of coming to a fair and ecumenical conclusion and imposing it on every nation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 317-9.

The Sexual Mingling of Gods and Humans

“Flavius Joseph noted in his Jewish Antiquities the affinities between Genesis 6:1-4 and Greek traditions: “In fact the deeds that tradition ascribes to them resemble the audacious exploits told by the Greeks of the giants.”

The sexual encounters between Greek gods and human women (and also between Greek goddesses and human men) are a common topic in Greek mythology. A work almost wholly devoted to this theme is the fragmentary Catalogue of Women, a work of the seventh or sixth century BCE, though drawing on earlier traditions. (M.L. West, The Hasidic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins, Oxford, 1985; Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), pp. 1-34.)

It begins with an invocation to the Muses: “Sing now of the tribe of women … who unfasten their waistbands … in union with gods.” (R. Merkelbach and M.L. West, eds., Fragmenta Hesiodea (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), pp. 3-4. Fragment I)

At the beginning of this account, gods and mortals mingled and feasted together, a proximity that led to their sexual unions.

The Catalogue seems to conclude with a fragment that describes the end of this era of divine-human intimacy. Zeus conceives a plan to send a great destruction–the Trojan War–to bring to an end the easy mingling of gods and humans.

“For at that time high-thundering Zeus was planning tremendous deeds, stirring up <quarrel> throughout the boundless earth. For now he was hastening to annihilate the greater part of the human race as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods.”

(Merckelbach-West, Fragmenta Hesiodea, 101-2).

It is not entirely clear what Zeus’ intentions are, since it is impossible (depending on some restorations in the following fragmentary lines) that he does not actually destroy the demigods but rather removes them to an idyllic existence in the Islands of the Blessed, as happens in Hesiod’s Works and Days. (H.G. Evelyn-White, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (LCL: Cambridge, 1914), pp. 199-201.)

In any case, as L. Koenen observes, “he brings to an end the age of social and sexual intercourse between gods and mortal women.” (See Ludwig Koenen, “Greece, the Near East, and Egypt: Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women,” TAPA 124 (1994), p. 30).

This fragment, as scholars have noted, is remarkably similar to Genesis 6:1-4, particularly in the latter’s context as a prelude to the Flood story. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 18-20) The Greek fragment includes the details of male gods having sex with human women, propagating a race of semi divine offspring, and the high god’s decision to send a great destruction.

In this case, Zeus’ decision to destroy “the greater part (pollen) of the human race” (or perhaps “the multitudinous human race”) is motivated by his desire to destroy (or remove) the race of mixed human-divine creatures, the demigods or heroes.

These are the great warriors who fight and die on both sides of the Trojan War. A separation between the human world and the divine world is established by Zeus’ plan, preventing the further sexual mingling of gods and humans and bringing to an end the age of heroes. (Ronald Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1987, pp. 16-20).

R. Scodel has argued that the ideas in this fragment are in fact more suitable to a cosmic destruction than to the Trojan War:

“A war, no matter how long and how bitter, does not seem calamitous enough to have been an original form of the myth of destruction: it is, moreover, a normally human and local activity … It therefore seems likely that this aspect of the Trojan War is secondary, and that the theme has actually been borrowed from the Deluge.”

(Ruth Scodel, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction,” HSCP 86, 1982, 42-3).

If it is plausible that this motive for the Trojan War (and there are others, including Zeus’ intent to reduce overpopulation, reminiscent of Enlil’s motive in Atrahasis) (See A.D. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology,” Or 41 (1972), p. 176) is related to Near Eastern traditions, in which Genesis 6:1-4 and the flood stories are mutually implicated.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 30-2.

Otto Rank, Citing Aelian on the Birth of Gilgamesh

“Aelian, who lived about 200 A.D., relates in his Animal Stories the history of a boy who was saved by an eagle:

“Animals have a characteristic fondness for man. An eagle is known to have nourished a child. I shall tell the entire story, in proof of my assertion.

When Senechoros reigned over the Babylonians, the Chaldean fortunetellers foretold that the son of the king’s daughter would take the kingdom from his grandfather; this verdict was a prophecy of the Chaldeans.

The king was afraid of this prophecy, and humorously speaking, he became a second Acrisius for his daughter, over whom he watched with the greatest severity. But his daughter, fate being wiser than the Babylonian, conceived secretly from an inconspicuous man.

For fear of the king, the guardians threw the child down from the acropolis, where the royal daughter was imprisoned. The eagle, with his keen eyes, saw the boy’s fall, and before the child struck the earth, he caught it on his back, bore it into a garden, and set it down with great care.

When the overseer of the place saw the beautiful boy, he was pleased with him and raised him. The boy received the name Gilgamesh, and became the king of Babylonia.

If anyone regards this as a fable, I have nothing to say, although I have investigated the matter to the best of my ability. Also of Achaemenes, the Persian, from whom the nobility of the Persians is derived, I learn that he was the pupil of an eagle.”

Otto Rank, Myth of the Birth of the Hero, 1914, pp. 26-7.

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