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Eco: The “Political” Possibilities of an IAL


Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), Histoire des Oracles, La Haye: Gosse et Néalme, 1728. 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. 

“Up to now, vehicular languages have been imposed by tradition (Latin as the language of politics, learning and the church in the Middle Ages), by political and economical hegemony (English after World War II), or by other imponderable reasons (Swahili, a natural language spoken on the coast of east Africa, gradually and spontaneously penetrated the interior and, in the wake of commercial and, later, colonial contacts, was simplified and standardized, becoming the common language for a vast African area).

Would it be possible for some international body (the UN or the European Parliament) to impose a particular IAL as a lingua franca (or, perhaps, sanction the actual diffusion of one)? It would be a totally unprecedented historical event.

No one could deny, however, that today many things have changed: that continuous and curious exchanges among different peoples–not just at the higher social levels, but at the level of mass tourism–are phenomena that did not exist in previous eras.

The mass media have proved to be capable of spreading comparatively homogeneous patterns of behavior throughout the entire globe–and in fact, in the international acceptance of English as a common language, the mass media have played no small part.

Thus, were a political decision to be accompanied by a media campaign, the chances of success for an IAL would be greatly improved.

Today, Albanians and Tunisians have learned Italian only because they can receive Italian TV. All the more reason, it seems, to get people acquainted with an IAL, provided it would be regularly used by many television programs, by international assemblies, by the pope for his addresses, by the instruction booklets for electronic gadgets, by the control towers in the airports.

If no political initiative on this matter has emerged up till now, if, indeed, it seems difficult to bring about, this does not mean that a political initiative of this sort will never be made in the future.

During the last four centuries we have witnessed in Europe a process of national state formation, which required (together with a customs policy, the constitution of regular armies, and the vigorous imposition of symbols of identity) the imposition of single national languages.

Schools, academies and the press have been encouraged to standardize and spread knowledge of these languages. Speakers of marginal languages suffered neglect, or, in various political circumstances, even direct persecution, in order to ensure national homogeneity.

Today, however, the trend has reversed itself: politically, customs barriers are coming down, national armies are giving way to international peace-keeping forces, and national borders have become “welcome to” signs on the motorway.

In the last decades, European policy towards minority languages has changed as well. Indeed, in the last few years, a much more dramatic change has taken place, of which the crumbling of the Soviet empire is the most potent manifestation: linguistic fragmentation is no longer felt as an unfortunate accident but rather as a sign of national identity and as  a political right–at the cost even of civil wars.

For two centuries, America was an international melting pot with one common language–WASP English: today, in states like California, Spanish has begun to claim an equal right; New York City is not far behind.

The process is probably by now unstoppable. If the growth in European unity now proceeds in step with linguistic fragmentation, the only possible solution lies in the full adoption of a vehicular language for Europe.

Among all the objections, one still remains valid: it was originally formulated by Fontenelle and echoed by d’Alembert in his introduction to the Encyclopédie: governments are naturally egotistical; they enact laws for their own benefit, but never for the benefit of all humanity.

Even if we were all to agree on the necessity of an IAL, it is hard to imagine the international bodies, which are still striving to arrive at some agreement over the means to save our planet from an ecological catastrophe, being capable of imposing a painless remedy for the open wound of Babel.

Yet in this century we have become used to a constantly accelerating pace of events, and this should make would-be prophets pause. National pride is a two-edged sword; faced with the prospect that in a future European union the language of a single national might prevail, those states with scant prospects of imposing their own language and which are afraid of the predominance of another one (and thus all states except one) might band together to support the adoption of an IAL.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 332-5.

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: Before and After Europe, 4


Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631) & Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), The Tower of Babel. Held in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp under accession number 947, photographed by Paul Hermans and published on Wikimedia. 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.  

“Why is it, however, that a document asserting the rights and qualities of one language in contrast to others appears at this particular moment? A quick look at the iconographic history increases our curiosity.

There are no known representations of the Tower of Babel before the Cotton Bible (fifth or sixth century CE). It next appears in a manuscript perhaps from the end of the tenth century, and then on a relief from the cathedral of Salerno from the eleventh century.

After this, however, there is a flood of towers (Minkowski 1983). It is a flood, moreover, that has its counterpart in a vast deluge of theoretical speculation originating in precisely this period as well.

It seems, therefore, that it was only at this point that the story of the confusion of tongues came to be perceived not merely as an example of how divine justice humbled human pride, but as an account of a historical (or metahistorical) event.

It was now the story of how a real wound had been inflicted on humanity, a wound that might, in some way, be healed once more.

This age, characterized as “dark,” seemed to witness a reoccurrence of the catastrophe of Babel: hairy barbarians, peasants, artisans, these first Europeans, unlettered and unversed in official culture, spoke a multitude of vulgar tongues of which official culture was apparently unaware.

It was the age that saw the birth of the languages which we speak today, whose documentary traces–in the Serments de Strasbourg (842) or the Carta Capuana (960)–inevitably appear only later.

Facing such texts as Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fine ke ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti, or Pro Deo amur et pro Christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, the European culture becomes aware of the confusio linguarum.

Yet before this confusion there was no European culture, and, hence, no Europe. What is Europe, anyway? It is a continent, barely distinguishable from Asia, existing, before people had invented a name for it, from the time that the unstoppable power of continental drift tore it off from the original Pangea.

In the sense that we normally mean it, however, Europe was an entity that had to wait for the fall of the Roman Empire and the birth of the Romano-Germanic kingdoms before it could be born. Perhaps even this was not enough, nor even the attempt at unification under the Carolingians.

How are we going to establish the date when the history of Europe begins? The dates of great political events and battles will not do; the dates of linguistic events must serve in their stead.

In front of the massive unity of the Roman Empire (which took in parts of Africa and Asia), Europe first appears as a Babel of new languages. Only afterwards was it a mosaic of nations.

Europe was thus born from its vulgar tongues. European critical culture begins with the reaction, often alarmed, to the eruption of these tongues. Europe was forced at the very moment of its birth to confront the drama of linguistic fragmentation, and European culture arose as a reflection on the destiny of a multilingual civilization.

Its prospects seemed troubled; a remedy for linguistic confusion needed to be sought. Some looked backwards, trying to rediscover the language spoken by Adam. Others looked ahead, aiming to fabricate a rational language possessing the perfections of the lost speech of Eden.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 17-9.

On the Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues

“Many attempts have been made to attach the legend of the confusion of tongues to certain ruined towers in Babylonia, especially to that of E-Sagila, the great temple of Merodach, and some remarks upon this most interesting tale may not be out of place at this point. The myth is not found in Babylonia itself, and in its best form may be discovered in Scripture. In the Bible story we are told that every region was of one tongue and mode of speech.

As men journeyed westward from their original home in the East, they encountered a plain in the land of Shinar where they settled. In this region they commenced building operations, constructed a city, and laid the foundations of a tower, the summit of which they hoped would reach to heaven itself.

It would appear that this edifice was constructed with the object of serving as a great landmark to the people so that they should not be scattered over the face of the earth, and the Lord came down to view the city and the tower, and he considered that as they were all of one language this gave them undue power, and that what they imagined to themselves under such conditions they would be able to achieve.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence over the face of every region, and the building of the tower ceased and the name of it was called ‘Babel,’ because at that place the single language of the people was confounded.

Of course it is merely the native name of Babylon, which translated means ‘gate of the god,’ and has no such etymology as the Scriptures pretend,—the Hebrews confusing their verb balal, ‘to confuse or confound,’ with the word babel.

The story was no doubt suggested by one of the temple towers of Babylon. Over and over again we find in connexion with the Jewish religion that anything which savours of presumption or unnatural aspiration is strongly condemned. The ambitious effort of the Tower of Babel would thus seem abhorrent to the Hebrews of old.

The strange thing is that these ancient towers or zikkurats, as the Babylonians called them, were intended to serve as a link between heaven and earth, just as does the minaret of the Mahommedan mosque.

The legend of the confusion of tongues is to be traced in other folk-lores than that of Babylon. It is found in Central America, where the story runs that Xelhua, one of the seven giants rescued from the deluge, built the great pyramid of Cholula in order to besiege heaven.

The structure was, however, destroyed by the gods, who cast down fire upon it and confounded the language of its builders. Livingstone found some such myth among the African tribes around Lake Ngami, and certain Australian and Mongolian peoples possess a similar tradition.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 47-9.

Echo of Old Customs Across Time, Geography and Cultures

“The ‘Wasting of the land’ must be held to have been antecedent to that failure, and the Gawain versions in which we find this condition fulfilled are, therefore, prior in origin to the Perceval, in which the ‘Wasting’ is brought about by the action of the hero; in some versions, indeed, has altogether disappeared from the story.

Thus the position assigned in the versions to this feature of the Waste Land becomes one of capital importance as a critical factor. This is a point which has hitherto escaped the attention of scholars; the misfortunes of the land have been treated rather as an accident, than as an essential, of the Grail story, entirely subordinate in interest to the dramatis personae of the tale, or the objects, Lance and Grail, round which the action revolves.

As a matter of fact I believe that the ‘Waste Land’ is really the very heart of our problem; a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most bewildering mazes of the fully developed tale.

Since the above pages were written Dr Frazer has notified the discovery of a second African parallel, equally complete, and striking. In Folk-Lore (Vol. XXVI.) he prints, under the title A Priest-King in Nigeria, a communication received from Mr P. A. Talbot, District Commissioner in S. Nigeria.

The writer states that the dominant Ju-Ju of Elele, a town in the N.W. of the Degema district, is a Priest-King, elected for a term of seven years. “The whole prosperity of the town, especially the fruitfulness of farm, byre, and marriage-bed, was linked with his life.

Should he fall sick it entailed famine and grave disaster upon the inhabitants.” So soon as a successor is appointed the former holder of the dignity is reported to ‘die for himself.’ Previous to the introduction of ordered government it is admitted that at any time during his seven years’ term of office the Priest might be put to death by any man sufficiently strong and resourceful, consequently it is only on the rarest occasions (in fact only one such is recorded) that the Ju-Ju ventures to leave his compound.

At the same time the riches derived from the offerings of the people are so considerable that there is never a lack of candidates for the office.

From this and the evidence cited above it would appear that the institution was widely spread in Africa, and at the same time it affords a striking proof in support of the essential soundness of Dr Frazer’s interpretation of the Priest of Nemi, an interpretation which has been violently attacked in certain quarters, very largely on the ground that no one would be found willing to accept an office involving such direct danger to life. The above evidence shows clearly that not only does such an office exist, but that it is by no means an unpopular post.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920. Pp. 59-61.

Budge’s Version of the Legend of Ra and Isis

At this time Isis lived in the form of a woman who possessed the knowledge of spells and incantations, that is to say, she was regarded much in the same way as modern African peoples regard their “medicine-women,” or “witch-women.”

She had used her spells on men, and was tired of exercising her powers on them, and she craved the opportunity of making herself mistress of gods and spirits as well as of men. She meditated how she could make herself mistress both of heaven and earth, and finally she decided that she could only obtain the power she wanted if she possessed the knowledge of the secret name of Ra, in which his very existence was bound up.

Ra guarded this name most jealously, for he knew that if he revealed it to any being he would henceforth be at that being’s mercy. Isis saw that it was impossible to make Ra declare his name to her by ordinary methods, and she therefore thought out the following plan.

It was well known in Egypt and the Sudan at a very early period that if a magician obtained some portion of a person’s body, e.g., a hair, a paring of a nail, a fragment of skin, or a portion of some efflux from the body, spells could be used upon them which would have the effect of causing grievous harm to that person.

Isis noted that Ra had become old and feeble, and that as he went about he dribbled at the mouth, and that his saliva fell upon the ground. Watching her opportunity she caught some of the saliva and mixing it with dust, she moulded it into the form of a large serpent, with poison-fangs, and having uttered her spells over it, she left the serpent lying on the path, by which Ra travelled day by day as he went about inspecting Egypt, so that it might strike at him as he passed along.

[ … ]

Soon after Isis had placed the serpent on the Path, Ra passed by, and the reptile bit him, thus injecting poison into his body. Its effect was terrible, and Ra cried out in agony. His jaws chattered, his lips trembled, and he became speechless for a time; never before had he suffered such pain. The gods hearing his cry rushed to him, and when he could speak he told them that he had been bitten by a deadly serpent. In spite of all the words of power which were known to him, and his secret name which had been hidden in his body at his birth, a serpent had bitten him, and he was being consumed with a fiery pain.

He then commanded that all the gods who had any knowledge of magical spells should come to him, and when they came, Isis, the great lady of spells, the destroyer of diseases, and the revivifier of the dead, came with them. Turning to Ra she said, “What hath happened, O divine Father?” and in answer the god told her that a serpent had bitten him, that he was hotter than fire and colder than water, that his limbs quaked, and that he was losing the power of sight.

Then Isis said to him with guile, “Divine Father, tell me thy name, for he who uttereth his own name shall live.” Thereupon Ra proceeded to enumerate the various things that he had done, and to describe his creative acts, and ended his speech to Isis by saying, that he was Khepera in the morning, Ra at noon, and Temu in the evening.

Apparently he thought that the naming of these three great names would satisfy Isis, and that she would immediately pronounce a word of power and stop the pain in his body, which, during his speech, had become more acute.

Isis, however, was not deceived, and she knew well that Ra had not declared to her his hidden name; this she told him, and she begged him once again to tell her his name. For a time the god refused to utter the name, but as the pain in his body became more violent, and the poison passed through his veins like fire, he said, “Isis shall search in me, and my name shall pass from my body into hers.”

At that moment Ra removed himself from the sight of the gods in his Boat, and the Throne in the Boat of Millions of Years had no occupant. The great name of Ra was, it seems, hidden in his heart, and Isis, having some doubt as to whether Ra would keep his word or not, agreed with Horus that Ra must be made to take an oath to part with his two Eyes, that is, the Sun and the Moon.

At length Ra allowed his heart to be taken from his body, and his great and secret name, whereby he lived, passed into the possession of Isis. Ra thus became to all intents and purposes a dead god.

Then Isis, strong in the power of her spells, said: “Flow, poison, come out of Ra. Eye of Horus, come out of Ra, and shine outside his mouth. It is I, Isis, who work, and I have made the poison to fall on the ground. Verily the name of the great god is taken from him, Ra shall live and the poison shall die; if the poison live Ra shall die.”

This was the infallible spell which was to be used in cases of poisoning, for it rendered the bite or sting of every venomous reptile harmless. It drove the poison out of Ra, and since it was composed by Isis after she obtained the knowledge of his secret name it was irresistible.

E.A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian Texts, edited with Translations, London, 1912. (No page numbers are given in my edition).

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