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Tag: Confusion of Tongues

Eco: Dante and Abulafia


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), The Haywain or The Hay Wagon Triptych (1516), held after 1907 as accession number P02052 in The Prado Museum, Madrid. Bosch signed this work “Jheronimus Bosch” in the lower right corner of the central panel. 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. 

“If we turn from DVE to Paradise, xxxvi (several years having passed in the meantime), we find that Dante has changed his mind. In the earlier work, Dante unambiguously states that it was from the forma locutionis given by God that the perfect language of Hebrew was born, and that it was in this perfect language that Adam addressed God, calling him El. In Paradise, xxxvi, 124-38, however, Adam says:

La lingua ch’io parlai fu tutta spenta

innanzi che all’ovra incomsummabile

fosse le gente di Nembròt attenta:

ché nullo effetto mai razïonabile,

per lo piacer uman che rinovella

seguendo il cielo, sempre fu durabile. 

Opera naturale è ch’uom favella,

ma, così o così, natura lascia,

poi fare a voi, secondo che v’abbella.

Pria ch’i’ pscendessi all’infernale ambascia 

I s’appellava in terra il sommo bene,

onde vien letizia che mi fascia; 

e EL si chiamò poi: e ciò convene,

ché l’uso dei mortali è come fronda

in ramo, che sen va e altra vene.

“The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work [the tower of Babel] of the people of Nembrot was even conceived: because no product of the human reason, from the human taste for always having something new, following the influence of the stars, is ever stable. It is natural that man speaks; but whether this way or that, nature lets you yourselves do as it pleases you. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I–from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Born of humanity’s natural disposition towards speech, languages may split, grow and change through human intervention. According to Adam, the Hebrew spoken before the building of the tower, when God was named El, was not the same as the Hebrew spoken in the earthly paradise, when Adam called him I.

Dante seems here to oscillate between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11. He must always have known these two texts; what could have induced him to modify his earlier views? An intriguing clue is the strange idea that God had once been called I, a term that not one of Dante’s legion of commentators has ever been able to explain satisfactorily.

Returning for a moment to the last chapter, we remember that for Abulafia, the atomic elements of any text–the letters–had individual meanings of their own. Thus, in the divine name YHWH, the letter Yod was itself a divine name.

Dante would have transliterated Yod as I, and this gives one possible source for his change of opinion. If this is so, it would not be the only idea that Dante seems to have had in common with Abulafia.

We saw in the last chapter that for Abulafia the Torah had to be equated with the active intellect, and the scheme from which God created the world was the same as the gift which he gave to Adam–a linguistic matrix, not yet Hebrew, yet capable of generating all other languages.

There were Averroist sympathies in Dante, too, especially in his version of the Avicennist and Augustinian concept of the active intellect (equated with divine wisdom) which offers the forms to possible intellect (cf. in particular, Nardi 1942: v). Nor were the Modistae and the others who supported the idea of universal grammar exempt from Averroist influence.

Thus there existed a common philosophical ground which, even without positing direct links, would have inclined both Dante and Abulafia to regard the gift of language as the bestowal of a forma locutionis, defined as a generative linguistic matrix with affinities to the active intellect.

There are further parallels as well. For Abulafia, Hebrew was the historic proto-language. It was a proto-language, however, that during their exile, the chosen people had forgotten. By the time of the confusion of Babel, therefore, the language of Adam was, as Dante puts it, “tutta spenta” (entirely extinguished).

Idel (1989: 17) cites an unedited manuscript by a disciple of Abulafia which says:

“Anyone who believes in the creation of the world, if he believes that languages are conventional he must also believe that they are of two types: the first is Divine, i.e. agreement between God and Adam, Eve and their children.

The second is derived from the first, and the first was known only to Adam and was not passed on to any of his offspring except for Seth, [ . . . ] And so, the traditions reached Noah. And the confusion of the tongues during the generation of the dispersion [at the tower of Babel] occurred only to the second type of language, i.e., to natural language.”

If we remember that, in such a context, the term “tradition” can refer to the kabbala itself, it seems evident that the above passage alludes, once again, to a linguistic wisdom, a forma locutionis, regarded as a set of rules for constructing the differing languages.

If, in its original form, this wisdom was not a language, but rather a universal matrix for all languages, we can not only explain the mutation of Hebrew between Eden and Babel, but also understand the hope that this original wisdom might somehow be recuperated and (in different ways, obviously, for Abulafia and Dante) even be made to bloom again.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 46-9.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 3


Francisco of Holland, 1543-73, De aetatibus mundi imagines, Creation of Man, Biblioteca Nacional de España. 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.

 “There is one sense in which St. Augustine did have a clear idea of a perfect language, common to all people. But this was not a language of words; it was, rather, a language made out of things themselves.

He viewed the world, as it was later to be put, as a vast book written with God’s own finger. Those who knew how to read the book were able to understand the allegories hidden in the scriptures, where, beneath references to simple earthly things (plants, stones, animals), symbolic meanings lay.

This Language of the World, instituted by its creator, could not be read, however, without a key; it was the need to provide such a key that provoked a rapid outflowing of bestiaries, lapidaries, encyclopedias and imagines mundi throughout the Middle Ages.

This represents a tradition that will resurface in our own story as well: European culture will sometimes seize upon hieroglyphs and other esoteric ideograms, believing that truth can only be expressed in emblems or symbols.

Still, St. Augustine’s symbolic interests were not combined with the longing to recover a lost tongue that someone might, or ought to, speak once again.

For Augustine, as for nearly all the early Fathers, Hebrew certainly was the primordial language. It was the language spoken before Babel. After the confusion, it still remained the tongue of the elected people.

Nevertheless, Augustine gave no sign of wanting to recover its use. He was at home in Latin, by now the language of the church and of theology.

Several centuries later, Isidore of Seville found it easy to assume that, in any case, there were three sacred languages–Hebrew, Greek and Latin–because these were the three languages that appeared written above the cross (Etymologiarum, ix, 1).

With this conclusion, the task of determining the language in which the Lord said “fiat lux” became more arduous.

If anything, the Fathers were concerned about another linguistic puzzle: the Bible clearly states that God brought before Adam all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the air. What about the fish? Did Adam name the fish? Maybe it seemed inconvenient dragging them all up from the briny deep to parade them in the garden of Eden.

We may think this a slight matter; yet the question, whose last trace is to be found in Massey’s Origins and Progress of Letters published in 1763 (cf. White 1917: II, 196), was never satisfactorily resolved, despite Augustine’s helpful suggestion that the fish were named one at a time, as they were discovered (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, XII, 20).

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, when Europe had still to emerge, premonitions of its linguistic future lurked unrecorded. New languages came slowly into being. It has been calculated that, towards the end of the fifth century, people no longer spoke Latin, but Gallo-Romanic, Italico-Romanic or Hispano-Romanic.

While intellectuals continued to write in Latin, bastardizing it ever further, they heard around them local dialects in which survivals of languages spoken before Roman civilization crossed with new roots arriving with the barbarian invaders.

It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. it is contained in an attempt, on the part of Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over learned Latin.

In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (“the precepts of the poets”), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows:

“Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen, and bitumen. . . . These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.”

Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues.

It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius. The canonic account in the Precepts

“shows the action of the founding of this language . . . as a “cut and paste” operation on other languages that the 72 disciples undertook after the dispersion. . . . It was then that the rules of this language were constructed. All that was best in each language, all there was that was grand or beautiful, was cut out and retained in Irish. . . . Wherever there was something that had no name in any other language, a name for it was made up in Irish. (Poli 1989: 187-9).”

This first-born and, consequently, supernatural language retained traces of its original isomorphism with the created world. As long as the proper order of its elements was respected, this ensured a sort of iconic bond between grammatical items and referents, or states of things in the real world.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 14-7.

Eco: From Adam to Confusio Linguarum, 2


Gustav Doré (1832-83), The Confusion of Tongues (1865-8), engraving, held in a private collection. 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.

“Told in this way, however, the story is still incomplete. We have left out Genesis 10. Here, speaking of the diffusion of the sons of Noah after the Flood, the text states of the sons of Japheth that, “By these [sons] were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations” (10:5).

This idea is repeated in similar words for the sons of Ham (10:20) and of Shem (10:31). How are we meant to interpret this evident plurality of languages prior to Babel?

The account presented in Genesis 11 is dramatic, able to inspire visual representations, as is shown by the further iconographic tradition.

The account in Genesis 10 is, by contrast, less theatrical. It is obvious that tradition focused on the story in which the existence of a plurality of tongues was understood as the tragic consequence of the confusion after Babel and the result of a divine malediction.

Where it was not neglected entirely, Genesis 10 was reduced to a sort of footnote, a provincial episode recounting the diffusion of tribal dialects, not the multiplication of tongues.

Thus Genesis 11 seems to possess a clear and unequivocal meaning: first there was one language, and then there were–depending on which tradition we follow–seventy or seventy-two.

It is this story that served as the point of departure for any number of dreams to “restore” the language of Adam. Genesis 10, however, has continued to lurk in the background with all its explosive potential still intact.

If the languages were already differentiated after Noah, why not before? It is a chink in the armor of the myth of Babel. If languages were differentiated not as a punishment but simply as a result of a natural process, why must the confusion of tongues constitute a curse at all?

Every so often in the course of our story, someone will oppose Genesis 10 to Genesis 11. Depending on the period and the theologico-philosophical context, the results will be more or less devastating.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 9-10.

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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