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Tag: proto-language

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia

Guillaume Postel, The Great Key, Eliphas Levi, The Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861

Guillaume Postel (1510-81), The Great Key, in Eliphas Levi (1810-75), La Clef des Grands MystèresThe Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861.

“A special place in the story of the renewal of Hebrew studies belongs to the French utopian thinker and érudit, Guillaume Postel (1510-81). Councillor to the kings of France, close to the major religious, political and scientific personalities of his epoch, Postel returned from a series of diplomatic missions to the Orient, voyages which enabled him to study Arabic and Hebrew as well as to learn of the wisdom of the kabbala, a changed and marked man.

Already renowned as a Greek philologist, around 1539, Postel was appointed to the post of “mathematicorum et peregrinarum linguarum regius interpretes” in that Collège des Trois Langues which eventually became the Collège de France.

In his De originibus seu de Hebraicae linguae et gentis antiquitate (1538), Postel argued that Hebrew came directly from the sons of Noah, and that, from it, Arabic, Chaldean, Hindi and, indirectly, Greek had all descended as well.

In Linguarum duodecem characteribus differentium alphabetum, introductio (1538), by studying twelve different alphabets he proved the common derivation of every language. From here, he went on to advance the project of a return to Hebrew as the instrument for the peaceable fusion of the peoples of differing races.

To support his argument that Hebrew was the proto-language, Postel developed the criterion of divine economy. As there was but one human race, one world and one God, there could be but one language; this was a “sacred language, divinely inspired into the first man” (De Foenicum litteris, 1550).

God had educated Adam by breathing into him the capacity to call things by their appropriate names (De originibus, seu, de varia et potissimum orbit Latino ad hanc diem incognita aut inconsyderata historia, 1553).

Although Postel does not seem to have thought either of an innate faculty for languages or of a universal grammar, as Dante had done, there still appears in many of his writings the notion of an Averroist active intellect as the repository of the forms common to all humanity, in which the roots of our linguistic faculty must be sought (Les très merveilleuses victoires des femmes du nouveau monde together with La doctrine du siècle doré, both from 1553).

Postel’s linguistic studies were connected to his particular vision of a religious utopia: he foresaw the reign of universal peace.

In his De orbis terrae concordia (1544:I) he clearly states that his studies in language would help to lay the foundations upon which a universal concord could be created. He envisioned the creation of a linguistic commonwealth that would serve as living proof to those of other faiths that not only was the message of Christianity true, but equally it verified their own religious beliefs: there are some principles of a natural religion, or sets of innate ideas held by all peoples (De orbis, III).

Here was the spirit that had inspired Lull and Nicholas of Cusa. Yet Postel was convinced that universal peace could only be realized under the protection of the king of France: among the world’s rulers the king of France alone held a legitimate claim to the title of king of the world.

He was the direct descendent of Noah, through Gomer, son of Japheth, founder of the Gallic and Celtic races (cf. particularly Les raisons de la monarchie, c. 1551). Postel (Trésor des propheties de l’univers, 1556) supported this contention with a traditional etymology (see, for example, Jean Lemaire de Belges, Illustration de Gaule et singularitez de Troye, 1512-3, fol. 64r): in Hebrew, the term gallus meant “he who overcame the waves;” thus the Gauls were the people who had survived the waters of the Flood (cf. Stephens 1989:4).

Postel first attempted to convert Francis I to his cause. The king, however, judged him a fanatic, and he lost favor at court. He went to Rome, hoping to win over to his utopian schemes Ignatius of Loyola, whose reformist ideals seemed kindred to his own.

It did not take Ignatius long, however, to realize that Postel’s ambitions were not identical to those of the Jesuits. Accepting Postel’s project might have placed their vow of obedience to the pope at risk.

Besides, Ignatius was a Spaniard, and the idea of turning the king of France into the king of the world would hardly have appealed to him. Although Postel continued long afterwards to look upon the Jesuits as the divine instrument for the creation of universal peace, he himself was forced to leave the company after a mere year and a half.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 75-7.

Eco: The Mother Tongue


The Hebrew alphabet. Compiled and posted by Assyrio on Wikipedia. The copyright holder releases this work into the public domain, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.  

Humiliter dedicata a amico miles Georgius Hand IV, polyglottis et πολυμαθής.

“Despite this, Abulafia did not think that this matrix of all languages (which coincides with the eternal, but not with the written, Torah) corresponded yet to Hebrew. Here Abulafia made a distinction between the twenty-two letters as a linguistic matrix, and Hebrew as the mother tongue of humanity.

The twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the ideal sounds which had presided over the creation of the seventy existing languages. The fact that other languages had more vowels depended on the variations in pronouncing the twenty-two letters. In modern terminology, the new foreign sounds would be called allophones of the fundamental Hebrew phonemes.

Other kabbalists had observed that the Christians lacked the letter Kheth, while the Arabs lacked Peh. In the Renaissance, Yohanan Alemanno argued that the origins of these phonetic deviations in non-Hebrew languages were the noises of beasts; some were like the grunting of pigs, others were like the croaking of frogs, still others were like the sound of a crane.

The assimilation of bestial sounds showed that these were the languages of peoples who had abandoned the right path and true conduct of their lives. In this sense, another result of the confusion of Babel was the multiplication of letters.

Alemanno was aware that there were also other peoples who considered their languages as superior to all others. He cited Galen, who claimed that Greek was the most pleasing of all languages and the one that most conformed to the laws of reason.

Not daring to contradict him, he attributed this fact to affinities he saw as existing between Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Assyrian.

For Abulafia, the twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the entire gamut of sounds naturally produced by the human vocal organs. It was the different ways of combining these letters that had given rise to the different languages.

The word zeruf (combination) and the word lashon (language) had the same numerical value (386): it followed that the rules of combination provided the explanation to the formation of each separate language.

Abulafia admitted that the decision to represent these sounds according to certain graphic signs was a matter of convention; it was, however, a convention established between God and the prophets.

Being aware that there existed other theories which claimed that the sounds which expressed ideas or things were conventional (he could have encountered such an Aristotelian and Stoic notion in Jewish authors like Maimonides), Abulafia, nevertheless, invoked a rather modern distinction between conventionality and arbitrariness.

Hebrew was a conventional but not an arbitrary language. Abulafia rejected the claim, maintained, among others, by certain Christian authors, that, left entirely to itself, a child would automatically begin to speak Hebrew: the child would be unaware of the convention.

Yet Hebrew remained the sacred mother tongue, because the names given by Adam, though conventional, were in accordance with nature. In this sense, Hebrew was the proto-language.

Its existence was a precondition for all the rest, “For if such a language did not precede it, there couldn’t have been mutual agreement to call a given object by a different name from what it was previously called, for how would the second person understand the second name if he doesn’t know the original name, in order to be able to agree to the changes.” (Sefer or ha-Sekhel; cf. Idel 1989: 14).

Abulafia lamented that his people in the course of their exile had forgotten their original language. He looked on the kabbalist as a laborer working to rediscover the original matrix of all the seventy languages of the world.

Still, he knew that it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that all the secrets of the kabbala would be definitively revealed. Only then, at the end of time, would all linguistic differences cease, and languages be reabsorbed back into the original sacred tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 32-3.

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