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Tag: Spanish

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: 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 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: Eighteenth Century Projects, 2

Fenelon Adventures of Telemachus

François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, aka François Fénelon (1651-1715), frontispiece and title page of the 1715 English translation of Les Aventures de Télémaque, The Adventures of Telemachus, first published in French in 1699. 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 though the primitives were no longer such, they remained a compositional criterion. For instance, given in first position the letter a, which refers to grammar, the depending letters have a mere distinctive value and refer back to grammatical sub-categories.

A third and final letter specifies a morphological termination or other derivation. Thus a list of terms is derived: ava (grammar), ave (letter), alve (vowel), adve (consonant) and so on. The expressions function like a chemical formula, which synthetically reveals the internal composition of its content, and like a mathematical expression in that the system attributes to each letter a value determined by its position.

Nevertheless, this theoretical perspicuity is bought at a dear price because, in practice, the lexicon becomes obsessively monotonous.

Equally, the Pasigraphie of De Maimieux institutes a graphic code of twelve characters that can be combined according to fixed rules. Each combination expresses a definite thought (the model is the Chinese character).

Other characters are placed on the outside of the “body” of the word to modify the central idea. The body of the word can contain three, four or five characters. Words of only three characters signify either “pathetic” terms or connectives linking parts of discourse, and are classified in an indicule.

Words of four characters stand for ideas in practical life (like friendship, kinship, business), and are classified in petit nomenclateur. Five character words concern categories such as art, religion, morality, science and politics, and are classified in a grand nomenclateur.

None of these categories is primitive; they have rather been isolated in terms of common sense as the most manageable way of subdividing contemporary knowledge. De Maimieux went so far as to admit that he had not sought for an absolute ordering but rather any ordering whatsoever, fût-il mauvais (p. 21).

The system, unfortunately, provides no way of eliminating synonyms; they are constitutional, and De Maimieux only says how to identify them. In fact, every expression in the pasigraphy can be connected not to a single meaning but to three or four different contents.

These different meanings can be distinguished according to the position of the characters on a sort of pentagram. This method imposes no small amount of tedium on the reader, who, as the characters display no iconic similarity with their content, is continually forced to consult the indicule, the petit nomenclateur or the grand nomenclateur, depending on the length of the expression.

Thus, to give an example, if we run across a five letter syntagm, we must seek first in the grand nomenclateur

“the class that begins with the first character of the term. Inside this class, we seek for the framework listing the second character of the term. Inside this framework, we seek for the column containing the third character of the term. Finding the right column, we seek the section (tranche) with the fourth character of the term.

Finally, within this section we seek the line containing the fifth character. At this point we will discover that, as the meaning, we have found a line listing four verbal words; it will then be necessary to observe which of the characters in the pasigraphic term is graphically tallest in order to determine which of the four possible words is the one corresponding to the term.” (Pellerey 1992a: 104).

A real piece of drudgery, though not enough to dampen the ardor of the project’s enthusiasts, who, starting with the abbé Sicard and finishing with various contemporary reviewers wishing to favor the diffusion of the system, entered into pasigraphic correspondence with each other and with De Maimieux, who even composed pasigraphic poetry.

De Maimieux spoke of his pasigraphy as an instrument for checking the accuracy of translations. Many theories of translation, in fact, presuppose the existence of a “parameter language” with which one can control the correct correspondence between the original text and the translated one.

De Maimieux aimed at proposing a supposedly neutral metalanguage which could track the correspondence between expressions in System A and those in system B. What was never placed in discussion was the fact that the content of this metalanguage was structured along the lines of Indo-European languages, and of French in particular.

As a consequence we have “the immense drama of ideography: it can identify and describe its contents, which are supposedly ideas or notions in themselves, only by naming them with words from a natural language–a supreme contradiction for a project created expressly to eliminate verbal languages.” (Pellerey 1992a: 114).

As can be seen, neither in technique nor in underlying ideology have we advanced very far from the time of Wilkins.

This disingenuousness is carried to paroxysms in the Palais de soixante-quatre fenêtres [ . . . ] ou l’art d’écrire toutes les langues du monde comme on les parle (1787, by the Swiss writer J.P. De Ria.

(Editorial note: Eco writes “De Ria,” yet Google returns “Jean-Pierre Deriaz” as the author of the work, and beautifully offers the 1787 document as a free eBook. Thank you, Google. Yet, history must agree with Eco, as the title page depicts the author as “J.P. De Ria,” as Eco attests.).

Despite its pretentious title, the book is nothing but a manual of phonetics or, perhaps, a proposal for the orthographic reform of French, written in a febrile, quasi-mystic style.

It is not in the least clear how the reform could be applied to all the languages of the world (it would, for example, be particularly inapplicable to English phonetics); but this is an unimaginable question for the author.

Returning to De Maimieux, the flexibility displayed in his choice of the pseudo-primitives seems to associate his project with the empiricist tendencies of the Encyclopédie; yet, once they were chose, his belief in them, and the self-confidence with which he sought to impose them on everyone else, still reflected the rationalist temperament.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that De Maimieux sought to provide for the rhetorical use of his language and the possibility of oratory: we are, of course, in a time of eloquence where the life or death of a revolutionary faction might depend on its ability to sway its audience by the force of its words.

Where the a priori linguists of the eighteenth-century were most critical of their predecessors, however, was in the matter of grammar. All were inspired by the “laconic” ideal proposed in the Encyclopédie.

In the grammar of De Maimieux, the number of grammatical categories originally  projected by Faiguet is somewhat amplified; in the case of Delormel, however, the grammar is so laconic that Couturat and Leau (1903: 312), who spend long chapters describing other systems, liquidate his in a page and a half (Pellerey’s treatment is more accurate and generous; 1992a: 125).

Hourwitz, whose project remains akin to the seventeenth century polygraphies, produced a grammar that was, perhaps, the most laconic of all: one declension, one conjugation for verbs; the verbs were to be expressed in the infinitive with a few additional signs that specify tense and mood.

The tenses themselves were reduced to a system of three steps from the present, either backwards or forwards in time: thus A 1200 means “I dance;” A/1200 means “I have danced;” A 1200/ means “I will dance.”

If the grammar was made laconic, it followed that the syntax needed to be drastically simplified as well; Hourwitz proposed retaining the direct word order of French. In this respect, the relevance of Count Antoine de Rivarol’s pamphlet, De l’universalité de la langue française (1784), becomes apparent.

What was the need for a universal language, asked the count, when a perfect language existed already? The language was, of course, French. Apart from its intrinsic perfection, French was already an international language; it was the language most diffused in the world, so much that it was possible to speak of the “French world” just as, in antiquity, one could speak of the “Roman world.” (p. 1).

According to de Rivarol, French possessed a phonetic system that guaranteed sweetness and harmony, as well as a literature incomparable in its richness and grandeur; it was spoken in that capital city which had become the “foyer des étincelles répandues chez tous les peuples” (p. 21).

In comparison with French all other languages paled: German was too guttural, Italian too soft, Spanish too redundant, English too obscure. Rivarol attributed the superiority of French to its word order: first subject, then verb, and last object. This word order mirrored a natural logic which was in accordance with the requirements of common sense.

This common sense is, however, linked to the higher activity of our minds: for if we were to base our syntactical order on the order of our perceptions, it is plain that we would start with the object, which first strikes our senses.

The polemical reference to the sensationalism of Condillac is evident when de Rivarol asserts that, if other people, speaking in other tongues, had abandoned the natural, direct word order, it was because they had let their passions prevail over their intellect (p. 25-6).

This retreat from natural reason, moreover, was responsible for the syntactic inversion that had provoked the confusions and ambiguities prevalent in natural languages other than French. Naturally, those languages which tried to compensate for their lack of direct word order with declensions were among the most confused of all.

We might bear in mind that, even though, in 1784, while he was writing his pamphlet, de Rivarol was an habitué of Enlightenment circles, after the advent of the revolution, he revealed himself to be a conservative legitimist.

To a man so spiritually tied to the ancien régime, the philosophy and linguistics of the sensationalists may (quite justifiably) have appeared as a harbinger of an intellectual revolution which emphasized the passions as the fundamental force motivating humanity.

If this were the case, then “the direct word order acquires the value of an instrument of protection [ . . . ] against the inflammatory style of the public orators who, in a few short years, would be preaching revolution and manipulating the masses.” (Pellerey 1992a: 147).

Yet what really characterized the eighteenth century debate was the desire not so much to simplify grammar as to show that there existed a natural and normal grammar, universally present in all human languages. This grammar is not, however, manifestly apparent; it must be sought instead beneath the surface of human languages, all of which are, in some degree or other, derivations from it.

As can be seen, we have returned to the ideal of a universal grammar, only now one is trying to identify it by reducing every existing language to its most laconic form.

Attentive as we have been throughout this story to the issue of side-effects, we ought here to note that without this eighteenth century intuition of an original, laconic grammar, our contemporary notions of generative and transformational grammar would be quite inconceivable, even if their origins are usually traced back to the Cartesianism of Port Royal.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 296-302.

Eco: First Attempts at a Content Organization


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Frontispiece of Obeliscus Pamphilius, Obeliscus Pamphilius: Hoc est Interpretatio nova & hucusque intenta obelisci Hieroglyphici, eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, published by Lud. Grignani 1650, held by Ghent 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. 

“Probably in 1660, three years before the publication of the Polygraphia, Kircher wrote a manuscript bearing the title Novum hoc inventum quo omnia mundi idiomata ad unum reducuntur (Mss. Chigiani I, vi, 225, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Marrone 1986).

Schott says that Kircher kept his system a secret at the express wish of the emperor, who had requested that his polygraphy be reserved for his exclusive use alone.

The Novum inventum was still tentative and incomplete; it contained an extremely elementary grammar plus a lexicon of 1,620 words. However, the project looks more interesting that the later one because it provides a list of 54 fundamental categories, each represented by an icon.

These icons are reminiscent of those that one might find today in airports and railway stations: some were schematically representative (like a small chalice for drinking); others were strictly geometrical (rectangles, triangles, circles).

Some were furthermore superficially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. They were functionally equivalent to the Roman numbers in the Polygraphia (in both texts, Arabic numbers referred to particular items).

Thus, for example, the square representing the four elements plus the numeral 4 meant water as an element; water as something to drink was instead expressed by a chalice (meaning the class of drinkable things) followed by the numeral 3.

There are two interesting features in this project. The first is that Kircher tried to merge a polygraphy with a sort of hieroglyphical lexicon, so that his language could be used (at least in the author’s intention) without translating it into a natural language.

Seeing a “square + 4,” the readers should immediately understand that the named thing is an element, and seeing “chalice + 3” they should understand that one is referring to something to drink.

The difficulty was due to the fact that, while both Kircher’s Polygraphia and Becher’s Character allow a translating operator (be it a human being or a machine) to work independently of any knowledge of the meaning of the linguistic items, the Novum inventum requires a non-mechanical and quasi-philosophical knowledge: in order to encode the word aqua as “square + 4,” one should previously know that it is the name of an element–information that the term of a natural language does not provide.

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who published two volumes describing a sort of polygraphy (Ekskubalauron, 1652, and Logopandecteision, 1653), noted that, arbitrary as the order of the alphabet might be, it was still easier to look things up in alphabetical order than in a categorical order.

The second interesting feature of Kircher’s initial project is certainly given by the effort to make the fundamental concepts independent of any existing natural language.

Its weakness is due to the fact that the list of the 54 categories was notably incongruous: it included divine entities, angelic and heavenly, elements, human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals, the dignities and other abstract concepts deriving from the Lullian Ars, things to drink, clothes, weights, numbers, hours, cities, food, family, actions such as seeing or giving, adjectives, adverbs, months of the year.

It was perhaps the lack of internal coherency in this system of concepts that induced Kircher to abandon this line of research, and devote himself to the more modest and mechanical method used in the Polygraphia.

Kircher’s incongruous classification had a precedent. Although he regarded Kircher as the pioneer in the art of polygraphy, in his Technica curiosa (as well as in his Jocoseriorum naturae et artiis sive magiae naturalis centuriae tres) Gaspar Schott gave an extended description of a 1653 project that was certainly earlier than Kircher’s (the Novum inventum is dedicated to Pope Alexander VII, who ascended the pontifical throne only in 1655).

The project was due to another Jesuit, a Spaniard (“whose name I have forgotten,” as Schott says on p. 483), who had presented in Rome (on a single folio) an Artificium, or an Arithmeticus nomenclator, mundi omnes nationes ad linguarum et sermonis unitatem invitans (“Artificial Glossary, inviting all the nations of the world to unity of languages and speech”).

Schott says that the anonymous author wrote a pasigraphy because he was a mute. As a matter of fact the subtitle of the Artificium also reads Authore linguae (quod mirere) Hispano quodam, vere, ut dicitur, muto (“The author of this language–a marvelous thing–being a Spaniard, truly, it is said, dumb”).

According to Ceñal (1946) the author was a certain Pedro Bermudo, and the subtitle of the manuscript would represent a word play since, in Castilian, “Bermudo” must be pronounced almost as Ver-mudo.

It is difficult to judge how reliable the accounts of Schott are; when he described Becher’s system, he improved it, adding details that he derived from the works of Kircher. Be that as it may, Schott described the Artificium as having divided the lexicon of the various languages into 44 fundamental classes, each of which contained between 20 and 30 numbered items.

Here too a Roman number referred to the class and an Arabic number referred to the item itself. Schott noted that the system provided for the use of signs other than numbers, but gave his opinion that numbers comprised the most convenient method of reference since anyone from any nation could easily learn their use.

The Artificium envisioned a system of designating endings, (marking number, tense or case) as complex as that of Becher. An Arabic number followed by an acute accent was the sign of the plural; followed by a grave accent, it became the nota possessionis.

Numbers with a dot above signified verbs in the present; numbers followed by a dot signified the genitive. In order to distinguish between vocative and dative, it was necessary to count, in one case, five, and, in the other, six, dots trailing after the number.

Crocodile was written “XVI.2” (class of animals + crocodile), but should one have occasion to address an assembly of crocodiles (“O Crocodiles!”), it would be necessary to write (and then read) “XVI.2′ . . . . . ‘.

It was almost impossible not to muddle the points behind one word with the points in front of another, or with full stops, or with the various other orthographic conventions that the system established.

In short, it was just as impracticable as all of the others. Still, what is interesting about it is the list of 44 classes. It is worth listing them all, giving, in parenthesis, only some examples of the elements each contained.

  1. Elements (fire, wind, smoke, ashes, Hell, Purgatory, centre of the earth).
  2. Celestial entities (stars, lightning, bolts, rainbows . . .).
  3. Intellectual entities (God, jesus, discourse, opinion, suspicion, soul, stratagems, or ghosts).
  4. Secular statuses (emperor, barons, plebs).
  5. Ecclesiastical states.
  6. Artificers (painters, sailors).
  7. Instruments.
  8. Affections (love, justice, lechery).
  9. Religion.
  10. Sacramental confession.
  11. Tribunal.
  12. Army.
  13. Medicine (doctor, hunger, enema).
  14. Brute animals.
  15. Birds.
  16. Fish and reptiles.
  17. Parts of animals.
  18. Furnishings.
  19. Foodstuffs.
  20. Beverages and liquids (wine, beer, water, butter, wax, and resin).
  21. Clothes.
  22. Silken fabrics.
  23. Wool.
  24. Homespun and other spun goods.
  25. Nautical and aromas (ship, cinnamon, anchor, chocolate).
  26. Metal and coin.
  27. Various artifacts.
  28. Stone.
  29. Jewels.
  30. Trees and fruits.
  31. Public places.
  32. Weights and measures.
  33. Numerals.
  34. Time.
  35. Nouns.
  36. Adjectives.
  37. Verbs.
  38. Undesignated grammatical category.
  39. Undesignated grammatical category.
  40. Undesignated grammatical category.
  41. Undesignated grammatical category.
  42. Undesignated grammatical category.
  43. Persons (pronouns and appellations such as Most Eminent Cardinal).
  44. Vehicular (hay, road, footpad).

The young Leibniz would criticize the absurdity of arrangements such as this in his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria, 1666.

This sort of incongruity will affect as a secret flaw even the projects of a philosophically more sophisticated nature–such as the a priori philosophic languages we will look at in the next chapter.

This did not escape Jorge Luis Borges. Reading Wilkins, at second hand as he admits (in Other Inquisitions, “The analytical idiom of John Wilkins“), he was instantly struck by the lack of a logical order in the categorical divisions (he discusses explicitly the subdivisions of stones), and this inspired his invention of the Chinese classification which Foucault posed at the head of his The Order of Things.

In this imaginary Chinese encyclopedia bearing the title Celestial Emporium of Benevolent  Recognition, “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs. (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”).

Borge’s conclusion was that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. At the end of our panorama of philosophical languages, we shall see that, in the end, even Leibniz was forced to acknowledge this bitter conclusion.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 203-8.

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: Kircher’s Chinese


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. 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 an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

But even more than by merchants, these pathways were traversed by Jesuits, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci who, a century before, had brought European culture to the Chinese, and returned to give Europe a deeper understanding of China.

With the publication of the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in 1585, there appeared in print in Europe characters in Chinese script.

In 1615 there finally appeared Ricci’s De christiana expeditione apud Sinas ab Societate Ieus suscepta, in which he explained that in Chinese, there existed as many characters as there were words. He insisted as well on the international character of the Chinese script, which, he wrote, was readily understood not only by the Chinese, but also by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Cochin-Chinese and by the Formosans.

We shall see that this was a discovery that would initiate the search for a real character from Bacon onwards. Already in 1627, in France, Jean Douet published a Proposition présentée au roy, d’une escriture universelle, admirable pour ses effects, très-utile à tous les hommes de la terre, in which Chinese was offered as a model for an international language.

At the same time, there had begun to appear information about the pictographic writings of Amerindians. Attempts at interpretation had yielded contradictory results; and this was discussed in works such as the Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta in 1570, and the Relaciòn de las cosas de Yucatàn by Diego de Landa, written in the sixteenth century, although appearing only in the eighteenth; in 1609 there also appeared the Comentarios reales que tratan del origine de los Yncas by Garcilaso de la Vega.

An observation often repeated by these early observers was that contact with the indigenous natives was at first carried out by means of gestures. This awoke an interest in gesture’s potential as a universal language.

The universality of gestures and the universality of images turned out to be related themes (the first treatise on this subject was Giovanni Bonifacio‘s L’arte de’ cenni of 1616; on this topic in general, see Knox 1990).

The reports of his Jesuit brothers gave Kircher an incomparable source of ethnographic and linguistic information (see Simone 1990 on “Jesuit or Vatican linguistics”).

In his Oedipus, Kircher was especially interested in the diffusion of Chinese. He took up the same arguments, in a more elliptical form, in his China monumentis quà sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarum rerum memorabilis argumentis illustrata of 1667.

This latter work was more in the nature of a treatise in ethnography and cultural anthropology which, with its splendid and sometimes documented illustrations, collected all the reports that arrived from the missionaries of the Company, and described every aspect of Chinese life, culture and nature.

Only the sixth and last part of the work was dedicated to the alphabet.

Kircher presumed that the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing had been introduced to the Chinese by Noah’s son Ham. In the Arca Noe of 1675 (pp. 210ff) he identified Ham with Zoroaster, the inventor of magic.

But, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters were not for Kircher a puzzle. Chinese was a writing system still in use, and the key to its understanding had already been revealed. How could such a comprehensible language be sacred and a vehicle for occult mysteries?

Kircher realized that Chinese characters were originally iconic and only later had grown extremely stylized over time, so as to lose their original similarity with things. He reconstructed after  his own fancy what he took to be the designs of fish and birds that had formed the starting points for current ideograms.

Kircher also realized that these ideograms did not express either letters or syllables, but referred to concepts. He noted that in order to translate our dictionary into their idiom we would need as many different characters as we had words (Oedipus, III, 11).

This led him to reflect on the amount of memory that was necessary for a Chinese scholar to know and remember all these characters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 158-60.

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 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 Nationalistic Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), an excerpt from p. 157 of Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio. confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Amsterdam, Jansson-Waesberge, 1679. A table portraying ancient alphabets, in which Kircher asserts that modern alphabets resemble ancient versions. Courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 


“Another alternative was to accept that Hebrew had been the original perfect language, but to argue that, after the confusio, the crown of perfection had been bestowed upon other languages.

The first text which countenances this sort of “nationalistic” reconstruction of linguistic history is the Commentatio super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium of 1498 by Giovanni Nanni, or Annius, which tells how, before it was colonized by the Greeks, Etruria had been settled by Noah and his descendants.

Nanni is here reflecting on the contradiction between Genesis 11, the story of Babel, and Genesis 10. In 10:5, the sons of Japheth settle the “isles of the Gentiles  . . . every one after his tongue.”

The notion of a lineage ascending from modern Tuscan through Etruscan to the Aramaic of Noah was elaborated in Florence by Giovann Battista Gelli (Dell’origine di Firenze, 1542-4), and by Piero Francesco Giambullari (Il Gello, 1564).

Their thesis, fundamentally anti-humanist, accepted the idea that the multiplication of tongues had preceded Babel (citing what Dante had had to say in Paradise, xxvi).

This thesis was passionately received by Guillaume Postel, who, we have seen, had already argued that Celtic had descended from Noah. In De Etruriae regionis (1551) Postel embraced the position of Gelli and Giambullari concerning the relationship of the Etruscan to Noah, qualifying it, however, by the claim that the Hebrew of Adam had remained–at least in its hieratic form–uncontaminated throughout the centuries.

More moderate were the claims of Spanish Renaissance authors. The Castilian tongue too might claim descent from one of Japheth’s many sons–in this case Tubal. Yet it was still only one of the seventy-two languages formed after Babel.

This moderation was more apparent than real, however, for, in Spain, the term “language of Babel” became an emblem of antiquity and nobility (for Italian and Spanish debates, cf. Tavoni 1990).

It was one thing to argue that one’s own national language could claim nobility on account of its derivation from an original language–whether that of Adam or that of Noah–but quite a different matter to argue that, for this reason, one’s language ought to be considered as the one and only perfect language, on a par with the language of Adam.

Only the Irish grammarians cited in the first chapter and Dante had had, so far, the audacity to arrive at such a daring conclusion (and even Dante–who had aspired to create a perfect language from his own vernacular–made sarcastic remarks on those who consider their native language as the most ancient and perfect: cf. DVE, I, vi).

By the seventeenth century, however, linguistic nationalism had begun to bud; this prompted a plethora of such curious claims.

Goropius Becanus (Jan van Gorp) in his Origins Antwerpianae of 1569 agreed with all claims made about the divine inspiration of the original language, and about its motivated and non-arbitrary relation between words and things.

According to him there was only a single living language in which this motivated concordance existed to an exemplary degree; that language was Dutch, particularly the dialect of Antwerp.

The ancestors of the burghers of Antwerp were the Cimbri, the direct descendants of the sons of Japheth. These had not been present under the Tower of Babel, and, consequently, they had been spared the confusio linguarum.

Thus they had preserved the language of Adam in all its perfection. Such an assertion, Becanus claimed, could be proved by etymological demonstrations. He produced a string of arguments whose level of etymological wishful thinking matched those of Isidore and Guichard; they later became known as “becanisms” or “goropisms.”

Becanus further claimed that his thesis was also proved by the facts that the Dutch had the highest number of monosyllabic words, possessed a richness of sounds superior to all other languages, and favored in the highest degree the formation of compound words.

Becanus‘ thesis was later supported by Abraham Mylius (Lingua belgica, 1612) as well as by Adrian Schrickius (Adversariorum Libri III, 1620), who wished to demonstrate “that Hebrew was divine and firstborn” and “that Teutonic came immediately afterwards.”

Teutonic here meant the Dutch spoken in Antwerp, which, at the time, was its best-known dialect. In both cases, the demonstration was supported by etymological proofs little better than those of Becanus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 95-7.

Eco: 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.

Jesus and the Disciples Were Great Magicians and Kabbalists

“That the kabbalists were not unaware of a possible connection between these ideas and the Christian Trinity is proved by the testimony of the Spanish scholar Profiat Duran. In his anti-Christian work “Ignominy of the Christians,” composed in 1397, he relates having heard in his youth many adepts of the Kabbalah voicing the opinion that the Christian dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation grew out of an erroneous interpretation of kabbalistic theses that were true in themselves.

Jesus and his disciples were not only great magicians—an opinion that was widespread in medieval Judaism—but real kabbalists, ”only their Kabbalah was full of mistakes.” The doctrine of the trinity, which they erroneously attributed to the deity, arose among them as a result of their missteps in this science [the Kabbalah] which established the primordial light, the radiant light and the transparent light.”

There was as well, already in the second half of the thirteenth century, no lack of philosophical opponents of the Kabbalah who, knowing nothing of this thesis of the three lights, nonetheless affirmed that the doctrine of the ten sefiroth was of Christian origin.

This thesis is, as our account of the true history of the idea of the sefiroth has shown, just as false as the historically unfounded suppositions of the kabbalists concerning the origins of the Christian dogmas. It is, incidentally, striking that the doctrine of Pseudo-Hai remained initially unknown to the first so-called “Christian kabbalists,” who only took it up after the middle of the sixteenth century and reinterpreted it in Christian terms for their own purposes.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 354.

Arabic Antecedents of Alchemy

Another “oriental” influence is that found in the Western alchemical traditions, deeply influenced by Islamic spiritual practices and philosophies. The entire history of alchemy passes through Islamic alchemical traditions, inherited from the Greeks, but is infused with Islamic spiritual ideas regarding the alchemical processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. c. 760 CE), later known as Gerber (in Latin), a Persian Sufi living in southern Arabia, was believed to be the author of many alchemical texts, showing a clear attribution to “oriental wisdom” in the transmission of alchemy to the Medieval west. The mystical style of the Jabir corpus reflects many Sufi ideas and may have been authored by the Iranian brethren of Purity (c. 1100). However, one text, the Kitab Sirr al-Khaliqa wa San`at al-Tabi`a (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), attributed to Jabir, c. 800, who in fact attributes this text to Apollonius of Tyana, is the basis for the single most popular text in Western Hermeticism, translated into Latin (1140) as the Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet) (43).

This text, transiting from Greek to Syriac, to Arabic, to Latin and finally to modern European languages, is a symbolic testimony to the interweaving of classical, “oriental” and later European alchemical and hermetic thought. The very term alchemy (al-kimia) is, of course, Arabic transmitted from the Greek (chemeia) and carries with it a fusion of Greek and Arabic ideas, as expressed in the famous, influential alchemical text, the Turba Philosophorum (“Conference of Philosophers,” c. 900 CE, translated into Latin by the 13th century) which combines pre-Socratic philosophy with Islamic-Sufi ideas (44). Maslama ibn Ahmad’s The Aim of the Wise was translated into Spanish and Latin, where it became known as Picatrix (1256). Many other Arabic influences (Razi, Avicenna, and so on) can be traced in the history of western alchemy, stemming particularly from the 7th through the 11th centuries (45).

–Lee Irwin, “Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality, and the Global Future.”