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Tag: Beowulf

Eco: Limits and Effability of an IAL

Dante_Domenico_di_Michelino_Duomo_Florence

Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491), La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465, on display in the Florence Cathedral. Photo by Jastrow, who kindly releases this photo into the public domain as the copyright holder, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions. 

“If one considers the efforts made by many IALs in order to translate all the masterpieces of world literature, one wonders whether, by using an IAL originally, it is possible to achieve artistic results.

One is tempted to cite a celebrated (if misunderstood) boutade attributed to Leo Longanesi: “You can’t be a great Bulgarian poet.” The boutade is not a nasty comment about Bulgaria: Longanesi wanted to say that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language spoken only by a few million people in a country which (whatever else it is) has remained for centuries on the margins of history.

I do not think Longanesi meant that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language unknown to the rest of the world.

This seems reductive, for poetic greatness is surely not dependent on diffusion. It seems more likely that Longanesi wanted to say that a language is the sum and consequence of a variety of social factors which, over the course of history, have enriched and strengthened it.

Many of these factors are extra-linguistic: these include provocative contacts with other cultures, new social needs to communicate new experiences, conflicts and renewals within the speaking community.

If that community, however, were a people on the margins of history, a people whose customs and whose knowledge have remained unchanged for centuries; it it were a people whose language has remained unchanged as well, nothing more than the medium of worn-out memories and rituals ossified over centuries; how could we ever expect it to be a vehicle for a great new poet?

But this is not an objection that one could make against an IAL. An IAL is not limited in space, it exists in symbiosis with other languages. The possible risk is rather that the institutional control from above (which seems an essential prerequisite for a successful IAL) will become too tight, and the auxiliary language will lose its capacity to express new everyday experiences.

One could object that even medieval Latin, ossified though it was in the grammatical forms of which Dante spoke, was still capable of producing liturgical poetry, such as the Stabat Mater or the Pange Lingua, not to mention poetry as joyful and irreverent as the Carmina Burana. Nevertheless, it is still true that the Carmina Burana is not the Divine Comedy.

An IAL would certainly lack a historic tradition behind it, with all the intertextual richness that this implies. But when the poets of medieval Sicilian courts wrote in a vernacular, when the Slavic bards sang The Song of Prince Igor and the Anglo-Saxon scop improvised Beowulf, their languages were just as young–yet still, in their own way, capable of absorbing the entire history of the preceding languages.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 335-6.

Comparative Mythology

” … Of special interest in this connection are the resemblances between some of the Indian and Babylonian myths. The writer has drawn upon that “great storehouse” of ancient legends, the voluminous Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and it is shown that there are undoubted links between the Garuda eagle myths and those of the Sumerian Zu bird and the Etana eagle, while similar stories remain attached to the memories of “Sargon of Akkad” and the Indian hero Karna, and of Semiramis (who was Queen Sammu-ramat of Assyria) and Shakuntala.

The Indian god Varuna and the Sumerian Ea are also found to have much in common, and it seems undoubted that the Manu fish and flood myth is a direct Babylonian inheritance, like the Yuga (Ages of the Universe) doctrine and the system of calculation associated with it. It is of interest to note, too, that a portion of the Gilgamesh epic survives in the Ramayana story of the monkey god Hanuman’s search for the lost princess Sita; other relics of similar character suggest that both the Gilgamesh and Hanuman narratives are derived in part from a very ancient myth.

Gilgamesh also figures in Indian mythology as Yama, the first man, who explored the way to the Paradise called “The Land of Ancestors”, and over which he subsequently presided as a god. Other Babylonian myths link with those found in Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, Iceland, and the British Isles and Ireland. The Sargon myth, for instance, resembles closely the myth of Scyld (Sceaf), the patriarch, in the Beowulf epic, and both appear to be variations of the Tammuz-Adonis story. Tammuz also resembles in one of his phases the Celtic hero Diarmid, who was slain by the “green boar” of the Earth Mother, as was Adonis by the boar form of Ares, the Greek war god.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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