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Tag: Prado

Eco: From Adam to Confusio Linguarum



Outer panels of Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505, held in the Prado, Accession number P02823. A helpful analysis has been posted by Dr. Sally Hickson on the site of the Khan Academy. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries where the copyright term is the life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Genesis 2, 10, 11

Our story has an advantage over many others: it can begin at the Beginning.

God spoke before all things, and said, “Let there be light.” In this way, he created both heaven and earth; for with the utterance of the divine word, “there was light” (Genesis 1:3-4).

Thus Creation itself arose through an act of speech; it is only by giving things their names that he created them and gave them ontological status: “And God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night . . . And God called the firmament Heaven” (1:5, 8).

In Genesis 2:16-17, the Lord speaks to man for the first time, putting at his disposal all the goods in the earthly paradise, commanding him, however, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

We are not told in what language God spoke to Adam. Tradition has pictured it as a sort of language of interior illumination, in which God, as in other episodes of the Bible, expresses himself by thunderclaps and lightening.

If we are to understand it this way, we must think of a language which, although it is not translatable into any known idiom, is still, through a special grace or dispensation, comprehensible to its hearer.

It is at this point, and only at this point (2:19ff), that “out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them.”

The interpretation of this passage is an extremely delicate matter. Clearly we are here in the presence of a motif, common in other religions and mythologies–that of the nomothete, the name-giver, the creator of language.

Yet it is not at all clear on what basis Adam actually chose the names he gave to the animals. The version in the Vulgate, the source for European culture’s understanding of the passage, does little to resolve this mystery.

The Vulgate has Adam calling the various animals “nominibus sui,” which we can only translate, “by their own names.” The King James version does not help us any more: “Whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”

But Adam might have called the animals “by their own names” in two senses. Either he gave them the names that, by some extra-linguistic right, were already due to them, or he gave them those names we still use on the basis of a convention initiated by Adam.

In other words, the names that Adam gave the animals are either the names that each animal intrinsically ought to have been given, or simply the names that the nomothete arbitrarily and ad placitum decided to give to them.

From this difficulty, we pass to Genesis 2:23. Here Adam sees Eve for the first time; and here, for the first time, the reader hears Adam’s actual words. In the King James version, Adam is quoted as saying: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman . . .”

In the Vulgate the name is virago (a translation from the Hebrew isshà, the feminine of ish, “man.” If we take Adam’s use of virago together with the fact that, in Genesis 3:20, he calls his wife Eve, meaning “life,” because “she was the mother of all living,” it is evident that we are faced with names that are not arbitrary, but rather–at least etymologically–“right.”

The linguistic theme is taken up once more, this time in a very explicit fashion, in Genesis 11:1. We are told that after the Flood, “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.”

Yet men in their vanity conceived a desire to rival the Lord, and thus to erect a tower that would reach up to the heavens. To punish their pride and to put a stop to the construction of their tower, the Lord thought:

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech . . . . Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:7, 9).

In the opinion of various Arab authors (cf. Borst, 1957-63: I, II, 9), the confusion was due to the trauma induced by the sight, terrifying no doubt, of the collapse of the tower. This really changes nothing: the biblical story, as well as the partially divergent accounts of other mythologies, simply serves to establish the fact that different languages exist in the world.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 7-9.

Umberto Eco: Search for the Perfect Language, 3


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Garden of Earthly Delights. The left tablet of the triptych depicts Paradise, with the creation of Eve and the Fountain of Life. The central tablet portrays the pleasures of life, and the rightmost tablet Hell. Held in the collection of the Prado. Accession number P02823, this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries where the copyright term is the life of the author plus 100 years or less.

“Having established the boundaries of my discourse, I must pay my debts. I am indebted to the studies of Paolo Rossi for first awakening my interest in the subjects of classical mnemonics, pansophia and world theaters; to Alessandro Bausani’s witty and learned overview on invented languages; to Lia Formigari’s book on the linguistic problems of English empiricism; and to many other authors whom, if I do not cite every time that I have drawn on them, I hope, at least, to have cited on crucial points, as well as to have included in the bibliography.

My only regret is that George Steiner had already copyrighted the most appropriate title for this book–After Babel–nearly twenty years ago. Hats off.

I would also like to thank the BBC interviewer who, on 4 October 1983, asked me what semiotics meant. I replied that he ought to know the answer himself, since semiotics was defined by Locke in 1690, in Great Britain, and since in the same country was published in 1668 the Essay towards a Real Character by Bishop Wilkins, the first semiotic approach to an artificial language.

Later, as I left the studio, I noticed an antiquarian bookstore, and, out of curiosity, I walked into it. Lying there I saw a copy of Wilkin’s Essay. It seemed a sign from heaven; so I bought it. That was the beginning of my passion for collecting old books on imaginary, artificial, mad and occult languages, out of which has grown my personal ‘Bibliotheca Semiologica Curiosa, Lunatica, Magica et Pneumatica,’ which has been a mainstay to me in the present endeavor.

In 1987, I was also encouraged to undertake the study of perfect languages by an early work of Robert Pellerey, and I shall often be referring to his recent volume on perfect languages in the eighteenth century. I have also given two courses of lectures on this topic in the University of Bologna and one at the Collège de France.

Many of my students have made contributions about particular themes or authors. Their contributions appeared, as the rules of academic fairness require, before the publication of this book, in the final issue of VS (1992), 61-3, ‘Le lingue perfette.’

A final word of thanks to the antiquarian booksellers on at least two continents who have brought to my attention rare or unknown texts. Unfortunately–considering the size prescribed for this book–as rich as the most exciting of these trouvailles are, they could receive only passing mention, or none at all. I console myself that I have the material for future excursions in erudition.

Besides, the first draft of this research totaled twice the number of pages I am now sending to the printer. I hope that my readers will be grateful for the sacrifice that I have celebrated for their comfort, and that the experts will forgive me the elliptic and panoramic bent of my story.

Umberto Eco

Bologna, Milan, Paris”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 5-6.

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