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Tag: Divine Comedy

Eco: Limits and Effability of an IAL


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco: Dante and Abulafia, 2


Bartolomeu Velho (d.1568), Figure of the Heavenly Bodies, an illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe, from Cosmographia, 1568. Held in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France, Paris. 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.  

“Yet could Dante have known the theories of Abulafia?

Abulafia visited Italy on several occasions: he was in Rome in 1260; he remained on the peninsula until 1271, when he returned to Barcelona; he returned to Rome in 1280 with the project of converting the pope.

He journeyed afterwards to Sicily, where we lose trace of him somewhere near the end of the 1290s. His ideas incontestably exercised an influence on contemporary Italian Jewish thought. We have a record of a debate in 1290 between Hillel of Verona (who had probably met Abulafia twenty years earlier) and Zerakhya of Barcelona, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 1270s (cf. Genot-Bismuth 1988: II).

Hillel, who had contacts in the world of Bologna intellectuals, had written to Zerakhya to ask him the question first posed by Herodotus: in what language would a child speak if it were brought up with no linguistic stimuli?

Hillel maintained that such a child would naturally speak Hebrew, because Hebrew was humanity’s original natural language. Hillel either did not know, or else disregarded, the fact that Abulafia was of a different opinion. Not so with Zerakhya.

He sarcastically remarked that Hillel had been taken in by the siren song of the “uncircumcised” of Bologna. The first sounds emitted by a child without linguistic education, he asserted, would resemble the barking of dogs. It was madness to maintain that the sacred language could be naturally bestowed on human beings.

Humanity possessed a linguistic potential, but it was a potential that could be activated only through education of the vocal organs. This, however, required instruction.

At this point, Zerakhya brought forward a proof that we shall find in a number of post-Renaissance Christian authors (for example, in the In Biblia polyglotta prolegomena by Walton in 1673, or the De sacra philosophia of 1652 by Vallesio): had there been the primordial gift of an original sacred language, then all human beings, regardless of their native tongue, would have the innate ability to speak it.

The existence of such a debate is enough to show, without needing to invent a meeting between Dante and Abulafia, that Abulafia’s ideas were subject to discussion in Italy, especially in the Bolognese intellectual circles which influenced Dante, and from which, according to Maria Corti, he absorbed his notion of the forma locutionis.

Nor does the Bologna debate constitute the only point of encounter between Dante and Jewish thought.

Genot-Bismuth has given us a vivid picture of the close of the thirteenth century in which we will later find a Yehuda Romano giving a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy for his co-religionists, a Lionello di Ser Daniele who did likewise using a Divine Comedy transliterated into Hebrew script, not to mention the surprising personage of Immanuel da Roma, who, in his own poetic compositions, seemed to launch an attack on Dante’s ideals almost aspiring to produce a sort of counter-Comedy in Hebrew.

Naturally this only establishes the influence of Dante on Italian Jewish culture, not the other way around. Yet Genot-Bismuth is able to show opposing influences as well, even to the point of suggesting that Dante’s theory of the four senses of scripture, found in his Epistula, XIII (cf. Eco 1985), had a Jewish origin.

Such a hypothesis may be too bold: there were any number of Christian sources from which Dante might have drawn this doctrine. What seems less daring, and, in fact, entirely plausible, is the suggestion that, in Bologna, Dante would have heard echoes of the debate between Hillel and Zerakhya.

One could say that in DVE he appears still close to the position of the former (or of his Christian inspirers, as Zerakhya reproaches him), while in Paradise he turns towards the positions of the latter, that is, the position of Abulafia (even though, when writing DVE, he already had the opportunity to know both theses).

However, it is not necessary to document direct links (even though Genot-Bismuth finds the presence of Jewish influences in certain passages of the De regimine principium of Giles of Rome), but rather to demonstrate the existence of a cultural climate in which ideas could circulate and within which a formal and informal debate between the church and the synagogue might ensue (cf. Calimani 1987: viii).

We should remember that, before the Renaissance, a Christian thinker would scarcely wish to admit publicly that he drew on Hebrew doctrine.

Like heretics, the Jewish community belonged to a category of outcasts that–as Le Goff shrewdly observes–the Middle Ages officially despised but at the same time admired; regarding them with an admixture of attraction and fear, keeping them at a distance, but making sure that the distance was fixed near enough so they would always remain close at hand.

“What was termed charity in their regard more resembled the game that cats play with mice” (Le Goff 1964:373).

Before the kabbala was rehabilitated by humanist culture, Christianity knew little of it. It was often simply regarded as a branch of the black arts. Even so, as Gorni has pointed out (1990: vii), in the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to share a great deal of knowledge about magic and divinatory practices (astrology, chiromancy, physiognomy, geomancy, pyromancy, hydromancy and, not least, the black arts of magic themselves).

In one way or another, Dante seems to have been informed about an excluded and underground culture in which, at least according to vulgar opinion, the kabbala somehow belonged.

In this way, it becomes ever more plausible that, even if it does not derive directly from the theories of the Modistae, Dante’s forma locutionis is not a language but the universal matrix for all language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 49-52.

Eco: Latin and the Vernacular


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), with the mountain of Purgatory behind him and the city of Florence to his left, holds the incipit “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” in a detail taken from a painting by Domenico di Michelino (1417-91), 1465. 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.  

“An apology for the vernacular, DVE is written in Latin. As a poet, Dante wrote in Italian; as a philosopher and as a political scientist (as we would say today) who advocated the restoration of a universal monarchy, Dante stuck to the language of theology and law.

DVE defines a vernacular as the speech that an infant learns as it first begins to articulate, imitating the sounds made to it by its nurse, before knowing any rule. The same was not true of that locutio secundaria called grammar by Romans.

Grammar meant a ruled-governed language, one, moreover, that could be mastered only after long study to acquire the habitus.

Considering that in the vocabulary of the Schoolmen habitus was a virtue, a capacity to do some specific thing, a present-day reader might take Dante merely to be distinguishing between the instinctive ability to express oneself in language (performance) and grammatical competence.

It is clear, however, that by grammar Dante meant scholastic Latin, the only language whose rules were taught in school during this period (cf. also Viscardi 1942: 31ff).

In this sense Latin was an artificial idiom; it was, moreover, an idiom which was “perpetual and incorruptible,” having been ossified into the international language of church and university through a system of rules by grammarians from Servius (between the fourth and fifth centuries) to Priscian (between the fifth and sixth) when Latin had ceased to be the living language of the Romans.

Having made this distinction between a primary and a secondary language clear, Dante went on to proclaim in no uncertain terms that, of the two, it was the first, the vernacular, that was the more noble.

He gave various reasons for this opinion: vernaculars were the first languages of humanity; “though divided by different words and accents” (I, i, 4) the whole world continues to use them; finally, vernaculars are natural and not artificial.

This choice led Dante, however, into a double predicament.

First, although assuming that the most noble language must be natural, the fact that natural languages were split into a multiplicity of dialects suggested that they were not natural but conventional.

Second, a vulgar tongue is the language spoken by everyone (by vulgus, or common people). But in DVE Dante insists on the variety of the languages of the world.

How can he reconcile the idea that languages are many with the idea that the vernacular was the natural language for the whole human race? To say that learning a natural language without the aid of rules is common to the whole human race does not amount to saying that we all speak the same one.

A way to escape such a double predicament would be to interpret Dante’s argument as if he wanted to say that our ability to learn different natural languages (according to the place of our birth or to the first linguistic training we receive) depends on our native faculty for languages.

This is certainly an innate faculty which manifests itself in different linguistic forms and substances, that is, in our ability to speak different natural languages (see also Marigo 1938: comment 9, n. 23; Dragonetti 1961: 23).

Such a reading would be legitimated by various of Dante’s assertions concerning our faculty to learn a mother tongue; this faculty is natural, it exists in all peoples despite their differences in word and accent, and is not associated with any specific language.

It is a general faculty, possessed by humanity as a species, for “only man is able to speak” (I, ii, 1). The ability to speak is thus a specific trait of human beings; one that is possessed by neither angels, nor beasts, nor demons.

Speaking means an ability to externalize our particular thoughts; angels, by contrast, have an “ineffable intellectual capacity:” they either understand the thoughts of others, or they can read them in the divine mind.

Animals lack individual feelings, possessing only “specific” passions. Consequently each knows its own feelings and may recognize feelings when displayed by animals of the same species, having no need to understand the feelings of other species.


Gustave Doré (1832-83), Inferno, Canto VII, lines 8,9, 1883. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright terms in the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Each demon immediately recognizes the depths of perfidy of another. (By the way, in the Divine Comedy Dante will decide to make his demons talk; they will still sometimes use a speech not quite human: the celebrated diabolical expression of Inferno, vii, 1, “Pape Satan, pape Satan aleppe,” is curiously reminiscent of another expression: “Raphèl maí amècche zabì almi,” Inferno xxxi, 67–the fatal words, spoken by Nimrod, which set off the catastrophe of Babel; even the devils thus speak the languages of the confusion; cf. Hollander 1980).

In contrast to these beings, however, humans are guided by reason. In individuals, this takes the forms of discernment and judgement. Yet human beings also need some further faculty which might allow them to externalize the contents of this intellect in outward signs.

Dante defines the faculty for language as the disposition for humans to associate rational signifiers with signifieds perceived by the senses, thus accepting the Aristotelian doctrine that the relation between outward signs and both the corresponding passions of the soul, and the things that they signify, is conventional and ad placitum.

Dante made it very clear that while the linguistic faculty is a permanent and immutable trait of the human species, natural languages are historically subject to variation, and are capable of developing over the course of time, enriching themselves independently of the will of any single speaker.

Dante was no less aware that a natural language may be enriched through the creativity of single individuals as well, for the illustrious vernacular that he intended to shape was to be the product of just such an individual creative effort.

Yet it seems that between the faculty of language and the natural languages which are the ultimate result, Dante wished to posit a further, intermediate stage. We can see this better by looking at Dante’s treatment of the story of Adam.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 35-8.

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