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Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages, 2

Giovan Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831

Giovanni Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831. Original held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a glorious eBook format posted by the Hathitrust and GoogleBooks among others. 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. 

Vismes was not the only one to fall foul of this seemingly elementary snare. In 1831 Father Giovan Giuseppe Matraja published his Genigrafia italiana, which is nothing other than a polygraphy with five (Italian) dictionaries, one for nouns, one for verbs, one for adjectives, one for interjections and one for adverbs.

Since the five dictionaries account for only 15,000 terms, Matraja adds another dictionary that lists 6,000 synonyms. His method managed to be both haphazard and laborious: Matraja divided his terms into a series of numbered classes each containing 26 terms, each marked by an alphabetical letter: thus A1 means “hatchet,” A2 means “hermit,” A1000 means “encrustation,” A360 means “sand-digger,” etc.

Even though he had served as a missionary in South America, Matraja was still convinced that all cultures used the same system of notions. He believed that western languages (all of which he seemed to imagine were derived from Latin grammar) might perfectly well serve as the basis for another language, because, by a special natural gift, all peoples used the same syntactic structures when speaking–especially American Indians.

In fact, he included a genigraphical translation of the Lord’s Prayer comparing it with versions in twelve other languages including Nahuatl, Chilean and Quechua.

In 1827 François Soudre invented the Solresol (Langue musicale universelle, 1866). Soudre was also persuaded that the seven notes of the musical scale composed an alphabet comprehensible by all the peoples of the world, because the notes are written in the same way in all languages, and could be sung, recorded on staves, represented with special stenographic signs, figured in Arabic numerals, shown with the seven colors of the spectrum, and even indicated by the touch of the fingers of the right and left hands–thus making their representation comprehensible even for the deaf, dumb and blind.

It was not necessary that these notes be based on a logical classification of ideas. A single note expresses terms such as “yes” (musical si, or B) and “no” (do, or C); two notes express pronouns (“mine” = redo, “yours” = remi); three notes express everyday words like “time” (doredo) or “day” (doremi).

The initial notes refer to an encyclopedic class. Yet Soudre also wished to express opposites by musical inversion (a nice anticipation of a twelve-tone music procedure): thus, if the idea of “God” was naturally expressed by the major chord built upon the tonic, domisol, the idea of “Satan” would have to be the inversion, solmido.

Of course, this practice makes nonsense of the rule that the first letter in a three-note term refers to an encyclopedic class: the initial do refers to the physical and moral qualities, but the initial sol refers back to arts and sciences (and to associate them with Satan would be an excess of bigotry).

Besides the obvious difficulties inherent in any a priori language, the musical language of Soudre added the additional hurdle of requiring a good ear. We seem in some way to be returning to the seventeenth century myth of the language of birds, this time with less glossolalic grace, however, and a good deal more pure classificatory pedantry.

Couturat and Leau (1903: 37) awarded to the Solresol the encomium of being “the most artificial and most impracticable of all the a priori languages.” Even its number system is inaccessible; it is based on a hexadecimal system which, despite its claims to universality, still manages to indulge in the French quirk of eliminating names for 70 and 90.

Yet Soudre labored for forty-five years to perfect his system, obtaining in the meantime testimonials from the Institut de France, from musicians such as Cherubini, from Victor Hugo, Lamartine and Alexander von Humboldt; he was received by Napoleon III; he was awarded 10,000 francs at the Exposition Universale in Paris in 1855 and the gold medal at the London Exposition of 1862.

Let us neglect for the sake of brevity the Système de langue universelle of Grosselin (1836), the Langue universelle et analytique of Vidal (1844), the Cours complet de langue universelle by Letellier (1832-55), the Blaia Zimandal of Meriggi (1884), the projects of so distinguished a philosopher as Renouvier (1885), the Lingualumina of Dyer (1875), the Langue internationale étymologique of Reimann (1877), the Langue naturelle of Maldant (1887), the Spokil of Dr. Nicolas (1900), the Zahlensprache of Hilbe (1901), the Völkerverkehrsprache of Dietrich (1902), and the Perio of Talundberg (1904).

We will content ourselves with a brief account of the Projet d’une langue universelle of Sotos Ochando (1855). Its theoretical foundations are comparatively well reasoned and motivated; its logical structure could not be of a greater simplicity and regularity; the project proposes–as usual–to establish a perfect correspondence between the order of things signified and the alphabetical order of the words that express them.

Unfortunately–here we go again–the arrangement is empirical: A refers to inorganic material things, B to the liberal arts, C to the mechanical arts, D to political society, E to living bodies, and so forth.

With the addition of the morphological rules, one generates, to use the mineral kingdom as an example, the words Ababa for oxygen, Ababe for hydrogen, Ababi for nitrogen, Ababo for sulphur.

If we consider that the numbers from one to ten are siba, sibe, sibi, sibo, sibu, sibra, sibre, sibri, sibro, and sibru (pity the poor school children having to memorize their multiplication tables), it is evident that words with analogous meanings are all going to sound the same.

This makes the discrimination of concepts almost impossible, even if the formation of names follows a criterion similar to that of chemistry, and the letters stand for the components of the concept.

The author may claim that, using his system, anyone can learn over six million words in less than an hour; yet as Couturat and Leau remark (1903: 69), learning a system that can generate six million words in an hour is not the same as memorizing, recognizing, six million meanings.

The list could be continued, yet towards the end of the nineteenth century, news of the invention of a priori languages was becoming less a matter for scientific communications and more one for reports on eccentric fellows–from Les fous littéraires by Brunet in 1880 to Les fous littéraires by Blavier in 1982.

By now, the invention of a priori languages, other than being the special province of visionaries of all lands, had become a game (see Bausani 1970 and his language Markuska) or a literary exercise (see Yaguello 1984 and Giovannoli 1990 for the imaginary languages of science fiction).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 305-8.

Eco: Search for the Perfect Language, 2.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569 CE), The Tower of Babel. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. One is kept in the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the second, this one, is held in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, while the disposition of the third version, a miniature on ivory, is unknown. Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569 CE), The Tower of Babel. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. One is kept in the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the second, this one, is held in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, while the disposition of the third version, a miniature on ivory, is unknown. Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.

“Beyond this, I have decided to consider only projects concerning true and proper languages. This means that, with a bitter sigh of relief, I have decided to consider only the following:

  1. the rediscovery of languages postulated as original or as mystically perfect — such as Hebrew, Egyptian or Chinese;
  2. the reconstruction of languages postulated, either fancifully or not, as original or mother tongues, including the laboratory model of Indo-European;
  3. languages constructed artificially for one of three ends: (a) perfection in terms of either function or structure, such as the a priori philosophical languages of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were designed to express ideas perfectly and to discover thereby new connections between the diverse aspects of reality; (b) perfection in terms of universality, such as the a posteriori international languages of the nineteenth century; (c) perfection in terms of practicality, if only presumed, such as the so-called polygraphies;
  4. more or less magic languages, whether they be discovered or fabricated, whose perfection is extolled on account of either their mystic affability or their initiative secrecy.

By contrast, I can give no more than bare notice to any of the following:

  1. oneiric languages, not expressly invented, such as the languages of the insane, or of trance states, or of mystic revelations (like the Unknown Language of Saint Hildegarde of Bingen), as well as all the cases of glossolalia or xenoglossia (cf. Samara 1972); Goodman 1972);
  2. fictitious languages, either in narrative (from Rabelais to Foigny up to Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ and Tolkien), or in poetry (like Chlebnikov’s transmental speech). In the majority of these cases, we are presented with only short stretches of speech, supposedly representing an actual language, for which, however, there is provided neither a lexicon nor a syntax (cf. Pons 1930, 1931, 1932, 1979; Yaguello 1984).
  3. bricolage languages, that is languages that are created spontaneously by the encounter of two linguistically distinct cultures. Typical examples are the pidgins arising in areas of colonialism. As cross-national as they may be, they are not universal. They are, rather, partial and imperfect because they have a limited lexicon and an oversimplified syntax; they are used to facilitate simple activities such as barter, but are unable to express higher types of experience (cf. Waldman 1977);
  4. natural tongues or jargons serving as vehicular languages in multilingual zones. An example of such a language of exchange might be Swahili, the lingua franca of large areas of East Africa. Modern English would be another example. French was formerly an example, if one considers that, during the Convention, the Abbé Gregoire revealed that, out of a population of twenty-six million, fifteen million French men and women spoke a language other than that of Paris (Calvet 1981: 110);
  5. formal languages whose use is limited to special scientific purposes, such as the languages of chemistry, algebra and logic (these will be considered only as they derive from projects defined by category 3(a) above;
  6. the immense and delectable category of the so-called fous du language (see, for example, Blavier 1982; Yaguello 1984). Admittedly, in such cases it is not always easy to distinguish between technical insanity and mild glottomania, and many of my own characters may sometimes show some aspects of lunacy. Still, it is possible to make a distinction. We will not consider belated glottomaniacs. Nevertheless, I have not always been able to keep down my taste for whimsicality, especially when (even though the belatedness was hardly justifiable) those attempts had, anyway, a certain, traceable, historic influence, or, at least, they documented the longevity of a dream.

Similarly, I do not claim here to examine the whole of the researches on a universal grammar (except in cases in which they clearly intersect with my topic), because they deserve a separate chapter of the history of linguistics.

Likewise, this is not (except, again, where the subject intersects with that of the perfect language) a book about the secular, or rather, millennial, question of the origins of language.

There are infinite discussions on the origins of human language which do not consider the possibility or the opportunity of returning back to the language of our origins, either because they assume that it had definitely disappeared, or because they consider it as radically imperfect.

Finally, were it up to me to decide under which heading this book should be filed in a library catalogue (an issue which, for Leibniz, was bound up with the problem of a perfect language), I would pick neither ‘linguistics’ nor ‘semiotics’ (even though the book employs semiotics as its instrument, and demands a certain degree of semiotic interest from its reader).

I would rather pick ‘history of ideas.’ This explains why I make no attempt to construct a rigorous semiotic typology for the various types of a priori and a posteriori languages: this would require a detailed examination of each and every project, a job for students of what is now called ‘general inter linguistics.’

The present book aims instead at delineating, with large brushstrokes and selected examples, the principle episodes of the story of a dream that has run now for almost two thousand years.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 2-5.

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