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Eco: The English Debate on Character and Traits


Anonymous, Gerardus Johannes Vossius (1577-1649), 1636, inscribed (verso): GERH.JOH. VOSSIUS CANONICUS CANTUARIENSIS PROFESSOR HISTORIARII AMSTELO…AET LX Ao 1636. Held at the Universiteitsmuseum Amsterdam. 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.

“In 1654 John Webster wrote his Academiarum examen, an attack on the academic world, which had allegedly given an insufficient amount of attention to the problem of universal language.

Like many of this English contemporaries, Webster was influenced by Comenius‘ propaganda for a universal language. He foresaw the birth of a “Hieroglyphical, Emblematical, Symbolical, and Cryptographical learning.”

Describing the general utility of algebraic and mathematical signs, he went on to note that “the numerical notes, which we call figures and ciphers, the Planetary Characters, the marks for minerals, and many other things in Chymistry, though they be alwaies the same and vary not, yet are understood by all nations in Europe, and when they are read, every one pronounces them in their own Countrey’s language and dialect.” (pp. 24-5).

Webster was not alone; other authors were taking up and elaborating ideas which had first originated with Bacon. Another writer championing universal characters was Gerhard Vossius in De arte grammatica, 1635 (1.41).

Nevertheless, for the men from whose ranks the Royal Society would later be formed, Webster’s demand for research in hieroglyphic and emblematic characters sounded too much like Father Kircher’s Egyptian linguistics.

In effect, Webster was indeed thinking of a language of nature in opposition to the institutionalized language of men (see Formigari 1970: 37).

Responding to Webster, in another pamphlet, also published in 1654 (Vindiciae academiarum, to which Wilkins himself added an introduction), Seth Ward denounced the mystic propensities of his opponent (see Slaughter 1982: 138ff).

Ward made no objection to the idea of the real character as such, provided that it was constructed upon the algebraic model invented by Viète in the sixteenth century and elaborated by Descartes, where letters of the alphabet stand for mathematical quantities.

It is, however, evident that what Ward thought of was not what Webster had in mind.

Ward argued that only the real character of which he spoke could be termed as “a naturall Language and would afford that which the Cabalists and Rosycrucians have vainely sought for in the Hebrew” (p. 22).

In his introduction Wilkins went even further: Webster, he wrote, was nothing but a credulous fanatic. Even in his Essay, which we will soon discuss, Wilkins could not resist shooting, in his introduction, indignant darts in Webster’s direction without naming him directly.

In spite of all this, however, the projects of the religious mystics did have something in common with those of the “scientists.” In that century the play of reciprocal influence was very complex and many have detected relationships between Lullists or Rosicrucians and the inventors of philosophical languages (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988; Knowlson 1975; and, of course, Yates and Rossi).

Nevertheless, in contrast to the long tradition of the search for the lost language of Adam, the position of Ward, with the aid of Wilkins, was entirely secular.

This is worth emphasizing: there was no longer any question of discovering the lost language of humanity; the new language was to be a new and totally artificial language, founded upon philosophic principles, and capable of realizing, by rational means, that which the various purported holy languages (always dreamt of, never really rediscovered) had sought but failed to find.

In every one of the holy and primordial languages we have so far considered, at least in the way they were presented, there was an excess of content, never completely circumscribable, in respect of expression.

By contrast, the search was now for a scientific or philosophical language, in which, by an unprecedented act of impositio nominum, expression and content would be locked in permanent accord.

Men such as Ward and Wilkins thus aimed at being the new Adam; it was this that turned their projects into a direct challenge to the older tradition of mystic speculation. In the letter to the reader that introduced the Essay, Wilkins writes:

“This design would likewise contribute much to the clearing of some of our modern differences in Religion, by unmasking many wild errors, that shelter themselves under the disguise of affected phrases; which being Philosophically unfolded, and rendered according to the genuine and natural importance of Words, will appear to be inconsistencies and contradictions. (B1r).”

This was nothing less than a declaration of war on tradition, a promise of a different species of therapy that would finally massage out the cramps in language; it is the first manifestation of that skeptical-analytic current of thought, exquisitely British, that, in the twentieth century, would use linguistic analysis as an instrument for the confutation of metaphysics.

Despite the persistence of the Lullian influences, there can be no doubt that, in order to realize their project, British philosophers paid close attention to Aristotle’s system of classification.

The project of Ward is an example. It was not enough simply to invent real characters for the new language; it was necessary also to develop a criterion that would govern the primitive features that would compose these characters:

“All Discourses being resolved in sentences, these into words, words signifying either simple notions or being resolvable into simple notions, it is manifest, that if all the sorts of simple notions be found out, and have Symboles assigned to them, those will be extremely few in respect of the other [ . . . ] the reason of their composition easily known, and the most compounded ones at once will be comprehended [ . . . ] so to deliver the nature of things. (Vindiciae, 21).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 218-21.

Eco: A Priori Philosophical Languages

“The advent of a priori philosophical languages entails a change in paradigm. For the authors we have considered up to now, the search for a perfect language arose from profound tensions of a religious nature; the authors we are about to consider imagined on the contrary a philosophical language which could eliminate the idola responsible for clouding the minds of men and for keeping them afar from the progress of science.

Not by chance, most of the agitation for a new and universal language arose from Britain. There is more to this than a reflection of the English expansion during this period; there was a specifically religious aspect as well.

Although Latin was still the common language of scholars, to the English mind, it was associated with the Catholic church. Besides, it was also too difficult for English speakers. Charles Hooke complained of “the frequent Sarcasmes of the Foreiners, who deride to see such a disability in Englishmen (otherwise Scholars good enough) to speak in Latine” (cf. Salmon 1972: 56).

In the endeavor for a common speech the English had commercial reasons (they thought indeed that a universal language would facilitate the exchange of goods at the Frankfurt fair) as well as educational reasons, since English spelling in the seventeenth century was more irregular than it is today (see Salmon 1972: 51-69).

This was also a period which witnessed the first experiences in teaching language to deaf-mutes, and Dalgarno conducted a number of experiments in this field. Cave Beck (The Universal Character, 1657) wrote that the invention of a universal language would be of advantage to mankind as it would encourage commerce as well as saving the expense of hiring interpreters.

It is true that he added that it would serve to propagate the Gospel as well, but it seems evident that for him evangelization was really just another aspect of European expansion in the new lands of conquest.

He was obsessed, like other linguistic theorists of the epoch, by the accounts of the gestural languages through which the explorers conducted their first exchanges with the inhabitants of those distant shores.

In his account of his exploits in the New World in 1527, Alvaro Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca had complained of the difficulty involved in dealing with native populations which spoke thousands of different dialects, describing how much recourse to the language of gesture had helped the explorers.

Beck’s work contained a frontispiece which showed a European consigning Beck’s project to a Hindu, an African, and to an American Indian who expresses himself with a gesture of his hand.

There was finally the problem of scientific language itself. New discoveries being made in the physical and natural sciences made the problem of finding an adequate nomenclature more urgent, in order to counteract the symbolic and allegorical vagueness of alchemical terms.

Dalgarno confronted this problem in the section entitled “To the reader” of his 1661 Ars signorum: it was necessary to find a language which reduced redundancies, anomalies, equivocations and ambiguities. He specified that such a language could not fail to encourage contact between peoples as well as help to cure philosophy of sophisms and logomachy.

What had long been considered one of the sacred writ’s greatest strengths–its vagueness and symbolic density–was now viewed as a limitation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 209-10.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 4


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Universal horoscope of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. Comprising an olive tree as a sundial, the time in each Jesuit province can be read. From Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, 1646, p. 553, courtesy of Herzog August Bibliothek, 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.

“In the British context, the Celtic hypothesis had naturally quite a different meaning; it meant, for one thing, an opposition to the theory of a Germanic origin.

In the eighteenth century the thesis of Celtic primacy was supported by Rowland Jones, who argued “no other language, not even English, shows itself to be so close to the first universal language, and to its natural precision and correspondence between words and things, in the form and in the way in which we have presented it as universal language.”

The English language is

“the mother of all the western dialects and the Greek, elder sister of all orientals, and in its concrete form, the living language of the Atlantics and of the aborigines of Italy, Gaul and Britain, which furnished the Romans with much of their vocables . . . The Celtic dialects and knowledge derived their origin from the circles of Trismegistus, Hermes, Mercury or Gomer . . . [and] the English language happens more peculiarly to retain its derivation from that purest fountain of languages (“Remarks on the Circles of Gomer,” The Circles of Gomer, 1771: II, 31-2).”

Etymological proofs follow.

Such nationalistic hypotheses are comprehensible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the larger European states began to take form, posing the problem of which of them was to be supreme on the continent.

In this period, spirited claims to originality and superiority arise no longer from the visionary quest for universal peace, but–whether their authors realized this or not–from concrete reasons of state.

In whatever case, and whatever their nationalist motivations, as a result of what Hegel calls the astuteness of reason, the furious search for etymologies, which was supposed to prove the common descent of every living language, eventually ended by creating the conditions in which serious work in comparative linguistics might become more profitable.

As this work expanded, the phantom of an original mother tongue receded more and more into the background, remaining, at most, a mere regulative hypothesis. To compensate for the loss, there arose a new and pressing need to establish a typology of fundamental linguistic stocks.

Thus, in this radically altered perspective, the search for the original mother tongue transformed itself into a general search for the origins of a given language.

The need to document the existence of the primeval language had resulted in theoretical advances such as the identification and delimitation of important linguistic families (Semitic and Germanic), the elaboration of a model of linguistic descent with the inheritance of common linguistic traits, and, finally, the emergence of an embryonic comparative method typified in some synoptic dictionaries. (Simone 1990: 331).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 102-3.

Sumerian Archeology

“Arriving in 1878, Rassam went to work with a will. Over a period of four years he opened excavations not only at Nineveh but at sites ranging from eastern Anatolia to southern Iraq, leaving the day-to-day excavation to his assistants and rarely visiting the sites.

Bronze band from the Palace Gates of Shalmaneser III in the British Museum.  The scenes show in the upper tier the king receiving tribute from Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon and in the lower tier the conquest of the town of Hazuzu in Syria.

Bronze band from the Palace Gates of Shalmaneser III in the British Museum.
The scenes show in the upper tier the king receiving tribute from Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon and in the lower tier the conquest of the town of Hazuzu in Syria.

His discoveries included panels of embossed bronze sheeting that had originally covered the great gates erected by Shalmaneser III at Balawat near Nimrud, and around 50,000 cuneiform cylinders and tablets in the Shamash temple at Sippar near Babylon. But times had changed since the cavalier days of the 1850s.

Relief image on the Tablet of Shamash, British Library room 55. Found in Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah), in Ancient Babylonia; it dates from the 9th century BC and shows the sun god Shamash on the throne, in front of the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC) between two interceding deities. The text tells how the king made a new cultic statue for the god and gave privileges to his temple.

Relief image on the Tablet of Shamash, British Library room 55. Found in Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah), in Ancient Babylonia; it dates from the 9th century BC and shows the sun god Shamash on the throne, in front of the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC) between two interceding deities. The text tells how the king made a new cultic statue for the god and gave privileges to his temple.

Considerable advances had been made in excavation techniques and recording methods. It was no longer enough to plunder sites for antiquities; buildings and other contexts had to be carefully investigated and recorded, and objects had to be recovered with care, without allowing them to “crumble to dust.”

Rassam was seriously criticized by other scholars in the field, and his departure largely saw the end of crude excavation methods in Mesopotamia—until the wanton destruction by bandits with bulldozers following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which threatens utterly to obliterate a huge number of sites.

As a native of the region, Rassam was very aware of the threat to the ancient cities from treasure hunters and brick robbers. When he left for Britain, therefore, he hired guardians to prevent future plundering in the important sites, including Kuyunjik and Sippar. Over the following decade, however, antiquities, and particularly tablets, that seemed likely to have come from these sites appeared in some numbers on the international market. The British Museum sent out Wallis Budge to investigate.

Budge arrived in Baghdad in 1888, armed with a permit to excavate Kuyunjik as a cover for his detective work. Within days, he purchased many tablets from local dealers, most of whom he found to be the very people appointed to guard the ancient sites, and skillfully foiled a plan to prevent him from exporting them.

Later in the year he reopened excavations at Kuyunjik, recovering some 200 tablets from the spoil of previous excavations. His luck turned the following year, however, when he excavated at ed-Der, part of ancient Sippar. The procedures involved in obtaining an excavation permit were long-winded and public: By the time Budge could start work, ed-Der had been thoroughly “examined” by the Vali of Baghdad, with the result that 10,000 tablets had found their way into the hands of dealers.

A similar fate befell the Frenchman Ernest de Sarzec, who excavated Telloh (ancient Girsu) in 1877–1881 and 1888–1900. This was the first serious investigation of a site belonging to Mesopotamia’s original Sumerian civilization, and the objects found here created great excitement in Europe, where they were displayed in the 1880s Paris exhibition.

     Stele of Vultures detail 01-transparent.png One fragment of the victory stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, Sumerian archaic dynasties.

Stele of Vultures detail 01-transparent.png
One fragment of the victory stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, Sumerian archaic dynasties.

The powerful and austere art style typified by the diorite statues strongly impressed European art critics, and a sculptured slab, dubbed the “Stele of the Vultures,” sparked great interest, because it showed for the first time in history an organized army going to war.

Telloh also yielded numerous tablets, some relating to border disputes with neighboring Umma, the fascinating first contemporary account of warfare—but most of them were not recovered by de Sarzec. During de Sarzec’s frequent absences, local people, often sponsored by Baghdad dealers, abstracted around 40,000 tablets from one of the mounds. These provided the first substantial body of works in the Sumerian language, whose very existence had been doubted in earlier decades.

The first U.S. expedition to work in Mesopotamia experienced an even more dramatic mixture of success and failure. Sponsored by Pennsylvania University, a team headed by John Peters arrived in 1887 to excavate Nippur, the holy city of ancient Sumer.

Hopelessly out of their depth in the complexities of dealing with the local villagers and authorities, their first season ended in an all-out attack in which their camp was set on fire, half their horses perished, and they lost $1,000 in gold—although they saved their antiquities.

Work resumed in 1890, under more auspicious circumstances, and continued intermittently until 1900. Among the 30,000 tablets recovered from Nippur were around 2,100 whose subject matter was literature, in contrast to the ubiquitous economic texts: These opened a window onto the fascinating world of the Sumerians and to this day form the bulk of known Sumerian literature.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 30-2.

Semiramis was Legendary, Mythical, and Real

“It was through the researches of Professor Lehmann-Haupt of Berlin that the true personal significance of Semiramis was recovered. Until the year 1910 the legends of Diodorus and others were held to have been completely disproved and Semiramis was regarded as a purely mythical figure. Old Bryant in his Antient Mythology, published at the beginning of last century, proves the legendary status of Semiramis to his own satisfaction.

He says :

“It must be confessed that the generality of historians have represented Semiramis as a woman, and they describe her as a great princess who reigned in Babylon; but there are writers who from their situation had opportunities of better intelligence, and by those she is mentioned as a deity. The Syrians, says Athenagoras, worshipped Semiramis, and adds that she was esteemed the daughter of Dercatus and the same as the Suria Dea. . .

Semiramis was said to have been born at Ascalon because Atargatus was there worshipped under the name of Dagon, and the same memorials were preserved there as at Hierapolis and Babylon. These memorials related to a history of which the dove was the principal type. It was upon the same account that she was said to have been changed to a dove because they found her always depicted and worshipped under that form. . . .

From the above I think it is plain that Semiramis was an emblem and that the name was a compound of Sama-ramas, or ramis, and it signified ‘the divine token,’ a type of providence, and as a military ensign, (for as such it was used) it may with some latitude be interpreted ‘the standard of the most High.’ It consisted of the figure of a dove, which was probably encircled with the iris, as those two emblems were often represented together. All who went under that standard, or who paid any deference to that emblem, were styled Semarim or Samorim. It was a title conferred upon all who had this device for their national insigne.”

There is much more of this sort of thing, typical of the mythic science of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is easy to see how myth became busy with the name of the Assyrian Queen, whose exploits undoubtedly aroused the enthusiasm not only of the Assyrians themselves but of the peoples surrounding them. Just as any great work in ancient Britain was ascribed to the agency of Merlin or Arthur, so such monuments as could not otherwise be accounted for were attributed to Semiramis. Western Asia is monumentally eloquent of her name, and even the Behistun inscriptions of Darius have been placed to her credit. Herodotus states that one of the gates of Babylon was called after her, and that she raised the artificial banks that confined the river Euphrates. Her fame lasted until well into the Middle Ages’, and the Armenians called the district round Lake Van, Shamiramagerd.

There is very little doubt that her fame became mingled with that of the goddess Ishtar: she possesses the same Venus-like attributes, the dove is her emblem, and her story became so inextricably intertwined with that of the Babylonian goddess that she ultimately became a variant of her. The story of Semiramis is a triumphant vindication of the manner in which by certain mythical processes a human being can attain the rank of a god or goddess, for Semiramis was originally very real indeed. A column discovered in 1909 describes her as “a woman of the palace of Samsi-rammon, King of the World, King of Assyria, King of the Four Quarters of the World.”

This dedication indicates that Semiramis, or, to give her her Assyrian title, Sammuramat, evidently possessed an immense influence over her husband, Samsi-rammon, and that perhaps as queen-mother that influence lasted for more than one reign, so that the legend that after a regency of forty-two years she delivered up the kingdom to her son, Ninyas, may have some foundation in fact. She seems to have made war against the Medes and Chaldeans. The story that on relinquishing her power she turned into a dove and disappeared may mean that her name, Sammuramat, was easily connected with the Assyrian summat, the word for “dove;” and for a person of her subsequent legendary fame the mythical connexion with Ishtar is easily accounted for.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 27-9.

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