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Tag: Latin

Howl for Malcolm Forsmark


The incipit of Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), Howl, City Lights Books: San Francisco, 1959, as presented by Christopher Skinner on his Lestaret blog. This rendering © 2010 Lestaret.

For Malcom Forsmark

(Because Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl for Carl Solomon.)

“It is the belief in the art of poetry that has gone hand in hand with this man into his Golgotha, from that charnel house, similar in every way, to that of the Jews in the past war. But this is in our own country, our own fondest purlieus. We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels.”

William Carlos Williams, from Allen Ginsberg, Howl, City Lights, San Francisco, 1959.

I realize now that the multiverse nudged me to contemplate Moloch, as I watched several YouTube documentaries about the Bohemian Grove.

I finally ended reading Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, scene 2, “Weaving spiders, come not here!”

For the crux of Ginsberg’s Howl is this excerpt from the midpoint of part II, the literal halfway point of the poem:

Moloch whose name is the Mind!”

You can argue that Howl is a paean to Moloch, but like most long poems Howl is many things. One thing that it is not, with no apologies to William Carlos Williams, is angelic.

It took me a couple of tries to reread it today, I last read it years ago, and at first I loathed it. I hated the description of “negro streets,” and worst of all, the word “Mohammedan” made me stop reading and write this commentary.

It felt like Ginsberg used those words because he thought that they were edgy in 1954, and all those words did for me was confirm that Ginsberg was talking about things that he did not know. The terms “negro streets” and “Mohammedan” feel prosaic and inauthentic as I write this in 2016.

What did Allen Ginsberg know about Islam? Nothing in 1954 when he began Howl, nothing compared to what we know now, courtesy of YouTube, in anno 2016.

I carried a gun in Baghdad myself in 2003 and 2004, aware that I was stalking in the land of the four rivers, the Pison, the Gihon, the Euphrates and the Tigris, where Sumerian cuneiform blossomed out of oral traditions some four thousand years before.

A young lady who ran my office, born Sunni, explained that Islam made her feel loved, not oppressed, even as she wore sunglasses in the office to avoid tormenting men with the vision of her eyes.

Then I remembered Patti Smith proclaiming that she was a Moslem, in her immortal babelogue, circa 1978. This was Ginsberg’s Islam of 1954, but 24 years later:

” …  I wake up. I am lying peacefully I am lying peacefully and my knees are open to the sun.

I desire him, and he is absolutely ready to seize me.

In heart I am a Moslem; in heart I am an American; in heart I am Moslem, in heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt.”

Patti Smith, babelogue, Easter, Arista Records, 1978.

I always loved babelogue for Patti Smith‘s unrepentant sluttiness and the irony that certain Muslim sects chant: “the sun is not God!”

Then Ginsberg wrote this:

” … who wandered around and around at midnight in the railway yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night … “

Allen GinsbergHowl, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1959.

Yes, “boxcars” is a poetic gimmick, but it works. The more that you read the sentence, the more that you admire it. “Grandfather night” is so good that I intend to steal it.

I am also stealing Ginsberg’s description of poets whose “heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion,” as we are all of us destined for oblivion. Indeed, “Writing for oblivion” is the tagline on all of my websites.

I also admire the irony of Ginsberg writing,

” … who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish…”

As this happens to every poet. I also remember Oscar Wilde, with Lord Darlington’s caveat in Act III of Lady Windermere’s Fan, writing that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.”


I also liked this part:

” … the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”

Which brings us back to Moloch, reminding me that legalized, systemic infanticide is indistinguishable from state-sponsored Satanic child sacrifice.

One profane theme eulogized by Ginsberg is the hyper-sexuality of homosexuals. As Paris Hilton famously observed, “gay guys are the horniest people in the world.” Anyone who knows many homosexuals knows that Ms. Hilton had a point, and Ginsberg’s Howl parodies sacred sexuality.

I am less repelled by Howl’s eroticism, however, than I am by its junkies, as Ginsberg’s glorification of heroin addiction unmasks him as an effete poseur reveling in his own appetites.

I respect Ginsberg’s occidental Buddhism and his later popularization of Hindu mantra, for it needed to be done, but the final straw for me was Ginsberg’s defense of NAMBLA, and his apologia for pederasty.

Pedophiles may be programmed by nature with proscribed urges, but I have no patience for an advocacy organization that rationalizes statutory rape with, “age is just a number.” I tolerate the sexual exploitation of children by nobody, the child bride of the Prophet included (may peace be upon him).

At first reading I felt nothing beautiful from the first page of Howl, so I said the hell with it, why waste time reading it. I celebrate beauty, not vomitus, and prospecting for pearls in shit is irredeemable.

Then I remembered the pilgrimage that Malcolm Forsmark and I made to the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1979, just before I joined the Army. We arrived late. It was closed.

We were disappointed, because we lived in Boulder, and a journey to San Francisco was an expedition. We got drunk and we shouted Howl to the gleaming jewel lights of the city. I did not know then that I would live in San Francisco in 1986, and come to make that metropolis my own.

Sometime that night, Malcolm told me that he met Allen Ginsberg at a party in Boulder. The Naropa crowd thought that they were so countercultural. I did not understand this at the time, I was too young, but it is very clear to me now, with the hindsight of a lifetime focusing my memory. Ginsberg exclaimed, “ah, another up and coming young faggot!”

Actually, no. Malcolm Forsberg was a classicist and an autodidact, a scholar of Latin and Greek whose erudition was staggering. Malcolm eclipsed any academic on the Naropa faculty. I have not spoken to Malcolm in decades, but I knew him so well that I know that I know him still.

I know that wherever he is, he is writing poetry: the poetry of Malcolm Forsmark.

” … exhausted cigarette butts

nodding in opiate daze

burning down to grimy fingers.”

Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez

Bangkok, updated 5 May 2018.

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: The “Political” Possibilities of an IAL


Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), Histoire des Oracles, La Haye: Gosse et Néalme, 1728. 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. 

“Up to now, vehicular languages have been imposed by tradition (Latin as the language of politics, learning and the church in the Middle Ages), by political and economical hegemony (English after World War II), or by other imponderable reasons (Swahili, a natural language spoken on the coast of east Africa, gradually and spontaneously penetrated the interior and, in the wake of commercial and, later, colonial contacts, was simplified and standardized, becoming the common language for a vast African area).

Would it be possible for some international body (the UN or the European Parliament) to impose a particular IAL as a lingua franca (or, perhaps, sanction the actual diffusion of one)? It would be a totally unprecedented historical event.

No one could deny, however, that today many things have changed: that continuous and curious exchanges among different peoples–not just at the higher social levels, but at the level of mass tourism–are phenomena that did not exist in previous eras.

The mass media have proved to be capable of spreading comparatively homogeneous patterns of behavior throughout the entire globe–and in fact, in the international acceptance of English as a common language, the mass media have played no small part.

Thus, were a political decision to be accompanied by a media campaign, the chances of success for an IAL would be greatly improved.

Today, Albanians and Tunisians have learned Italian only because they can receive Italian TV. All the more reason, it seems, to get people acquainted with an IAL, provided it would be regularly used by many television programs, by international assemblies, by the pope for his addresses, by the instruction booklets for electronic gadgets, by the control towers in the airports.

If no political initiative on this matter has emerged up till now, if, indeed, it seems difficult to bring about, this does not mean that a political initiative of this sort will never be made in the future.

During the last four centuries we have witnessed in Europe a process of national state formation, which required (together with a customs policy, the constitution of regular armies, and the vigorous imposition of symbols of identity) the imposition of single national languages.

Schools, academies and the press have been encouraged to standardize and spread knowledge of these languages. Speakers of marginal languages suffered neglect, or, in various political circumstances, even direct persecution, in order to ensure national homogeneity.

Today, however, the trend has reversed itself: politically, customs barriers are coming down, national armies are giving way to international peace-keeping forces, and national borders have become “welcome to” signs on the motorway.

In the last decades, European policy towards minority languages has changed as well. Indeed, in the last few years, a much more dramatic change has taken place, of which the crumbling of the Soviet empire is the most potent manifestation: linguistic fragmentation is no longer felt as an unfortunate accident but rather as a sign of national identity and as  a political right–at the cost even of civil wars.

For two centuries, America was an international melting pot with one common language–WASP English: today, in states like California, Spanish has begun to claim an equal right; New York City is not far behind.

The process is probably by now unstoppable. If the growth in European unity now proceeds in step with linguistic fragmentation, the only possible solution lies in the full adoption of a vehicular language for Europe.

Among all the objections, one still remains valid: it was originally formulated by Fontenelle and echoed by d’Alembert in his introduction to the Encyclopédie: governments are naturally egotistical; they enact laws for their own benefit, but never for the benefit of all humanity.

Even if we were all to agree on the necessity of an IAL, it is hard to imagine the international bodies, which are still striving to arrive at some agreement over the means to save our planet from an ecological catastrophe, being capable of imposing a painless remedy for the open wound of Babel.

Yet in this century we have become used to a constantly accelerating pace of events, and this should make would-be prophets pause. National pride is a two-edged sword; faced with the prospect that in a future European union the language of a single national might prevail, those states with scant prospects of imposing their own language and which are afraid of the predominance of another one (and thus all states except one) might band together to support the adoption of an IAL.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 332-5.

Eco: Theoretical Objections and Counter-objections


Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), Projet d’éléments d’idéologie, Paris, 1801. This copy in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. 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. 

“A fundamental objection that can be applied to any of the a posteriori projects generically is that they can make no claim to having identified and artificially reorganized a content system.

They simply provide an expression system which aims at being easy and flexible enough to express the contents normally expressed in a natural language. Such a practical advantage is also a theoretical limit. If the a priori languages were too philosophical, their a posteriori successors are not philosophical enough.

The supporters of an IAL have neither paid attention to the problem of linguistic relativism, nor ever been worried by the fact that different languages present the world in different ways, sometimes mutually incommensurable.

They have usually taken it for granted that synonymous expressions exist from language to language, and the vast collection of books that have been translated into Esperanto from various of the world’s languages is taken as proof of the complete “effability” of this language (this point has been discussed, from opposite points of view, by two authors who are both traditionally considered as relativist, that is, Sapir and Whorfcf. Pellerey 1993: 7).

To accept the idea that there is a content system which is the same for all languages means, fatally, to take surreptitiously for granted that such a model is the western one. Even if it tries to distance itself in certain aspects from the Indo-European model, Esperanto, both in its lexicon and in its syntax, remains basically an Indo-European tongue.

As Martinet observed, “the situation would have been different if the language had been invented by a Japanese” (1991: 681).

One is free to regard all these objections as irrelevant. A theoretical weak point may even turn out to be a practical advantage. One can hold that linguistic unification must, in practice, accept the use of the Indo-European languages as the linguistic model (cf. Carnap in Schlipp 1963:71).

It is a view that seems to be confirmed by actual events; for the moment (at least) the economic and technological growth of Japan is based on Japanese acceptance of an Indo-European language (English) as a common vehicle.

Both natural tongues and some “vehicular” languages have succeeded in becoming dominant in a given country or in a larger area mainly for extra-linguistic reasons. As far as the linguistic reasons are concerned (easiness, economy, rationality and so on), there are so many variables that there are no “scientific” criteria whereby we might confute the claim of Goropius Becanus that sixteenth century Flemish was the easiest, most natural, sweetest and most expressive language in the entire universe.

The predominate position currently enjoyed by English is a historical contingency arising from the mercantile and colonial expansion of the British Empire, which was followed by American economic and technological hegemony.

Of course, it may also be maintained that English has succeeded because it is rich in monosyllables, capable of absorbing foreign words and flexible in forming neologisms, etc.: yet had Hitler won World War II and had the USA been reduced to a confederation of banana republics, we would probably today use German as a universal vehicular language, and Japanese electronics firms would advertise their products in Hong Kong airport duty-free shops (Zollfreie Waren) in German.

Besides, on the arguable rationality of English, and of any other vehicular language, see the criticism of Sapir (1931).

There is no reason why an artificial language like Esperanto might not function as an international language, just as certain natural languages (such as Greek, Latin, French, English, Swahili) have in different historical periods.

We have already encountered in Destutt de Tracy an extremely powerful objection: a universal language, like perpetual motion, is impossible for a very “peremptory” reason: “Even were everybody on earth to agree to speak the same language from today onwards, they would rapidly discover that, under the influence of their own use, the single language had begun to change, to modify itself in thousands of different ways in each different country, until it produced in each a different dialect which gradually grew away from all the others” (Eléments d’idéologie, II, 6, 569).

It is true that, just for the above reasons, the Portuguese of Brazil today differs from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal so much that Brazilian and Portuguese publishers publish two different translations of the same foreign book, and it is a common occurrence for foreigners who have learned their Portuguese in Rio to have difficulty understanding what they hear on the streets of Lisbon.

Against this, however, one can point out the Brazilians and Portuguese still manage to understand each other well enough in practical, everyday matters. In part, this is because the mass media help the speakers of each variety to follow the transformations taking place on the other shore.

Supporters of Esperanto like Martinet (1991: 685) argue that it would be, to say the least, naive to to suppose that, as an IAL diffused into new areas, it would be exempt from the process through which languages evolve and split up into varieties of dialects.

Yet in so far as an IAL remained an auxiliary language, rather than the primary language of everyday exchange, the risks of such a parallel evolution would be diminished.

The action of the media, which might reflect the decisions of a sort of international supervisory association, could also contribute to the establishment and maintenance of standards, or, at least, to keeping evolution under control.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 330-2.

Eco: An Optimized Grammar

Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, 1889

L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), as Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, Henry Phillips, Jr., trans., New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1889. Courtesy of Cornell University Library and 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 twenty eight letters of the Esperanto alphabet are based on a simple principle: for each letter one sound, and for each sound one letter. The tonic accent always falls on the penultimate syllable. There is only one article, la, invariable for words of all genders–thus la homo, la libroj, la abelo. Proper names do not take an article. There is no indefinite article.

Concerning the lexicon, the young Zamenhof had already noted that in many European languages there was a logic of suffixes that produced both feminine and many derivative forms (Buch / Bücherei, pharmakon / pharmakeia, child / childish, rex / regina, host / hostess, gallo / gallina, hero / heroine, Tsar / Tsarina), while the formation of contraries was governed by prefixes (heureux / malheureux, happy / unhappy, legal / illegal, fermo / malfermo, rostom / malorostom–the Russian for “high” and “low.”)

In a letter of 24 September 1876, Zamenhof described himself as ransacking the dictionaries of the various European languages trying to identify terms with a common root–lingwe, lingua, langue, lengua, language; rosa, rose, roza, etc. This was already the seminal idea of an a posteriori language.

Wherever Zamenhof was unable to discover a common root, he coined his own terms, privileging Romance languages, followed by the Germanic and Slavic ones. As a result, any speaker of a European language who examined an Esperanto word list would discover:

(1). Many terms that were easily recognizable as being similar or identical to his or her own;

(2). Terms which, though deriving from a foreign language, were still easily recognizable;

(3). Terms which, though strange at first sight, once their meaning had been learned, turned out to be easily recognizable; and finally,

(4). A reasonably limited number of terms to be learned ex novo.

Here are some examples: abelo (ape), apud (next to), akto (act), alumeto (match), birdo (bird), cigaredo (cigarette), domo (home), fali (to fall), frosto (frost), fumo (smoke), hundo (dog), kato (cat), krajono (pencil), kvar (quarter).

Esperanto also includes a comparatively large number of compound words. They are not inspired by the a priori projects, where composition is the norm, since the terms work like a chemical formula; Zamenhof could find compound words in natural languages (think of man-eater, tire-bouchon, schiaccianoci, to say nothing of German).

Compound words, moreover, permitted the exploitation of a limited number of radicals to the maximum. The rule governing the formation of compounds was that the principal word appeared at the end: thus–as in English–a “writing-table” becomes skribotablo.

The agglutinative principle which governs the formation of compound words allows for the creation of easily recognizable neologisms (cf. Zinna 1993).

From the radical stem, the neutral form is given by the suffix -o. This is not, as might appear, for example, to Italian or Spanish speakers, the suffix for the masculine gender, but merely serves as a mark for singular.

The feminine gender is “marked” by inserting an -in- between the stem and the singular ending -o. Thus “father / mother” = patr-o / patr-in-o, “king / queen” = reg-o / reg-in-o, male / female = vir-o / vir-in-o.

Plurals are formed by adding -j to the singular: thus “fathers / mothers” = patr-o-j / patr-in-o-j.

In natural languages many terms belonging to the same conceptual fields are frequently expressed by radically different lexical items. For instance, in Italian, given the conceptual field of parenthood, one must learn the meaning of padre, madre, suocero, genitori (father, mother, father-in-law and parents) before acknowledging that these terms belong to the same notional family.

In Esperanto, knowing the meaning of the radical patr, it is immediately possible to guess the meaning of patro, patrino, bopatro and gepatroj.

Likewise, in English (as well as in other languages) there are different endings for terms which all express a job or an occupation, like actor, driver, dentist, president, surgeon.

In Esperanto the words for all occupations are marked by the suffix –isto, so that anyone who knows that dento is “tooth” will automatically know that a dentisto is a professional who deals with teeth.

The rule for the formation of adjectives is also simple and intuitively clear: adjectives are formed by adding the suffix -a to the root stem: “paternal” = patr-a; and they agree with nouns in number: “good parents” = bonaj patroj.

The six verbal forms are not conjugated, and are always marked by six suffixes. For instance, for the verb “to see” we have vid-i (infinitive), vid-as (present), vid-is (past), vid-os (future), vid-us (conditional) and vid-u! (imperative).

Zinna has observed (1993) that, while the a priori languages and “laconic” grammars tried, at all cost, to apply a principle of economy, Esperanto follows a principle of optimization. Following the principle of economy, Esperanto abolishes case endings, yet it makes an exception of the accusative–which is formed by adding an -n to the noun: “la patro amas la filon, la patro amas la filojn.”

The motivation for this exception was that in non-flexional languages the accusative is the only case which is not introduced by a preposition, therefore it had to be marked in some way. Besides, the languages that, like English, had lost the accusative for nouns retain it for pronouns (I / me). The accusative also permits one to invert the syntactic order of the sentence, and yet to identify both the subject and the object of the action.

The accusative serves to avoid other ambiguities produced by non-flexional languages. As in Latin, it serves to indicate motion towards, so that in Esperanto one can distinguish between “la birdo flugas en la gardeno” (in which the bird is flying about within the garden) from “la birdo flugas en la gardenon” (in which the bird is flying into the garden).

In Italian “l’uccello vola nel giardino” remains ambiguous. In English, “I can hear him better than you” is ambiguous, for it can mean either “I can hear him better than you can hear him” or “I can hear him better than I can hear you” (the same happens in French with “je l’écoute mieux que vous,” or in Italian with “lo sento meglio di te“).

The Esperanto accusative renders this distinction very simply: the first case is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vi,” while the second is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 327-30.

Eco: The Babel of A Posteriori Languages


Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), Italian mathematician, circa 1910. Photographer unknown. 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. 

“Among the international artificial languages, the project that was presented in 1734 under the pseudonym of Carpophorophilus probably takes the prize for seniority; the next was Faiguet’s Langue Nouvelle; after this, in 1839, was the Communicationssprache of Schipfer. After these, there came a tide of IALs in the nineteenth century.

If one takes samples from a number of systems, a set of family resemblances soon appears. There is usually a prevalence of Latin roots plus a fair distribution of roots derived from other European languages.

In this way, the speakers of any one of the major European languages will always have the impression of being in, at least partially, familiar territory:

“Me senior, I sende evos un grammatik e un verb-bibel de un nuov glot nomed universal glot. (Universal sprache, 1868).

Ta pasilingua era una idioma per tos populos findita, una lingua qua autoris de to spirito divino, informando tos hominos zu parlir, er creita. (Pasilingua, 1885).

Mesiur, me recipi-tum tuo epistola hic mane gratissime. (Lingua, 1888).

Con grand satisfaction mi ha lect tei letter [ . . . ] Le possibilità de un universal lingue pro la civilisat nations ne esse dubitabil. (Mondolingue, 1888).

Me pen the liberté to ecriv to you in Anglo-Franca. Me have the honneur to soumett to yoùs inspection the prospectus of mès object manufactured. (Anglo-Franca, 1889).

Le nov latin non requirer pro la sui adoption aliq congress. (Nov Latin, 1890).

Scribasion in idiom neutral don profiti sekuant in komparision ko kelkun lingu nasional. (Idiom Neutral, 1902).”

In 1893 there even appeared an Antivolapük which was really an anti-IAL: it consisted of nothing but a skeletal universal grammar which users were invited to complete by adding lexical items from their own language; for example:

French-international: IO NO savoir U ES TU cousin . . .

English-international: IO NO AVER lose TSCHE book KE IO AVER find IN LE street.

Italian-international: IO AVER vedere TSCHA ragazzo e TSCHA ragazza IN UN strada.

Russian-international: LI dom DE MI atijez E DE MI djadja ES A LE ugol DE TSCHE ulitza.

Of like perversity was Tutonisch (1902), an international language only comprehensible to German speakers (or, at most, to speakers of Germanic languages like English).

Thus the opening of the Lord’s Prayer sounds like this: “vio fadr hu be in hevn, holirn bi dauo nam.” The author was later merciful enough to provide Romance-language speakers with a version of their own, so that they too might pray in Tutonisch: “nuo opadr, ki in siel, sanktirn bi tuo nom.”

If our story seems to be taking a turn for the ridiculous, it is due less to the languages themselves (which taken one by one are frequently well done) than to an inescapable “Babel effect.”

Interesting on account of its elementary grammar, the Latino Sine Flexione of the great mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano (1903) was wittily designed. Peano had no intention of creating a new language; he only wanted to recommend his simplified Latin as a written lingua franca for international scientific communication, reminiscent of the “laconic” grammars of the Encyclopédie.

Peano stripped Latin of its declensions, with, in his own words, the result that: “Con reductione qui praecede, nomen et verbo fie inflexible; toto grammatica latino evanesce.”

Thus, no grammar (or almost no grammar) and a lexicon from a well-known language. Yet this result tended perhaps to encourage pidgin Latin. When an English contributor wished to write for one of the mathematical journals which, under the influence of Peano, accepted articles in Latino Sine Flexione, he naturally retained the modal future; thus he translated, “I will publish” as me vol publica.

The episode is not only amusing: it illustrates the possibility of an uncontrolled development. As with other international languages, Latino Sine Flexione depended less upon its structural merits than on establishing a consensus in its favor. Failing to achieve this, it became another historical curiosity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 321-4.

Eco: The International Auxiliary Languages

Couturat & Leau, Histoire de la Langue Universelle, 1903

Louis Couturat (1868-1914) & Léopold Leau (1868-1943), Histoire de la langue universelle, Hachette, Paris, 1903, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and 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 dawn of the twentieth century witnessed a revolution in transport and communications. In 1903 Couturat and Leau noted that it was now possible to voyage around the world in just forty days; exactly one half of the fateful limit set by Jules Verne just thirty years before.

Now the telephone and the wireless knitted Europe together and as communication became faster, economic relations increased. The major European nations had acquired colonies even in the far-flung antipodes, and so the European market could extend to cover the entire earth.

For these and other reasons, governments felt as never before the need for international forums where they might meet to resolve an infinite series of common problems, and our authors cite the Brussels convention on sugar production and international accord on white-slave trade.

As for scientific research, there were supranational bodies such as the Bureau des poides et  mesures (sixteen states) or the International Geodesic Association (eighteen states), while in 1900 the International Association of Scientific Academies was founded.

Couturat and Leau wrote that such a growing of scientific information needed to be organized “sous peine de revenir à la tour de Babel.”

What could the remedy be? Couturat and Leau dismissed the idea of choosing a living language as an international medium as utopian, and found difficulties in returning to a dead language like Latin.

Besides, Latin displays too many homonyms (liber means both “book” and “free”), its flexions create equivocations (avi might represent the dative and ablative of avis or the nominative plural of avus), it makes it difficult to distinguish between nouns and verbs (amor means both love and I am loved), it lacks a definite article and its syntax is largely irregular . . . The obvious solution seemed to be the invention of an artificial language, formed on the model of natural ones, but which might seem neutral to all its users.

The criteria for this language should be above all a simple and rational grammar (as extolled by the a priori languages, but with a closer analogy with existing tongues), and a lexicon whose terms recalled as closely as possible words in the natural languages.

In this sense, an international auxiliary language (henceforth IAL) would no longer be a priori but a posteriori; it would emerge from a comparison with and a balanced synthesis of naturally existing languages.

Couturat and Leau were realistic enough to understand that it was impossible to arrive at a preconceived scientific formula to judge which of the a posteriori IAL projects was the best and most flexible. It would have been the same as deciding on allegedly objective grounds whether Portuguese was superior to Spanish as a language for poetry or for commercial exchange.

They realized that, furthermore, an IAL project would not succeed unless an international body adopted and promoted it. Success, in other words, could only follow from a display of international political will.

What Couturat and Leau were facing in 1903, however, was a new Babel of international languages invented in the course of the nineteenth century; as a matter of fact they record and analyze 38 projects–and more of them are considered in their further book, Les nouvelles langues internationales, published in 1907.

The followers of each project had tried, with greater or lesser cohesive power, to realize an international forum. But what authority had the competence to adjudicate between them?

In 1901 Couturat and Leau had founded a Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, which aimed at resolving the problem by delegating a decision to the international Association of Scientific Academies.

Evidently Couturat and Leau were writing in an epoch when it still seemed realistic to believe that an international body such as this would be capable of coming to a fair and ecumenical conclusion and imposing it on every nation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 317-9.

Eco: Some Ghosts of the Perfect Language

Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Pearl of Wisdom, 1503

Gregor Reisch (1467-1525), title page of Margarita philosophica, or the Pearl of Wisdom, Freiburg, 1503. Multiple copies of this work are preserved. 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. 

“We have often paused to draw attention to side-effects. Without forced comparisons and without exaggerated claims, it seems permissible at this point to ask informed readers to reconsider various chapters of the history of philosophy, especially those concerning the advent of contemporary logic and linguistic analysis.

Would these developments have been possible without the secular debate on the nature of the perfect language, and, in particular, the various projects for philosophical a priori languages?

In 1854, George Boole published his Investigations of the Laws of Thought. He announced his intention to discover the fundamental laws governing the mental operations of the process of reasoning. He observed that without presupposing these laws, we could not explain why the innumerable languages spread around the globe have maintained over the course of centuries so many characteristics in common (II, 1).

Frege began his Begriffsschrift (on ideography, 1879) with a reference to Leibniz’s characteristica. In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918-9), Russell noted that in a perfectly logical language, the relation of a word to its meaning would always be one to one (excepting words used as connectives).

When he later wrote Principia mathematica with Whitehead, he noted that, although their language possessed a syntax, it could, with the addition of a vocabulary, become a perfect language (even though he also admitted that is such a language were to be constructed it would be intolerably prolix).

For his part, Wittgenstein, renewing Bacon’s complaint concerning the ambiguity of natural languages, aspired to create a language whose signs were univocal (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 1921-2, 3.325ff) and whose propositions mirrored the logical structure of reality itself (4.121).

Carnap proposed constructing a logical system of objects and concepts such that all concepts might be derived from a single nucleus of prime ideas (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1922-5). In fact, the entire logical positivist movement was heir to the Baconian polemic against the vagaries of natural languages productive of nothing but metaphysical illusions and false problems (cf. Recanati 1979).

These philosophers all hoped to construct a scientific language, perfect within its chosen range of competence, a language that would be universal as well; none, however, claimed that such a language would ever replace natural language.

The dream had changed, or, perhaps, its limitations had finally, reluctantly been accepted. From its search for the lost language of Adam, philosophy had by now learned to take only what it could get.

In the course of centuries through which our particular story has run, another story began to disentangle itself as well–the search for a general or universal grammar. I said in the introduction that this was not a story that I intended to tell here.

I shall not tell it because the search for a single corpus of rules underneath and common to all natural languages entailed neither the invention of a new language nor a return to a lost mother tongue. None the less, the search for what is constant in all languages can be undertaken in two ways.

The first way is to follow empirical and comparative methods; this requires compiling information on every language that exists–or existed (cf. Greenberg 1963).

The second way can be traced back to the time in which Dante (influenced or not by the doctrines of the Modists) attributed the gift of a forma locutionis to Adam. On this line of thought, scholars have more often tried to deduce the universal laws of all languages, and of human thought, from the model of the only language they knew–scholastic Latin–and in 1587 Francisco Sanchez Brocense was still doing so with his Minerva, seu causis linguae latinae.

The novelty of the Grammaire générale et raisonnée of Port Royal (1660) was simply the decision of taking as a model a modern language–French.

Choosing this way requires never being brushed by the scruple that a given language represents only a given way of thinking and of viewing the world, not universal thought itself.

It requires regarding what is called the “genius” of a language as affecting only the surface structures rather than the deep structure, allegedly the same for all languages.

Only in this way will be be possible to regard as universal, because corresponding to the only logic possible, the structures discovered in the language in which one is used to think.

Nor does it necessarily alter the problem to concede that–certainly–the various languages do exhibit differences at their surface level, are often corrupted through usage or agitated by their own genius, but still, if universal laws exist, the light of natural reason will uncover them because, as Beauzée wrote in his article on grammar in the Encyclopédie, “la parole est une sorte de tableau dont la pensée est l’original.”

Such an argument would be acceptable, but in order to uncover these laws one needs to represent them through a metalanguage applicable to every other language in the world. Now, if one chooses as metalanguage one’s own object language, the argument becomes circular.

In fact, as Simone has put it (1969: XXXIII), the aim of the Port Royal grammarians…

“…is therefore, in spite of the appearances of methodological rigor, prescriptive and evaluative, in so far as it is rationalist. Their scope was not to interpret, in the most adequate and coherent way possible, the usages permitted by the various languages.

If it were so, a linguistic theory should coincide with whole of the possible usages of a given tongue, and should take into account even those that native speakers consider as “wrong.”

Instead, their aim was to emend this variety of uses in order to make them all conform to the dictates of Reason.”

What makes the search for a universal grammar of interest in our story is, as Canto has noted (1979), that in order to be caught within the vicious circle, it is only necessary to make one simple assumption: the perfect language exists, and it is identical to one’s own tongue.

Once this assumption is made, the choice of the metalanguage follows: Port Royal anticipates de Rivarol.

This is a problem that remains for all attempts–contemporary ones included–to demonstrate that syntactic or semantic universals exist by deducing them from a given natural language, used simultaneously both as a metalanguage and as object language.

It is not my argument here that such a project is desperate: I merely suggest that it represents but another example of the quest for a philosophical a priori language in which, once again, a philosophical ideal of grammar presides over the study of a natural language.

Thus (as Cosenza has shown, 1993) those modern day branches of philosophy and psychology which deliberately appeal to a language of thought are also descendants of those older projects.

Such a “mentalese” would supposedly reflect the structure of mind, would be purely formal and syntactical calculus (not unlike Leibniz’s blind thought), would use non-ambiguous symbols and would be based upon innate primitives, common to all species.

As happened with Wilkins, it would be deduced according to a “folk psychology,” naturally within the framework of a given historical culture.

There are perhaps more remote descendants of the a priori projects, which have sought to found a language of mind not upon Platonic abstractions but upon the neuro-physiological structures of the brain.

Here the language of mind is the language of the brain; the software is founded upon the hardware. This is a new departure; since the “ancestors” of our story never dreamed of venturing this far, and many of them were not even certain that the res cogitans was located in the brain rather than the heart or the liver (even though an attractive wood cut showing the localization of the faculty of language in the brain–as well as those for imagination, estimation and memory–already appears in the fifteenth century in Gregor Reysch’s Margarita philosophica.

Differences are sometimes more important than identities or analogies; still, it would hardly be a waste of time if sometimes even the most advanced students in the cognitive sciences were to pay a visit to their ancestors.

It is frequently claimed in American philosophy departments that, in order to be a philosopher, it is not necessary to revisit the history of philosophy. It is like the claim that one can become a painter without having seen a single work of Raphael, or a writer without having ever read the classics.

Such things are theoretically possible; but the “primitive” artist, condemned to an ignorance of the past, is always recognizable as such and rightly labelled as a naïf. It is only when we reconsider past projects revealed as utopian or as failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects.

The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an antiquarian pastime, it is an immunological precaution.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 312-6.

Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages, 2

Giovan Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831

Giovanni Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831. Original held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a glorious eBook format posted by the Hathitrust and GoogleBooks among others. 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. 

Vismes was not the only one to fall foul of this seemingly elementary snare. In 1831 Father Giovan Giuseppe Matraja published his Genigrafia italiana, which is nothing other than a polygraphy with five (Italian) dictionaries, one for nouns, one for verbs, one for adjectives, one for interjections and one for adverbs.

Since the five dictionaries account for only 15,000 terms, Matraja adds another dictionary that lists 6,000 synonyms. His method managed to be both haphazard and laborious: Matraja divided his terms into a series of numbered classes each containing 26 terms, each marked by an alphabetical letter: thus A1 means “hatchet,” A2 means “hermit,” A1000 means “encrustation,” A360 means “sand-digger,” etc.

Even though he had served as a missionary in South America, Matraja was still convinced that all cultures used the same system of notions. He believed that western languages (all of which he seemed to imagine were derived from Latin grammar) might perfectly well serve as the basis for another language, because, by a special natural gift, all peoples used the same syntactic structures when speaking–especially American Indians.

In fact, he included a genigraphical translation of the Lord’s Prayer comparing it with versions in twelve other languages including Nahuatl, Chilean and Quechua.

In 1827 François Soudre invented the Solresol (Langue musicale universelle, 1866). Soudre was also persuaded that the seven notes of the musical scale composed an alphabet comprehensible by all the peoples of the world, because the notes are written in the same way in all languages, and could be sung, recorded on staves, represented with special stenographic signs, figured in Arabic numerals, shown with the seven colors of the spectrum, and even indicated by the touch of the fingers of the right and left hands–thus making their representation comprehensible even for the deaf, dumb and blind.

It was not necessary that these notes be based on a logical classification of ideas. A single note expresses terms such as “yes” (musical si, or B) and “no” (do, or C); two notes express pronouns (“mine” = redo, “yours” = remi); three notes express everyday words like “time” (doredo) or “day” (doremi).

The initial notes refer to an encyclopedic class. Yet Soudre also wished to express opposites by musical inversion (a nice anticipation of a twelve-tone music procedure): thus, if the idea of “God” was naturally expressed by the major chord built upon the tonic, domisol, the idea of “Satan” would have to be the inversion, solmido.

Of course, this practice makes nonsense of the rule that the first letter in a three-note term refers to an encyclopedic class: the initial do refers to the physical and moral qualities, but the initial sol refers back to arts and sciences (and to associate them with Satan would be an excess of bigotry).

Besides the obvious difficulties inherent in any a priori language, the musical language of Soudre added the additional hurdle of requiring a good ear. We seem in some way to be returning to the seventeenth century myth of the language of birds, this time with less glossolalic grace, however, and a good deal more pure classificatory pedantry.

Couturat and Leau (1903: 37) awarded to the Solresol the encomium of being “the most artificial and most impracticable of all the a priori languages.” Even its number system is inaccessible; it is based on a hexadecimal system which, despite its claims to universality, still manages to indulge in the French quirk of eliminating names for 70 and 90.

Yet Soudre labored for forty-five years to perfect his system, obtaining in the meantime testimonials from the Institut de France, from musicians such as Cherubini, from Victor Hugo, Lamartine and Alexander von Humboldt; he was received by Napoleon III; he was awarded 10,000 francs at the Exposition Universale in Paris in 1855 and the gold medal at the London Exposition of 1862.

Let us neglect for the sake of brevity the Système de langue universelle of Grosselin (1836), the Langue universelle et analytique of Vidal (1844), the Cours complet de langue universelle by Letellier (1832-55), the Blaia Zimandal of Meriggi (1884), the projects of so distinguished a philosopher as Renouvier (1885), the Lingualumina of Dyer (1875), the Langue internationale étymologique of Reimann (1877), the Langue naturelle of Maldant (1887), the Spokil of Dr. Nicolas (1900), the Zahlensprache of Hilbe (1901), the Völkerverkehrsprache of Dietrich (1902), and the Perio of Talundberg (1904).

We will content ourselves with a brief account of the Projet d’une langue universelle of Sotos Ochando (1855). Its theoretical foundations are comparatively well reasoned and motivated; its logical structure could not be of a greater simplicity and regularity; the project proposes–as usual–to establish a perfect correspondence between the order of things signified and the alphabetical order of the words that express them.

Unfortunately–here we go again–the arrangement is empirical: A refers to inorganic material things, B to the liberal arts, C to the mechanical arts, D to political society, E to living bodies, and so forth.

With the addition of the morphological rules, one generates, to use the mineral kingdom as an example, the words Ababa for oxygen, Ababe for hydrogen, Ababi for nitrogen, Ababo for sulphur.

If we consider that the numbers from one to ten are siba, sibe, sibi, sibo, sibu, sibra, sibre, sibri, sibro, and sibru (pity the poor school children having to memorize their multiplication tables), it is evident that words with analogous meanings are all going to sound the same.

This makes the discrimination of concepts almost impossible, even if the formation of names follows a criterion similar to that of chemistry, and the letters stand for the components of the concept.

The author may claim that, using his system, anyone can learn over six million words in less than an hour; yet as Couturat and Leau remark (1903: 69), learning a system that can generate six million words in an hour is not the same as memorizing, recognizing, six million meanings.

The list could be continued, yet towards the end of the nineteenth century, news of the invention of a priori languages was becoming less a matter for scientific communications and more one for reports on eccentric fellows–from Les fous littéraires by Brunet in 1880 to Les fous littéraires by Blavier in 1982.

By now, the invention of a priori languages, other than being the special province of visionaries of all lands, had become a game (see Bausani 1970 and his language Markuska) or a literary exercise (see Yaguello 1984 and Giovannoli 1990 for the imaginary languages of science fiction).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 305-8.

Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes, Pasilogie, ou de la musique, consideree comme langue universelle, 1806

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes (1745-1819), Pasilogie, ou de la musique, considérée comme langue universelle, Paris, 1806. 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. 

“Nor was even this the end of attempts at creating a philosophic language. In 1772 there appeared the project of Georg Kalmar, Praecepta grammatica atque specimina linguae philosophicae sive universalis, ad omne vitae genus adcomodatae, which occasioned the most significant discussion on our topic written in Italian.

In 1774, the Italian-Swiss Father Francesco Soave published his Riflessioni intorno alla costituzione di una lingua universaleSoave, who had done much to spread the sensationalist doctrine to Italy, advanced a criticism of the a priori languages that anticipated those made by the Idéologues (on Soave see Gensini 1984; Nicoletti 1989; Pellerey 1992a).

Displaying a solid understanding of the projects from Descartes to Wilkins and from Kircher to Leibniz, on the one hand Soave advanced the traditional reservation that it was impossible to elaborate a set of characters sufficient to represent all fundamental concepts; on the other hand, he remarked that Kalmar, having reduced these concepts to 400, was obliged to give different meanings to the same character, according to the context.

Either one follows the Chinese model, without succeeding in limiting the characters, or one is unable to avoid equivocations.

Unfortunately, Soave did not resist the temptation of designing a project of his own, though outlining only its basic principles. His system of classification seems to have been based on Wilkins; as usual he sought to rationalize and simplify his grammar; at the same time, he sought to augment its expressive potential by adding marks for new  morphological categories such as dual and the neuter.

Soave took more care over his grammar than over his lexicon, but was mainly interested in the literary use of language: from this derives his radical skepticism about any universal language; what form of literary commerce, he wondered, could we possibly have with the Tartars, the Abyssinians or the Hurons?

In the early years of the next century, Soave’s discussion influenced the thinking of Giacomo Leopardi, who had become an exceptionally astute student of the Idéologues.

In his Zibaldone, Leopardi treated the question of universal languages at some length, as well as discussing the debate between rationalists and sensationalists in recent French philosophy (see Gensini 1984; Pellerey 1992a).

Leopardi was clearly irritated by the algebraic signs that abounded in the a priori languages, all of which he considered as incapable of expressing the subtle connotations of natural languages:

“A strictly universal language, whatever it may be, will certainly, by necessity and by its natural bent, be both the most enslaved, impoverished, timid, monotonous, uniform, arid, and ugly language ever.

It will be incapable of beauty of any type, totally uncongenial to imagination [ . . . ] the most inanimate, bloodless, and dead whatsoever, a mere skeleton, a ghost of a language [ . . . ] it would lack life even if it were written by all and universally understood; indeed it will be deader than the deadest languages which are no longer either spoken or written.” (23 August 1823, in G. Leopardi, Tutte le opere, Sansoni: Florence 1969: II, 814).

Despite these and similar strictures, the ardor of the apostles of philosophic a priori languages was still far from quenched.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Anne-Pierre-Jacques de Vismes (Pasilogie, ou de la musique considérée come langue universelle, 1806) presented a language that was supposed to be a copy of the language of the angels, whose sounds derived from the affections of the soul.

Vismes argued that when the Latin translation of Genesis 11:1-2 states that “erat terra labii unius” (a passage to which we usually give the sense that “all the world was of one language”), it used the word labium (lip) rather than lingua (tongue) because people first communicated with each other by emitting sounds through their lips without articulating them with their tongue.

Music was not a human invention (pp. 1-20), and this is demonstrated by the fact that animals can understand music more easily than verbal speech: horses are naturally roused by the sound of trumpets as dogs are by whistles. What is more, when presented with a musical score, people of different nations all play it the same way.

Vismes presents enharmonic scales of 21 notes, one for each letter of the alphabet. He did this by ignoring the modern convention of equal temperament, and treating the sharp of one note as distinct from the flat of the note above.

Since Vismes was designing a polygraphy rather than a spoken language, it was enough that the distinctions might be exactly represented on a musical stave.

Inspired, perhaps, indirectly by Mersenne, Vismes went on to demonstrate that if one were to combine his 21 sounds into doublets, triplets, quadruplets, etc., one would quickly arrive at more syntagms than are contained in any natural language, and that “if it were necessary to write down all the combinations that can be generated by the seven enharmonic scales, combined with each other, it would take almost all of eternity before one could hope to come to an end.” (p. 78).

As for the concrete possibility of replacing verbal sounds by musical notes, Vismes devotes only the last six pages of his book to such a topic–not a great deal.

It never seems to have crossed Visme’s mind that, in taking a French text and substituting tones for its letters, all he was doing was transcribing a French text, without making it comprehensible to speakers of other languages.

Vismes seems to conceive of a universe that speaks exclusively in French, so much so that he even notes that he will exclude letters like K, Z and X because “they are hardly ever used in languages” (p. 106).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 302-4.

Eco:Eighteenth Century Projects


François Fénelon (1651-1715), Telemachus, or the first page of the first book of Les Aventures de Télémaque, first published anonymously in 1699, and translated into English in London in 1715. 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.  

“Even under the weight of the Enlightenment critique, the dream of the perfect language refused to die. In 1720 there appeared a “Dialogue sur la facilité qu’il y auroit d’établir un Caractère Universel qui seroit commun à toutes les Langues de l’Europe, et intelligible à différens Peuples, qui le liroient chacun dans la propre Langue” (in the Journal littéraire de l’anné 1720).

As the title itself suggests, the project was for a polygraphy, in the sense we saw in Kircher, and, at most, it is worthy of note in that its attempt to include a contracted grammar points the way to future developments.

In any case, the proposal is distinguished by including an appeal, by the anonymous author, for a commission which would develop the project and for a prince who would impose its adoption.

Such an appeal “cannot help but remind us of a possibility, which must have seemed evident in the year 1720, that a phase of stability for Europe was about to open, and that, consequently, sovereigns might be expected to be more willing to patronize linguistic and intellectual experiments” (cf. Pellerey 1992a: 11).

In his article on “Langue” in the Encyclopédie, even a rationalist like Beauzée had to concede that, since it would be difficult to come to an agreement over a new language, and an international language still seemed to him to be necessary, Latin had to remain the most reasonable candidate.

For their part, the empiricists among the encyclopedists felt duty-bound to consider the idea of a universal language, too. As a sort of coda to the article on “Langue,” Joachim Faiguet wrote four pages on a project for a langue nouvelle. Couturat and Leau (1903: 237) consider this as representing a first attempt at overcoming the problems inherent in the a priori languages and at sketching out an example of the a posteriori languages we will be discussing in the next chapter.

As his model, Faiguet took a natural language–French. He formed his lexicon on French roots, and concentrated on the delineation of a simplified and regularized grammar, or a “laconic” grammar.

Following the authors in the previous century, Faiguet eliminated those grammatical categories that seemed to him redundant: he suppressed the articles, substituted flexions with prepositions (bi for the genitive, bu for the dative, and de and po for the ablative), transformed adjectives (indeclinable) into adverbial forms, standardized all plurals (always expressed by an s); he simplified verb conjugations, making them invariable in number and person, adding endings that designated tenses and modes (I give, you give, he gives became Jo dona, To dona, Lo dona); the subjunctive was formed by adding an r to the stem, the passive by the indicative plus sas (meaning to be: thus to be given became sas dona).

Faiguet’s language appears as wholly regular and without exceptions; every letter or syllable used as endings had a precise and unique grammatical significance. Still, it is parasitic on French in a double sense: not only is it a “laconicized” French at the expression-level; it is French that supplies the content-level as well. Thus Faiguet’s was little less than a sort of easy-to-manage Morse code (Bernadelli 1992).

The most important projects for a priori languages in the eighteenth century were those of Jean Delormel (Projet d’une langue universelle, 1795), of Zalkind Hourwitz (Polygraphie, ou l’art de correspondre à l’aide d’un dictionaire dans toutes les langues, même celles dont on ne possède pas seulement les lettres alphabétiques, 1800), and of Joseph de Maimieux (Pasigraphie, 1797).

As can be seen, De Maimieux’s project was a pasigraphy–that is, a universal written language. Since, however, in 1799 this same author had also formulated a pasilalie–adding rules for pronouncing his language–his project can be considered as an a priori language.

For its part, Hourwitz’s project was for a polygraphy, too–even though he seemed unaware that his was by no means the first project of this type. Still, in its structure, Hourwitz’s polygraphy was an a priori language.

Although all three projects still followed the principles laid down in the seventeenth century tradition, they were different in three fundamental ways: their purposes, the identification of their primitives, and their grammars.

Delormel presented his scheme to the Convention; De Maimieux published his Pasigraphie under the Directory; Hourwitz wrote under the Consulate: every religious motivation had disappeared.

De Maimieux spoke of communication between European nations, between Europeans and Africans, of providing a means of checking the accuracy of translations, of speeding up diplomacy and civil and military undertakings, of a new source of income for teachers, writers and publishers who should “pasigraphize” books written in other languages.

Hourwitz added to this list other purely practical considerations, such as the advantages in the relations between doctors and patients or in courtroom procedures. As one symptom of a new political and cultural atmosphere, instead of using the Lord’s Prayer as a sample translation, Hourwitz chose the opening of Fénelon’s Aventures de Télemaque–a work which, despite its moralizing bent, was still a piece of secular literature portraying pagan gods and heroes.

The revolutionary atmosphere imposed, or at least encouraged, considerations of fraternité. Thus Delormel could claim that:

“in this revolutionary moment, when the human spirit, regenerating itself among the French people, leaps forward with renewed energy, is it too much to hope that perhaps [ . . . ] we might offer to the public a new language as well, a language that facilitates new discoveries by bringing students of various nations together, a language that serves as a common term for all languages, a language easy to grasp even for men with but a slight aptitude for instruction, a language, in short, which will soon make out of all the people of mankind a single, grand family? [ . . . ] The Light of Reason brings men together and thus reconciles them; this language, by facilitating its communication, will help to propagate that Light.” (pp. 48-50).

Each of the authors was aware of the objections made by the authors of the Encyclopédie; thus the a priori languages which they proposed were all ordered according to an encyclopedia-like structure, easy to understand and designed upon the model of the eighteenth century system of knowledge.

Gone was the grandiose pansophist afflatus that animated baroque encyclopedias; the criterion of selection was rather that of Leibniz: the inventors of the languages behaved as if they were conscientious librarians hoping to make consultation as easy as possible, without worrying whether or not their ordering corresponded to the theater of the world.

Absent as well was the search for “absolute” primitives; the fundamental categories were the large-scale divisions of knowledge; under these were listed dependent notions attached as sub-headings.

Delormel, for example, assigned different letters of the alphabet to several encyclopedic classes in a way reminiscent not so much of Wilkins as of the anonymous Spaniard–grammar, art of speech, states of things, correlatives, useful, pleasurable, moral, sensations, perception and judgement, passions, mathematics, geography, chronology, physics, astronomy, minerals, etc.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 293-6.

Eco: Characteristica and Calculus

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, an excerpt from his first doctoral dissertation, Dissertation on the Art of Combinations, Leipzig, 1666. 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 theme of invention and discovery should remind us of Lull; and, in fact, Lull’s ars combinatoria was one of Leibniz’s first sources. In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz composed his own Dissertatio de arte combinatoria (Gerhardt 1875: IV, 27-102). But the dream of the combinatoria was to obsess him for the rest of his life.

In his short Horizon de la doctrine humaine (in Fichant 1991), Leibniz dealt with a problem that had already troubled Father Mersenne: how many utterances, true, false or even nonsensical, was it possible to formulate using an alphabet of 24 letters?

The point was to determine the number of truths capable of expression and the number of expressions capable of being put into writing. Given that Leibniz had found words of 31 letters in Latin and Greek, an alphabet of 24 letters would produce 2432 words of 31 letters.

But what is the maximum length of an expression? Why should an expression not be as long as an entire book? Thus the sum of the expressions, true or false, that a man might read in the course of his life, imagining that he reads 100 pages a day and that each page contains 1,000 letters, is 3,650,000,000.

Even imagining that this man can live one thousand years, like the legendary alchemist Artephius, it would still be the case that “the greatest expressible period, or the largest possible book that a man can read, would have 3,650,000,000,000 [letters], and the number of truths, falsehoods, or sentences expressible–that is, readable, regardless of pronounceability or meaningfulness–will be 24365,000,000,001 – 24/23 [letters].”

We can imagine even larger numbers. Imagine our alphabet contained 100 letters; to write the number of letters expressible in this alphabet we would need to write a 1 followed by 7,300,0000,000,000 (sic) zeros. Even to write such a number it would take 1,000 scribes working for approximately 37 years.

Leibniz’s argument at this point is that whatever we take the number of propositions theoretically capable of expression to be–and we can plausibly stipulate more astronomical sums than these–it will be a number that vastly outstrips the number of true or false expressions that humanity is capable of producing or understanding.

From such a consideration Leibniz concluded paradoxically that the number of expressions capable of formulation must always be finite, and, what is more, that there must come a moment at which humanity would start to enunciate them anew.

With this thought, Leibniz approaches the theme of the apochatastasis or of universal reintegration–what we might call the theme of the eternal return.

This was a line of speculation more mystical than logical, and we cannot stop to trace the influences that led Leibniz to such fantastic conclusions.

It is plain, however, that Leibniz has been inspired by Lull and the kabbala, even if Lull’s own interest was limited to the generation of just those propositions that expressed true and certain knowledge and he thus would never have dared to enlarge his ars combinatoria to include so large a number of propositions.

For Leibniz, on the contrary, it was a fascination with the vertiginous possibilities of discovery, that is of the infinite number of expressions of which a simple mathematical calculation permitted him to conceive, that served as inspiration.

At the time he was writing his Dissertatio, Leibniz was acquainted with Kircher’s Polygraphia, as well as with the work of the anonymous Spaniard, of Becher, and of Schott (while saying that he was waiting for the long-promised Ars magna sciendi of the “immortal Kircher“).

He had yet to read Dalgarno, and Wilkins had still not published his Essay. Besides, there exists a letter from Kircher to Leibniz, written in 1670, in which the Jesuit confessed that he had not yet read Leibniz’s Dissertatio.

Leibniz also elaborated in the Dissertatio his so-called method of “complexions,” through which he might calculate, given n elements, how many groups of them, taken t at a time, irrespective of their ordering, can be ordered.

He applied this method to syllogisms before he passed to his discussion of Lull (para. 56). Before criticizing Lull for limiting the number of his elements, Leibniz made the obvious observation that Lull failed to exploit all the possibilities inherent in his combinatorial art, and wondered what could happen with variations of order, which could produce a greater number.

We already know the answer: Lull not only limited the number of elements, but he rejected those combinations that might produce propositions which, for theological and rhetorical reasons, he considered false.

Leibniz, however, was interested in a logica inventiva (para. 62) in which the play of combinations was free to produce expressions that were heretofore unknown.

In paragraph 64 Leibniz began to outline the theoretical core of his characteristica universalis. Above all, any given term needed to be resolved into its formal parts, the parts, that is, that were explicitly entailed by its definition.

These parts then had to be resolved into their own components, and so on until the process reached terms which could not, themselves, be defined–that is, the primitives. Leibniz included among them not only things, but also modes and relations.

Other terms were to be classified according to the number of prime terms they contained: if they were composed from 2 prime terms, they were to be called com2nations; if from 3 prime terms, com3nations, and so forth. Thereby a hierarchy of classes of increasing complexity could be created.

Leibniz returned to this argument a dozen years later, in the Elementa characteristicae universalis. Here he was more generous with his examples. If we accept the traditional definition of man as “rational animal,” we might consider man as a concept composed of “rational” and “animal.”

We may assign numbers to these prime terms: animal = 2, and rational = 3. The composite concept of man can be represented as the expression 2 * 3, or 6.

For a proposition to be true, if we express fractionally the subject-predicate (S/P) relationship, the number which corresponds to the subject must be exactly divisible by the number which corresponds to the predicate.

Given the preposition “all men are animals,” the number for the subject (men), is 6; the number for animals is 2; the resulting fraction is 6/2 = 3. Three being an integer, consequently, the preposition is true.

If the number for monkey were 10, we could demonstrate the falsity of either the proposition “all men are monkeys” or “all monkeys are men:” “the idea of monkey does not contain the idea of man, nor, vice versa, does the idea of the latter contain the former, because neither can 6 be exactly divided by 10, nor 10 by 6” (Elementa, in Couturat 1903: 42-92). These were principles that had all been prefigured in the Dissertatio.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 271-5.

Eco: Francis Lodwick


Francis Lodwick (1619-1694), eight verses from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John in Francis Lodwick’s common writing, next to the numerical key composed for it. A Common Writing, London, 1647. Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. 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.  

Lodwick wrote before either Dalgarno or Wilkins, both of whom had thus the opportunity to know his work. Salmon (1972: 3) defines him as the author of the first attempt to construct a language in universal character. His first work, A Common Writing, appeared in 1647; The Groundwork or Foundation Laid (or So Intended) for the Framing of a New Perfect Language and a Universal Common Writing dates from 1652.

Lodwick was not a learned man–no more than a merchant, as he humbly confessed. Though, in his Ars signorum, Dalgarno praised Lodwick for his endeavors, he was unable to hold back the supercilious observation that he did not possess the force adequate so such an undertaking, being a man of the arts, born outside of the Schools (p. 79).

In his writings, Lodwick advanced a number of proposals, some more fruitful than others, on how to delineate a language that would both facilitate commercial exchange and permit the easy acquisition of English.

His ideas, moreover, changed over time, and he never managed to design a complete system. None the less, certain of what appears in the most original of his works (A Common Writing, hardly thirty pages long) reveals him as striking off in a direction very different from other authors of his time, making him a precursor of certain trends of contemporary lexical semantics.

In theory, Lodwick’s project envisioned the creation of a series of three numbered indexes; the purpose of these was to refer English words to the character and these to its words. What distinguished Lodwick’s conception from those of the polygraphers, however, was the nature of its lexicon.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 13.1, p. 261

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 13.1, p. 261.

Lodwick’s idea was to reduce the number of terms contained in the indexes by deriving as many of them as possible from a finite number of primitives which express actions. Figure 13.1 shows how Lodwick chooses a conventional character (a sort of Greek delta) to express the action of drinking; then, by adding to this radix different grammatical marks, makes the different composite characters express ideas such as the actor (he who drinks), the act, the object (that which is drunk), the inclination (the drunkard), the abstraction, and the place (the drinking house, or tavern).

From the time of Aristotle up until Lodwick’s own day, names of substances had invariably been the basis upon which a structure of classification had been erected. Lodwick’s original contribution, however, was to commence not with substantives but with verbs, or schemes of actions, and to populate these schemes with roles–what we would now call actants–such as agent, object, place and so on.

Lodwick designed his characters to be easily recognized and remembered: as we have seen, to drink was specified by a sort of Greek delta, while to love was a sort of L. The punctuation and added notes are vaguely reminiscent of Hebrew. Finally, as Salmon suggests, Lodwick probably took from contemporary algebra the idea of substituting letters for numbers.

In order to set up his finite packet of radicals Lodwick devised a philosophical grammar in which even grammatical categories expressed semantic relations. Derivatives and morphemes could thus become, at the same time, criteria of efficiency to reduce each grammatical category further to a component of action.

By such means the number of characters became far small than the words of a natural language found in a dictionary, and Lodwick endeavored to reduce this list further by deriving his adjectives and adverbs from the verbs.

From the character to love, for example, he derived not only the object of the action (the beloved) but also its mode (lovingly); by adding a declarative sign to the character to cleanse, he asserted that the action of cleansing has been performed upon the object–thereby deriving the adjective clean.

Lodwick realized, however, that many adverbs, prepositions, interjections and conjunctions were simply not amenable to this sort of derivation; he proposed representing these as notes appended to the radicals. He decided to write proper names in natural languages.

He was embarrassed by the problem of “natural kinds” (let us say, names of substances like cat, dog, tree), and resigned himself to the fact that, here, he would have to resort to a separate list. But since this decision put the original idea of a severely limited lexicon in jeopardy, he tried to reduce the list of natural kinds as much as possible, deciding that terms like hand, foot or land could be derived from actions like to handle, to foot or to land.

In other cases, he resorted to etymology, deriving, for instance, king from the archaic radical to kan, claiming that it meant both to know and to have power to act. He pointed out that Latin rex was related to the verb regere, and suggested that both the English king and the German emperor might be designated by a simple K followed by the name of the country.

Where he was not able to find appropriate verbal roots, he tried at least to reduce as many different sounds as possible to a single root. He thus reduced the names for the young of animals–child, calfe, puppy, chikin–to a single root.

Moreover, Lodwick thought that the reduction of many lexical items to a unique radical could also be performed by using analogies (seeing as analogous to knowing), synonymy (to lament as a synonym of to bemoane), opposition (to curse as the opposite of to bless), or similarities in substance (to moisten, to wet, to wash and even to baptize are all reduced to moisture).

All these derivations were to be signaled by special signs. Wilkins had had a similar idea when proposing the method of transcendental particles, but it seems that Lodwick’s procedure was less ambiguous.

Lodwick barely sketched out his project; his system of notation was cumbersome; nevertheless (with a bare list of sixteen radicals–to be, to make, to speake, to drinke, to love, to cleanse, to come, to begin, to create, to light, to shine, to live, to darken, to comprehend, to send and to name), he managed to transcribe the opening of the gospel of St. John (“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God . . .”).

Beginning was derived of course from to begin, God from to be, Word from to speake, and so on (the idea of all things is derived from to create).

Just as the polygraphers had taken Latin grammar as a universal model, so Lodwick did the same for English–though his English grammatical categories still reflected the Latin model. Nevertheless he succeeded in avoiding certain limits of the Aristotelian classification of substances, because no previous tradition obliged him to order an array of actions according to the rigid hierarchical schema requested by a representation of genera and species.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 260-3.

Eco: The Dictionary–Synonyms, Periphrases, Metaphors


Mary Beale (1633-1672), Portrait of John Wilkins, c. 1670-2, © The Royal Society. Wikipedia and the Royal Society website state that the original portrait was held by the Royal Society since it was acquired in the 1670’s. 

Wilkins‘ language provides names for 2,030 primitives, that is to say, species. These species include not only natural genera and artifacts, but also relations and actions. From these latter are derived the verbs.

As in Dalgarno, Wilkins used the copula + adjective formula for verbs, so “I love” is, again, “I am lover.” Besides this, the grammatical particles allow for the expression of tenses and modes for the verbs to be and to have as well as for pronouns, articles, exclamations, prepositions, conjunctions; the accidental differences express number, case, gender and comparatives.

But 2,030 primitive terms is still far too few to support discourse on a wide enough variety of topics. To increase the range of his language, Wilkins provided at the end of his Essay a list of 15,000 English terms not directly represented in his language, indicating the way that these might still be expressed.

The first way was by synonyms. For terms not included among the original 2,030, the list seeks to find the semantically closest primitive. To translate Result, the list suggests using primitive terms such as Event, Summe or Illation, without specifying in which context one should use the most appropriate synonym.

The list of possible synonyms can sometimes be very complex; for Corruption Wilkins suggests Evil, Destruction, Spoiling, Infection, Decay or Putrefaction. Some lists are even comic, as in the sequence of synonyms box-chest of drawers-ark-dresser-coffin-table.

The second way is periphrasis. The final dictionary records the term Abbie which has no corresponding primitive. There are primitives, however, for both Colledge and Monk. Thus, through periphrasis, Abbie can be rendered as Colledge of Monks.

The third way is that of the so-called transcendental particles. Faithful to his conception of a componential semantics based on primitive terms, Wilkins argued that there was no need to provide an additional character for Calf, since it is possible to express the same concept through Cow + Young, nor a primitive for Lioness when there was both a primitive for Lion and a marker for the feminine gender.

Thus in his grammar, Wilkins provided a system of transcendental particles (which then become a system of special markers for writing and pronunciation) that amplified or changed the meaning of the characters to which they were linked.

The 48 particles were articulated into eight classes, though there was little system in the classification. In fact, Wilkins drew from the Latin grammar the idea of different terminations such as “inceptives” (lucesco, aquosus, homunculus), “segregates” (gradatim or verbatim), endings indicating place (vestiarium) or agent (arator).

Sometimes these markers were essentially grammatical; as happens with those of gender, but for others Wilkins also took into account rhetorical devices such as metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche.

The particles in the class “metaphorical-like” indicate that the terms to which they are apposited are to be taken in a figurative sense. In this way, the primitive root can be modified so as to mean original, or light to mean evident.

Other particles seem to indicate relations such as cause and effect, container and thing contained, function and activity. Here are a few examples:

like + foot = pedestal

like + dark = mystical

place + metal = mine

officer + navy = admiral

artist + star = astronomer

voice + lion = roaring

Unfortunately, this incorporation of rhetorical solutions adds an element of imprecision to the entire system, and this weakens the project as a whole. Although Wilkins gave a list of examples showing the correct use of the particles, he was forced to acknowledge that they were just examples.

This list remains open, and its further elaboration is left to the inventiveness of the individual speaker (p. 318). Once set the speaker free to invent, and it is hard to avoid the risk of ambiguity.

Still, it is important to observe that–if the presence of a particle can produce ambiguity–its absence proves without any shade of doubt that a given term must be taken literally. This represents an advance of Dalgarno, in whose system there was nothing to indicate when terms should be understood literally or figuratively.

The fact is that Wilkins the author of a philosophical grammar seems to be working against Wilkins the inventor of a philosophic a priori language in real characters. Wilkins‘ attempt to take into account the figurative side of language also is certainly an interesting effort; however, it affects the precision of his language and its original claim to reduce the ambiguities present in ordinary language.

Note that, in order to render his language as univocal as possible, Wilkins had even decided to eliminate from the tables names of mythological (therefore non-existent) beings such as Sirens, Griffins, Harpies and Phoenixes, which could be at most written in natural language as proper names of individuals (for an analogy with Russell’s preoccupations, see Frank 1979: 160).

Wilkins also admitted that his language was unsuited to capturing the minutiae of food and drink, like different types of grape, jam, coffee, tea and chocolate. The problem could naturally be solved, he claimed, through periphrasis; yet it is easy to foresee that to do so the language would have been overloaded with a lot of new, awkward syntagms, as happens today with papal encyclicals, where video-cassettes become sonorarum visualiumque taeniarum cistellulae, and advertising men turn into laudativis nuntiis vulgatores.

Besides, in Latin it would have been possible to avoid such monstrosities by coining new words such as videocapsulae or publicitarii (see Bettini 1992), while Wilkins‘ language seems to have closed the door to neologisms. The only way to escape this difficulty would be to assume that the list of primitives was open.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 245-8.

Eco: George Delgarno, 2

George Delgarno, Didascalocophus, Theater in Oxford, 1680

George Dalgarno (1626-1687), Didascalocophus, or the Deaf and Dumb mans Tutor, Theater in Oxford, 1680. 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. 

“Figure 11.1 presents an extremely simplified, partial reconstruction of the tables, which limits itself to following only two of the subdivisions–animals with uncleft hooves and the principle passions.

The 17 fundamental genera are printed in bold capitals, and are marked with 17 capital letters. Intermediate genera and species are represented in lower case. Dalgarno also employs three “servile” letters: R signifies a reversal in meaning (if pon means love, pron means hate); V indicates that the letters that precede it are to be read as numbers; L signifies a medium between two extremes.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 11.1, p. 231

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 11.1, p. 232.

See for instance how from concrete, corporeal, physical entities, signified by an N, animals are deduced. See also how, in order to reach the subdivision animal, Dalgarno introduces an intermediate division (animal/inanimate) which is neither a genus nor a species, and is not marked by any letter.

The animals are subdivided into three classes–aquatic, aerial and terrestrial. Among the terrestrial animals (k) appear those with uncleft hooves [η], or perissodactyls. Thus the character Nηk stands for the class of perissodactyls. At this point, however, Dalgarno adds several sub-species–viz. the horse, elephant, mule and donkey.

As far as the accidents (E) are concerned, see for instance how the principal passions (o) are classified as species of the sensitive (P). After this, we are presented with a list that is not dichotomized: admiration takes pom as its character, because P is the fundamental genus and o is the intermediate genus.  The m, however, is just the “number” that the species admiration is assigned in the list’s order.

It is curious that, for animals, the intermediate genus is given by the third letter in the character and the species by the second vowel, while for the accidents the opposite happens.

Dalgarno acknowledges the existence of such an irregularity, without offering any explanation (p. 52). The motive is doubtless euphony; still, there seems to have been nothing to prevent Dalgarno from assigning to the intermediate genera of concrete beings vowels instead of consonants and to the species consonants instead of vowels. In this way, he could have used the same criterion throughout the table.

The problem, however, is more complex than it seems. The expression Nηk applied to the perissodactyls is motived by the divisions; only an arbitrary decision, on the contrary, motivates the decision to specify elephant with the addition of an a.

But it is not the arbitrariness of the choice itself which creates problems; it is rather that while k means “those terrestrials which are animal because they are animated and therefore physically concrete” (so that the division explains or reflects in some way the nature of the thing itself), the a at the end of Nηka (sic) only means “that thing which is numbered a on the list of perissodactyls and is called elephant.”

The same observation applies to the m in pom. All it really signifies is “position number m on the list of those sensitive accidents which are principal passions, i.e. admiration.” Since the dichotomic division does not reach the lower species, Dalgarno is forced to tack on lists in an alphabetical or almost alphabetical order.

Dalgarno (p. 42) noted, however, that this procedure was simply a mnemonic artifice for those who did not wish to learn the defining name. At the end of the book there is indeed a philosophical lexicon giving the characters for many terms in Latin.

In particular, there exists at the end of this list a special section devoted to concrete physical objects. Thus is seems that a philosophical definition of final species is possible; the only difficulty is that, given the purely exemplary nature of the lexicon, Dalgarno has left the naming of a large number of species up to the speaker, who can infer it from the tables.

Sometimes, however, Dalgarno gives taxonomically accurate examples: for instance the name for garlic, nebghn agbana (but for Dalgarno it is nebgηn agbana) is decoded by Slaughter (1982: 152) as follows: n=concretum physicum, ein radice, b vesca, g = qualitas sensibilis, h = sabor, n = pingue, a = partes annuae, gfoliumbaccidens mathematicuma = affectprimalongum. 

But even in this instance, “the tables only classify and name up to a point; the lexicon provides the rest of the definition but not the classification” (Slaughter 1982: 152).

Dalgarno may not have considered it indispensable to arrive at a classification of complex entities in all their particularities, yet making definitions requires classification. As a result the decision on how to classify complex entities, and, consequently, what name to give them, seems left as it were to the discretion of the user of the language.

Thus, ironically, a system that was intended to provide a single set of objective and univocal definitions ends up by lending itself to the creative fancies of its users. Here are some of Dalgarno’s own suggestions (I have separated the radicals with a slash to make them more decipherable):

horse = Nηk/pot = animal with uncleft hoof/courageous [why could we not say the same of the elephant?]

mule = Nηk/sof/pad = animal with uncleft hoof / deprived / sex

camel = nek/braf/pfar = quadruped with cloven hoof/humped/back

palace = fan/kan = house / king

abstemious = sof / praf / emp = deprived / drink / adjectival

stammering = grug / shaf / tin = illness [the opposite of gug, health] / impediment / speaking

gospel = tib / sηb = teach / way of being

Dalgarno also admitted that the same object regarded from a different perspective might take different names. The elephant can be called Nηksyf (uncleft hoof / superlative) or Nηkbeisap (uncleft hoof / mathematical accident / architectural metaphor for the proboscis).

It is not a system that is at all easy to memorize. The difference between Nηke, donkey, and Nηko, mule, is minimal and easy to muddle. Dalgarno advised the reader to use old mnemonic tricks.

The name for table was fran; the name for plough was flan; Dalgarno suggested associating the first with FRANce and the second with FLANders. In this way the speaker needed to learn both a philosophical language and a mnemonic code.

Dalgarno somewhat compensates the reader for the transcendental difficulties in the lexicon and the rules of composition by providing a grammar and syntax of great simplicity.

All that remains of the categories of classical grammar is the noun along with several pronouns (I = lal, you = lêl, he = lel . . . ). Adverbs, adjectives, comparatives and even verbal forms are derived by adding suffixes to nouns.

Thus from sim (good) one can generate simam (very good) and sinab (better). From pon (love) we can get pone (lover), pono (loved) and ponomp (lovable). To translate verbs, Dalgarno thought all that was necessary was the copula: “we love” becomes “we” + present tense + copula + “lovers” (that is, “we are lovers;” see p. 65).

The notion that verbs could all be reduced to the copula plus an adjective already circulated among the Modists in the thirteenth century; it was taken up by Campanella in the Philosophia rationalis (1638) and accepted by both Wilkins and Leibniz.

Dalgarno’s treatment of syntax was no less radical (see Pellerey 1992c). Although other projects for philosophic languages preserved the Latin model, Dalgarno eliminated the declensions for nouns.

All that counted was word order: the subject preceded the verb and the verb preceded the object. The ablative absolute was rendered by temporal particles which stood for terms like cum, post or dum.

The genitive was rendered either by an adjectival suffix or by a formula of possession (shf = to belong). Shumaker has commented (1982: 155) that forms of the latter type are adopted by pidgin English, in which the phrase “master’s hand” is rendered “hand-belong-master.”

Simplified to this degree, the language seems syntactically crude. Yet Dalgarno, deeply suspicious of rhetorical embellishments, was convinced that only an essential logical structure gave a language an austere elegance.

Besides, grace, elegance and transparent clarity were given full play in the composition of the names, and for this reason, Dalgarno compared his language to the philosophical language par excellence, ancient Greek.

One final aspect of Dalgarno’s system that he shared with both Wilkins and Lodwick has been underlined by Frank (1979: 65ff). By using particles, prefixed and suffixed to names, to transform nouns into other grammatical categories, changing their meanings thereby, and inserting prepositions, such as per, trans, praeter, supra, in and a, among the mathematical accidents–and thus as equivalent to nouns–Dalgarno tended “to postulate an all-comprehending semantics which took over all, or almost all of the functions traditionally assigned to grammar.”

Dalgarno, in other words, abolished the classical distinction between categorematic terms, or terms that have independent meanings, and syncategorematic terms, or terms which acquire a meaning only within a context.

This, in logic, is equivalent to the distinction between logical variables that can be bound to specific meanings and logical connectives. This is a tendency that is contrary to the tenets of modern logic; yet it is consistent with some trends in contemporary semantics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 231-7.

Eco: Descartes and Mersenne


René Descartes (1596-1650), Principia philosophiae, Amsterdam: Apud Ludovicum Elzevirium, 1644. Held by the Chemical Heritage Foundation as accession number Q155.D473.1644, Othmer Library of Chemical History. 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. 

“More or less at the same period, the problem of a real character was discussed in France, with a more skeptical attitude. In 1629, Father Marin Mersenne sent Descartes news of a project for a nouvelle langue invented by a certain des Vallées.

We are told by Tallemant des Réau that this des Vallées was a lawyer who had an immense talent for languages and who claimed to have discovered “a matrix language through which he could understand all others.”

Cardinal Richelieu asked him to publish his project, but des Vallées replied he was only willing to divulge such a great secret against the promise of a state pension.

“This the Cardinal denied him, and so the secret ended up buried with des Vallées” (Les historiettes, 1657: 2, “Le Cardinal de Richelieu“).

On 20 November 1629, Descartes wrote back to Mersenne giving his thoughts about the story. Learning a language, Descartes noted, involved learning both the meaning of words and a grammar.

All that was required to learn new meanings was a good dictionary, but learning a foreign grammar was more difficult. It might be possible, however, to obviate this difficulty by inventing a grammar that was free from the irregularities of natural languages, all of which had been corrupted through usage.

The resulting language would be a simplified one and might seem, in comparison to natural languages, the basic one, of which all the other natural languages would then appear as so many complex dialects.

It was sufficient to establish a set of primitive names for actions (having synonyms in every language, in the sense in which the French aimer has its synonym in the Greek philein), and the corresponding substantive might next be derived from such a name by adding to it an affix.

From here, a universal writing system might be derived in which each primitive name was assigned a number with which the corresponding terms in natural languages might be recovered.

However, Descartes remarked, there would remain the problem of sounds, since there are ones which are easy and pleasant for speakers of one nation and difficult and unpleasant for those of another.

On the one hand, a system of new sounds might also prove difficult to learn; on the other hand, if one named the primitive terms from one’s own language, then the new language would not be understood by foreigners, unless it was written down by numbers.

But even in this case, learning an entire new numerical lexicon seemed to Descartes a tremendous expense of energy: why not, then, continue with an international language like Latin whose usage was already well established?

At this point, Descartes saw that the real problem lay elsewhere. In order not only to learn but to remember the primitive names, it would be necessary for these to correspond to an order of ideas or thoughts having a logic akin to that of the numbers.

We can general an infinite series of numbers, he noted, without needing to commit the whole set to memory. But this problem coincided with that of discovering the true philosophy capable of defining a system of clear and distinct ideas.

If it were possible to enumerate the entire set of simple ideas from which we generate all the complex ones that the human mind can entertain, and if it were possible to assign to each a character–as we do with numbers–we could then articulate them by a sort of mathematics of thought–while the words of natural languages evoke only confused ideas.

“Now I believe that such a language is possible and that it is possible to discover the science upon which it must depend, a science through which peasants might judge the truth better than philosophers do today.

Yet I do not expect ever to see it in use, for that would presuppose great changes in the present order of things; this world would have to become an earthly paradise, and that is something that only happens in the Pays des Romans.”

Descartes thus saw the problem in the same light as Bacon did. Yet this was a project that he never confronted. The observations in his letter to Mersenne were no more than commonsensical.

It is true that, at the moment he wrote this letter, Descartes had not yet started his own research into clear and distinct ideas, as would happen later with his Discours de la methode;  however, even later he never tried to outline a complete system of simple and clear ideas as the grounds on which to build a perfect language.

He provided a short list of primitive notions in the Principia philosophiae (I, XLVIII), yet these notions were conceived as permanent substances (order, number, time, etc.) and there is no indication that from this list a system of ideas could be derived (see Pellerey 1992a: 25-41; Marconi 1992).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 216-8.

Eco: Comenius


Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart, the initial version was completed in 1623, while the first edition was published in 1631. The entire work is posted in an electronic edition. 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 British quest was also influenced by the presence of Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky). In fact Comenius was a member of the Bohemian Brotherhood, a mystic branch of Hussite reformers, and he played a role–albeit a polemical one–in the Rosicrucian story (cf. his Labyrinth of the World, 1623, in Czech).

Thus he was inspired by religious ideals which were alien to the scientific purposes of the English milieu. On this complex cultural geography see Yates (1972, 1979): one is really facing a web of different projects, at once similar and antithetical, in which the search for a perfect language was but a single aspect (see Rossi 1960; Bonerba 1992; Pellerey 1992a: 41-9).

Comenius‘ aspirations must be seen in the framework of the tradition of pansophia, yet his pansophic aims were influenced by educational preoccupations. In his Didactica magna of 1657, he proposed a scheme for reforming teaching methods; for, as he observed, a reform in the education of the young formed the basis upon which any subsequent political, social and religious reform must be built.

It was essential that the teacher furnish the learners with a set of images that would stamp themselves indelibly on their imaginations. This meant placing what is visible before the eyes, what is audible before the ears, what is olfactory before the nose, gustatory before the tongue, and tactical before the touch.

In an earlier manual for the teaching of Latin, Janua linguarum, written in 1631, Comenius was first of all concerned that the learner should have an immediate visual apprehension of what was being spoken of.

Equally he was concerned that the images and notions that the learner was studying in the Latin lexicon be arranged in a certain logical order.

Thus lessons progressed from the creation of the world to the elements, to the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, etc.

By the time of the Didactica magna Comenius had begun to rearrange his notions according to the suggestions of Bacon. In 1658 there appeared the Orbis sensualium pictus quadrilinguis, which represented his attempt to present a figured nomenclature which would include the fundamental things of the world together with human actions.

So important were the images that Comenius delayed publication until he was able to obtain satisfactory engravings that were not mere ornaments, but bore an iconic relation with the things represented, for which the verbal names appeared as nothing but titles, explanations and complements.

This manual was prefaced by an alphabet in which every letter was associated with the image of a particular animal whose voice recalled the sound of the letter–so that the result resembles Harsdörffer’s onomatopoetic fantasies concerning the sounds of German.

Therefore the image of a crow is commented by “Die Krähe krächzet, cornix cornicatur, la cornacchia gracchia, la corneille gazoüille,” or, for a snake, “Die Schlange zischtet, Serpens sibilat, il Serpe fsschia [sic], le Serpent siffle.”

Comenius was a severe critic of the defects of natural languages. In his Pansophiae Christianae liber III (1639-40), he advocated a reform that would eliminate the rhetorical and figurative use of words, which he regarded as a source of ambiguity.

The meaning of words should be fixed, he demanded, with one name for each thing, thus restoring words to their original meanings.

In 1668, in the Via lucis, Comenius offered prescriptions for the creation of an artificial universal language. By now, pansophy was more than an educational method; it was a utopian vision in which a world council was supposed to create the perfect state along with its perfect philosophical language, the Panglossia.

It is interesting to consider that Comenius had in fact written this work before 1641, when, after wandering through the whole of Europe in the course of the Thirty Years War, he had taken refuge in London.

Via lucis certainly circulated, in manuscript form, in the English milieu at that time (see, for example, Cram 1989).

Although Comenius was never to construct his new language in extenso, he had broached the idea of a universal tongue which had to overcome the political and structural limitations of Latin.

The lexicon of the new language would reflect the composition of reality and in it every word should have a definite and univocal meaning, every content should be represented by one and only one expression, and the contents were not supposed to be products of fancy, but should represent only every really existing thing, no more and no less (see Pellerey 1992a: 48).

Thus, on one side we have a utopian thinker, inspired by Rosicrucian ideals, whose goal was to discover a pansophy which aimed at picturing the unmoving and harmonical connection of every element of the creation, so as to lead the human mind to an unceasing quest for God; on the other side, rejecting the possibility of rediscovering the original perfect language, and looking, for educational purposes, for an easy artificial method, Comenius became the forerunner of that search for an a priori philosophical language that would later be implemented by English utopian thinkers whose inspiration was more scientific than theological or mystical.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 214-6.

Eco: Bacon


Paul van Somer (1576-1622), Portrait of Francis Bacon, 1617. Held at the Palace on the Water (Royal Baths Museum) and inscribed “Sr. Francis Bacon Lord Keeper, and afterwards Lord Chancellor of England, 1617.” 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. 

“As the renovator of scientific inquiry, Francis Bacon was only marginally interested in perfect languages. Yet, marginal though they may have been, his remarks on the subject have a notable philosophic interest.

A central theme in Bacon’s works was the destruction of idola, that is, false ideas arising either from human nature, collective or individual, or from philosophical dogmas handed down by tradition, or else–and this is what interests us the most–from the way we use language itself (idola fori).

Such linguistic usages have been determined by the needs of common people, so disturbing our way of reasoning (Novum organum, I, 43), and the idola that common speech imposes are either names for non-existent things, or confused, ill-defined and partial names for existing things (Novum organum, I, 60).

An example of a confused notion is that of the moist: this may signify a great variety of things; it can mean that which spreads rapidly around another body, that which is devoid of cohesion and consistence, that which is easily moved in whatever direction, that which can be divided and dispersed, that which can easily be reunited and gathered up, that which attaches itself easily to another body and moistens it, that which easily passes into a liquid state and dissolves.

To speak scientifically means thus to implement a speech therapy.

The idea of a linguistic therapy was a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. In the Leviathan (1651: IV), Hobbes noted that there are four main uses of speech,

“…First, to register, what by cogitation, wee find to be the cause of any thing [ . . . ] Secondly, to shew to others that knowledge which we have attained [ . . . ] Thirdly, to make known to others our wills, and purposes [ . . . ] Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, or others, by playing with our words, for pleasure and ornament, innocently.

To these uses, there are also foure correspondent Abuses. First, when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words [ . . . ] Secondly, when they use words metaphorically [ . . . ] Thirdly, when by words they declare that to be their will, which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another.”

In the third book of the Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke observed that:

“For since Sounds are voluntary and indifferent signs of any Ideas, a Man may use what Words he pleases, to signify his own Ideas to himself: and there will be no imperfection in them, if he constantly uses the same Word for the same Idea [ . . . ] The chief End of Language in Communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end [ . . . ] when any Word does not excite in the Hearer, the same Idea which it stands for in the Mind of the Speaker.” (III, IX, 2, 4).

For Bacon, signs might be of two types. Signs ex congruo (we would say iconic, motivated)–like hieroglyphs, gestures or emblems–reproduce in some way the properties of the things they signify; signs ad placitum are arbitrary and conventional.

Yet even a conventional sign can be defined as a “real character” when it refers not to a sound, but directly a corresponding thing or concept.

Bacon thus speaks of “Characteres quidam Reales, non Nominales; qui scilicet nec literas, nec verba, sed res et notiones exprimunt” (De Augmentis Scientiarum, VI, 1). In this sense, the signs used by the Chinese are real characters; they represent concepts without, however, bearing any similarity to the signified objects.

We see here that, unlike Kircher, Bacon was unaware of the vague iconism of Chinese ideograms; this, however, was a misapprehension that Bacon shared with a number of other contemporary authors.

Even Wilkins commented that, beyond the difficulties and perplexities that these characters generated, there seemed to be no analogies between their forms and the forms of the things that they represented (Essay, 451).

Probably Kircher had the advantage of knowing the direct reports on Chinese culture of his fellow Jesuits, and was thus able to form a clearer picture of Chinese ideograms than English scholars forced to rely on indirect accounts.

For Bacon, then, Chinese ideograms were examples of signs which, though arbitrary and conventional, stand directly for a signified notion without the mediation of a verbal language. He remarked that, even though the Chinese and the Japanese spoke different languages and thus called things by different names, both recognized them by the same ideograms, and, therefore, could understand each other by writing.

According to an example by Lodwick, if we propose to denote the sky with a 0, such a real character would be distinct from a vocal character…

“…in that it signifieth not the sound or word “heaven” but what we call heaven, the Latin coelum etc., so that the carracter being accepted will by the English be read heaven without respect to what the Latin would name the same thing [ . . . ] A frequent instance hereof we have in the numerical carracters (sic) 1.2.3., which signify not the severall sounds by which the severall (sic) nations in their severall languages expresse (sic) them but that common notion wherein those severall nations agree as to them (MS Sloane 897 f32r; in Salmon 1972: 223).”

Bacon did not think that a character supplied the image of the thing or revealed its intrinsic nature; his characters were nothing other than a conventional sign which, however, referred to a clear and precise notion.

His problem, then, became that of formulating an alphabet of fundamental notions; his Abecedarium novum naturae, composed in 1622, which was to appear as the appendix of the Historia naturalis et experimentalis, represented an attempt to make an index of knowledge, and was not connected to any project for a perfect language (see Blasi 1992: Pellerey 1992a).

Later attempts were none the less inspired by the fact that Bacon decided to associate Greek letters with every item of his index, so that, for example, α meant “dense and rare,” ε “volatile and fixed,” εεεε “natural and monstruous (sic),” οοοοο “hearing and sound.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 211-3.

Eco: A Priori Philosophical Languages

“The advent of a priori philosophical languages entails a change in paradigm. For the authors we have considered up to now, the search for a perfect language arose from profound tensions of a religious nature; the authors we are about to consider imagined on the contrary a philosophical language which could eliminate the idola responsible for clouding the minds of men and for keeping them afar from the progress of science.

Not by chance, most of the agitation for a new and universal language arose from Britain. There is more to this than a reflection of the English expansion during this period; there was a specifically religious aspect as well.

Although Latin was still the common language of scholars, to the English mind, it was associated with the Catholic church. Besides, it was also too difficult for English speakers. Charles Hooke complained of “the frequent Sarcasmes of the Foreiners, who deride to see such a disability in Englishmen (otherwise Scholars good enough) to speak in Latine” (cf. Salmon 1972: 56).

In the endeavor for a common speech the English had commercial reasons (they thought indeed that a universal language would facilitate the exchange of goods at the Frankfurt fair) as well as educational reasons, since English spelling in the seventeenth century was more irregular than it is today (see Salmon 1972: 51-69).

This was also a period which witnessed the first experiences in teaching language to deaf-mutes, and Dalgarno conducted a number of experiments in this field. Cave Beck (The Universal Character, 1657) wrote that the invention of a universal language would be of advantage to mankind as it would encourage commerce as well as saving the expense of hiring interpreters.

It is true that he added that it would serve to propagate the Gospel as well, but it seems evident that for him evangelization was really just another aspect of European expansion in the new lands of conquest.

He was obsessed, like other linguistic theorists of the epoch, by the accounts of the gestural languages through which the explorers conducted their first exchanges with the inhabitants of those distant shores.

In his account of his exploits in the New World in 1527, Alvaro Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca had complained of the difficulty involved in dealing with native populations which spoke thousands of different dialects, describing how much recourse to the language of gesture had helped the explorers.

Beck’s work contained a frontispiece which showed a European consigning Beck’s project to a Hindu, an African, and to an American Indian who expresses himself with a gesture of his hand.

There was finally the problem of scientific language itself. New discoveries being made in the physical and natural sciences made the problem of finding an adequate nomenclature more urgent, in order to counteract the symbolic and allegorical vagueness of alchemical terms.

Dalgarno confronted this problem in the section entitled “To the reader” of his 1661 Ars signorum: it was necessary to find a language which reduced redundancies, anomalies, equivocations and ambiguities. He specified that such a language could not fail to encourage contact between peoples as well as help to cure philosophy of sophisms and logomachy.

What had long been considered one of the sacred writ’s greatest strengths–its vagueness and symbolic density–was now viewed as a limitation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 209-10.

Eco: Beck and Becher

Cave Beck, The Universal Character, London, 1657

Cave Beck (1623-1702), The Universal Character, London, 1657. An eBook available on GoogleBooks, The Universal Character proposes a universal language based on a numerical system consisting of the ten Arabic numerals up to 10,000 combinations long, which was considered sufficient to include all words in common usage. As each word was assigned a unique number and the number was the same regardless of language, words ended up unmanageably long. 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 1657 Cave Beck had published The Universal Character, by which All the Nations of the World may Understand One Another’s Conceptions, Reading out of one Common Writing their Own Mother Tongues, presenting a project which was not so different from Kircher’s. Here is an example from his system:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 201.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, p. 201. 

The numbers specified nouns and verbs, p stood for the personal pronoun, second person, with pf as the feminine form (which permits one to use the same term, 2477 = “parent,” in both cases); leb indicated imperative plural.

Beck tried to turn his pasigraphy into a pasilaly as well, that is a system of universal pronunciation. Thus the above sentence was to be pronounced leb totreónfo pee tofosénsen and pif tofosénsen.

The only difficulty was that, in order to pronounce the sentence, one had to memorize the whole dictionary, remembering the right number for every word.

In 1661, two years before Kircher’s Polygraphia (but some of Kircher’s ideas had circulated in manuscript form since 1660), Joachim Becher published his Character pro notitia linguarum universalis (sometimes known under its frontispiece title of Clavis convenientiae linguarum).

Becher’s project was not unlike Kircher’s; the major difference was that Becher constructed a Latin dictionary that was almost ten times more vast (10,000 items). Yet he did not include synonyms from other languages, expecting the accommodating reader to make them up for him.

As in Kircher, nouns, verbs and adjectives composed the main list, with a supplementary list of proper names of people and places making up an appendix.

For each item in Becher’s dictionary there is an Arabic number: the city of Zürich, for example, is designated by the number 10283. A second Arabic number refers the user to grammatical tables which supply verbal endings, the endings for the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, or adverbial endings.

A third number refers to case endings. The dedication “Inventum Eminentissimo Principi” is written 4442. 2770:169:3. 6753:3, that is, “(My) Invention (to the) Eminent + superlative + dative singular, Prince + dative singular.”

Unfortunately Becher was afraid that his system might prove difficult for peoples who did not know the Arabic numbers; he therefore thought up a system of his own for the direct visual representation of numbers.

The system is atrociously complicated and almost totally illegible. Some authors have imagined that it is somehow akin to Chinese. This is hardly true. What we have, in fact, is a basic graphical structure where little lines and dots at various points on the figure represent different numbers.

Lines and points affixed to the right and center of the figure refer to grammatical categories. Figure 9.1 provides only an excerpt of a list that keeps going for four tables.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 9.1, p. 202

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 9.1, p. 202.

In the chapter “Mirabilia graphica” in his Technica curiosa (1664), Gaspar Schott tried to improve on Becher’s project.

He simplified the system for the representation of numbers and added partial lexicons for other languages. Schott proposed using small grids of eight cases each, where the lower horizontal line represents units, the next one up tens, the next hundreds, and the top thousands.

Units were represented by dots; fives were represented by strokes. Numbers on the left referred to lexical units, while those on the right to grammatical morphemes. Thus figure 9.2 must be read as 23:1, 15:15, 35:4, and can be translated as “The horse eats the fodder.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 9.2, p. 203

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 9.2, p. 203. 

Becher’s and Schott’s systems appear totally impracticable for normal human use, but have been seen as tentative models for future practices of computer translation (cf. Heilman 1963; De Mauro 1963).

In fact, it is sufficient to think of Becher’s pseudo-ideograms as instructions for electronic circuits, prescribing to a machine which path to follow through the memory in order to retrieve a given linguistic term, and we have a procedure for a word-for-word translation (with all the obvious inconveniences of such a merely mechanical program).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 201-3.

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: Polygraphies


John Dee (1527-1609), an excerpt from Steganographiae, aka Peniarth MS 423D, astrological texts in Latin, 1591. Steganographiae was originally composed by Johannes Trithemius in the 1490’s. Infamous as a work of cryptography, this excerpt was copied by hand by Dr. Dee. Peniarth MS 423D is held by the National Library of Wales. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. All rights are waived worldwide under copyright laws. This file can be copied, modified, and distributed with no permissions required.  

“Steganographies were used to cipher messages in order to guarantee secrecy and security.  However, even though disregarding many terminological details (or differences) used today by the cryptographers, one must distinguish between the activity of coding and decoding messages when one knows the key, or code, and cryptoanalysis (sic); that is, the art of discovering an unknown key in order to decipher an otherwise incomprehensible message.

Both activities were strictly linked from the very beginning of cryptography: if a good steganography could decode a ciphered message, it ought to allow its user to understand an unknown language as well.

When Trithemius wrote his Polygraphiae, which was published in 1518, before his Steganographia, and did not earn the sinister fame of the latter work, he was well aware that, by his system, a person ignorant of Latin might, in a short time, learn to write in that “secret” language (1518: biiii) (sic).

Speaking of TrithemiusPolygraphia, Mersenne said (Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, 1623: 471) that its “third book contains an art by which even an uneducated man who knows nothing more than his mother tongue can learn to read and write Latin in two hours.”

Steganography thus appeared both as an instrument to encipher messages conceived in a known language and as the key to deciphering unknown languages.

In order to cipher a message one must substitute the letters of a plain message (written in a language known by both the sender and the addressee) with other letters prescribed by a key or code (equally known by sender and addressee).

To decipher a message encoded according to an unknown key, it is frequently sufficient to detect which letter of the encoded message recurs most frequently, and it is easy to infer that this represents the letter occurs most frequently in a given known language.

Usually the decoder tries various hypotheses, checking upon different languages, and at a certain point finds the right solution.

The decipherment is made, however, more difficult if the encoder uses a new key for every new word of the message. A typical procedure of this kind was the following. Both the encoder and the decoder refer to a table like this:

Umberto Eco, Table, The Search for the Perfect Language, Polygraphies, Trithemius, p. 195

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 195.

Now, let us suppose that the key is the Latin word CEDO. The first word of the message is encoded according to the third line of the table (beginning with C), so that A becomes C, B becomes D and so on.

The second words is encoded according to the fifth line (beginning with E), so that A becomes E and so on. The third word is encoded according to the fourth line, the fourth according to the fifteenth one . . . At the fifth word one starts the process all over again.

Naturally the decoder (who knows the key) proceeds in the opposite way.

In order to decipher without knowing the key, if the table is that simple and obvious, there is no problem. But even in cases of more complicated tables the decipherer can try with all possible tables (for instance, with alphabets in reverse order, with alternate letters, such as ACEG), and it is usually only a matter of time before even the most complex of codes are broken.

Observing this, Heinrich Hiller, in his Mysterium artiis steganographicae novissimum (1682), proposed to teach a method of learning to decipher messages not only in code, but also in Latin, German, Italian and French, simply by observing the incidence of each letter and diphthong in each language.

In 1685, John Falconer wrote a Cryptomenysis patefacta: or the Art of Secret Information Disclosed Without a Key, where he noted that, once someone has understood the rules of decipherment in a given language, it is possible to do the same with all the others (A7v).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 194-6.

Eco: Dee’s Magic Language


Florence Estienne Méric Casaubon (1599-1671), A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits, London, 1659. 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 his Apologia compendiaria (1615) Fludd noted that the Rosicrucian brothers practiced that type of kabbalistic magic that enabled them to summon angels. This is reminiscent of the steganography of Trithemius. Yet it is no less reminiscent of the necromancy of John Dee, a man whom many authors considered the true inspirer of Rosicrucian spirituality.

In the course of one of the angelic colloquies recorded in A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits (1659: 92), Dee found himself in the presence of the Archangel Gabriel, who wished to reveal to him something about the nature of holy language.

When questioned, however, Gabriel simply repeated the information that the Hebrew of Adam, the language in which “every word signifieth the quiddity of the substance,” was also the primal language–a notion which, in the Renaissance, was hardly a revelation.

After this, in fact, the text continues, for page after page, to expatiate on the relations between the names of angels, numbers and secrets of the universe–to provide, in short, another example of the pseudo-Hebraic formulae which were the stock in trade of the Renaissance magus.

Yet it is perhaps significant that the 1659 Relation was published by Meric Casaubon, who was later accused of partially retrieving and editing Dee’s documents with the intention of discrediting him.

There is nothing, of course, surprising in the notion that a Renaissance magus invoked spirits; yet, in the case of John Dee, when he gave us an instance of cipher, or mystic language, he used other means.

In 1564, John Dee wrote the work upon which his contemporary fame rested–Monas hieroglyphica, where he speaks of a geometrical alphabet with no connection to Hebrew. It should be remembered that Dee, in his extraordinary library, had many of Lull’s manuscripts, and that many of his kabbalistic experiments with Hebrew characters in fact recall Lull’s use of letters in his art of combination (French 1972: 49ff).

Dee’s Monas is commonly considered a work of alchemy. Despite this, the network of alchemical references with which the book is filled seems rather intended to fulfill a larger purpose–that of explicating the cosmic implications deriving from Dee’s fundamental symbol, the Monad, based upon circles and straight lines, all generated from a single point.


John Dee (1527-1609), Monas hieroglyphica, 1564, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Monad is the symbol at the heart of the illustration labeled Figure 8.1 in Eco’s  The Search for the Perfect Language, Oxford, 1995, p. 186.

In this symbol (see figure 8.1), the main circle represented the sun that revolves around its central point, the earth, and in its upper part was intersected by a semi-circle representing the moon.

Both sun and moon were supported on an inverted cross which represented both the ternary principle–two straight lines which intersect plus their point of intersection–and the quaternary principle–the four right angles formed at the intersections of the two lines.

The sum of the ternary and quaternary principles constituted a further seven-fold principle, and Dee goes even on to squeeze an eight-fold principle from the diagram.

By adding the first four integers together, he also derives a ten-fold principle. By such a manipulatory vertigo Dee then derives the four composite elements (heat and cold, wet and dry) as well as other astrological revelations.

From here, through 24 theorems, Dee makes his image undergo a variety of rotations, decompositions, inversions and permutations, as if it were drawing anagrams from a series of Hebrew letters.

Sometimes he considers only the initial aspects of his figure, sometimes the final one, sometimes making numerological analyses, submitting his symbol to the kabbalistic techniques of notariqon, gematria, and temurah.

As a consequence, the Monas should permit–as happens with every numerological speculation–the revelation of the whole of the cosmic mysteries.

However, the Monad also generates alphabetic letters. Dee was emphatic about this in the letter of dedication with which he introduced his book. Here he asked all “grammarians” to recognize that his work “would explain the form of the letters, their position and place in the alphabetical order, and the relations between them, along with their numerological values, and many other things concerning the primary Alphabet of the three languages.”

This final reference to “the three languages” reminds us of Postel (whom Dee met personally) and of the Collège des Trois Langues at which Postel was professor. In fact, Postel, to prove that Hebrew was the primal language in his 1553 De originibus, had observed that every “demonstration of the world” comes from point, line and triangle, and that sounds themselves could be reduced to geometry.

In his De Foenicum literis, he further argued that the invention of the alphabet was almost contemporary with the spread of language (on this point see many later kabbalistic speculations over the origins of language, such as Thomas Bang, Caelum orientis, 1657: 10).

What Dee seems to have done is to take the geometrical argument to its logical conclusion. He announced in his dedicatory letter that “this alphabetic literature contains great mysteries,” continuing that “the first Mystic letters of Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans were formed by God and transmitted to mortals [ . . . ] so that all the signs used to represent them were produced by points, straight lines, and circumferences of circles arranged by an art most marvelous and wise.”

When he writes a eulogy of the geometrical properties of the Hebrew Yod, one is tempted to think of the Dantesque I; when he attempts to discover a generative matrix from which language could be derived, one thinks of the Lullian Ars.

Dee celebrates his procedure for generating letters as a “true Kabbalah [ . . . ] more divine than grammar itself.”

These points have been recently developed by Clulee (1988: 77-116), who argues that the Monas should be seen as presenting a system of writing, governed by strict rules, in which each character is associated with a thing.

In this sense, the language of Monas is superior to the kabbala, for the kabbala aims at the interpretation of things only as they are said (or written) in language, whereas the Monas aims directly at the interpretation of things as they are in themselves. Thanks to its universality, moreover, Dee can claim that his language invents or restores the language of Adam.

According to Clulee, Dee’s graphic analysis of the alphabet was suggested by the practice of Renaissance artists of designing alphabetical letters using the compass and set-square.

Thus Dee could have thought of a unique and simple device for generating both concepts and all the alphabets of the world.

Neither traditional grammarians nor kabbalists were able to explain the form of letters and their position within the alphabet; they were unable to discover the origins of signs and characters, and for this reason they were uncapable (sic) to retrieve that universal grammar that stood at the bases of Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

According to Clulee, what Dee seems to have discovered was an idea of language “as a vast, symbolic system through which meanings might be generated by the manipulation of symbols” (1988: 95).

Such an interpretation seems to be confirmed by an author absent from all the bibliographies (appearing, to the best of my knowledge, only in Leibniz’s Epistolica de historia etymologica dissertatio of 1717, which discusses him in some depth).

This author is Johannes Petrus Ericus, who, 1697, published his Anthropoglottogonia sive linguae humanae genesis, in which he tried to demonstrate that all languages, Hebrew included, were derived from Greek.

In 1686, however, he had also published a Principium philologicum in quo vocum, signorum et punctorum tum et literarum massime ac numerorum origo. Here he specifically cited Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica to derive from that matrix the letters of all alphabets (still giving precedence to Greek) as well as all number systems.

Through a set of extremely complex procedures, Ericus broke down the first signs of the Zodiac to reconstruct them into Dee’s Monad; he assumed that Adam had named each animal by a name that reproduced the sounds that that each emitted; then he elaborated a rather credible phonological theory identifying classes of letters such as “per sibilatione per dentes,” “per tremulatione labrorum,” “per compressione labrorum,” “per contractione palati,” “per respiratione per nares.”

Ericus concluded that Adam used vowels for the names of the beasts of the fields, and mutes for the fish. This rather elementary phonetics also enabled Ericus to deduce the seven notes of the musical scale as well as the seven letters which designate them–these letters being the basic elements of the Monas.

Finally, he demonstrated how by rotating this figure, forming, as it were, visual anagrams, the letters of all other alphabets could be derived.

Thus the magic language of the Rosicrucians (if they existed, and if they were influenced by Dee) could have been a matrix able to generate–at least alphabetically–all languages, and, therefore, all the wisdom of the world.

Such a language would have been more than a universal grammar: it would have been a grammar without syntactic structures, or, as Demonet (1992: 404) suggests, a “grammar without words,” a silent communication, close to the language of angels, or similar to Kircher’s conception of hieroglyphs.

Thus, once again, this perfect language would be based upon a sort of communicative short-circuit, capable of revealing everything, but only if it remained initiatically secret.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 185-90.

Eco: The Kircherian Ideology


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Egyptian pyramids by Gioseffo Petrucci, Prodromo apologetico alli studi chiercheriani, Amsterdam, 1677, reprinted from Sphinx Mystagoga, a selection of images related to Athanasius Kircher in the Stanford University Archives, curated by Michael John Gorman, 2001. 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.

“It would be idle to hold Kircher responsible for his inability to understand the nature of hieroglyphic writing, for which in his time nobody had the key. Yet his ideology magnified his errors.

“Nothing can explain the duplicity of the research of Kircher better than the engraving which opens the Obeliscus Pamphilius: in this cohabit both the illuminated image of Philomatià to whom Hermes explains every mystery and the disquieting gesture of Harpocrates who turns away the profane, hidden by the shadow of the cartouche.” (Rivosecchi 1982: 57).

The hieroglyphic configurations had become a sort of machine for the inducing of hallucinations which then could be interpreted in any possible way.

Rivosecchi (1982: 52) suggests that Kircher exploited this very possibility in order to discuss freely a large number of potentially dangerous themes–from astrology to alchemy and magic–disguising his own opinions as those of an immemorial tradition, one in which, moreover, Kircher treated prefigurations of Christianity.

In the midst of this hermeneutic bulimia, however, there glimmers the exquisitely baroque temperament of Kircher at play, delighting in his taste for the great theater of mirrors and lights, for the surprising museographic collection (and one has only to think of that extraordinary Wunderkammer which was the museum of the Jesuit Collegio Romano).

Only his sensitivity to the incredible and the monstrous can explain the dedication to the Emperor Ferdinand III that opens the third volume of Oedipus:

“I unfold before your eyes, O Most Sacred Caesar, the polymorphous reign of Morpheus Hieroglyphicus. I tell of a theater in which an immense variety of monsters are disposed, and not the nude monsters of nature, but adorned by the enigmatic Chimeras of the most ancient of wisdoms so that here I trust sagacious wits will draw out immeasurable treasures for the sciences as well as no small advantage for letters.

Here there is the Dog of Bubasti, the Lion Saiticus, the Goat Mendesius, here there is the Crocodile, horrible in the yawning of its jaws, yet from whose uncovered gullet there emerges the occult meanings of divinity, of nature, and of the spirit of Ancient Wisdom espied through the vaporous play of images.

Here there are the Dipsodes thirsting for blood, the virulent Asp, the astute Icneumon, the cruel Hippopotami, the monstrous Dragons, the toad of swollen belly, the snail of twisted shell, the hairy caterpillar and the innumerable other specters which all show the admirably ordered chain which extends itself into the depths of nature’s sanctuaries.

Here is presented a thousand species of exotic things in many and varied images, transformed by metamorphosis, converted into human figures, and restored once more to themselves again in a dance of the human and the savage intertwined, and all in accordance with the artifices of the divine; and finally, there appears the divinity itself which, to say with Porphyry, scours the entire universe, ordering it with all things in a monstrous connubium; where now, sublime in its variegated face, it raises its canine cervix to reveal itself as Cenocephalus, now as the wicked Ibis, now as the Sparrow-hawk wrapped in a beaky mask.

[ . . . ] now, delighting in its virgin aspect, under the shell of the Scarab it lies concealed as the sting of the Scorpion [these descriptions carry on for four more pages] in this pantomorphic theater of nature  unfolded before our gaze, under the allegorical veil of occult meanings.”

This is the same spirit which informed the medieval taste for encyclopedias and for libri monstruorum, a genre which reappears from the Renaissance onwards under the “scientific” guise of the medical studies of Ambroise Paré, the naturalist works of Ulisse Aldrovandi, the collection of monsters of Fortunio Liceti, the Physica curiosa of Gaspar Schott.

Here it is combined, with a quality of frenzied dissymmetry that is almost Borrominian, recalling the aesthetic ideals presiding over the construction of the hydraulic grottos and mythological rocailles in the gardens of the period.

Beyond this, however, Rivosecchi has put his finger on another facet of the Kircherian ideology. In a universe placed under the sign of an ancient and powerful solar deity, the myth of Osiris had become an allegory of the troubled search for stability in the world still emerging from the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, in which Kircher was directly involved.

In this sense, we might read the dedications to Ferdinand III, which stand out at the beginning of each volume of the Oedipus, in the same light as the appeals of Postel to the French monarchy to restore harmony a century before, or as the analogous appeals of Bruno, or as Campanella’s celebration of a solar monarchy, prelude to the reign of Louis XIV, or as the calls for a golden century which we will discuss in the chapter on the Rosicrucians.

Like all the utopian visionaries of his age, the Jesuit Kircher dreamed of the recomposition of a lacerated Europe under a stable monarchy. As a good German, moreover, he repeated the gesture of Dante and turned to the Germanic, Holy Roman emperor.

Once again, as in the case of Lull, though in ways so different as to void the analogy, it was the search for a perfect language that became the instrument whereby a new harmony, not only in Europe, but across the entire planet, was to be established.

The knowledge of exotic languages, aimed not so much at recovering their original perfection, but rather at showing to the Jesuit missionaries “the method of bearing the doctrine of Christ to those cut off from it by diabolic malice” (preface to China, but also Oedipus, I, I, 396-8).

In the last of Kircher’s works, the Turris Babel, the story of the confusion of tongues is once again evoked, this time in an attempt to compose “a grandiose universal history, embracing all diversities, in a unified project of assimilation to Christian doctrine. [ . . . ]

The peoples of all the world, dispersed after the confusion, are to be called back together from the Tower of the Jesuits for a new linguistic and ideological reunification.” (Scolari 1983: 6).

In fact, hungry for mystery and fascinated by exotic languages though he was, Kircher felt no real need to discover a perfect language to reunite the world in harmony; his own Latin, spoken with the clear accents of the Counter-Reformation, seemed a vehicle perfectly adequate to transport as much gospel truth as was required in order to bring the various peoples together.

Kircher never entertained the thought that any of the languages he considered, not even the sacred languages of hieroglyphics and kabbalistic permutations, should ever again be spoken. He found in the ruins of these antique and venerated languages a garden of private delight; but he never conceived of them as living anew.

At most he toyed with the idea of preserving these languages as sacred emblems, accessible only to the elect, and in order to show their fecund impenetrability he needed elephantine commentaries.

In every one of his books, he showed himself as a baroque scholar in a baroque world; he troubled more over the execution of his tables of illustrations than over the writing (which is often wooden and repetitive).

Kircher was, in fact, incapable of thinking other than in images (cf. Rivosecchi 1982: 114). Perhaps his most lasting achievement, and certainly his most popular book, was the Ars magna lucis et umbrae of 1646.

Here he explored the visible in all its nooks and crannies, drawing from his exploration a series of scientifically valid intuitions which even faintly anticipate the invention of the techniques of photography and the cinema.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 162-5.

Eco: Kircher’s Egyptology


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece to Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, Rome, Scheus, 1646. Compendium Naturalis says that this allegorical engraving was executed on copper by Petrus Miotte Burgundus. Multiple copies are posted on the internet, including an eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, one at the Max Planck Institute, one at the Herzog August Bibliothek, and one at Brigham Young University among many others. 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. 

“When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphics in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This helps explain his initial, mistaken, assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram.

Understandable as it may have been, this was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset. Notwithstanding its eventual failure, however, Kircher is still the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy, in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was wrong.

In a vain attempt to demonstrate his hypothesis, Kircher amassed observational material and transcribed documents, turning the attention of the scientific world to the problem of hieroglyphs. Kircher did not base his work on Horapollo’s fantastic bestiary; instead, he studied and made copies of the royal hieroglyphic inscriptions.

His reconstructions, reproduced in sumptuous tables, have an artistic fascination all of their own. Into these reconstructions Kircher poured elements of his own fantasy, frequently reportraying the stylized hieroglyphs in curvaceous baroque forms.

Lacking the opportunity for direct observation, even Champollion used Kircher’s reconstructions for his study of the obelisk standing in Rome’s Piazza Navona, and although he complained of the lack of precision of many of the reproductions, he was still able to draw from them interesting and exact conclusions.

Already in 1636, in his Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (to which was added, in 1643, a Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta), Kircher had come to understand the relation between the Coptic language and, on the one hand, Egyptian, and, on the other, Greek.

It was here that he first broached the possibility that all religions, even those of the Far East, were nothing more than more or less degenerated versions of the original Hermetic mysteries.

There were more than a dozen obelisks scattered about Rome, and restoration work on some of them had taken place from as early as the time of Sixtus V. In 1644, Innocent X was elected pope. His Pamphili family palace was in Piazza Navona, and the pope commissioned Bernini to execute for him the vast fountain of the four rivers, which remains there today.

On top of this fountain was to be placed the obelisk of Domitian, whose restoration Kircher was invited to superintend.

As the crowning achievement of this restoration, Kircher published, in 1650, his Obeliscus Pamphilius, followed, in 1652-4, by the four volumes of his Oedipus Aegyptiacus. This latter was an all-inclusive study of the history, religion, art, politics, grammar, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, alchemy, magic and theology of ancient Egypt, compared with all other eastern cultures, from Chinese ideograms to the Hebrew kabbala to the language of the brahmins of India.

The volumes are a typographical tour de force that demanded the cutting of new characters for the printing of the numerous exotic, oriental alphabets. It opened with, among other things, a series of dedications to the emperor in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Hungarian, Czech, Illirian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Chaldean, Samaritan, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Persian, Indian and Chinese.

Still, the conclusions were the same as those of the earlier book (and would still be the same in the Obelisci Aegyptiaci nuper inter Isaei Romani rudera effosii interpretatio hieroglyphica of 1666 and in the Sphinx mystagoga of 1676).

At times, Kircher seemed to approach the intuition that certain of the hieroglyphs had a phonetic value. He even constructed a rather fanciful alphabet of 21 hieroglyphs, from whose forms he derives, through progressive abstractions, the letters of the Greek alphabet.

Kircher, for example, took the figure of the ibis bending its head until it rests between its two feet as the prototype of the capitalized Greek alpha, A. He arrived at this conclusion by reflecting on the fact that the meaning of the hieroglyphic for the ibis was “Bonus Daemon;” this, in Greek, would have been Agathos Daimon.

But the hieroglyph had passed into Greek through the mediation of Coptic, thanks to which the first sounds of a given word were progressively identified with the form of the original hieroglyph.

At the same time, the legs of the ibis, spread apart and resting on the ground, expressed the sea, or, more precisely, the only form in which the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the sea–the Nile.

The word delta has remained unaltered in its passage into Greek, and this is why the Greek letter delta (Δ) has retained the form of a triangle.

It was this conviction that, in the end, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented Kircher from ever finding the right track. He thought that only later civilizations established that short-circuit between image and sound, which on the contrary characterized hieroglyphic writing from its early stages.

He was unable, finally, to keep the distinction between a sound and the corresponding alphabetic letter; thus his initial intuitions served to explain the generation of later phonetic alphabets, rather than to understand the phonetical nature of hieroglyphs.

Behind these errors, however, lies the fact that, for Kircher, the decipherment of hieroglyphs was conceived as merely the introduction to the much greater task–an explanation of their mystic significance.

Kircher never doubted that hieroglyphs had originated with Hermes Trismegistus–even though several decades before, Isaac Casaubon had proved that the entire Corpus Hermeticum could not be earlier than the first centuries of the common era.

Kircher, whose learning was truly exceptional, must have known about this. Yet he deliberately ignored the argument, preferring rather to exhibit a blind faith in his Hermetic axioms, or at least to continue to indulge his taste for all that was strange or prodigious.

Out of this passion for the occult came those attempts at decipherment which now amuse Egyptologists. On page 557 of his Obeliscus Pamphylius, figures 20-4 reproduce the images of a cartouche to which Kircher gives the following reading: “the originator of all fecundity and vegetation is Osiris whose generative power bears from heaven to his kingdom the Sacred Mophtha.”

This same image was deciphered by Champollion (Lettre à Dacier, 29), who used Kircher’s own reproductions, as “ΑΟΤΚΡΤΛ (Autocrat or Emperor) sun of the son and sovereign of the crown, ΚΗΣΡΣ ΤΜΗΤΕΝΣ ΣΒΣΤΣ (Caesar Domitian Augustus).”

The difference is, to say the least, notable, especially as regards the mysterious Mophtha, figured as a lion, over which Kircher expended pages and pages of mystic exegesis listing its numerous properties, while for Champollion the lion simply stands for the Greek letter lambda.

In the same way, on page 187 of the third volume of the Oedipus there is a long analysis of a cartouche that appeared on the Lateran obelisk. Kircher reads here a long argument concerning the necessity of attracting the benefits of the divine Osiris and of the Nile by means of sacred ceremonies activating the Chain of Genies, tied to the signs of the zodiac.

Egyptologists today read it as simply the name of the pharaoh Apries.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 154-8.

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 3


Horapollo (c. 5th century CE), Hori Apollinis selecta hieroglyphica, Romae: sumtibus Iulij Francescschini, ex typographia Aloysij Zanetti, 1599, pp. 128-9. Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Wilbur Library of Egyptology, Special Collections, call number PE40 H78 F84. 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.

Alciati’s commentary refers to the passage describing the stork in the Hieroglyphica. Yet we have just seen that there is no reference either to the feeding of the young or to the transport of the parents. These features are, however, mentioned in a fourth century AD text, the Hexaemeron of Basil (VIII, 5).

In other words, the information contained in the Hieroglyphica was already at the disposal of European culture. A search for traces of the stork from the Renaissance backwards is filled with pleasant surprises.

In the Cambridge Bestiary (twelfth century CE), we read that storks nourish their young with exemplary affection, and that “they incubate the nests so tirelessly that they lose their own feathers. What is more, when they have moulted in this way, they in turn are looked after by the babies, for a time corresponding in length to the time which they themselves have spent in bringing up and cherishing their offspring.” (The Bestiary, T.H. White, ed., New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1960: pp. 117-8).

The accompanying image shows a stork that carries a frog in its beak, obviously a dainty morsel for its young.

The Cambridge Bestiary has taken this idea from Isidore of Seville, who, in the Etymologiarum (XII, vii), says more or less the same. Who then are Isidore’s sources? St. Basil we have already seen; there was St. Ambrose as well (Hexaemeron, V, 16, 53), and possibly also Celsus (cited in Origen, Contra Celsum, IV, 98) and Porphyry (De abstinentia, III, 23, 1). These, in their turn, used Pliny’s Naturalis historia (X, 32) as their source.

Pliny, of course, could have been drawing on an Egyptian tradition, if Aelian, in the second to third century AD, could claim (though without citing Pliny by name) that “Storks are venerated among the Egyptians because they nourish and honor their parents when they grow old” (De animalium natura, X, 16).

But the idea can be traced back even further. The same notion is to be found in Plutarch (De solertia animalium, 4), Cicero (De finibus bonorum et malorum, II, 110), Aristotle (Historia animalium, IX, 7, 612b, 35), Plato (Alcibiades, 135 E), Aristophanes (The Birds, 1355), and finally in Sophocles (Electra, 1058).

There is nothing to prevent us from imagining that Sophocles himself was drawing on ancient Egyptian tradition; but, even if he were, it is evident that the story of the stork has been part of occidental culture for as long as we care to trace it.

It follows that Horapollo did not reveal anything hot. Moreover, the origin of this symbol seems to have been Semitic, given that, in Hebrew, the word for stork means “the one who has filial piety.”

Read by anyone familiar with medieval and classical culture, Horapollo’s booklet seems to differ very little from the bestiaries current in the preceding centuries. It merely adds some information about specifically Egyptian animals, such as the ibis and the scarab and neglects make certain of the standard moralizing comments or biblical references.

This was clear even to the Renaissance. In his Hieroglyphica sive de sacris Aegyptorum aliarumque gentium literis of 1556, Pierio Valeriano never tired of employing his vast stock of knowledge of classical and Christian sources to note the occasions where the assertions of Horapollo might be confirmed.

Yet instead of reading Horapollo in the light of a previous tradition, he revisits this whole tradition in the light of Horapollo.

With a barrage of citations from Latin and Greek authors, Giulio Cesare Capaccio displayed, in his Delle imprese of 1592, his perfect mastery of older traditions. Yet fashion now demanded that he interpreted this tradition in a Egyptian key.

“Without hieroglyphic observation,” and without having recourse to the Monas hieroglyphicaquel Giovanni Dee da Londino,” it was impossible, he said, to endow these images (coming from centuries of western culture) with their proper recondite meanings.

We are speaking of the “rereading” of a text (or of a network of texts) which had not been changed during the centuries. So what has changed? We are here witnessing a semiotic incident which, as paradoxical as some of its effects may have been, was, in terms of its own dynamic, quite easy to explain.

Horapollo’s text (qua text) differs but little from other similar writings, which were previously known. None the less, the humanists read it as a series of unprecedented statements. The reason is simply that the readers of the fifteenth century saw is as coming from a different author.

The text had not changed, but the “voice” supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma. This changed the way in which the text was received and the way in which it was consequently interpreted.

Thus, as old and familiar as these images were, the moment they appeared as transmitted not by the familiar Christian and pagan sources, but by the ancient Egyptian divinities themselves, they took on a fresh, and radically different, meaning.

For the missing scriptural commentaries there were substituted allusions to vague religions mysteries. The success of the book was due to its polysemy. Hieroglyphs were regarded as initiatory symbols.

They were symbols, that is, expressions that referred to an occult, unknown and ambivalent content. In contradistinction to conjecture, in which we take a visible symptom and infer from it its cause, Kircher defined a symbol as:

“a nota significativa of mysteries, that is to say, that it is the nature of a symbol to lead our minds, by means of certain similarities, to the understanding of things vastly different from the things that are offered to our external senses, and whose property it is to appear hidden under the veil of an obscure expression. [ . . . ] Symbols cannot be translated by words, but expressed only by marks, characters, and figures. (Obeliscus Pamphilius, II, 5, 114-20).”

These symbols were initiatory, because the allure of Egyptian culture was given by the promise of a knowledge that was wrapped in an impenetrable and indecipherable enigma so as to protect it from the idle curiosity of the vulgar multitudes.

The hieroglyph, Kircher reminds us, was the symbol of a sacred truth (thus, though all hieroglyphs are symbols, it does not follow that all symbols are hieroglyphs) whose force derived from its impenetrability to the eyes of the profane.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 151-4.

(Editorial Note: I must mention Mr. William Thayer, whose LacusCurtius site at the University of Chicago links to a whopping 51 complete texts by ancient authors and more. I stumbled across Mr. Thayer’s page as I linked to classical writers, and I find it to be both indispensable and a staggering contribution to online scholarship.

Thank you for this work, Mr. Thayer. I am one of the crazy ones out here in internet-land who realizes what you have done. With my best regards.)

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 2

Stephan Michelspacher, Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst und Natur in Alchymia, (Cabala, the Mirror of Art and Nature in Alchemy), Augsburg, 1615. Also hosted courtesy of the Bayerische Staats Bibliothek. 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. 

“Now we can understand what Horapollo sought to reveal. He wished to preserve and transmit a semiotic tradition whose key was, by now, entirely lost. He still managed to grasp certain features at either the phonetic or the ideographic level, yet much of his information was confused or scrambled in the course of transmission.

Often he gives, as the canonical solution, a reading elaborated only by a certain group of scribes during a certain, limited period.

Yoyotte (1955: 87) shows that when Horapollo asserts that Egyptians depicted the father with the ideogram for the scarab beetle, he almost certainly had in mind that, in the Late Period, certain scribes had begun to substitute the scarab for the usual sign for t to represent the sound it (“father”), since, according to a private cryptography developed during the eighteenth dynasty, a scarab stood for t in the name Atum.

Horapollo opened his text by saying that the Egyptians represented eternity with the images of the sun and the moon. Contemporary Egyptologists debate whether, in this explanation, he was thinking of two ideograms used in the Late Period which could be read phonetically as, respectively, r’nb (“all the days”) and r tr.wì (“night and day” that is, “always”); or whether Horapollo was thinking instead of Alexandrine bas reliefs where the two ideograms, appearing together, already signify “eternity” (in which case they would not be an Egyptian symbol, but one derived from Asian, even Hebraic sources).

In other places, Horapollo seems to have misunderstood the voices of tradition. He says, for instance, that the sign to indicate a word is depicted by a tongue and a blood shot eye. There exists a verbal root mdw (“to speak”) in whose ideogram there appears a club, as well as the word dd (“to say”) in whose ideogram appears a snake.

It is possible that either Horapollo or his source has erroneously taken either the club or the snake or both as representing a tongue. He then says that the course of the sun during the winter solstice is represented by two feet stopped together.

In fact, Egyptologists only know a sign representing two legs in motion, which supports the sense “movement” when accompanying signs meaning “to stop,” “to cease activity” or “to interrupt a voyage.” The idea that two stopped feet stand for the course of the sun seems merely to be a whim of Horapollo.

Horapollo says that Egypt is denoted by a burning thurible with a heart over it. Egyptologists have discovered in a royal epithet two signs that indicate a burning heart, but these two signs seem never to have been used to denote Egypt.

It does emerge, however, that (for a Father of the church such as Cyril of Alexandria) a brazier surmounted by a heart expressed anger (cf. Van der Walle and Vergot 1943).

This last detail may be an important clue. The second part of Hieroglyphica is probably the work of the Greek translator, Philippos. It is in this part that a number of clear references appear to the late Hellenistic tradition of the Phisiologus and other bestiaries, herbariums and lapidaries that derive from it.

This is a tradition whose roots lie not only in ancient Egypt, but in the ancient traditions throughout Asia, as well as in the Greek and Latin world.

We can look for this in the case of the stork. When the Hieroglyphica reaches the stork, it recites:

“How [do you represent] he who loves the father.

If they wish to denote he who loves the father, they depict a stork. In fact, this beast, nourished by its parents, never separates itself from them, but remains with them until their old age, repaying them with piety and deference.”

In fact, in the Egyptian alphabet, there is an animal like a stork which, for phonetic reasons, stands for “son.” Yet in I, 85, Horapollo gives this same gloss for the hoopoe. This is, at least, an indication that the text has been assembled syncretistically from a variety of sources.

The hoopoe is also mentioned in the Phisiologus, as well as in a number of classical authors, such as Aristophanes and Aristotle, and patristic authors such as St. Basil. But let us concentrate for a moment on the stork.

The Hieroglyphica was certainly one of the sources for the Emblemata of Andrea Alciati in 1531. Thus, it is not surprising to find here a reference to the stork, who, as the text explains, nourishes its offspring by bringing them pleasing gifts, while bearing on its shoulders the worn-out bodies of its parents, offering them food from its own mouth.

The image that accompanies this description in the 1531 edition is of a bird which flies bearing another on its back. In subsequent editions, such as the one from 1621, for this is substituted the image of a bird that flies with a worm in its beak for its offspring, waiting open-mouthed in the nest.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 149-51.

Eco: Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica

Duerer, Albrecht (1471-1528)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Sun, the Moon and a Basilisk, circa 1512. The Sun, the Moon and the Basilisk (half eagle, half serpent, hatched from a cock’s egg by a serpent), represent Eternity. This drawing from a fragment is on the back of a manuscript translation of the Hieroglyphica by Horapollo translated by Willibald Pirkheimer, an associate of Dürer. Alexander Cory’s 1840 edition is posted on the Sacred Texts site, and the 1595 Mercier and Hoeschel edition in Latin and Greek is hosted on due to the kind courtesy of the Getty Research Institute and the Sloan Foundation. 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 1419 Cristoforo de’ Buondelmonti acquired from the island of Andros a mysterious manuscript that was soon to excite the curiosity of philosophers such as Ficino: the manuscript was the Greek translation (by a certain Philippos) of the Horapòllonos Neiloùs ieroglyphikà.

The original author, Horapollo–or Horus Apollos, or Horapollus–was thus qualified as “Nilotic.” Although it was taken as genuinely archaic throughout the Renaissance, scholars now believe this text to be a late Hellenistic compilation, dating from as late as the fifth century AD.

As we shall see, although certain passages indicate that the author did possess exact information about Egyptian hieroglyphs, the text was written at a time when hieroglyphic writing had certainly fallen out of use. At best, the Hieroglyphica seems to be based on some texts written a few centuries before.

The original manuscript contained no images. Illustrations appeared only in later editions: for instance, though the first translation into Italian in 1547 is still without illustrations, the 1514 translation into Latin was illustrated by Dürer.

The text is divided into short chapters in which it is explained, for example, that the Egyptians represented age by depicting the sun and the moon, or the month by a palm branch.

There follows in each case a brief description of the symbolic meaning of each figure, and in many cases its polysemic value: for example, the vulture is said to signify mother, sight, the end of a thing, knowledge of the future, year, sky, mercy, Minerva, Juno, or two drachmas.

Sometimes the hieroglyphic sign is a number: pleasure, for example, is denoted by the number 16, because sexual activity begins at the age of sixteen. Since it takes two to have intercourse, however, this is denoted by two 16’s.

Humanist philosophical culture was immediately fascinated by this text: hieroglyphs were regarded as the work of the great Hermes Trismegistus himself, and therefore as a source of inexhaustible wisdom.

To understand the impact of Horopollo’s text on Europe, it is first necessary to understand what, in reality, these mysterious symbols were. Horopollo was describing a writing system, whose last example (as far as Egyptologists can trace) is on the Theodosius temple (AD 394).

Even if these inscriptions were still similar to those elaborated three thousand years before, the Egyptian language of the fifth century had changed radically. Thus, when Horopollo wrote his text, the key to understanding hieroglyphs had long been lost.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 145-6.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Images


Iamblicus (250-325 CE), De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldoaerum, AssyriorumOn the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, Lyon: Joannis Tornaesium, 1577. In 2000, Joseph Peterson published a translation from the Greek by Alexander Wilder dated 1911 on the Esoteric Archives. A Latin edition published by Marsilio Ficino in Venice in 1497 is on, with several exemplars on Google Books. 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. 

“Already in Plato, as in Pythagoras before him, there appeared a veneration for the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. Aristotle was more skeptical, and when he came to recount the history of philosophy in the first book of the Metaphysics, he started directly with the Greeks.

Influenced by Aristotle, the Christian authors of the Middle Ages showed relatively little curiosity about ancient Egypt. References to this tradition can be found only in marginal alchemical texts like Picatrix.

Isidore of Seville shortly mentioned the Egyptians as the inventors of geometry and astronomy, and said that the original Hebrew letters became the basis for the Greek alphabet when Isis, queen of the Egyptians, found them and brought them back to her own country (Etymologiarum, I, iii, 5).

By contrast, one could put the Renaissance under the standard of what Baltrušaitis (1967) has called the “search for Isis.” Isis became thus the symbol for an Egypt regarded as the wellspring of original knowledge, and the inventor of a sacred scripture, capable of expressing the unfathomable reality of the divine.

The Neoplatonic revival, in which Ficino played the role of high priest, restored to Egypt its ancient primacy.

In the Enneads (V, 8, 5-6) Plotinus wrote:

“The wise sages of Egypt [ . . . ] in order to designate things with wisdom do not use designs of letters, which develop into discourses and propositions, and which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing; and it is these that they sculpt onto their temples. [ . . . ] Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.”

Iamblicus, in his De mysteriis aegyptiorum, said that the Egyptians, when they invented their symbols, imitating the nature of the universe and the creation of the gods, revealed occult intuitions by symbols.

The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (which Ficino published alongside his translations of Iamblicus and other Neoplatonic texts) was under the sign of Egypt, because, for Ficino, the ancient Egyptian wisdom came from Hermes Trismegistus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 144-5.

Eco: Infinite Songs & Locutions


Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), memory wheel, De Umbris Idearum, 1582, reconstructed by Dame Frances Yates, Warburg Institute. Frances Yates wrote Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Chicago, 1964. 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.  

 “Between Lull and Bruno might be placed the game invented by H.P. Harsdörffer in his Matematische und philosophische Erquickstunden (1651: 516-9). He devises 5 wheels containing 264 units (prefixes, suffixes, letters and syllables).

This apparatus can generate 97,209,600 German words, including many that were still non-existent but available for creative and poetic use (cf. Faust 1981: 367). If this can be done for German, why not invent a device capable of generating all possible languages?

The problem of the art of combination was reconsidered in the commentary In spheram Ioannis de sacro bosco by Clavius in 1607. In his discussion of the four primary qualities (hot, cold, dry and wet), Clavius asked how many pairs they might form.

Mathematically, we know, the answer is six. But some combinations (like “hot and cold,” “dry and wet”) are impossible, and must be discarded, leaving only the four acceptable combinations: “Cold and dry” (earth), “hot and dry” (fire), “hot and wet” (air), “cold and wet” (water).

We seem to be back with the problem of Lull: a conventional cosmology limits the combinations.

Clavius, however, seemed to wish to go beyond these limits. He asked how many dictiones, or terms, might be produced using the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet (u being the same as v), combining them 2, 3, 4 at a time, and so on until 23.

He supplied a number of mathematical formulae for the calculations, yet he soon stopped as he began to see the immensity of the number of possible results–especially as repetitions were permissible.

In 1622, Paul Guldin wrote a Problema arithmeticum de rerum combinationibus (cf. Fichant 1991: 136-8) in which he calculated the number of possible locutions generated by 23 letters. He took into account neither the question of whether the resulting sequences had a sense, nor even that of whether they were capable of being pronounced at all.

The locutions could consist of anything from 2 to 23 letters; he did not allow repetitions. He arrived at a result of more than 70,000 billion billion. To write out all these locutions would require more than a million billion billion letters.

To conceive of the enormity of this figure, he asked the reader to imagine writing all these words in huge notebooks: each of these notebooks had 1,000 pages; each of these pages had 100 lines; each of these lines could accommodate 60 characters.

One would need 257 million billion of these notebooks. Where would you put them all? Guldin then made a careful volumetric study, imagining shelf space and room for circulation in the libraries that might store a consignment of these dimensions.

If you housed the notebooks in large libraries formed by cubes whose sides measured 432 feet, the number of such cubic buildings (hosting 32 million volumes each) would be 8,050,122,350. And where would you put them all? Even exhausting the total available surface space on planet earth, one would still find room for only 7,575,213,799!

In 1636 Father Marin Mersenne, in his Harmonie universelle, asked the same question once again. This time, however, to the dictiones he added “songs,” that is, musical sequences.

With this, the conception of universal language has begun to appear, for Mersenne realizes that the answer would necessarily have to include all the locutions in all possible languages. He marveled that our alphabet was capable of supplying “millions more terms than the earth has grains of sand, yet it is so easy to learn that one hardly needs memory, only a touch of discernment” (letter to Peiresc, c. April 1635; cf. Coumet 1975; Marconi 1992).

In the Harmonie, Mersenne proposed to generate only pronounceable words in French, Greek, Arabic, Chinese and every other language. Even with this limitation one feels the shudder provoked by a sort of Brunian infinity of possible worlds.

The same can be said of the musical sequences that can be generated upon an extension of 3 octaves, comprising 22 notes, without repetitions (shades of future 12-tone compositions!).

Mersenne observed that to write down all these songs would require enough reams of paper to fill in the distance between heaven and earth, even if every sheet contained 720 of these 22-note songs and every ream was so compressed as to be less than an inch thick.

In fact the number of possible songs amounted to 1,124,000,727,777,607,680,000 (Harmonie, 108). By dividing this figure by the 362,880 songs contained in each ream, one would still obtain a 16-digit figure, whilst the number of inches between the center of the earth and the stars is only 28,826,640,000,000 (a 14-digit figure).

Anyone who wished to copy out all these songs, a thousand per day, would have to write for 22,608,896,103 years and 12 days.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 139-41.

Eco: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria & Infinite Worlds, 2


Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Giordano Bruno Burned at the Stake, a bas relief on the plinth of the monument to Bruno in Campo de’Fiori square in Rome. This photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto © 2008. The copyright holder of this photo allows anyone to use for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted.  


“Thus this language claimed to be so perfect as to furnish the keys to express relations between things, not only of this world, but of any of the other infinite worlds in their mutual concordance and opposition.

Nevertheless, in its semiotic structure, it was little more than an immense lexicon, conveying vague meanings, with a very simplified syntax. It was a language that could be deciphered only by short-circuiting it, and whose decipherment was the privilege only of the exegete able to dominate all its connections, thanks to the furor of Bruno’s truly heroic style.

In any case, even if his techniques were not so different from those of other authors of arts of memory, Bruno (like Lull, Nicholas of Cusa and Postel, and like the reformist mystics of the seventeenth century–at whose dawn he was to be burnt at the stake) was inspired by a grand utopian vision.

His flaming hieroglyphical rhetoric aimed at producing, through an enlargement of human knowledge, a reform, a renovation, maybe a revolution in the consciousness, customs, and even the political order of Europe. Of this ideal, Bruno was the agent and propagandist, in his wandering from court to European court.

Here, however, our interest in Bruno is limited to seeing how he developed Lullian techniques. Certainly, his own metaphysics of infinite worlds pushed him to emphasize the formal and architectonic aspects of Lull’s endeavor.

One of his mnemonic treatises, De lampade combinatoria lulliana ad infinita propositiones et media inveniendi (1586), opens by mentioning the limitless number of propositions that the Ars is capable of generating, and then says: “The properties of the terms themselves are of scant importance; it is only important that they show an order, a texture, an architecture.” (I, ix).

In the De umbris idearum (1582) Bruno described a set of movable, concentric wheels subdivided into 150 sectors. Each wheel contained 30 letters, made up of the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet, plus 7 letters from the Greek and Hebrew alphabets to which no letter corresponded in Latin (while, for instance, A could also stand for Alpha and Alef).

To each of the single letters there corresponded a specific image, representing for each respective wheel a different series of figures, activities, situations, etc. When the wheels were rotated against each other in the manner of a combination lock, sequences of letters were produced which served to generate complex images. We can see this in Bruno’s own example (De umbris, 163):

Giordano Bruno, De umbris, 163

Reproduced from Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, James Fentress, trans., Blackwell: Oxford, 1995, p. 136, from Giordano Bruno, De umbris idearum, 1582, p. 163. 

In what Bruno called the “Prima Praxis,” the second wheel was rotated so as to obtain a combination such as CA (“Apollo in a banquet”). Turning the third wheel, he might obtain CAA (“Apollo enchained in a banquet”). We shall see in a moment why Bruno did not think it necessary to add fourth and fifth wheels as he would do for the “Secunda Praxis,” where they would represent, respectively, adstantia and circumstantias.

In his “Secunda Praxis,” by adding the five vowels to each of the 30 letters of his alphabet, Bruno describes 5 concentric wheels, each having 150 alphabetical pairs, like AA, AE, AI, AO, AU, BA, BE, BO, and so on through the entire alphabet.

These 150 pairs are repeated on each of the 5 wheels. As in the “Prima Praxis,” the significance changes with every wheel. On the first wheel, the initial letter signifies a human agent, on the second, an action, on the third, an insignia, on the fourth, a bystander, on the fifth, a set of circumstances.

By moving the wheels it is possible to obtain images such as “a woman riding on a bull, combing her hair while holding a mirror in her left hand, accompanied by an adolescent carrying a green bird in his hand” (De umbris, 212, 10).

Bruno speaks of images “ad omnes formationes possible, adaptabiles” (De umbris, 80), that is, susceptible of every possible permutation. In truth, it is almost impossible to write the number of sequences that can be generated by permutating 150 elements 5 at a time, especially as inversions are allowed (De umbris, 223).

This distinguishes the art of Bruno, which positively thirsts after infinity, from the art of Lull.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 135-7.

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 3


Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I, purchased from Mr. Henry S. Wellcome circa 1900-36 as Accession Number 47369i, courtesy of Wellcome Library. The painting portrays Dr. John Dee conjuring for Queen Elizabeth I at Dr. Dee’s home in Mortlake. On the Queen’s left are her adviser William Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh. Dr. Dee’s notorious scryer, Edward Kelley, is seated behind Dr. Dee, wearing a skullcap that conceals his cropped ears. This work caused a stir when an x-ray scan of the painting revealed that Dr. Dee originally stood in a magical circle comprised of human skulls. The skulls were presumably removed by the artist at the request of the original buyer. An extensive collection of works by Dr. Dee is available on the Esoteric Archives site. 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. 

“John Dee–not only magus and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, but profound érudit and sharp politician as well–summoned angels of dubious celestial provenance by invoking names like Zizop, Zchis, Esiasch, Od and Iaod, provoking the admiring comment, “He seemeth to read as Hebrew is read” (cf. A True and Faithful Relation of 1659).

There exists, however, a curious passage in the Arabic Hermetic treatise, known in the Middle Ages through a Latin translation, called the Picatrix (III, I, 2: cf. Pingree 1986), in which the Hebrew and Chaldean idioms are associated with the saturnine spirit, and, hence with melancholy.

Saturn, on the one hand, was the sign of the knowledge of deep and secret things and of eloquence. On the other, however, it carried a set of negative connotations inherited from Judaic law, and was associated with black cloths, obscure streams, deep wells and lonely spots, as well as with metals like lead, iron and all that is black and fetid, with thick-leafed plants and, among animals, with “camelos nigros, porcos, simias, ursos, canes et gatos [sic]” (“black camels, pigs, moneys, bears, dogs and cats”).

This is a very interesting passage; if the saturnine spirit, much in vogue during the Renaissance, was associated with sacred languages, it was also associated with things, places and animals whose common property was their aura of black magic.

Thus, in a period in which Europe was becoming receptive to new sciences that would eventually alter the known face of the universe, royal palaces and the elegant villas in the Tuscan hills around Florence were humming with the faint burr of Semitic-sounding incantations–often on the lips of the scientists themselves–manifesting the fervid determination to win a mastery of both the natural and the supernatural worlds.

Naturally, things could not long remain in such a simple state. Enthusiasm for kabbalist mysticism fostered the emergence of a Hebrew hermeneutics that could hardly fail to influence the subsequent development of Semitic philology.

From the De verbo mirifico and the De arte kabbalistica by Reuchelin, to the De harmonia mundi of Francesco Giorgi or the Opus de arcanis catholicae veritatis by Galatinus, all the way to the monumental Kabbala denudata by Knorr von Rosenroth (passing through the works of Jesuit authors whose fervor at the thought of new discoveries allowed them to overcome their scruples at handling such suspect material), there crystallized traditions for reading Hebrew texts.

This is a story filled with exciting exegetical adventures, numerological fabulizing, mixtures of Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and kabbalism. Little of it has any bearing on the search for a perfect language. Yet the perfect language was already there: it was the Hebrew of the kabbalists, a language that revealed by concealing, obscuring and allegorizing.

To return to the linguistic model outlined in our first chapter, the kabbalists were fascinated by an expression-substance–the Hebrew texts–of which they sought to retrieve the expression-form (the grammar), always remaining rather confused apropos of the corresponding content-form.

In reality, their search aimed at rediscovering, by combining new expression-substances, a content-continuum as yet unknown, formless, though seemingly dense with possibility. Although the Christian kabbalists continually discovered new methods of segmenting an infinite continuum of content, its nature continued to elude them.

In principle, expression and content ought to be conformal, but the expression-form appeared as the iconic image of something shrouded in mystery, thus leaving the process of interpretation totally adrift (cf. Eco 1990).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 124-6.

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 2


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), portrait B01617 at the US National Library of Medicine. 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 idea that Hebrew was a language endowed with a mystical “force” had already appeared in both the ecstatic kabbala (described in ch. 2) and the Zohar, where (in 75 b, Noah) it is declared not only that the original Hebrew was the language that expressed the desires of the heart in prayer, but also that it was the only language understood by the celestial powers.

By confusing the tongues after the disaster of Babel, God had hindered the rebellious tower-builders from ever pressing their will upon heaven again. Immediately afterwards, the text goes on to observe that, after the confusion, human power was weakened, because only the words uttered in the sacred tongue reinforce the power of heaven.

The Zohar was thus describing a language that not only “said” but “did,” a language whose utterances set supernatural forces in motion.

To use this sacred tongue as an acting force, rather than as a means of communication, it was not even necessary to understand it. Some, of course, had studied Hebrew grammar in order to discover the revelations therein; for others, however, Hebrew was all the more sacred and efficacious for remaining incomprehensible.

The less it was penetrable, the brighter its aura of “mana” shone, and the more its dictates escaped human intelligences, the more they became clear and ineluctable to supernatural agents.

Such a language no longer even had to be the original Hebrew. All it needed to do was to seem like it.

And thus, during the Renaissance, the world of both black and white magic became populated with a vast array of more or less Semitic-sounding names, such as the clutch of angels’ names which Pico released into a Renaissance culture already abundantly muddled by the vagaries of both Latin transliteration and the innocence of the printers–Hasmalim, Aralis, Thesphsraim . . .

In that part of his De occulta philosophia dedicated to ceremonial magic, Agrippa also paid particular attention to the pronunciation of names, both divine and diabolic, on the principle that “although all the devils or intelligences speak the language of the countries over which they preside, they speak only Hebrew whenever they deal with someone who knows their mother tongue” (III, 23).

“The spirits can be bent to our wills only if we take care to pronounce their names properly: “These names [ . . . ] even though their sound and meaning are unknown, have, in the performance of magic [ . . . ] a greater power than meaningful names, when one, left dumbfounded by their enigma [ . . . ] firmly believing to be under divine influence, pronounces them with reverence, even if one does not understand them, to the glory of the divinity” (De occulta philosophia, III, 26).

The same could also be said of magical seals. Like Paracelsus, Agrippa made an abundant use of alphabets with pseudo-Hebraic characters. By a process of graphic abstraction, mysterious configurations were wrought from the original Hebrew letters and became the basis for talismans, pentacles and amulets bearing Hebrew sayings or versicles from the Bible. These were then put on to propitiate the benign or to terrorize the evil spirits.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 122-4.

Eco: Magic Names and Kabbalistic Hebrew


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), man inscribed within a Pentagram with an astrological symbol at each pointDe occulta philosophia, 1533 edition, p. 163, digitized as call number Z1f9 by the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 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 date 1492 is an important one for Europe: it marks not only the discovery of America, but also the fall of Granada, through which Spain (and thus all Europe) severed its last link with Islamic culture.

As a consequence of Granada, moreover, their Christian majesties expelled the Jews from Spain, setting them off on a journey that carried them across the face of Europe. Among them there were the kabbalists, who spread their influence across the whole continent.

The kabbala of the names suggested that the same sympathetic links holding between sublunar objects and celestial bodies also apply to names.

According to Agrippa, Adam took both the properties of things and the influence of the stars into account when he devised his names; thus “these names contain within them all the remarkable powers of the things that they indicate” (De occulta philosophia, I, 70).

In this respect, Hebrew writing must be considered as particularly sacred; it exhibits perfect correspondence between letters, things and numbers (I, 74).

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attended the Platonic academy of Marsilio Ficino where he had, in the spirit of the times, begun his study of the languages of ancient wisdom whose knowledge had gone into eclipse during the Middle Ages; Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean.

Pico rejected astrology as a means of divination (Disputatio adversos astrologicos divinatores), but accepted astral magic as a legitimate technique for avoiding control by the stars, replacing it with the illuminated will of the magus.

If it were true that the universe was constructed from letters and numbers, it would follow that whoever knew the mathematical rules behind this construction might act directly on the universe.

According to Garin (1937: 162), such a will to penetrate the secrets of nature in order to dominate it presaged the ideal of Galileo.

In 1486 Pico made the acquaintance of the singular figure of a converted Jew, Flavius Mithridates, with whom he began an intense period of collaboration (for Mithridates see Secret 1964: 25ff).

Although Pico could boast a certain familiarity with Hebrew, he needed the help of the translations that Mithridates prepared for him to plumb the depths of the texts he wished to study.

Among Pico’s sources we find many of the works of Abulafia (Wirszubski 1989). Mithridates‘ translations certainly helped Pico; at the same time, however, they misled him–misleading all succeeding Christian kabbalists in his wake.

In order for a reader to use properly the kabbalist techniques of notariqon, gematria and temurah, it is obvious that the texts must remain in Hebrew: as soon as they are translated, most of the kabbalistic wordplays become unintelligible or, at least, lose their flavor.

In the translations he provided for Pico, Mithridates did often insert original Hebrew terms into his text; yet Pico (in part because typesetters of this period lacked Hebrew characters) often translated them into Latin, so augmenting the ambiguity and the obscurity of the text itself.

Beyond this, Mithridates, in common with many of the first Christian kabbalists, also had the vice of interpolating into the Hebrew texts references supposedly demonstrating that the original author had recognized the divinity of Christ. As a consequence, Pico was able to claim: “In any controversy between us and the Jews we can confute their arguments on the basis of the kabbalistic books.”

In the course of his celebrated nine hundred Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae et theologicae, among which are included twenty-six Conclusiones magicae (1486), Pico demonstrated that the tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God, Yahweh, turned into the name of Jesus with the simple insertion of the letter sin.

This proof was used by all successive Christian kabbalists. In this way, Hebrew, a language susceptible to all the combinatory manipulations of the kabbalist tradition, was raised, once again, to the rank of a perfect language.

For example, in the last chapter of the Heptaplus (1489) Pico, taking off with an interpretation of the first word of Genesis (Bereshit, “In the beginning”), launches himself on a series of death-defying permutational and anagrammatical leaps.

To understand the logic of Pico’s reading, notice that in the following quotation the Hebrew characters have been substituted with the current name of the letters, Pico’s transliterations have been respected, and he is working upon the Hebrew form of the word: Bet, Resh, Alef, Shin, Yod, Tau.

“I say something marvelous, unparalleled, incredible . . . If we take the third letter and unite it with the first, we get [Alef Bet] ab. If we take the first, double it, and unite it with the second, we get [Bet Bet Resh] bebar. If we read all except the fourth with the first and the last, we get [Shin Bet Tau] sciabat.

If we place the first three in the order in which they appear, we get [Bet Resh Alef] bara. If we leave the first and take the next three, we get [Resh Alef Shin] rosc. If we leave the first two and take the two that follow, we get [Alef Shin] es.

If, leaving the first three, we unite the fourth with the last, we get [Shin Tau] seth. Once again, if we unite the second with the first, we get [Resh Bet] rab. If we put after the third, the fifth and the fourth, we get [Alef Yod Shin] hisc.

If we unite the first two letters with the last two, we get [Bet Resh Yod Tau] berith. If we unite the last to the first, we obtain the twelfth and last letter, which is [Tau Bet] thob, turning the thau into the letter theth, an extremely common procedure in Hebrew . . .

Ab means the father; bebar in the son and through the son (in fact, the beth put before means both things); resith indicates the beginning; sciabath means rest and end; bara means he created; rosc is head; es is fire; seth is fundament; rab means of the great; hisc of the man; berith with a pact; tob with goodness.

Thus taking the phrase all together and in order, it becomes: “The father in the son and for the son, beginning and end, that is, rest, created the head, the fire, and the fundament of the great man with a good pact.”

When Pico (in his “Magic Conclusion” 22) declared that “Nulla nomina ut significativa, et in quantum nomina sunt, singula et per se sumpta, in Magico opere virtutem habere possunt, nisi sint Hebraica, vel inde proxima derivata” (“No name, in so far as it has a meaning, and in so far as it is a name, singular and self-sufficient, can have a virtue in Magic, unless that name be in Hebrew or directly derived from it”), he meant to say that, on the basis of the supposed correspondence between the language of Adam and the structure of the world, words in Hebrew appeared as forces, as sound which, as soon as they are unleashed, are able to influence the course of events.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 119-22.

Eco: A Dream that Refused to Die


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the Christian interpretation of the Kabbalah and the mystical names of God, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, 1652-4, p. 287. John Mark Ockerbloom curated an entry for all three volumes of this work at the University of Pennsylvania libraries. This illustration 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. 


“Even faced with the results of the research of comparative linguistics, however, monogenetic theories refuse to give up the ghost. The bibliography of belated monogeneticism is immense. In it, there is to be found the lunatic, the crank, the misfit, the bizarre mystic, as well as a number of students of unimpeachable rigor.

In 1850, for example, the Enlightenment notion of a language of action received a radically monogenetic reading in the Dactylologie et language primitif restitués d’apres les monuments by J. Barrois.

Assuming that the first language of humanity was a language of action and that this language was exclusively gestural, Barrois sought to prove that even the passages of the Bible which referred to God addressing Adam referred not to speaking in a verbal sense, but instead to a non-verbal, mimed language.

“The designation of the divers animals which Adam made was achieved by means of a special miming which recalled their form, instinct, habit, and qualities, and, finally, their essential properties.” (P. 31).

The first time that an unambiguous reference to verbal speech appears in the Bible is when God speaks to Noah; before this, all references seem vague. For Barrois, this was evidence showing that only slowly, in the immediately antediluvian age, did a phonetic form of language become common.

The confusio linguarum arose out of discord between gestural and spoken language. The primitive vocal language was born closely accompanied by gestures which served to underline its most important words–just as occurs today in the speech of negroes and Syrian merchants (p. 36).

A dactylological language (expressed by the movement of the fingers and deriving from the primitive language of action) was born later, as a form of short-hand support for the phonetic language, when this latter emerged as the dominant form.

Barrois examines iconographic documents of all ages, demonstrating that the dactylological language remained unaltered through various civilizations.

As for the everlasting idea of an original Hebrew, we might cite the figure of Fabre d’Olivet, whose La Langue hébraïque restituée, written in 1815, is still a source of inspiration for belated kabbalists today.

He told of a primitive language that no people had ever spoken, of which Hebrew (the Egyptian dialect of Moses) was but the most illustrious offspring. This insight leads him on to the search for a mother tongue in which Hebrew is carefully combed and then subjected to fantastic reinterpretations.

D’Olivet was convinced that, in this language, every phoneme, every single sound, must have its own special meaning. We will not follow d’Olivet as he re-explores this old terrain; it is enough to say that he presents a string of nonsensical etymologies which, though in the spirit of Duret, Guichard and Kircher, are, if anything, even less convincing.

We might, however, provide just one example to show how traces of an original Hebrew mimology can be discovered in a modern language as well. D’Olivet constructed an etymology for the French term emplacement. Place derives from the Latin platea and from the German Platz.

In both these words, the sound AT signifies protection, while the sound L means extension. LAT means, therefore, a “protected extension.” MENT, in its turn, derives from the Latin mens and the English mind.

In this syllable, E is the sign of absolute life, and N stands for reflexive existence. Together, as ENS, they mean “bodily spirit.” M refers to existence at a given point. Therefore, the meaning of emplacement is “la manière dont uno extension fixe et determinée peut être conçue et se presente aux yeux.”

As one critic has put it, Fabre d’Olivet has demonstrated that emplacement means “emplacement” (cf. Cellier 1953: 140; Pallotti 1992).

And yet. No less a figure than Benjamin Lee Whorf took Fabre d’Olivet as the starting point for a series of reflections on the curious subject of “oligosynthesis.”

He was wondering about the possible applications of a science capable of “restoring a possible common language of the human race or [of] perfecting an ideal natural tongue constructed of the original psychological significance of sounds, perhaps a future common speech, into which all our varied languages may be assimilated, or, putting it differently, to whose terms they may be reduced” (Whorf 1956: 12; see also 74-6).

This is neither the first nor the last of the paradoxes in our story: we associate Whorf with one of the least monogenetic of all the various glottogonic hypotheses; it was Whorf who developed the idea that each language was a “holistic” universe, expressing the world in a way that could never be wholly translated into any other language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 111-3.

Eco: The Indo-European Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Kircher’s museum at the Collegio Romano, frontispiece of Giorgio de Sepibus, Romani Collegii Musaeum Celeberrimum, Rome, 1678. Courtesy of Stanford University and the Zymoglyphic Museum. 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. 

“Between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries a new perspective opened. The battle for Hebrew had been definitively lost. It now seemed clear that, even had it existed, linguistic change and corruption would have rendered the primitive language irrecuperable.

What was needed instead was a typology in which information about known languages might be codified, family connections established, and relations of descent traced. We are here at the beginning of a story which has nothing to do with our own.

In 1786, in the Journal of the Asiatick Society of Bombay, Sir William Jones announced that

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the root of verbs and in the forms of grammar [ . . . ]

No philosopher could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.” (“On the Hindus,” The Works of Sir William Jones, III, London 1807, 34-5).

Jones advanced the hypothesis that Celtic, Gothic and even ancient Persian were all related to Sanskrit. Note that he spoke not only of similar verb roots, but also of similar grammatical structures. We have left behind the study of lexical analogies, and are beginning a research on syntactic similarities and phonetic affinities.

Already in 1653, John Wallis (Grammatica linguae anglicae) had posed the problem of how one might establish the relation between a series of French words–guerre, garant, gard, gardien, garderobe, guise–and the English series–war, warrant, ward, warden, wardrobe, wise–by proving the existence of a constant shift from g to w.

Later in the nineteenth century, German scholars, such as Friedrich and Wilhelm von Schlegel and Franz Bopp, deepened the understanding of the relation between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and German.

They discovered a set of correspondences in the conjugation of the verb to be in all these languages.

Gradually they came to the conclusion that not only was Sanskrit the original language of the group, its Ursprache, but that there must have existed, for this entire family, an even more primitive proto-language from which they all, Sanskrit included, had derived. This was the birth of the Indo-European hypothesis.

Through the work of Jakob Grimm (Deutsche Grammatik, 1818) these insights became organized in a scientific fashion. Research was based on the study of sound shifts (Lautverschiebungen) which traced how from the Sanskrit p were generated pous-podos in Greek, pes-pedes in Latin, fotus in Gothic, and foot in English.

What had changed between the utopian dream of an Adamic language and the new perspective? Three things. Above all, scholars had elaborated a set of scientific criteria.

In the second place, the original language no longer seemed like an archeological artifact that, one day, might actually be dug up. Indo-European was an ideal point of scholarly reference only.

Finally, Indo-European made no claim to being the original language of all humanity; it merely represented the linguistic root for just one family–the Aryan.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 103-5.

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 Pre-Hebraic Language


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Origins of the Chinese Characters, China Illustrata, or China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae & artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata (1667), p. 229. 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. 

“Alongside these philosophical discussions, other inspired glottogonists (for whom the defeat of the Hebraic hypothesis was a consummated fact) were breaking new theoretical ground.

The explorers and missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had discovered civilizations, older than the Hebrews, which had their own cultural and linguistic traditions.

In 1699, John Webb (An Historical Essay endeavoring the Probability that the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language) advanced the idea that, after the Flood, Noah had landed his Ark and gone to live in China.

Consequently, it was the Chinese language which held primacy. Furthermore, since the Chinese had not participated in the construction of the Tower of Babel, their language had remained immune from the effects of the confusio; Chinese had survived intact for centuries, protected from foreign invasion. Chinese thus conserved the original linguistic patrimony.

Ours is a story that proceeds through many strange anachronisms. Near the end of the eighteenth century, just at the moment when, quite unconnected with any form of the monogenetic hypothesis, a comparative methodology was about to emerge, there appeared the most gigantic attempt to date to rediscover the primitive language.

In 1765, Charles de Brosses wrote a Traité de la formation méchanique des langues. The treatise propounded a theory of language that was both naturalistic (the articulation of terms reflects the nature of things–sweet sounds designate sweet objects) and materialistic (language is reduced to physical operations, supernatural entities are seen as the result of linguistic play: cf. Droixhe 1978).

As part of this theory, however, de Brosses could not resist indulging in a series of speculations about the nature of the primitive language, “organic, physical, and necessary, that not one of the world’s peoples either knows or practices in its simplicity, but which, none the less, was spoken by all men, and constitutes the basis of language in every land” (“Discours préliminaire,” xiv-xv).

“The linguist must analyze the mechanisms of different languages, discovering which of those features arise through natural necessity. From this he may, moving through a chain of natural inferences, work his way back from each of the known languages to the original, unknown matrix.

It is only a matter of locating a small set of primitive roots that might yield a universal nomenclature for all languages, European and oriental.

Radically Cratylian and mimologist as it was (cf. Ginette 1976: 85-118), the comparative approach of de Brosses took the vowels to constitute the raw material in a continuum of sound upon which the consonants acted to sculpt out the intonations and the caesurae.

Their effect, often more visible to the eye than to the ear (remember the persistent failure to distinguish between sounds and letters), is to render consonantal identity the key criterion of comparative analysis.

Like Vico, de Brosses considered that the invention of articulated sounds had proceeded in step with the invention of writing. Fano (1962: 231; English tr., p. 147) sums up his theory very well:

“De Brosses imagines this process as follows: like the good school teacher who takes chalk in hand to make his lesson clearer from a didactic viewpoint, the cave man intermingled his discourses with little explicative figures.

If, for example, he wanted to say “a raven flew away and rested on the top of a tree,” he would first imitate the croaking of the bird, then he would express the flight with a “frrr! frrr!” and eventually take a piece of coal and draw a tree with a raven on top.”

Another Herculean effort in the cause of mimological hypothesis was that of Antoine Court de Gébelin, who, between 1773 and 1782, published nine quarto volumes, totaling over five thousand pages, giving to this opus–multiple, creaking, though not utterly devoid of interest–the title Le monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (cf. Genette 1976: 119-48).

Court de Gébelin knew the results of previous comparativist research. He also knew that the human linguistic faculty was exercised through a specific phonatory apparatus; and he was acquainted with its anatomy and physiology.

He followed, moreover, the doctrines of the Physiocrats, and when he sought to explain the origin of language, he did so through a re-reading of ancient myths, interpreting them as allegories describing the relation of man the farmer to the land (vol. I).

Writing, too, was susceptible to this sort of explanation. Although it was born before the separation of peoples, writing could be interpreted as having evolved in the time of the agrarian states, which needed to develop an instrument that would keep track of landed property and foster commerce and law (vol. III, p. xi) . . .

Yet there still shines Court de Gébelin‘s dream of uncovering the original language of the primitive world, the language which served as the origin and basis of a universal grammar through which all existing languages might be explained.

In the preliminary discourse to volume III, dedicated to the natural history of speech or the origins of language, Court de Gébelin affirmed that words were not born by chance: “each word has its own rationale deriving from Nature” (p. ix). He developed a strongly mimological theory of language accompanied by an ideographic theory of writing, according to which the alphabet itself is nothing but the primitive hieroglyphic script reduced to a small set of radical characters or “keys” (III, xii).

As a faculty based upon a determined anatomical structure, language might certainly be considered as God’s gift, but the elaboration of a primitive tongue was a human endeavor. It followed that when God spoke first to human beings, he had to use a language that they could understand, because it was a product of their own (III, 69).

To uncover this primitive language, Court de Gébelin undertook an impressive etymological analysis of Greek, Latin and French. Nor did he neglect coats of arms, coins, games, the voyages of the Phoenicians around the world, American Indian languages, medallions, and civil and religious history as manifested in calendars and almanacs.

As a basis for this original language he set out to reconstruct a universal grammar, founded on necessary principles, valid in all times and in all places, so that the moment that one of these principles was discovered lying immanent in any one language it could be projected into all the others.

Court de Gébelin seems, in the end, to have wanted too much. He wanted a universal grammar; he wanted the mother tongue; he wanted the biological and social origins of language.

He ended up, as Yaguello observes (1984: 19), by muddling them all together in a confused mass. To top it all off, he fell victim in the end to the siren call of the Celto-nationalist hypothesis which I shall be describing in the next section.

Celtic (being similar to oriental languages from which it originated) was the tongue of Europe’s first inhabitants. From Celtic had derived Greek, Latin, Etruscan, Thracian, German, the Cantabrian of the ancient Spaniards, and the Runic of the Norsemen (vol. V).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 91-5.

Eco: The Etymological Furor


Conrad Gesner (1516-65), Conradi Gesneri Historia plantarum Walderbeere, Zurich: Botanical Garden zur Katz, published in 1750. Photographed by Roland zh, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. 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. 

“Postel’s was a clear and unambiguous demand for the restoration of Hebrew as the universal language. Few, however, made this demand in so radical a fashion. For others, it was usually enough to demonstrate that Hebrew was superior because it was the first language from which all others had derived.

One example is the Mithridates of Conrad Gessner. Published in 1555, the Mithridates is a book that draws parallels between fifty-five different languages.

Having dwelt briefly on the happy condition of some legendary beings with two tongues, one for human speech and the other to speak the language of the birds, Gessner immediately passed to the claim that “all existing languages had retained words of a Hebrew origin, though in a corrupt state” (1610 edn: 3).

Other authors–in order to demonstrate such a parenthood–started a mad etymological chase.

This etymological furor was not a new condition. Between the sixth and seventh centuries, by a fanciful account of the seventy-two existing languages, Isidore of Seville (Etymologiarum) elaborated a series of etymologies that has made him the laughing stock of scholars ever since: our corpus (body) comes from corruptus perit as our body goes to corruption; homo (man) derives from humus or mud from which he is born; iumenta (mare) comes from iuvat because horses help men; agnus is a lamb because it recognizes its own mother . . . These are examples of hyper-Cratylian mimological hypothesis, and we shall see that they were taken up by the supporters of Hebrew.

In 1613 Claude Duret published his monumental Thrésor de l’histoire des langues de cet univers. Using the Christian kabbala as his starting point, Duret set forth a vast panorama that swept from the origins of language, to an examination of all known tongues, including those of the New World, to a final chapter on the language of animals.

Duret started from the premise that Hebrew was the universal language of the human race; it thus appeared to him as self-evident that each animal name in Hebrew should include an encapsulated “natural history” of that animal.

Thus we are told that, in Hebrew:

the Eagle is called Nescher, a word formed by the combination of Schor and Isachar, the first meaning to look and the second to be straight because, above all others, the eagle is a bird of firm sight whose gaze is always directed towards the sun [ . . . ]

The Lion has three names, that is Aryeh, Labi, and Layisch. The first name comes from another which means tear or lacerate; the second is related to the word leb which means heart, and laab, which means to live in solitude.

The third name usually means a great and furious lion, and bears an analogy with the verb yosh, which means trample. [ . . . ] because this animal tramples and damages its prey. (p. 40).

Hebrew had managed to retain this proximity to the world of things because it never permitted itself to be polluted by other languages (ch. x). This presumption of Hebrew’s natural affinity to the world of things is also demonstrated by its magic potential.

Duret recalled that Eusebius and St. Jerome had ridiculed the Greeks because they had exalted their own language but were unable to find any mystic significance of their alphabet.

Only ask a Hebrew child the significance of the letter Alef, and he will respond “discipline,” and so on for all the other letters and for their combinations (p. 194).

Duret is an example of retrospective etymologizing, aiming at showing how the mother tongue was harmoniously related to the nature of things. Other authors engaged in prospective etymologizing, projecting Hebrew words forwards to show how they transmuted themselves into the words of all other languages.

In 1606, Estienne Guichard wrote his L’harmonie étymologique des langues, where he showed that all existing languages might be derived from Hebrew roots. He started from the premise that Hebrew was the simplest language because in it “all words are simple, and their substance consists of but three radicals.”

Manipulating these radicals through inversion, anagrams and permutations in the best kabbalistic tradition, Guichard provided his etymologies.

In Hebrew, the verb batar means to divide. How can we prove that Latin dividere comes from batar? Simple: by inversion, batar produces tarab; tarab then becomes the Latin tribus and, from there, turns into distribuo and dividere (p. 147). Zacen means old. Rearranging the radicals, we get zanec from which derives Latin senex. 

A further rearrangement and we have cazen, from which derives the Oscan word casnar, which is the root of the Latin canus, elder (p. 247). By this method we might equally prove that the English head comes from the late Latin testa, since the anagram of testa gives eatts.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 80-2.

Eco: The Return to Hebrew


Hildegard von Bingen, Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum, or Book of Divine Works, 1165. 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.   

“From Origen to Augustine, almost all of the church Fathers assumed, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that, before the confusion, humanity’s primordial language was Hebrew.

The most notable dissenting voice was Gregory of Nyssa (Contra Eunomium). God, he thought, could not have spoken Hebrew; were we to imagine, he said ironically, a schoolmaster God drilling our forefathers in the Hebrew alphabet (cf. Borst 1957-63: I, 2, and II/1, 3.1)?

Despite this, the image of Hebrew as the divine language survived through the Middle Ages (cf. De Lubac 1959: II, 3.3).

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, it no longer seemed enough simply to maintain that Hebrew was the photo-language (little being known thereof): it was deemed necessary to promote its study, and, if possible, its diffusion.

By now we are in a climate very different from that of St. Augustine: not only do the interpreters wish to go back to the text in its original version, but they do it with the conviction that the original and holy language of scripture was the only one capable of expressing its sacred truth.

What has happened in the meantime is, of course, the Reformation. Protestants refused to accept the claim of the Catholic church to be the sole mediator and interpreter, placing itself, with its canonic Latin translations, between the believer and the Holy Writ.

Out of this refusal to accept the church’s traditional interpretation of scripture arose the stimulus to study the languages in which the sacred texts had first been formulated.

The contemporary debate over this was varied and complex. The most comprehensive treatment is contained perhaps in Brian Walton’s In biblia polyglotta prolegomena (1673: especially 1-3).

However, the story of this debate during the Renaissance is so complex (see Demonet 1992) that we shall limit ourselves to a gallery of exemplary portraits.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 73-5.

Eco: Dante and Universal Grammar


Cornelisz Anthonisz, The Fall of the Tower of Babel, 1547. The text at top right reads “Bablon / Genesis 11.” The text in the top left banner reads, “When it was at its highest / it should not do fall.” The stone at the bottom left reads “1547.” 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.  

“One solution to the problem has been proposed by Maria Corti (1981: 46ff). It is, by now, generally accepted that we cannot regard Dante as simply an orthodox follower of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

According to circumstances, Dante used a variety of philosophical and theological sources; it is furthermore well established that he was influenced by various strands of the so-called radical Aristotelianism whose major representative was Siger of Brabant.

Another important figure in radical Aristotelianism was Boethius of Dacia, who, like Siger, suffered the condemnation of the Bishop of Paris in 1277. Boethius was a member of a group of grammarians called Modistae, and the author of a treatise, De modis significandi, which–according to Corti–influenced Dante, because Bologna was the focal point from which, either through a stay in the city, or through Florentine or Bolognese friends, such influences reached Dante.

The Modist grammarians asserted the existence of linguistic universals–that is, of rules underlying the formation of any natural language. This may help clarify precisely what Dante meant by forma locutionis. In his De modis, Boethius of Dacia observed that it was possible to extract from all existing languages the rules of a universal grammar, distinct from either Greek or Latin grammar (Quaestio 6).

The “speculative grammar” of the Modistae asserted a relation of specular correspondence between language, thought and the nature of things. For them, it was a given that the modi intelligendi and, consequently, the modi significandi reflected the modi essendi of things themselves.

What God gave Adam, therefore, was neither just the faculty of language nor yet a natural language; what he gave was, in fact, a set of principles for a universal grammar. These principles acted as the formal cause of language: “the general structuring principle of language, as regards either the lexicon, or the morphological and syntactical components of the language that Adam would gradually forge by living and giving names.” (Corti 1981: 47).

Maria Corti’s thesis has been vehemently contested (cf., in particular, Pagani 1982; Maierù 1983). It has been objected that there is no clear proof that Dante even knew the work of Boethius of Dacia, that many of the analogies that Maria Corti tries to establish between Dante’s text and Boethius cannot be sustained, and that, finally, many of the linguistic notions that one finds in Dante were already circulating in the works of philosophers even before the thirteenth century.

Now, even if the first two objections are conceded, there still remains the third. That there were widespread discussions of the subject of universal grammar in medieval culture is something that no one, and certainly not Corti’s critics, wishes to place in doubt.

As Maierù puts it, it was not necessary to read Boethius to know that grammar has one and the same substance in all languages, even if there are variations on the surface, for this assertion is already found in Roger Bacon.

Yet this, if anything, constitutes proof that it was possible that Dante could have been thinking about universal grammar when he wrote DVE. If this is so, he could have conceived of the forma locutionis given by God as a sort of innate mechanism, in the same terms as Chomsky’s generative grammar, which, interestingly enough, was inspired by the rationalist ideas of Descartes and sixteenth-century grammarians who, in their turn, had rediscovered the ideas of the medieval Modistae.

Yet if this is all there is to it, what is the point of the story of Babel? It seems most likely that Dante believed that, at Babel, there had disappeared the perfect forma locutionis whose principles permitted the creation of languages capable of reflecting the true essence of things; languages, in other words, in which the modi essendi of things were identical with the modi significandi.

The Hebrew of Eden was the perfect and unrepeatable example of such a language. What was left after Babel? All that remained were shattered, imperfect formae locutionis, imperfect as the various vulgar Italian dialects whose defects and whose incapacity to express grand and profound thoughts Dante pitilessly analyzed.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 43-5.

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.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Dante


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), De vulgari eloquentia Libri Duo (1301-5). This edition was printed in Paris, Ex libris Corbinelli, 1577. It is held by the University of Mannheim under call number Sch 072/212. This copy includes manuscript notes by Gilles Ménage, Aegidius Menagius, 1613-92. The last private owner of this book was François-Josephe Terrace Desbillons (1711-89). The Latin text of this book is available on the Latin Library website.

“The first occasion on which the world of medieval Christianity had to confront a systematic project for a perfect language was De vulgari eloquentia (hereafter DVE) of Dante Alighieri, written presumably between 1301 and 1305.

Dante’s text opens with an observation which, obvious thought it may be, is still fundamental for us: there is a multitude of vulgar tongues, all of them are natural languages, and all are opposed to Latin–which is a universal but artificial grammar.

Before the blasphemy of Babel, humanity had known but one language, a perfect language, a language spoken by Adam with God and by his posterity. The plurality of tongues arose as the consequence of the confusio linguarum.

Revealing a knowledge of comparative linguistics exceptional for his time, Dante sought to demonstrate how this fragmentation had actually taken place. The division of the languages born from the confusion, he argued, had proceeded in three stages.

First he showed how languages split up into the various zones of the world; then, using the vernacular word for yes as his measuring rod, he showed how languages (within what we today call the Romance area) had further split into the oc, oil and groups.

Finally, within this last subdivision, Dante showed how particular languages were even further fragmented into a welter of  local dialects, some of which might, as in Bologna, even vary from one part of a city to another.

All of these divisions had occurred, Dante observed, because the human being is–by custom, by habit, by language, and according to differences in time and space–a changeable animal.

If the aim of his project was to discover one language more decorous and illustrious than the others, Dante had to take each of the various vernaculars in turn and subject it to a severe critical analysis.

Examining the work of the best Italian poets, and assuming that each in his own way had always gone beyond his local dialect, Dante thought to create a vernacular (volgare) that might be more illustre (illustrious, in the sense of “shining with light”), cardinale (useful as a guiding rule or cardine), regale (worthy of being spoken in the royal palace of the national king–if the Italians were ever to obtain one), and curiale (worthy to be a language of government, of courts of law, and of wisdom).

Such a vernacular belonged to every city in Italy, yet to none. It existed only as an ideal form, approached by the best poets, and it was according to this ideal form that all the vulgar dialects needed to be judged.

The second, and uncompleted, part of DVE sketches out the rules of composition for the one and only vernacular to which the term illustrious might truly apply–the poetic language of which Dante considered himself to be the founder.

Opposing this language to all other languages of the confusion, Dante proclaimed it as the one which had restored that primordial affinity between words and objects which had been the hallmark of the language of Adam.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 34-5.

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism



Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1594), Musée du Louvre, 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.  

“Our story opened with a reference to an eastern text, the Bible. By the time of the last church Fathers, however, knowledge of the language in which this text was composed had been lost. Thus we were able to begin our story by reading the Bible directly in the Latin of the Vulgate.

The Christian West would begin to come to terms with Hebrew only from the Renaissance onwards. However, in the same centuries in which Hebrew was forgotten by Christian scholars, in the Jewish milieu of Provence and Spain there flowered a current of Hebrew mysticism destined to have a profound influence  on Europe’s search for the perfect language: kabbala, a mystical current that regarded creation itself as a linguistic phenomenon.”

Editorial Note

There are many ways to write Kabbala, but Eco in this text writes it that way. I will include tags for “kabbalah” as well, so you can search for affiliated texts, which are numerous. Other ways to write it include “cabala” and “qabbalah” and “qabala,” but in the case of Cabala and similar transliterations like Cabbala the reference is to a completely separate system of thought which Eco addresses below.

 The Reading of the Torah

“The kabbala (from qabbalah, which might be rendered as “tradition”) was a technique of interpretation grafted onto the practice of commenting  on the Torah, that is, on the books of the Pentateuch, together with the practice of rabbinical commentary known as the Talmud.

In this way, the kabbala appears pre-eminently as a technique of reading and interpreting the sacred text. Yet the actual Torah rolls upon which the kabbalistic scholar labored served him merely as a point of departure: underneath the letters in which the Torah was written, the kabbalist sought to descry the shape of the eternal Torah, created by God before all worlds, and consigned to his angels.

According to some, the primordial Torah was inscribed in black flames upon white fire. At the moment of its creation, it appeared as a series of letters not yet joined up in the form of words.

For this reason, in the Torah rolls there appear neither vowels, nor punctuation, nor accents; for the original Torah was nothing but a disordered heap of letters. Furthermore, had it not been for Adam’s sin, these letters might have been joined differently to form another story.

For the kabbalist, God will abolish the present ordering of these letters, or else will teach us how to read them according to a new disposition, only after the coming of the Messiah.

One school of the kabbalistic tradition, characterized in recent studies as the theosophical kabbala, endeavored to find beneath the letters of the sacred text references to the ten Sefirot, or the ten hypostases of the divinity.

The theosophy of the Sefirot might be compared to the various theories of cosmic chains appearing in the Hermetic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonic traditions; the ten Sefirot were hypostases in the sense of representing either increasing grades of emanation, and, therefore, ten intermediate steps between God and the world, or ten internal aspects of the divinity itself.

In either case, in so far as they represented various ways in which the infinite expands itself, actually or potential, into the finite universe, they also constituted a series of channels or steps through which the soul passes on its journey of return to God.

The kabbalist uses the Torah as a symbolic instrument; beneath the letters of the Torah, beneath the events to which, to the uninstructed, its words seem to allude, there is a text which reveals a mystic and metaphysical reality.

To use this instrument to uncover this reality, however, the text needs to be read not only literally but also in three other senses: allegorical-philosophical, hermeneutic and mystic. This is reminiscent of the four ways of reading scripture in Christian exegetical tradition.

Beyond this point, however, all analogies between the kabbala and Christian exegesis break down, and kabbalism proceeds by its own, radically individual, route.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 25-7.


Eco: Before and After Europe, 3


Francisco of Holland, 1543-73, De aetatibus mundi imagines, Creation of Man, Biblioteca Nacional de España. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco: Before and After Europe, 2


MC Escher, Tower of Babel, 1928. This image of a drawing is copyrighted by the artist, who died in 1972. Low-resolution images of works of art for purposes of critical commentary qualify for fair use under United States copyright law.

“Despite this, by the second century AD, there had begun to form the suspicion that Latin and Greek might not be the only languages which expressed harmoniously the totality of experience.

Slowly spreading across the Greco-Roman world, obscure revelations appeared; some were attributed to Persian magi, others to an Egyptian divinity called Thoth-Hermes, to Chaldean oracles, and even to the very Pythagorean and Orphic traditions which, though born on Greek soil, had long been smothered under the weight of the great rationalist philosophy.

By now, the classical rationalism, elaborated and re-elaborated over centuries, had begun to show signs of age. With this, traditional religion entered a period of crisis as well. The imperial pagan religion had become a purely formal affair, no more than a simple expression of loyalty.

Each people had been allowed to keep its own gods. These were accommodated to the Latin pantheon, no one bothering over contradictions, synonyms or homonyms. The term characterizing this leveling toleration for any type of religion (and for any type of philosophy or knowledge as well) is syncretism.

An unintended result of this syncretism, however, was that a diffused sort of religiosity began to grow in the souls of the most sensitive. It was manifested by a belief in the universal World Soul; a soul which subsisted in stars and in earthly objects alike.

Our own, individual, souls were but small particles of the great World Soul. Since the reason of philosophers proved unable to supply truths about important matters such as these, men and women sought revelations beyond reason, through visions, and through communications with the godhead itself.

It was in this climate that Pythagoreanism was reborn. From its beginnings, Pythagoreans had regarded themselves as the keepers of a mystic form of knowledge, and practiced initiatory rites.

Their understanding of the laws of music and mathematics was presented as the fruit of revelation obtained from the Egyptians. By the time of Pythagoreanism’s second appearance, however, Egyptian civilization had been eradicated by the Greek and Latin conquerors.

Egypt itself had now become an enigma, no more than an incomprehensible hieroglyph. Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: one is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound.

That such wisdom could exist while still remaining unknown, however, could only be accounted for by the fact that the language in which this wisdom was expressed had remained unknown as well.

This was the reasoning of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in his Lives of the Philosophers in the third century AD:

“There are those who assert that philosophy started among the Barbarians: there were, they claim, Magi among the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts and Galatians” (I).

The classical Greeks had identified barbarians as those who could not even articulate their speech. It now seemed that these very mumblings were of a sacred language, filled with the promise of tacit revelations (Festugière 1944-54:I).

I have given a summary of the cultural atmosphere at this time because, albeit in a delayed fashion, it was destined to have a deep influence on our story. Although no one at the time proposed the reconstruction of the perfect language, the need for one was, by now, vaguely felt.

We shall see that the suggestions, first planted during these years, flowered more than twelve centuries later in humanistic and Renaissance culture (and beyond); this will constitute a central thread in the story I am about to tell.

In the meantime, Christianity had become a state religion, expressed in the Greek of the patristic East and in the Latin still spoken in the West. After St. Jerome translated the Old Testament in the fourth century, the need to know Hebrew as a sacred language grew weaker. This happened to Greek as well.

A typical example of this cultural lack is given by St. Augustine, a man of vast culture, and the most important exponent of Christian thought at the end of the empire.

The Christian revelation is founded on an Old Testament written in Hebrew and a New Testament written, for the most part, in Greek. St. Augustine, however, knew no Hebrew; and his knowledge of Greek was, to say the least, patchy (cf. Marrou 1958).

This amounts to a somewhat paradoxical situation: the man who set himself the task of interpreting scripture in order to discover the true meaning of the divine word could read it only in a Latin translation.

The notion that he ought to consult the Hebrew original never really seems to have entered Augustine’s mind. He did not entirely trust the Jews, nurturing a suspicion that, in their versions, they might have erased all references to the coming of Christ.

The only critical procedure he would allow was that of comparing translations in order to find the most likely version. In this way, St. Augustine, though the father of hermeneutics, was certainly not destined to become the father of philology.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 12-4.


Eco: Before and After Europe


Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-89), The Tower of Babel, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum. 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. 

“Stories accounting for the multiplicity of tongues appear in divers mythologies and theogonies (Borst 1957-63: I, 1). None the less, it is one thing to know why many languages exist; it is quite another to decide that this multiplicity is a wound that must be healed by the quest for a perfect language.

Before one decides to seek a perfect language, one needs, at the very least, to be persuaded that one’s own is not so.

Keeping, as we decided, strictly to Europe–the classical Greeks knew of peoples speaking languages other than theirs: they called these peoples barbaroi, beings who mumble in an incomprehensible speech.

The Stoics, with their more articulated notion of semiotics, knew perfectly well that the ideas to which certain sounds in Greek corresponded were also present in the minds of barbarians.

However, not knowing Greek, barbarians had no notion of the connection between the Greek sound and the particular idea. Linguistically and culturally speaking, they were unworthy of any attention.

For the Greek philosophers, Greek was the language of reason. Aristotle’s list of categories is squarely based on the categories of Greek grammar. This did not explicitly entail a claim that the Greek language was primary: it was simply a case of the identification of thought with its natural vehicle.

Logos was thought, and Logos was speech. About the speech of barbarians little was known; hence, little was known about what it would be like to think in the language of barbarians.

Although the Greeks were willing to admit that the Egyptians, for example, possessed a rich and venerable store of wisdom, they only knew this because someone had explained it to them in Greek.

As Greek civilization expanded, the status of Greek as a language evolved as well. At first, there existed almost as many varieties of Greek as there were Greek texts (Meillet 1930:4). In the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, there arose and spread a common Greek–the koiné.

This was the language of Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch and Aristotle; it was the language taught in the schools of grammar. Gradually it became the official language of the entire area of the Mediterranean bounded by Alexander’s conquests.

Spoken by patricians and intellectuals, Greek still survived here under Roman domination as well, as the language of commerce and trade, of diplomacy, and of scientific and philosophical debate.

It was finally the language in which the first Christian texts were transmitted (the Gospels and the Septuagint translation of the Bible in the third century BCE), and the language of the early church fathers.

A civilization with an international language does not need to worry about the multiplicity of tongues. Nevertheless such a civilization can worry about the “rightness” of its own.

In the Cratylus, Plato asks the same question that a reader of the Genesis story might: did the nomothete choose the sounds with which to name objects according to the object’s nature (physis)?

This is the thesis of Cratylus, while Ermogene maintains that they were assigned by law or human convention (nomos). Socrates moves among these theses with apparent ambiguity.

Finally, having subjected both to ironical comment, inventing etymologies that neither he (nor Plato) is eager to accept, Socrates brings forward his own hypothesis: knowledge is founded not on our relation to the names of things, but on our relation to the things themselves–or, better, to the ideas of those things.

Later, even by these cultures that ignored Cratylus, every discussion on the nature of a perfect language has revolved around the three possibilities first set out in this dialogue.

None the less, the Cratylus is not itself a project for a perfect language: Plato discusses the preconditions for semantic adequacy within a given language without posing the problem of a perfect one.

While the Greek koiné continued to dominate the Mediterranean basin, Latin was becoming the language of the empire, and thus the universal language for all parts of Europe reached by Roman legions.

Later it became the language of the Roman church. Once again, a civilization with a common language was not troubled by the plurality of tongues.

Learned men might still discourse in Greek, but, for the rest of the world, speaking with barbarians was, once again, the job of a few translators, and this only until these same barbarians began to speak their Latin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 10-2.

An Excerpt from The Fall of the Angels

“How did the story about the fall of the angels relate to biblical tradition? Why is it only hinted at there, and not incorporated into the canon in more complete form? Two general points may be offered in response to these questions.

First, the story presupposes, rather than lies behind, the Hebrew Bible and, thus, is to be regarded as a development, indeed interpretation, of what later came to be recognized as canonical. Second, the communities which produced the story did so by transforming the biblical tradition through the dual filters of apocalyptic dualism and their own social contexts.

These points have to be taken into account when considering how it was that “the day of the Lord” of the exilic and post-exilic prophets could be absorbed into the notion of a final apocalyptic battle in later early Jewish literature. Was this shift from prophetic to apocalyptic eschatology the result of an attempt to reject the foreign domination by Hellenistic rulers—such as the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria—in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests?

Or was this growing dualism a reflection of the breach between urban and rural culture? Or, by contrast, did the apocalyptic religious tradition re-present knowledge gleaned from the “foreign” sciences of its day as divine revelation, doing so long before the Greeks came on the scene?

There were yet other stories in the Ancient Near East that had been told long time and retold in the Greek world. Those stories were adapted to the current social situation and to the clash of civilizations. (sic).

The famous passage from Genesis 6:1-4 played a central role in the development of apocalyptic traditions. The biblical tradition itself is ambiguous; it conveys a story about ancient “heroes”, on the one hand, and the “sons of the gods”, on the other. What these figures have to do with the destruction brought about through the Great Flood in the following narrative (Genesis 6:5ff.) constitutes the first question to be examined in this volume.

The contribution by Ronald Hendel does so by exploring possible parallels to the biblical story in the Ancient Near East. One of the most significant traditions to throw light on the biblical account is shown to be the Atrahasis Epic. If read alongside this epic, the ruptures and ambiguities within the Genesis narrative, which involves the insertion of a polytheistic conflict between deities into a monotheistic narrative about God and creation, do not appear so conspicuous or unexpected.

This is further illustrated by the common motif that has the lower world flooded by the heavenly world in order to prevent the superhuman inhabitants of the lower world from becoming too powerful. The attempt by the gods above to destroy the younger and smaller ones reaches a truce in the form of a treaty or alliance. This is how Genesis chapters 6-9 may be comprehended as a complete narrative and, in addition, came to include the passage in 6:1-4.

A tradition about a revolt in a heavenly palace is preserved in the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic, also known through the Baal-Cycle from Ugarit and the Hethitic Kumarbi Epic, has also influenced Greek mythology which tells of the conflict between Zeus, on the one hand, and his tyrannical murderer-father and the Titans his helpers, on the other. In this volume, Jan Bremmer argues impressively that the “Titans” of the story are actually not destroyed. The fear of their possible return persists and remains an irrepressible potential and threat.

How astronomic observation, the interpretation of stars as deities living in a distant world, and scientific knowledge are coalesced into the traditional image of God is shown by Matthias Albani in his analysis of Isaiah 14.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. Bruegel's depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist's profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.  Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
Bruegel’s depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist’s profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.
Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

For Albani, the myth of the morning star that rises at night only to be driven away and dissolved by the light of the sun is discernible in a story about the power of God who, though rivaled by the smaller stars, is never surpassed by them.

The fact that the Isaiah account may be dated to the exilic period—and so is similar to expulsion of the throne pretender mentioned in Ezekiel 28—strengthens the likelihood that it functioned as a story of consolation. The image of the rise and fall of Helel was later translated into “Lucifer” in Latin tradition. The interpretation is depicted in Figure No. 2.

No direct line can be drawn from the Isaiah narrative to the Enochic apocalyptic literature and its Gnostic adaptation. The apocalyptic and cosmological dualisms of the latter fundamentally changed the religious tradition into something cosmic, super-historical, and superhuman.”

Christoph Auffarth & Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., “The Centre for Power for Evil: Its Origins and Development,” in The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004.

Controversy Over Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia

“Having proved that neither the 6jldV7m5Fkw9GXSaqZbeOnvYF_6NXGaMDVY-No3wtPY  nor the qadištu nor the nu-gig are to be reckoned as sacred prostitutes, it remains necessary to prove that there was no such institution as sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia in spite of its widespread reputation among scholars, to which I would like to return in the conclusion.

Their investigations are tainted by certain perceptions. Their primary problems concern their epistemological approaches and historical methodologies. First is the unproven assertion of this institution.

For example, Astour states that “Babylonia [was] the classical land of sacral prostitution …. Sacral prostitution existed in Israel and Judah until the implementation of the religious reforms of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.” This fallacy is repeated ad nauseam in many general discussions of sacred prostitution. In 1987, the Encyclopedia of Religion entry for “hierodouleiacomments:

Contemporary scholarship uses the expression sacred prostitution to refer to a sexual rite practiced in the ancient Near East. In the temples of Ishtar, Astarte, Ma, AnShita, and Aphrodite, for example, women, often virgins, offered themselves sexually to strangers. Sometimes the temples were staffed by such “sacred prostitutes.”

Such allegations first appear in the work of Herodotus (The Histories, 1.199) whose view of Mesopotamian culture was considerably biased and whose speculations have been elaborated by Strabo in his Geography (16.1.20), and by other classical authors. Of the scholars cited above in note one, a majority have investigated this source and have realized it was the only source for claiming sacred prostitution, and discarded it on these grounds.

When scholars discuss an institution without any attempt to define it, we must conclude that their methodology is questionable. The term “sacred prostitution” is employed for any sexual practice within the “sacred sphere”; the sacred prostitute can be a priestess who participated in a “sacred marriage,” a laywoman, such as Herodotus’s Babylonian woman, who once in her life has to offer herself to a stranger for money in the temple of Aphrodite, a priestess whose caring for the gods included offering them sexual services, or a laywoman who participated in organized, ritual sexual activities.

It is obvious that a definition of terms is mandatory. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “prostitution” is “the action of prostituting or condition of being prostituted. . . the offering of the body to indiscriminate lewdness for hire,” from late Latin prostituere, “to place before, to expose publicly, offer for sale, to act as a prostitute.”

“Sacred prostitution” would, therefore, be the act of offering the body to indiscriminate lewdness for hire in the sacred sphere, ritual, or place. None of the above scholarly definitions fits this definition with the exception of that originating with Herodotus!

For these reasons, some writers, such as Fisher and Lerner, differentiate “cultic sexual service” from “commercial prostitution”; the former discriminating and without payment, and the latter indiscriminate and with payment.

For Mesopotamia, we have clear and explicit evidence of the profitable profession of the prostitute, the harimtu. Her place of work is usually the tavern. Inanna and Ishtar both act as patroness of the tavern and its inhabitants. The profession of prostitution is designated harimūtu.

However, in the city of Sippar in the Old Babylonian period, this status and its prerogatives are held by men as well as women, husbands as well as wives. These prerogatives are designated as those of a goddess; but whether it can be inferred from this statement that there is any relationship to the temple and its cult is impossible to determine from the evidence.

From economic texts, we could conclude that silver may have been exchanged during the fulfillment of these prerogatives or from the sale of these offices as any other office. Because of the dearth of information concerning the status of harimutu and our lack of knowledge concerning the temple’s part in the regulation of the tavern/brothel and the prostitutes that congregated there, it might be better to give a more generalized definition of “prostitution” in Mesopotamia.

Consequently, I would suggest that a “prostitute” is one who is outside the culturally defined bounds of controlled sexuality.”

Joan Goodnick Westenholz, “Tamar, Qēdēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 82, No. 3 (July, 1989), pp. 260-2.

The Babylonian Zodiac is 1000 Years Older than Sargon of Accad

“The contents of the fifth tablet introduce us to a side of Babylonian religion which occupied an important and prominent position, at all events in the official cult. At the beginning of the present century, writers upon the ancient East were fond of enlarging upon a Sabaistic system of faith which they supposed had once been the dominant form of religion in Western Asia.

The accompanying illustration, which is reproduced from the Boundary Stone of Ritti-Marduk (Brit. Mus., No. 90,858), supplies much information about the symbols of the gods, and of the Signs of the Zodiac in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I, King of Babylon, about 1120 B.C..  Thus in Register 1, we have the Star of Ishtar, the crescent of the Moon-god Sin, and the disk of Shamash the Sun-god.  In Reg. 2 are three stands (?) surmounted by tiaras, which represent the gods Anu, Enlil (Bel) and Ea respectively.  In Reg. 3 are three altars (?) or shrines (?) with a monster in Nos. 1 and 2. Over the first is the lance of Marduk, over the second the mason's square of Nabû, and over the third is the symbol of the goddess Ninkharsag, the Creatress.  In Reg. 4 are a standard with an animal's head, a sign of Ea; a two-headed snake = the Twins; an unknown symbol with a horse's head, and a bird, representative of Shuḳamuna and Shumalia.  In Reg. 5 are a seated figure of the goddess Gula and the Scorpion-man; and in Reg. 6 are forked lightning, symbol of Adad, above a bull, the Tortoise, symbol of Ea (?), the Scorpion of the goddess Ishkhara, and the Lamp of Nusku, the Fire-god.  Down the left-hand side is the serpent-god representing the constellation of the Hydra.

The accompanying illustration, which is reproduced from the Boundary Stone of Ritti-Marduk (Brit. Mus., No. 90,858), supplies much information about the symbols of the gods, and of the Signs of the Zodiac in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I, King of Babylon, about 1120 B.C..
Thus in Register 1, we have the Star of Ishtar, the crescent of the Moon-god Sin, and the disk of Shamash the Sun-god.
In Reg. 2 are three stands (?) surmounted by tiaras, which represent the gods Anu, Enlil (Bel) and Ea respectively.
In Reg. 3 are three altars (?) or shrines (?) with a monster in Nos. 1 and 2. Over the first is the lance of Marduk, over the second the mason’s square of Nabû, and over the third is the symbol of the goddess Ninkharsag, the Creatress.
In Reg. 4 are a standard with an animal’s head, a sign of Ea; a two-headed snake = the Twins; an unknown symbol with a horse’s head, and a bird, representative of Shuḳamuna and Shumalia.
In Reg. 5 are a seated figure of the goddess Gula and the Scorpion-man; and in Reg. 6 are forked lightning, symbol of Adad, above a bull, the Tortoise, symbol of Ea (?), the Scorpion of the goddess Ishkhara, and the Lamp of Nusku, the Fire-god.
Down the left-hand side is the serpent-god representing the constellation of the Hydra.

 Star-worship was imagined to be the most primitive phase of Oriental religion, and the reference to it in the book of Job was eagerly seized upon as an evidence of the antiquity of the book. Dupuis resolved all human forms of faith into Zodiacal symbols, and Sir William Drummond went far in the same direction. That the first gods of the heathen were the planets and stars of heaven, was regarded by high authorities as an incontrovertible fact.

The plains of Shinar were held to be the earliest home of this Sabaism or star-worship. The astronomy and astrology of Babylonia had been celebrated even by Greek and Latin authors, and scholars were inclined to see in the “Chaldaean shepherds” the first observers of the heavens.

The “astrologers, the star-gazers, the monthly prognosticators” of Babylon, are enumerated in the Old Testament (Isaiah xlvii. 13); and the small cylinders brought by travelers from Bagdad, with their frequent representations of a star or sun, seemed to leave no doubt that the deities of Babylonia were in truth the heavenly bodies. The decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions has shown that the belief in Babylonian “Sabaism” was, after all, not altogether a chimera.

Babylonia was really the cradle of astronomical observations. Long before the lofty zigurrâti or “towers” of the temples were reared, where the royal astronomers had their stations and from whence they sent their reports to the king, the leading groups of stars had been named, a calendar had been formed, and the eclipses of the sun and moon had been noted and recorded.

The annual path of the sun through the sky had been divided into twelve sections, like the twelve kasbu or double hours of the day, and each section had been distinguished by its chief constellation or star. It was thus that the Zodiac first came into existence.

The names given to its constellations are not only Accadian, but they also go back to the totemistic age of Accadian faith. The first sign, the first constellation, was that of “the directing bull,” so named from the solar bull who at the vernal equinox began to plough his straight furrow through the sky, directing thereby the course of the year.

The last sign but one was “the fish of Ea;” while midway between the two, presiding over the month whose name was derived from its “facing the foundation” or “beginning” of the year, was the great star of the Scorpion.

The fact that the year thus began with Taurus proves the antiquity of the Chaldean Zodiac, and of the months of thirty days which corresponded to its several signs. From about B.C. 2500 and onwards, the precession of the equinoxes caused Aries, and not Taurus, to be the asterism into which the sun entered at spring-time; the period when Taurus ushered in the year reached back from that date to about B.C. 4700.

The Zodiacal circle may therefore have been invented nearly a thousand years before Sargon of Accad was born; and that it was invented at an early epoch is demonstrated by its close connection with the Accadian calendar.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 396-8.