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Eco: The Mixed Systems

JMSchleyer1888

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.

Eco: New Prospects for the Monogenetic Hypothesis

kircher_021

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.

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.

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