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Tag: European culture

Eco: Side-Effects

valckenborch_babel_1595_grt

Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1595), held in the Mittelrhein-Museum in Koblenz as Accession Number M31. 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.   

“The story of the search for the perfect language is the story of a dream and of a series of failures. Yet that is not to say that a story of failures must itself be a failure. Though our story be nothing but the tale of the obstinate pursuit of an impossible dream, it is still of some interest to know how this dream originated, as well as uncovering the hopes that sustained the pursuers throughout their secular course.

Put in this light, our story represents a chapter in the history of European culture. It is a chapter, moreover, with a particular interest today when the peoples of Europe–as they discuss the whys and wherefores of a possible commercial and political union–not only continue to speak different languages, but speak them in greater number than ten years ago, and even, in certain places, arm against one another for the sake of their ethno-linguistic differences.

We shall see that the dream of a perfect language has always been invoked as a solution to religious or political strife. It has even been invoked as the way to overcome simple difficulties in commercial exchange. The history of the reasons why Europe thought that it needed a perfect language can thus tell us a good deal about the cultural history of that continent.

Besides, even if our story is nothing but a series of failures, we shall see that each failure produced its own side-effects. Punctually failing to come to fruition, each of the projects left a train of beneficial consequences in its wake.

Each might thus be viewed as a sort of serendipitous felix culpa: many of today’s theories, as well as many of the practices which we theorize (from taxonomy in the natural sciences to comparative linguistics, from formal languages to artificial intelligence and to the cognitive sciences), were born as side-effects of the search for a perfect language.

It is only fair, then, that we acknowledge these pioneers: they have given us a lot, even if it was not what they promised.

Finally, through examining the defects of the perfect languages, conceived in order to eliminate the defects of the natural ones, we shall end up by discovering that these natural languages of ours contain some unexpected virtues. This can finally serve us as consolation for the curse of Babel.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 19-20.

Editorial Note

This concludes my coverage of Chapter 1, From Adam to Confusio Linguarum, omitting in its entirety a section that Eco titled A Semiotic Model for Natural Language, pages 20-4.

I omit this section because it is Eco getting into the weeds of his semiotic method, and while he explains himself clearly, I find it boring. Should you need these pages, just ask. I have screenshots of them, and I can either post them as illustrations or attach them to an email. I am not in the mood to rekey these pages as text. Please accept my apologies.

Besides, Eco’s next chapter is titled The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, and it is fascinating. With no further ado, I will resume there, with his Chapter 2.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 4

1280px-Kmska_Tobias_Verhaecht_(1561–1631)_en_Jan_Brueghel_de_Oude_(1568-1625)_-_Toren_van_Babel_28-02-2010_14-02-24

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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