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Tag: confusio linguarum

Eco: Conclusion


Gustav Doré (1832-1883), The Confusion of Tongues, 1865-68, currently held privately. 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. 

Plures linguas scire gloriosum esset, patet exemplo Catonis, Mithridates, Apostolorum.”

Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima

“This story is a gesture of propaganda, in so far as it provided a particular explanation of the origin and variety of languages, by presenting it only as a punishment and a curse [ . . . ] Since the variety of tongues renders a universal communication among men, to say the least, difficult, that was certainly a punishment.

However, it also meant an improvement of the original creative powers of Adam, a proliferation of that force which allowed the production of names by virtue of a divine inspiration.”

J. Trabant, Apeliotes, oder der Sinn der Sprache

“Citizens of a multiform Earth, Europeans cannot but listen to the polyphonic cry of human languages. To pay attention to the others who speak their own language is the first step in order to establish a solidarity more concrete than many propaganda discourses.”

Claude Hagège, Le souffle de la langue

“Each language constitutes a certain model of the universe, a semiotic system of understanding the world, and if we have 4,000 different ways to describe the world, this makes us rich. We should be concerned about preserving languages just as we are about ecology.”

V.V. Ivanov, Reconstructing the Past

“I said at the beginning that it was the account in Genesis 11, not Genesis 10, that had prevailed in the collective imagination and, more specifically, in the minds of those who pondered over the plurality of languages.

Despite this, as Demonet has shown (1992), already by the time of the Renaissance, a reconsideration of Genesis 10 was under way, provoking, as we saw, a rethinking of the place of Hebrew as the unchanging language, immutable from the time of Babel.

We can take it that, by then, the multiplicity of tongues was probably accepted as a positive fact both in Hebrew culture and in Christian Kabbalistic circles (Jacquemier 1992). Still, we have to wait until the eighteenth century before the rethinking of Genesis 10 provokes a revaluation of the legend of Babel itself.

In the same years that witnessed the appearance of the first volumes of the Encyclopédie, the abbé Pluche noted in his La méchanique des langues et l’art de les einsegner (1751) that, already by the time of Noah, the first differentiation, if not in the lexicon at least in inflections, between one family of languages and another had occurred.

This historical observation led Pluche on to reflect that the multiplication of languages (no longer, we note, the confusion of languages) was more than a mere natural event: it was socially providential. Naturally, Pluche imagined, people were at first troubled to discover that tribes and families no longer understood each other so easily. In the end, however,

“those who spoke a mutually intelligible language formed a single body and went to live together in the same corner of the world. Thus it was the diversity of languages which provided each country with its own inhabitants and kept them there. It should be noted that the profits of this miraculous and extraordinary mutation have extended to all successive epochs.

From this point on, the more people have mixed, the more they have produced mixtures and novelties in their languages; and the more these languages have multiplied, the harder it becomes to change countries. In this way, the confusion of tongues has fortified that sentiment of attachment upon which love of country is based; the confusion has made men more sedentary.” (pp. 17-8).

This is more than the celebration of the particular “genius” of each single language: the very sense of the myth of Babel has been turned upside down. The natural differentiation of languages has become a positive phenomenon underlying the allocation of peoples to their respective territories, the birth of nations, and the emergence of the sense of national identity.

It is a reversal of meaning that reflects the patriotic pride of an eighteenth century French author: the confusio linguarum was the historically necessary point of departure for the birth of a new sense of the state. Pluche, in effect, seems to be paraphrasing Louis XIV: “L’état c’est la langue.”

In the light of this reinterpretation it is also interesting to read the objections to an international language made by another French writer, one who lived before the great flood of a posteriori projects in the late nineteenth century–Joseph-Marie Degérando, in his work, Des signes. Degérando observed that travelers, scientists and merchants (those who needed a common language) were always a minority in respect of the mass of common citizens who were content to remain at home peaceably speaking their native tongues.

Just because this minority of travelers needed a common language, it did not follow that the majority of sedentary citizens needed one as well. It was the traveler that needed to understand the natives; the natives had no particular need to understand a traveler, who, indeed, had an advantage over them in being able to conceal his thoughts from the peoples he visited (III, 562).

With regard to scientific contact, any common language for science would grow distant from the language of letters, but we know that the language of science and the language of letters influence and fortify each other (III, 570). An international language of purely scientific communication, moreover, would soon become an instrument of secrecy, from which the humble speakers of their native dialects would be excluded (III, 572).

And as to possible literary uses (and we leave Degérando the responsibility for such a vulgar sociological argument), if the authors were obliged to write in a common tongue, they would be exposed to international rivalries, fearing invidious comparisons with the works of foreign writers.

Thus it seems that for Degérando circumspection was a disadvantage for science and an advantage for literature–as it was for the astute and cultivated traveler, more learned than his native and naive interlocutors.

We are, of course, at the end of the century which produced de Rivarol‘s eulogy to the French language. Thus, although Degérando recognized that the world was divided into zones of influence, and that it was normal to speak German in areas under German political influence just as it was normal to speak English in the British Isles, he could still maintain, were it possible to impose an auxiliary language, Europe could do no better than to choose French for self-evident reasons of political power (III, 578-9).

In any case, according to Degérando, the narrow mindedness of most governments made every international project unthinkable: “Should we suppose that the governments wish to come to an agreement over a set of uniform laws for the alteration of national languages? How many times have seen governments arrive at an effective agreement over matters that concern the general interest of society?” (III, 554).

In the background is a prejudice of the eighteenth century–and eighteenth century Frenchmen in particular–that people simply did not wish to learn other tongues, be they universal or foreign. There existed a sort of cultural deafness when faced with polyglottism, a deafness that continues on throughout the nineteenth century to leave visible traces in our own; the only peoples exempt were, remarked Degérando, those of northern Europe, for reasons of pure necessity.

So diffuse was this cultural deafness that he even felt compelled to suggest provocatively (III, 587) that the study of foreign languages was not really the sterile and mechanical exercise that most people thought.

Thus Degérando had no choice but to conduce his extremely skeptical review with an eulogy to the diversity of tongues: diversity placed obstacles in the way of foreign conquerers, prevented undue mixing between different peoples, and helped each people to preserve their national character and the habits which protected the purity of their folkways.

A national language linked a people to their state, stimulated patriotism and the cult of tradition. Degérando admitted that these considerations were hardly compatible with the ideals of universal brotherhood; still, he commented, “in this age of corruption, hearts must, above all else, be turned towards patriotic sentiments; the more egotism progresses, the more dangerous it is to become a cosmopolitan” (IV, 589).

If we wish to find historical precedents for this vigorous affirmation of the profound unity between a people and their language (as a gift due to the Babelic event), we need look no farther than Luther (Declamationes in Genesim, 1527).

It is this tradition, perhaps, that also stands behind Hegel’s decisive revaluation of Babel. For him the construction of the tower is not only a metaphor for the social structures linking a people to their state, but also occasions a celebration of the almost sacred character of collective human labor.

“What is holy?” Goethe asks once in a distich, and answers: “What links many souls together.” . . . In the wide plains of the Euphrates an enormous architectural work was erected; it was built in common, and the aim and content of the work was at the same time the community of those who constructed it.

And the foundation of this social bond does not remain merely a unification on patriarchal lines; on the contrary, the purely family unity has already been superseded, and the building, rising into the clouds, makes objective to itself this earlier and dissolved unity and the realization of a new and wider one.

The ensemble of all the peoples at that period worked at this task and since they all came together to complete an immense work like this, the product of their labor was to be a bond which was to link them together (as we are linked by manners, customs, and the legal constitution of the state) by means of the excavated site and ground, the assembled blocks of stone, and the as it were architectural cultivation of the country.”

(G.W.F. Hegel, trans. T.M. Knox: 638).

In this vision, in which the tower serves as a prefiguration of the ethical state, the theme of the confusion of languages can only be interpreted as meaning that the unity of the state is not a universal, but a unity that gives life to different nations (“this tradition tells us that the peoples, after being assembled in this one center of union for the construction of such a work, were once again dispersed and separated from each other”).

Nevertheless, the undertaking of Babel was still a precondition, the event necessary to set social, political and scientific history in motion, the first glimmerings of the Age of Progress and Reason. This is a dramatic intuition: to the sound of an almost Jacobin roll of muffled drums, the old Adam mounts to the scaffold, his linguistic ancien régime at an end.

And yet Hegel’s sentence did not lead to a capital punishment. The myth of the tower as a failure and as a drama still lives today: “the Tower of Babel […] exhibits an incompleteness, even an impossibility of completing, of totalizing, of saturating, of accomplishing anything which is in the order of building, of architectural construction” (Derrida 1980: 203).

One should remark that Dante (DVE, I, vii) provided a “technological” version of the confusio linguarum. His was the story not so much of the birth of the languages of different ethnic groups as of the proliferation of technical jargons: the architects had their language while the stone bearers had theirs (as if Dante were thinking of the jargons of the corporations of his time).

One is almost tempted to find here a formulation, ante litteram to say the least, of the idea of the social division of labor in terms of a division of linguistic labor.

Somehow Dante’s hint seems to have journeyed through the centuries: in his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon wondered whether the confusion of Babel might not have arisen from the fact that, when the workmen came to give names to their tools, each named them in his own way.

The suspicion that these hints reveal a long buried strand in the popular understanding of the story is reinforced by the history of iconography (cf. Minkowski 1983).

From the Middle Ages onwards, in fact, in the pictorial representations of Babel we find so many direct or indirect allusions to human labor–stonemasons, pulleys, squared building stones, block and tackles, plumb lines, compasses, T-squares, winches, plastering equipment, etc.–that these representations have become an important source of our knowledge of medieval building techniques.

And how are we to know whether Dante’s own suggestion might not have arisen from the poet’s acquaintance with the iconography of his times?

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the theme of Babel entered into the repertoire of Dutch artists, who reworked it in innumerable ways (one thinks, of course, of Bruegel), until, in the multiplicity of the number of tools and construction techniques depicted, the Tower of Babel, in its robust solidity, seemed to embody a secular statement of faith in human progress.

By the seventeenth century, artists naturally began to include references to the latest technical innovations, depicting the “marvelous machines” described in a growing number of treatises on mechanical devices.

Even Kircher, who could hardly by accused of secularism, was fascinated by the image of Babel as a prodigious feat of technology; thus, when Father Athanasius wrote his Turris Babel, he concentrated on its engineering, as if he were describing a tower that had once been a finished object.

In the nineteenth century, the theme of Babel began to fall from use, because of a lesser interest in the theological and linguistic aspects of the confusio: in exchange, in the few representations of the event, “the close up gave way to the “group,” representing “humanity,” whose inclination, reaction, or destiny was represented against the background of the “Tower of Babel.”

In these dramatic scenes the focus of the representation is thus given by human masses” (Minkowski 1983: 69). The example that readily springs to mind is in Doré’s illustrated Bible.

By now we are in the century of progress, the century in which the Italian poet, Carducci, celebrated the steam engine in a poem entitled, significantly, Hymn to Satan.

Hegel had taught the century to take pride in the works of Lucifer. Thus the gesture of the gigantic figure that dominates Doré’s engraving is ambiguous. While the tower projects dark shadows on the workmen bearing the immense blocks of marble, a nude turns his face and extends his arm towards a cloud-filled sky.

Is it defiant pride, a curse directed towards a God who has defeated human endeavors? Whatever it is, the gesture certainly does not signify humble resignation in the face of destiny.

Genette has observed (1976: 161) how much the idea of confusio linguarum appears as a felix culpa in romantic authors such as Nodier: natural languages are perfect in so far as they are many, for the truth is many-sided and falsity consists in reducing this plurality into a single definite unity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 337-44.


Eco: From Leibniz to the Encyclopédie


Johann Friedrich Wentzel (1670-1729), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), circa 1700. 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 1678 Leibniz composed a lingua generalis (in Couturat 1903). After decomposing all of human knowledge into simple ideas, and assigning a number to each, Leibniz proposed a system of transcription for these numbers in which consonants stood for integers and vowels for units, tens and powers of ten:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270. 

In this system, the figure 81,374, for example, would be transcribed as mubodilefa. In fact, since the relevant power of ten is shown by the following vowel rather than by the decimal place, the order of the letters in the name is irrelevant: 81,374 might just as easily be transcribed as bodifalemu.

This system might lead us to suspect that Leibniz too was thinking of a language in which the users might one day discourse on bodifalemu or gifeha (= 546) just as Dalgarno or Wilkins proposed to speak in terms of nekpot or deta.

Against this supposition, however, lies the fact that Leibniz applied himself to another, particular form of language, destined to be spoken–a language that resembled the latino sine flexione invented at the dawn of our own century by Peano.

This was a language whose grammar was drastically simplified and regularized: one declension for nouns, one conjunction for verbs, no genders, no plurals, adjectives and adverbs made identical, verbs reduced to the formula of copula + adjective.

Certainly, if my purpose were to try to delineate the entire extent of the linguistic projects undertaken by Leibniz throughout the course of his life, I would have to describe an immense philosophical and linguistically monument displaying four major aspects:

(1) the identification of a system of primitives, organized in an alphabet of thought or in a general encyclopedia;

(2) the elaboration of an ideal grammar, inspired probably by the simplifications proposed by Dalgarno, of which the simplified Latin is one example;

(3) the formulation of a series of rules governing the possible pronunciation of the characters;

(4) the elaboration of a lexicon of real characters upon which the speaker might perform calculations that would automatically lead to the formulation of true propositions.

The truth is, however, that by the end of his career, Leibniz had abandoned all research in the initial three parts of the project. His real contribution to linguistics lies in his attempts at realizing the fourth aspect.

Leibniz had little interest in the kinds of universal language proposed by Dalgarno and Wilkins, though he was certainly impressed by their efforts. In a letter to Oldenburg (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 11-5), he insisted that his notion of a real character was profoundly different from that of those who aspired to a universal writing modeled on Chinese, or tried to construct a philosophic language free from all ambiguity.

Leibniz had always been fascinated by the richness and plurality of natural languages, devoting his time to the study of their lineages and the connections between them. He had concluded that it was not possible to identify (much less to revive) an alleged Adamic language, and came to celebrate the very confusio linguarum that others were striving to eliminate (see Gensini 1990, 1991).

It was also a fundamental tenet of his monadology that each individual had a unique perspective on the world, as if a city would be represented from as many different viewpoints as the different positions of its inhabitants.

It would have been incongruous for the philosopher who held this doctrine to oblige everyone to share the same immutable grillwork of genera and species, without taking into account particularities, diversities and the particular “genius” of each natural language.

There was but one facet of Leibniz’s personality that might have induced him to seek after a universal form of communication; that was his passion for universal peace, which he shared with Lull, Cusanus and Postel.

In an epoch in which his english predecessors and correspondents were waxing enthusiastic over the prospect of universal languages destined to ease the way for future travel and trade, beyond an interest in the exchange of scientific information, Leibniz displayed a sensitivity towards religious issues totally absent even in high churchmen like Wilkins.

By profession a diplomat and court councillor, Leibniz was a political, rather than an academic, figure, who worked for the reunification of the church. This was an ecumenicism that reflected his political preoccupations; he envisioned an anti-French bloc of Spain, the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and the German princes.

Still, his desire for unity sprang from purely religious motives as well; church unity was the necessary foundation upon which a peaceful Europe could be built.

Leibniz, however, never thought that the main prerequisite for unity and peace was a universal tongue. Instead, he thought that the cause of peace might be better served by science, and by the creation of a scientific language which might serve as a common instrument in the discovery of truth.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 269-1.

Eco: Infinite Songs & Locutions, 2


Ramon Llull (1232-1315), La Tercera Figura, from Ars brevis, Pisa, 1308. This illustration is hosted on the net by the Centre de Documentacio de Ramon Llull, while the original is held in the Escorial, MS.f-IV-12, folio 6. 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.

Mersenne and Guldin were anticipating Borge’s Babel Library ad abundantiam. Not only this, Guldin observed that if the numbers are these, who can marvel at the existence of so many different natural languages?

The art was now providing an excuse for the confusio linguarum. It justifies it, however, by showing that it is impossible to limit the omnipotence of God.

Are there more names than things? How many names, asks Mersenne (Harmonie, II, 72), would we need if were to give more than one to each individual? If Adam really did give names to everything, how long would he have had to spend in Eden?

In the end, human languages limit themselves to the naming of general ideas and of species; to name an individual thing, an indication with a finger is usually sufficient (p. 74).

If this were not so, it might easily “happen that for every hair on the body of an animal and for each hair on the head of a man we might require a particular name that would distinguish it from all others. Thus a man with 100,000 hairs on his head and 100,000 more on his body would need to know 200,000 separate words to name them all” (pp. 72-3).

In order to name every individual thing in the world one should thus create an artificial language capable of generating the requisite number of locutions. If God were to augment the number of individual things unto infinity, to name them all it would be enough to devise an alphabet with a greater number of letters, and this would provide us with the means to name them all (p. 73).

From these giddy heights there dawns a consciousness of the possibility of the infinite perfectibility of knowledge. Man, the new Adam, possesses the possibility of naming all those things which his ancestor had lacked the time to baptize.

Yet such an artificial language would place human beings in competition with God, who has the privilege of knowing all things in their particularity. We shall see that Leibniz was later to sanction the impossibility of such a language.

Mersenne had led a battle against the kabbala and occultism only to be seduced in the end. Here he is cranking away at Lullian wheels, seemingly unaware of the difference between the real omnipotence of God and the potential omnipotence of a human combinatory language.

Besides, in his Quaestiones super Genesim (cols 49 and 52) he claimed that the presence of the sense of infinity in human beings was itself a proof of the existence of God.

This capacity to conceive of a quasi-infinite series of combinations depends on the fact that Mersenne, Guldin, Clavius and others (see, for example, Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima (1648: III, 19), unlike Lull, were no longer calculating upon concepts but rather upon simple alphabetic sequences, pure elements of expression with no inherent meaning, controlled by no orthodoxy other than the limits of mathematics itself.

Without realizing it, these authors are verging towards the idea of a “blind thought,” a notion that we shall see Leibniz proposing with a greater critical awareness.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 141-3.

Eco: A Dream that Refused to Die


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the Christian interpretation of the Kabbalah and the mystical names of God, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, 1652-4, p. 287. John Mark Ockerbloom curated an entry for all three volumes of this work at the University of Pennsylvania libraries. This illustration courtesy of 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. 


“Even faced with the results of the research of comparative linguistics, however, monogenetic theories refuse to give up the ghost. The bibliography of belated monogeneticism is immense. In it, there is to be found the lunatic, the crank, the misfit, the bizarre mystic, as well as a number of students of unimpeachable rigor.

In 1850, for example, the Enlightenment notion of a language of action received a radically monogenetic reading in the Dactylologie et language primitif restitués d’apres les monuments by J. Barrois.

Assuming that the first language of humanity was a language of action and that this language was exclusively gestural, Barrois sought to prove that even the passages of the Bible which referred to God addressing Adam referred not to speaking in a verbal sense, but instead to a non-verbal, mimed language.

“The designation of the divers animals which Adam made was achieved by means of a special miming which recalled their form, instinct, habit, and qualities, and, finally, their essential properties.” (P. 31).

The first time that an unambiguous reference to verbal speech appears in the Bible is when God speaks to Noah; before this, all references seem vague. For Barrois, this was evidence showing that only slowly, in the immediately antediluvian age, did a phonetic form of language become common.

The confusio linguarum arose out of discord between gestural and spoken language. The primitive vocal language was born closely accompanied by gestures which served to underline its most important words–just as occurs today in the speech of negroes and Syrian merchants (p. 36).

A dactylological language (expressed by the movement of the fingers and deriving from the primitive language of action) was born later, as a form of short-hand support for the phonetic language, when this latter emerged as the dominant form.

Barrois examines iconographic documents of all ages, demonstrating that the dactylological language remained unaltered through various civilizations.

As for the everlasting idea of an original Hebrew, we might cite the figure of Fabre d’Olivet, whose La Langue hébraïque restituée, written in 1815, is still a source of inspiration for belated kabbalists today.

He told of a primitive language that no people had ever spoken, of which Hebrew (the Egyptian dialect of Moses) was but the most illustrious offspring. This insight leads him on to the search for a mother tongue in which Hebrew is carefully combed and then subjected to fantastic reinterpretations.

D’Olivet was convinced that, in this language, every phoneme, every single sound, must have its own special meaning. We will not follow d’Olivet as he re-explores this old terrain; it is enough to say that he presents a string of nonsensical etymologies which, though in the spirit of Duret, Guichard and Kircher, are, if anything, even less convincing.

We might, however, provide just one example to show how traces of an original Hebrew mimology can be discovered in a modern language as well. D’Olivet constructed an etymology for the French term emplacement. Place derives from the Latin platea and from the German Platz.

In both these words, the sound AT signifies protection, while the sound L means extension. LAT means, therefore, a “protected extension.” MENT, in its turn, derives from the Latin mens and the English mind.

In this syllable, E is the sign of absolute life, and N stands for reflexive existence. Together, as ENS, they mean “bodily spirit.” M refers to existence at a given point. Therefore, the meaning of emplacement is “la manière dont uno extension fixe et determinée peut être conçue et se presente aux yeux.”

As one critic has put it, Fabre d’Olivet has demonstrated that emplacement means “emplacement” (cf. Cellier 1953: 140; Pallotti 1992).

And yet. No less a figure than Benjamin Lee Whorf took Fabre d’Olivet as the starting point for a series of reflections on the curious subject of “oligosynthesis.”

He was wondering about the possible applications of a science capable of “restoring a possible common language of the human race or [of] perfecting an ideal natural tongue constructed of the original psychological significance of sounds, perhaps a future common speech, into which all our varied languages may be assimilated, or, putting it differently, to whose terms they may be reduced” (Whorf 1956: 12; see also 74-6).

This is neither the first nor the last of the paradoxes in our story: we associate Whorf with one of the least monogenetic of all the various glottogonic hypotheses; it was Whorf who developed the idea that each language was a “holistic” universe, expressing the world in a way that could never be wholly translated into any other language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 111-3.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), an excerpt from p. 157 of Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio. confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Amsterdam, Jansson-Waesberge, 1679. A table portraying ancient alphabets, in which Kircher asserts that modern alphabets resemble ancient versions. Courtesy of 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. 


“Another alternative was to accept that Hebrew had been the original perfect language, but to argue that, after the confusio, the crown of perfection had been bestowed upon other languages.

The first text which countenances this sort of “nationalistic” reconstruction of linguistic history is the Commentatio super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium of 1498 by Giovanni Nanni, or Annius, which tells how, before it was colonized by the Greeks, Etruria had been settled by Noah and his descendants.

Nanni is here reflecting on the contradiction between Genesis 11, the story of Babel, and Genesis 10. In 10:5, the sons of Japheth settle the “isles of the Gentiles  . . . every one after his tongue.”

The notion of a lineage ascending from modern Tuscan through Etruscan to the Aramaic of Noah was elaborated in Florence by Giovann Battista Gelli (Dell’origine di Firenze, 1542-4), and by Piero Francesco Giambullari (Il Gello, 1564).

Their thesis, fundamentally anti-humanist, accepted the idea that the multiplication of tongues had preceded Babel (citing what Dante had had to say in Paradise, xxvi).

This thesis was passionately received by Guillaume Postel, who, we have seen, had already argued that Celtic had descended from Noah. In De Etruriae regionis (1551) Postel embraced the position of Gelli and Giambullari concerning the relationship of the Etruscan to Noah, qualifying it, however, by the claim that the Hebrew of Adam had remained–at least in its hieratic form–uncontaminated throughout the centuries.

More moderate were the claims of Spanish Renaissance authors. The Castilian tongue too might claim descent from one of Japheth’s many sons–in this case Tubal. Yet it was still only one of the seventy-two languages formed after Babel.

This moderation was more apparent than real, however, for, in Spain, the term “language of Babel” became an emblem of antiquity and nobility (for Italian and Spanish debates, cf. Tavoni 1990).

It was one thing to argue that one’s own national language could claim nobility on account of its derivation from an original language–whether that of Adam or that of Noah–but quite a different matter to argue that, for this reason, one’s language ought to be considered as the one and only perfect language, on a par with the language of Adam.

Only the Irish grammarians cited in the first chapter and Dante had had, so far, the audacity to arrive at such a daring conclusion (and even Dante–who had aspired to create a perfect language from his own vernacular–made sarcastic remarks on those who consider their native language as the most ancient and perfect: cf. DVE, I, vi).

By the seventeenth century, however, linguistic nationalism had begun to bud; this prompted a plethora of such curious claims.

Goropius Becanus (Jan van Gorp) in his Origins Antwerpianae of 1569 agreed with all claims made about the divine inspiration of the original language, and about its motivated and non-arbitrary relation between words and things.

According to him there was only a single living language in which this motivated concordance existed to an exemplary degree; that language was Dutch, particularly the dialect of Antwerp.

The ancestors of the burghers of Antwerp were the Cimbri, the direct descendants of the sons of Japheth. These had not been present under the Tower of Babel, and, consequently, they had been spared the confusio linguarum.

Thus they had preserved the language of Adam in all its perfection. Such an assertion, Becanus claimed, could be proved by etymological demonstrations. He produced a string of arguments whose level of etymological wishful thinking matched those of Isidore and Guichard; they later became known as “becanisms” or “goropisms.”

Becanus further claimed that his thesis was also proved by the facts that the Dutch had the highest number of monosyllabic words, possessed a richness of sounds superior to all other languages, and favored in the highest degree the formation of compound words.

Becanus‘ thesis was later supported by Abraham Mylius (Lingua belgica, 1612) as well as by Adrian Schrickius (Adversariorum Libri III, 1620), who wished to demonstrate “that Hebrew was divine and firstborn” and “that Teutonic came immediately afterwards.”

Teutonic here meant the Dutch spoken in Antwerp, which, at the time, was its best-known dialect. In both cases, the demonstration was supported by etymological proofs little better than those of Becanus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 95-7.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Dante


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), De vulgari eloquentia Libri Duo (1301-5). This edition was printed in Paris, Ex libris Corbinelli, 1577. It is held by the University of Mannheim under call number Sch 072/212. This copy includes manuscript notes by Gilles Ménage, Aegidius Menagius, 1613-92. The last private owner of this book was François-Josephe Terrace Desbillons (1711-89). The Latin text of this book is available on the Latin Library website.

“The first occasion on which the world of medieval Christianity had to confront a systematic project for a perfect language was De vulgari eloquentia (hereafter DVE) of Dante Alighieri, written presumably between 1301 and 1305.

Dante’s text opens with an observation which, obvious thought it may be, is still fundamental for us: there is a multitude of vulgar tongues, all of them are natural languages, and all are opposed to Latin–which is a universal but artificial grammar.

Before the blasphemy of Babel, humanity had known but one language, a perfect language, a language spoken by Adam with God and by his posterity. The plurality of tongues arose as the consequence of the confusio linguarum.

Revealing a knowledge of comparative linguistics exceptional for his time, Dante sought to demonstrate how this fragmentation had actually taken place. The division of the languages born from the confusion, he argued, had proceeded in three stages.

First he showed how languages split up into the various zones of the world; then, using the vernacular word for yes as his measuring rod, he showed how languages (within what we today call the Romance area) had further split into the oc, oil and groups.

Finally, within this last subdivision, Dante showed how particular languages were even further fragmented into a welter of  local dialects, some of which might, as in Bologna, even vary from one part of a city to another.

All of these divisions had occurred, Dante observed, because the human being is–by custom, by habit, by language, and according to differences in time and space–a changeable animal.

If the aim of his project was to discover one language more decorous and illustrious than the others, Dante had to take each of the various vernaculars in turn and subject it to a severe critical analysis.

Examining the work of the best Italian poets, and assuming that each in his own way had always gone beyond his local dialect, Dante thought to create a vernacular (volgare) that might be more illustre (illustrious, in the sense of “shining with light”), cardinale (useful as a guiding rule or cardine), regale (worthy of being spoken in the royal palace of the national king–if the Italians were ever to obtain one), and curiale (worthy to be a language of government, of courts of law, and of wisdom).

Such a vernacular belonged to every city in Italy, yet to none. It existed only as an ideal form, approached by the best poets, and it was according to this ideal form that all the vulgar dialects needed to be judged.

The second, and uncompleted, part of DVE sketches out the rules of composition for the one and only vernacular to which the term illustrious might truly apply–the poetic language of which Dante considered himself to be the founder.

Opposing this language to all other languages of the confusion, Dante proclaimed it as the one which had restored that primordial affinity between words and objects which had been the hallmark of the language of Adam.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 34-5.

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.

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