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Eco: Esperanto


L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), creator of the IAL Esperanto. This photo from the Congressional Book of the 4th World Esperanto Congress in Dresden, 1908. 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. 

Esperanto was first proposed in 1887 in a book, written in Russian and published in Warsaw at the Kelter Press, entitled The International Language. Preface and Complete Manual (for Russians). The author’s name was Dr. Ledger Ludwik Zamenhof; yet he wrote the book under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (Dr. Hopeful), and this was soon adopted as the name of his language.

Zamenhof, born in 1859, had been fascinated with the idea of an international language since adolescence. When his uncle Josef asked him what was the non-Hebrew name he had, according to custom, chosen for his contacts with Gentiles, the seventeen year old Zamenhof replied that he had chosen Ludwik because he had found a reference to Lodwick (also spelled Lodowick) in a work by Comenius (letter of 31 March 1876; see Lamberti 1990: 49).

Zamenhof’s origins and personality helped shape both his conception of the new language and its eventual success. Born of a Jewish family in Bialystok, an area of Polish Lithuania then part of the Tsarist empire, Zamenhof passed his childhood in a crucible of races and languages continually shaken by nationalist ferment and lasting waves of anti-Semitism.

The experience of oppression, followed by the persecution of intellectuals, especially Jewish, at the hands of the Tsarist government, ensured that Zamenhof’s particular fascination with international languages would become mixed with a desire for peace between peoples.

Besides, although Zamenhof felt solidarity towards his fellow Jews and forecast their return to Palestine, his form of secular religiosity prevented him from fully supporting Zionist ideas; instead of thinking of the end of the Diaspora as a return to Hebrew, Zamenhof hoped that all the Jews could be, one day, reunited in an entirely new language.

In the same years in which, starting in the Slavic-speaking lands, Esperanto began its spread throughout Europe–while philanthropists, linguists and learned societies followed its progress with interest, devoting international conferences to the phenomenon–Zamenhof had also published an anonymous pamphlet, which extolled a doctrine of international brotherhood, homaranism.

Some of his followers successfully insisted on keeping the Esperanto movement independent of ideological commitments, arguing that if Esperanto were to succeed, it would do so only by attracting to its cause men and women of different religious, political and philosophical opinions.

They even sought to avoid any public reference to Zamenhof’s own Jewish origins, given that–it must be remembered–just at that historical moment there was growing up the theory of a great “Jewish conspiracy.”

Even so, despite the movement’s insistence on its absolute neutrality, the philanthropic impulse and the non-confessional religious spirit that animated it could not fail to influence the followers of the new language–or samideani, that is, participating in the same ideal.

In the years immediately following its emergence, moreover, the language and its supporters were almost banned by the Tsarist government, congenitally suspicious towards idealism of any sort, especially after Esperanto had had the fortune / misfortune to obtain the passionate support of Tolstoy, whose brand of humanist pacifism the government regarded as a dangerous form of revolutionary ideology.

Even the Nazis followed suit, persecuting Esperanto speakers in the various lands under their occupation (cf. Lins 1988). Persecution, however, only reinforces an idea: the majority of international languages represented themselves as nothing more than instruments of practical utility; Esperanto, by contrast, came increasingly to gather in its folds those religious and pacifist tensions which had been characteristics of many quests for a perfect language, at least until the end of the seventeenth century.

Esperanto came to enjoy the support and sympathy of many illustrious figures–linguists such as Baudoin de Courtenay and Otto Jespersen, scientists such as Peano, or philosophers such as Russell. Rudolf Carnap‘s comments are particularly revealing; in his Autobiography (in Schilpp 1963: 70) he described feeling moved by a sense of solidarity when he found himself able to converse with people of other countries in a common tongue.

He noted the quality of this living language which managed to unify a surprising degree of flexibility in its means of expression with a great structural simplicity. Simplest perhaps was the lapidary formulation of Antoine Meillet: “Toute discussion théoretique est vaine: l’Esperanto fonctionne” (Meillet 1918: 268).

Today the existence of the Universala Esperanto-Asocio in all of the principal cities of the world still testifies to the success of Zamenhof’s invention. Over one hundred periodicals are currently published in Esperanto, there is an original production of poetry and narrative, and most of the world literature has been translated into this language, from the Bible to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

Like Volapük, however, especially in the first decades, the Esperanto movement was nearly torn apart by battles raging over proposed lexical and grammatical reforms. In 1907, Couturat, as the founder and secretary of the Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, attempted what Zamenhof considered a coup de main: he judged Esperanto to be the best IAL, but only in its approved version, that is, only in the version that had been reformed by the French Esperanto enthusiast, Louis De Beaufront, and renamed Ido.

The majority of the movement resisted the proposed modifications, according to a principle stated by Zamenhof: Esperanto might accept enrichments and lexical improvements, but it must always remain firmly attached to what we might call the “hard core” as set down by its founder in Fundamento de Esperanto (1905).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 324-6.

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: 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.

The Naassene Fragment Continued, Jesus Made the River Jordan Flow Upwards

” … And that he (H. that is Hermes, so symbolised) is Conductor and Reconductor of souls, 1 and Cause of souls, has not escaped the notice of the poets (H. of the Gentiles), when saying:

“But Cyllenian Hermes summoned forth the souls

Of men mindful” 2

—not the “suitors” of Penelope (H. he says), hapless wights! but of those who are roused from sleep, and have their memory restored to them—

“From what honour and [how great] degree of blessedness.” 3

J. That is, from the Blessed Man Above—

H. —or Original Man, or Adamas, as they 4 think—

J. —they 5 have been thus brought down into the plasm of clay, in order that they may be enslaved to the Demiurge of this creation, Esaldaios 6

H. —a fiery God, fourth in number, for thus they call the Demiurge and Father of this special cosmos. 7

(13) S. “And he 1 holds a rod in his hands,

Beautiful, golden; and with it he spell-binds the eyes of men,

Whomsoever he would, and wakes them again too from sleep.” 2

This (H. he says) is He who alone hath the power of life and death. 3

J. Concerning Him it is written: “Thou shalt shepherd them with a rod of iron.” 4

But the poet (H. he says), wishing to embellish the incomprehensibility of the Blessed Nature of the Logos, bestowed upon Him a golden instead of an iron rod.

S. “He spell-binds the eyes” of the dead (H. he says), and “wakes them again too from sleep”—those who are waked from sleep and become “mindful.” 5

C. Concerning them the Scripture saith: “Awake thou that sleepest, and rise, and Christ will give thee light.” 6

This is the Christ, the Son of Man (H. he says), expressed in all who are born from the Logos, whom no expression can express.

S. This (H. he says) is the Great Ineffable Mystery of the Eleusinia: “Hye Kye.” 7

J. And that (H. he says) all things have been put under Him, this too has been said: “Into all the earth hath gone forth their sound.” 1

(14) S. And “Hermes leads them, moving his rod, and they follow, squeaking” 2—the souls in a cluster, as the poet hath shown in the following image:

“But as when bats into some awesome cave’s recess

Fly squeaking—should one from out the cluster fall

Down from the rock, they cling to one another.” 3

J. The “rock” (H. he says) means Adamas. This (H. he says) is the “corner-stone”—

C. —“that hath become the head of the corner.” 4 For in the

“Head” is the expressive Brain 1 of the Essence, from which [Brain] “every fatherhood” 2 has its expression—

J. —which “I insert in the foundation of Zion.” 3

[By this] (H. he says) he 4 means, allegorically, the plasm of man. For the Adamas who is “inserted” is [the inner man, and the “foundations of Zion” are 5] the “teeth”—the “fence of the teeth,” as Homer says—the Wall and Palisade 6 in which is the inner man, fallen into it from the Primal Man, the Adamas Above—[the Stone] “cut without hands” 7 cutting it, and brought down into the plasm of forgetfulness, the earthy, clayey [plasm].

(15) S. And (H. he says that) they followed Him squeaking 8—the souls, the Logos.

“Thus they went squeaking together; and he led them on,

Hermes, the guileless, down the dark ways.” 9

That is, (H. he says) [He led them] into the eternal lands free from all guile. For where (H. he says) went they?

(16) “They passed by the streams of Ocean, and by the White Rock,

By the Gates of the Sun, and the People of Dreams.” 10

For He (H. he says) is Ocean—“birth-causing of gods and birth-causing of men” 1—flowing and ebbing for ever, now up and now down.

J. When Ocean flows down (H. he says), it is the birth-causing of men; and when [it flows] up, towards the Wall and Palisade, and the “White Rock,” it is the birth-causing of gods.

This (H. he says) is what is written:

“‘I have said ye are Gods and all Sons of the Highest’ 2—if ye hasten to flee from Egypt and get you beyond the Red Sea into the Desert”; that is, from the intercourse below to the Jerusalem Above, who is the Mother of the Living. 3

“But if ye turn back again into Egypt”—that is, to the intercourse below—“‘ye shall die like men.’” 4

For (H. he says) all the generation below is subject to death, but the [birth] begotten above is superior to death.

C. For from water alone—that is, spirit—is begotten the spiritual [man], not the fleshly; the lower [man] is fleshly. That is (H. he says) what is written: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” 5

H. This is their 6 spiritual birth.

J. This (H. he says) is the Great Jordan, which, flowing downwards and preventing the sons of Israel from going forth out of Egypt, or from the intercourse below—

H. —for Egypt is the body, according to them—

J. —was turned back by Jesus 1 and made to flow upwards.”

G.R.S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest HermesVol. 1, 1906, pp. 155-8.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

Excerpts from the Naassene Fragment

” … In the following analysis H. stands for Hippolytus; C. for the Christian Gnostic final overwriter, the “Naassene” whose MS. lay before H.; J. for the Naassene Jewish mystic who preceded C. and overworked the original; S. for the original Heathen Hellenistic Source. …”

“(1) S. “Earth (say the Greeks 3) first brought forth Man—bearing a fair gift, desiring to be mother not of plants without feeling, nor of brutes without reason, but of a tamed God-loving life.

“Difficult is it (H. he says 4) to discover whether it was among the Bœotians that Alalkomeneus rose from the Kephisian Lake as first of men; or whether it was the Idæan Kurētes, race divine, or the Phrygian Korybantes, whom Helios saw first sprouting forth tree-like; or whether Arkadia brought forth Pelasgos [first], older than the Moon; or Eleusis Diaulos, dweller in Raria; or Lēmnos Kabeiros, fair child of ineffable orgies; 1 or whether Pallēnē Phlegræan Alkyoneus, eldest of Giants.

“The Libyans say that Garamas, 2 rising from parched plains, first picked sweet date of Zeus; while Neilos, making fat the mud of Egypt to this day (H. he says), breeds living things, and renders from damp heat things clothed in flesh.” 3

The Assyrians say it was with them Ōannēs, the Fish-eater; while the Chaldæans [say that it was] Adam.

(2) J. And this Adam they [the Chaldæans] say was the man that Earth produced—a body only, and that he lay breathless, motionless, immovable, like a statue, being an image of that Man Above—

H. —of whom they sing, and brought into existence by the many Powers, 1 concerning which there is much detailed teaching.

J. In order, then, that the Great Man from Above—

C. From whom, as is said, every fatherhood has its name on earth or in the heavens. 2

J. —might be completely brought low, there was given unto him 3 Soul also, in order that through the Soul the enclosed plasm of the Great, Most-fair, and Perfect Man might suffer and be chastened.

H. For thus they call Him. They seek to discover then further what is the Soul, and whence, and of what nature, that by entering into man and moving him, it should enslave and chasten the plasm of the Perfect Man; but they seek this also not from the Scriptures, but from the Mysteries.

(3) S. And they 4 say that Soul is very difficult to discover, and hard to understand; for it never remains of the same appearance, or form, or in the same state, so that one can describe it by a general type, 5 or comprehend it by an essential quality.

H. These variegated metamorphoses they 6 have laid down in the Gospel, superscribed “According to the Egyptians.” 7

S. They are accordingly in doubt—

H. —like all the rest of the Gentiles—

J. —whether it [sc. the Soul] is from the Pre-existing [One], or from the Self-begotten, or from the Streaming Chaos. 8

H. And first of all, in considering the triple division of Man, they fly for help to the Initiations of the Assyrians; for the Assyrians were the first to consider the Soul triple and [yet] one. …”

 G.R.S.Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1, 1906, pp. 148-51.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

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