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Tag: Dutch

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: Space Languages


Hans Freudenthal (1905-1990). This photograph is assumed to be copyrighted and unlicensed, but qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law to illustrate the subject in question where no free equivalent is available, as Professor Freudenthal is deceased and no free replacement can be made. 

“Almost at the bounds of science fiction, though still with an undoubted scientific interest, is the project of the Dutch mathematician Hans A. Freudenthal (Lincos, 1960) for a language in which eventual encounters with the inhabitants of other galaxies may be conducted (see Bassi 1992).

Lincos is not designed as a language to be spoken; it is rather a model for inventing a language and at the same time teaching it to alien beings that have presumably traditions and biological structure different from ours.

Freudenthal starts off by supposing that we can beam into space signals, which we might picture as radio waves of varying length and duration. The significance of these waves derives not from their expression-substance, but rather from their expression-form and content-form.

By endeavoring to understand the logic that determines the expression-form being transmitted to them, the space aliens are supposed to extrapolate a content-form that will not be alien to them.

During the first phase, the messages consist of regular sequences of pulses. These are intended to be interpreted quantitatively–four pulses standing for the number 4, etc. As soon as it is assumed that the aliens have correctly interpreted these first signals, the transmission passes to the second phase, in which it introduces simple arithmetic operators:

* * * < * * * *

* * * * = * * * *

* * * * + * * = * * * * * *

In the next phase, the aliens are taught to substitute for the pulses a system of binary numbers (in which * * * * = 100, * * * * * = 101, * * * * * * = 110); this makes it possible, using only ostension and repetition, to communicate some of the principle operations in mathematics.

The transmission of temporal concepts presents a more complex problem. Freudenthal, however, presumes that by constantly receiving a signal of the same duration, constantly associated to the same number of pulses, the aliens will begin to compute a certain duration in seconds. Lincos also teaches conversational rules, training the aliens to understand sequences such as “Ha says to Hb: what is that x such that 2x = 5?”

In one sense, we are treating the space aliens like circus animals; we subject them to a repeated stimulus, giving them positive reinforcement whenever they exhibit the desired response. In the case of animals, however, the reinforcement is immediate–we give them food; in the case of aliens, the reinforcement cannot but be a broadcast signal that they should interpret as “OK.”

By this means, the aliens are meant to learn to recognize not only mathematical operations but also concepts such as “because,” “as,” “if,” “to know,” “to want,” and even “to play.”

The project presupposes that the alines have the technological capability to receive and decode wave-length signals, and that they follow logical and mathematical criteria akin to our own.

They should share with us not only the elementary principles of identity and non-contradiction, but also the habit of inferring a constant rule through induction from many similar cases.

Lincos can only be taught to those who, having guessed that for the mysterious sender 2 x 2 = 4, will assume that this rule will remain constant in the future. This is, in fact, a big assumption; there is no way of ruling out that there exist alien cultures who “think” according to rules which vary according to time and circumstances.

What Freudenthal is aiming for is, explicitly, a true characteristica universalis; in Lincos, however, only a handful of original syntactic rules are formulated in the beginning. As to the rest (as to, for example, the rules governing questions and answers), the model implicitly assumes that the interlocutors will use the rules, and even the pragmatics, of a natural language.

We can, for example, imagine a community of angels, each of whom either reads the thoughts of the others or learns truths directly through beholding them in the mind of God: for such beings, the set of interactional rules governing questions and answers would make no sense at all.

The problem with Lincos is that, although provided with a formal structure, it is conceived as an instrument for “natural” communication, and thus it is inherently uncertain and imprecise. In other words, it cannot possess the tautological structure of a formalized language.

Lincos is probably more interesting from a pedagogical point of view: can one teach a language without ostension?

If the answer is positive, Lincos would allow a situation different from that imagined by philosophers of language, when they skeptically imagine a scene in which a European explorer interacts with a native, each party tries to communicate with the other by pointing at bits of space-time and uttering a given sound, and there is no way for the explorer to be certain whether the native is denoting a given object located in that space-time portion, or the fact that something is happening there, or is expressing his or her refusal to answer (see Quine 1960).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 308-10.

Eco: Kircher’s Polygraphy

Kircher, the Steganographic Ark, from Polygraphia Nova, p. 130

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the steganographic ark, Polygraphia nova et universalis ex combinatoria arte detecta, 1663. 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. 

Kircher wrote his Polygraphia nova et universalis ex combinatoria arte detecta in 1663, several years after his early works on Egypt and hieroglyphics, but he was concerned with the problem of universal writing from the beginning of the decade, and it seems evident that he was at the same time fascinated by the hieroglyphic mysteries and the polygraphic publicity.

It is also significant that in this same volume Kircher designed not only a polygraphy, or international language open to all, but also, in the wake of Trithemius, a steganography, or secret language in which to cipher messages.

What (at the end of the previous chapter) seemed to us a contradiction appeared to Kircher rather as a natural connection. He cited, at the outset, an Arab proverb: if you have a secret, hide it or reveal it (“si secretum tibi sit, tege illud, vel revela“).

Such a decision was not so obvious, after all, since in his works on Egyptology Kircher had chosen a “fifty-fifty solution,” saying something by concealing it, alluding without revealing.

Finally, the second part of the title of Kircher’s work reveals that, in designing his polygraphy, Kircher was also using Lull’s art of combination (contrary to the opinion of Knowlson 1975: 107-8).

In the enthusiastic preface that the author addressed to the emperor Ferdinand III, he celebrated polygraphy as “all languages reduced to one” (“linguarum omnium ad nam reductio“).

Using polygraphy, “anyone, even someone who knows nothing other than his own vernacular, will be able to correspond and exchange letters with anybody else, of whatever their nationality.”

Thus Kircher’s polygraphy was in reality a pasigraphy, that is, a project for a written language, or international alphabet, which was not required to be spoken.

It is easy to confuse Kircher’s project with a double pentaglottic dictionary, in A and B versions (both in Latin, Italian, Spanish, French and German). In Kircher’s time, English was not considered an important international language, and, in his Character, Becher had assumed that French was sufficient, as a vehicular language, for English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese native speakers.

Ideally, Kircher thought (p. 7) that his dictionary should also include Hebrew, Greek, Bohemian, Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Dutch, English and Irish (“linguae doctrinales omnibus communes“)–as well as Nubian, Ethiopic, Egyptian, Congolese, Angolan, Chaldean, Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Tartar, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian and Canadian.

Kircher did not, it seems, feel himself ready to confront such a gigantic task; perhaps he intuited that the missionary activity, followed eventually by colonialism, would drastically simplify the problem (transforming many exotic languages into mere ethnological remnants): Spanish would substitute for Mexican, French for Canadian, Portuguese for Brazilian, and various pidgins would substitute for all the rest.

Kircher’s A and B dictionaries each contain 1,228 items. The grounds for selection were purely empirical: Kircher chose the words that seemed to him most commonly used.

Dictionary A served to encode messages. It started with a list of common nouns and verbs, in alphabetical order. There followed alphabetic lists of proper nouns (regions, cities, persons), and of adverbs and prepositions.

Added to this there was also a list of the conjugations of both the verbs to be and to have. The whole material was subdivided into 32 tables, marked by Roman numerals, while every item of each table was marked by an Arabic numeral.

The dictionary was set out in five columns, one for each of the five languages, and the words in each language were listed in their proper alphabetical order. Consequently, there is no necessary semantic correspondence between the terms recorded on the same line, and only the terms scored with the same Roman and Arabic numbers were to be considered synonymous.

We can see this best by giving the first two lines of the dicti0nary:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 198

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 198. 

The Roman numerals refer to tables found in dictionary B; the Arabic numerals refer to the items themselves. Latin acts as the parameter language: for each specific term, the numbers refer to the Latin alphabetic ordering.

For example, the code for the French word abstenir is I.4, which indicates that the position of its Latin synonym, abstinere, is fourth in the Latin column I (obviously, to encode the Latin word abstinere, one also writes I.4).

To decode the message, it was necessary to use dictionary B. This too was arranged in 32 tables, each assigned a Roman numeral. But for each column (or language) the words did not follow their alphabetic order (except the Latin one), while the Arabic numbers marking each term were in an increasing arithmetical order.

Thus all the terms on the same line were synonymous and each synonym was marked by the same Arabic number.

Again, it is easiest to see how this worked by citing the first two lines of the first table:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 199

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 199. 

Thus, if one wants to send the Latin word abdere (to hide), according to the dictionary A one encodes it as I.2. A German addressee, receiving the message I.2, goes to dictionary B, first table, German column, and looks for the second word, which is exactly verbergen (to hide).

If the same addressee wants to know how to translate this term in Spanish, one finds in the same line that the synonymous term is esconder.

However, Kircher found that a simple lexicon did not suffice; he was forced to invent 44 supplementary signs (notae) which indicated the tense, mood and number of verbs, plus 12 more signs which indicated declensions (nominative, genitive, dative, etc., both singular and plural).

Thus, to understand the following example, the sign N meant nominative, while a sign like a D indicated the third person singular of the past tense. In this way, the ciphered expression “XXVII.36N, XXX.21N, II.5N, XXIII.8D, XXVIII.10, XXX.20” can be decoded as “Petrus noster amicus, venit ad nos” (literally, “Peter our friend came to us”), and on the basis of Latin, can be transformed into an equivalent sentence in any of the other four languages.

Kircher proudly claims that, by dictionary A, we can write in any language even though though we know only our own, as well as that, with dictionary B, we can understand a text written in an unknown language.

The system also works when we receive a non-ciphered text written in a natural foreign language. All we have to do is to look up the reference numbers for each foreign word in dictionary A (where they are listed in alphabetical order), then, with the reference numbers, find the corresponding words in dictionary B, in the column for our own language.

Not only was this process laborious, but the entire project was based on the assumption that all other languages could be directly reduced to the Latin grammar. One can imagine the results of such a method if one thinks of translating literally, word by word, a German sentence into an English one.

Kircher never confronted the problem of why an item-by-item translation should be syntactically correct, or even comprehensible, in the new language. He seemed to rely on the good will and good sense of whoever used his system.

Yet even the most willing users might slip up. In August 1663, after reading the Polygraphia, Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz wrote to Kircher to congratulate him on his wonderful invention (Mss Chigiani f. 59 v., Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Casciato et al. 1986: table 5).

Appropriately, Caramuel chose to congratulate Kircher in his own polygraphy. Yet his first problem was that Kircher’s own first name, Athanasius, did not appear in the list of proper names. Adopting the principle that where a term is missing, an analogous one must be sought, Caramuel addressed his letter to “Anastasia.”

Moreover, there are passages that can be decoded fairly easily, while for others one suspects that the labor of consulting the dictionary to obtain reference numbers for every word proved so tedious that even Caramuel began to nod.

Thus we find ourselves in front of a passage which, in Latin, would need to be translated as follows: “Dominus + sign of vocative, Amicus + sign of vocative, multum sal + sign of vocative, Anastasia, a me + sign of accusative, ars + sign of accusative, ex illius + sign of ablative, discere posse + sign of second person plural, future active, non est loqui vel scribere sub lingua + ablative, communis + ablative.”

After many heroic efforts, one can try to render it (in a sort of “Me Tarzan-You Jane” language) as “O Lord and Friend, O witty Athanasius, to me (?) you could learn from him an art (which) is not speaking and writing under a common language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 196-200.

Eco: Kircher’s Chinese


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. 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 an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

But even more than by merchants, these pathways were traversed by Jesuits, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci who, a century before, had brought European culture to the Chinese, and returned to give Europe a deeper understanding of China.

With the publication of the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in 1585, there appeared in print in Europe characters in Chinese script.

In 1615 there finally appeared Ricci’s De christiana expeditione apud Sinas ab Societate Ieus suscepta, in which he explained that in Chinese, there existed as many characters as there were words. He insisted as well on the international character of the Chinese script, which, he wrote, was readily understood not only by the Chinese, but also by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Cochin-Chinese and by the Formosans.

We shall see that this was a discovery that would initiate the search for a real character from Bacon onwards. Already in 1627, in France, Jean Douet published a Proposition présentée au roy, d’une escriture universelle, admirable pour ses effects, très-utile à tous les hommes de la terre, in which Chinese was offered as a model for an international language.

At the same time, there had begun to appear information about the pictographic writings of Amerindians. Attempts at interpretation had yielded contradictory results; and this was discussed in works such as the Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta in 1570, and the Relaciòn de las cosas de Yucatàn by Diego de Landa, written in the sixteenth century, although appearing only in the eighteenth; in 1609 there also appeared the Comentarios reales que tratan del origine de los Yncas by Garcilaso de la Vega.

An observation often repeated by these early observers was that contact with the indigenous natives was at first carried out by means of gestures. This awoke an interest in gesture’s potential as a universal language.

The universality of gestures and the universality of images turned out to be related themes (the first treatise on this subject was Giovanni Bonifacio‘s L’arte de’ cenni of 1616; on this topic in general, see Knox 1990).

The reports of his Jesuit brothers gave Kircher an incomparable source of ethnographic and linguistic information (see Simone 1990 on “Jesuit or Vatican linguistics”).

In his Oedipus, Kircher was especially interested in the diffusion of Chinese. He took up the same arguments, in a more elliptical form, in his China monumentis quà sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarum rerum memorabilis argumentis illustrata of 1667.

This latter work was more in the nature of a treatise in ethnography and cultural anthropology which, with its splendid and sometimes documented illustrations, collected all the reports that arrived from the missionaries of the Company, and described every aspect of Chinese life, culture and nature.

Only the sixth and last part of the work was dedicated to the alphabet.

Kircher presumed that the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing had been introduced to the Chinese by Noah’s son Ham. In the Arca Noe of 1675 (pp. 210ff) he identified Ham with Zoroaster, the inventor of magic.

But, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters were not for Kircher a puzzle. Chinese was a writing system still in use, and the key to its understanding had already been revealed. How could such a comprehensible language be sacred and a vehicle for occult mysteries?

Kircher realized that Chinese characters were originally iconic and only later had grown extremely stylized over time, so as to lose their original similarity with things. He reconstructed after  his own fancy what he took to be the designs of fish and birds that had formed the starting points for current ideograms.

Kircher also realized that these ideograms did not express either letters or syllables, but referred to concepts. He noted that in order to translate our dictionary into their idiom we would need as many different characters as we had words (Oedipus, III, 11).

This led him to reflect on the amount of memory that was necessary for a Chinese scholar to know and remember all these characters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 158-60.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Combinations of the nine universal symbols, from Ars Magna Sciendi Sive Combinatoria, 1669, p. 171. 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.


“Despite its improbability, the so-called “Flemish thesis” proved remarkably long-lasting. It survived even into the nineteenth century. It did so, however, less on its scientific merits than because it was part of a larger nationalistic polemic.

In his La province de Liège . . . Le flamand langue primordiale, mère de toutes les langues of 1868, the baron de Ryckholt proclaimed that “Flemish is the only language spoken in the cradle of humanity” and that “it alone is a language, while all the rest, dead or living, are but mere dialects or debased forms more or less disguised” (cf. Droixhe 1990: for linguistic follies de grandeur in general, Poliakov 1990).

With such a persistent and ebullient Flemish claim, it can hardly be surprising that there should be a Swedish candidacy as well. In 1671, Georg Stiernhielm wrote his De linguarum origine praefatio.

In 1688, his fellow countryman, Andreas Kempe, wrote Die Sprachen des Paradises; this included a scene in which God and Adam conversed with one another, God speaking in Swedish while Adam spoke in Danish; while they were talking, however, Eve was busy being seduced by a French-speaking serpent (cf. Borst 1957-63: III, 1, 1338; Olender 1989, 1993).

We are, by now, close to parody; yet we should not overlook the fact that these claims were made precisely in Sweden’s period as a major power on the European chessboard.

Olaus Rudbeck, in his Atlantica sive Mannheim vera Japheti posterorum sedes ac patria of 1675, demonstrated that Sweden was the home of Japheth and his line, and that from this racial and linguistic stock all the Gothic idioms were born.

Rudbeck identified Sweden, in fact, as the mythical Atlantis, describing it as the ideal land, the land of the Hesperides, from which civilization had spread to the entire world.

This was an argument that Isidore himself had already used. In his Etymologiarum, IX, ii, 26-7, he had suggested that the progenitor of the Goths was another of Japheth’s sons–Magog. Vico was later to comment acidly on all such claims (Scienza nuova seconda, 1744: II, 2.4, 430):

“Having now to enter upon a discussion of this matter, we shall give a brief sample of the opinions that have been held respecting it–opinions so numerous, inept, frivolous, pretentious or ridiculous, and so numerous, that we need not relate them.

By way of sample then: because in the returned barbarian times Scandinavia by the conceit of the nations was called vagina gentium and was believed to be the mother of all other nations of the world, therefore by the conceit of the scholars Johannes and Olaus Magnus were of the opinion that their Goths had preserved them from the beginning of the world the letters divinely inspired by Adam.

This dream was laughed at by all the scholars, but this did not keep Johannes van Gorp from following suit and going one better by claiming his own Dutch language, which is not much different from Saxon, has come down from the Earthly Paradise and is the mother of all other languages. [ . . . ]

And yet this conceit swelled to bursting point in the Atlantica of Olaus Rudbeck, who will have it that the Greek letters came from the runes; that the Phoenician letters, to which Cadmus gave the order and values those of the Hebrew, were inverted runes; and that the Greeks finally straightened them here and rounded them there by rule and compass.

And because the inventor is Merkurssman among the Scandinavians, he will have it that the Mercury who invented letters for the Egyptians was a Goth.”

Already by the fourteenth century, the idea of a German linguistic primacy was shaking the German-speaking world. The idea later appeared in Luther, for whom German was the language closest to God.

In 1533 Konrad Pelicanus (Commentaria bibliorum) set out the analogies between German and Hebrew, without, however, coming to a final judgement over which of the two was truly the Ursprache (cf. Borst 1957-63: III/1, 2).

In the baroque period, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (Frauenzimmer Gesprächspiele, 1641, Niemayer Tübingen, ed., 1968: 335ff) claimed that the German language:

“speaks in the languages of nature, quite perceptibly expressing all its sounds. [ . . . ]

It thunders with the heavens, flashes lightening with the quick moving clouds, radiates with the hail, whispers with the winds, foams with the waves, creaks with the locks, sounds with the air, explodes with the cannons; it roars like the lion, lows like the oxen, snarls like the bear, bells like the stag, bleats like the sheep, grunts like the pig, barks like the dog, whinnies like the horse, hisses like the snake, meows like the cat, honks like the goose, quacks like the duck, buzzes like the bumble bee, clucks like the hen, strikes its beak like the stork, caws like the crow, coos like the swallow, chirps like the sparrow. [ . . . ]

On all those occasions in which nature gives things their own sound, nature speaks in our own German tongue. For this, many have wished to assert that the first man, Adam, would not have been able to name the birds and all the other beasts of the fields in anything but our words, since he expressed, in a manner conforming to their nature, each and every innate property and inherent sound; and thus it is not surprising that the roots of the larger part of our words coincide with the sacred language.”

German had remained in a state of perfection because Germany had never been subjected to the yoke of a foreign ruler. Lands that had been subjected had inevitably adapted their customs and language to fit those of the victor.

This was also the opinion of Kircher. French, for example, was a mix of Celtic, Greek and Latin. The German language, by contrast, was richer in terms than Hebrew, more docile than Greek, mightier than Latin, more magnificent in its pronunciations than Spanish, more gracious than French, and more correct than Italian.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 97-9.

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.