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Tag: Turris Babel

Eco: Conclusion


Gustav Doré (1832-1883), The Confusion of Tongues, 1865-68, currently held privately. 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. 

Plures linguas scire gloriosum esset, patet exemplo Catonis, Mithridates, Apostolorum.”

Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima

“This story is a gesture of propaganda, in so far as it provided a particular explanation of the origin and variety of languages, by presenting it only as a punishment and a curse [ . . . ] Since the variety of tongues renders a universal communication among men, to say the least, difficult, that was certainly a punishment.

However, it also meant an improvement of the original creative powers of Adam, a proliferation of that force which allowed the production of names by virtue of a divine inspiration.”

J. Trabant, Apeliotes, oder der Sinn der Sprache

“Citizens of a multiform Earth, Europeans cannot but listen to the polyphonic cry of human languages. To pay attention to the others who speak their own language is the first step in order to establish a solidarity more concrete than many propaganda discourses.”

Claude Hagège, Le souffle de la langue

“Each language constitutes a certain model of the universe, a semiotic system of understanding the world, and if we have 4,000 different ways to describe the world, this makes us rich. We should be concerned about preserving languages just as we are about ecology.”

V.V. Ivanov, Reconstructing the Past

“I said at the beginning that it was the account in Genesis 11, not Genesis 10, that had prevailed in the collective imagination and, more specifically, in the minds of those who pondered over the plurality of languages.

Despite this, as Demonet has shown (1992), already by the time of the Renaissance, a reconsideration of Genesis 10 was under way, provoking, as we saw, a rethinking of the place of Hebrew as the unchanging language, immutable from the time of Babel.

We can take it that, by then, the multiplicity of tongues was probably accepted as a positive fact both in Hebrew culture and in Christian Kabbalistic circles (Jacquemier 1992). Still, we have to wait until the eighteenth century before the rethinking of Genesis 10 provokes a revaluation of the legend of Babel itself.

In the same years that witnessed the appearance of the first volumes of the Encyclopédie, the abbé Pluche noted in his La méchanique des langues et l’art de les einsegner (1751) that, already by the time of Noah, the first differentiation, if not in the lexicon at least in inflections, between one family of languages and another had occurred.

This historical observation led Pluche on to reflect that the multiplication of languages (no longer, we note, the confusion of languages) was more than a mere natural event: it was socially providential. Naturally, Pluche imagined, people were at first troubled to discover that tribes and families no longer understood each other so easily. In the end, however,

“those who spoke a mutually intelligible language formed a single body and went to live together in the same corner of the world. Thus it was the diversity of languages which provided each country with its own inhabitants and kept them there. It should be noted that the profits of this miraculous and extraordinary mutation have extended to all successive epochs.

From this point on, the more people have mixed, the more they have produced mixtures and novelties in their languages; and the more these languages have multiplied, the harder it becomes to change countries. In this way, the confusion of tongues has fortified that sentiment of attachment upon which love of country is based; the confusion has made men more sedentary.” (pp. 17-8).

This is more than the celebration of the particular “genius” of each single language: the very sense of the myth of Babel has been turned upside down. The natural differentiation of languages has become a positive phenomenon underlying the allocation of peoples to their respective territories, the birth of nations, and the emergence of the sense of national identity.

It is a reversal of meaning that reflects the patriotic pride of an eighteenth century French author: the confusio linguarum was the historically necessary point of departure for the birth of a new sense of the state. Pluche, in effect, seems to be paraphrasing Louis XIV: “L’état c’est la langue.”

In the light of this reinterpretation it is also interesting to read the objections to an international language made by another French writer, one who lived before the great flood of a posteriori projects in the late nineteenth century–Joseph-Marie Degérando, in his work, Des signes. Degérando observed that travelers, scientists and merchants (those who needed a common language) were always a minority in respect of the mass of common citizens who were content to remain at home peaceably speaking their native tongues.

Just because this minority of travelers needed a common language, it did not follow that the majority of sedentary citizens needed one as well. It was the traveler that needed to understand the natives; the natives had no particular need to understand a traveler, who, indeed, had an advantage over them in being able to conceal his thoughts from the peoples he visited (III, 562).

With regard to scientific contact, any common language for science would grow distant from the language of letters, but we know that the language of science and the language of letters influence and fortify each other (III, 570). An international language of purely scientific communication, moreover, would soon become an instrument of secrecy, from which the humble speakers of their native dialects would be excluded (III, 572).

And as to possible literary uses (and we leave Degérando the responsibility for such a vulgar sociological argument), if the authors were obliged to write in a common tongue, they would be exposed to international rivalries, fearing invidious comparisons with the works of foreign writers.

Thus it seems that for Degérando circumspection was a disadvantage for science and an advantage for literature–as it was for the astute and cultivated traveler, more learned than his native and naive interlocutors.

We are, of course, at the end of the century which produced de Rivarol‘s eulogy to the French language. Thus, although Degérando recognized that the world was divided into zones of influence, and that it was normal to speak German in areas under German political influence just as it was normal to speak English in the British Isles, he could still maintain, were it possible to impose an auxiliary language, Europe could do no better than to choose French for self-evident reasons of political power (III, 578-9).

In any case, according to Degérando, the narrow mindedness of most governments made every international project unthinkable: “Should we suppose that the governments wish to come to an agreement over a set of uniform laws for the alteration of national languages? How many times have seen governments arrive at an effective agreement over matters that concern the general interest of society?” (III, 554).

In the background is a prejudice of the eighteenth century–and eighteenth century Frenchmen in particular–that people simply did not wish to learn other tongues, be they universal or foreign. There existed a sort of cultural deafness when faced with polyglottism, a deafness that continues on throughout the nineteenth century to leave visible traces in our own; the only peoples exempt were, remarked Degérando, those of northern Europe, for reasons of pure necessity.

So diffuse was this cultural deafness that he even felt compelled to suggest provocatively (III, 587) that the study of foreign languages was not really the sterile and mechanical exercise that most people thought.

Thus Degérando had no choice but to conduce his extremely skeptical review with an eulogy to the diversity of tongues: diversity placed obstacles in the way of foreign conquerers, prevented undue mixing between different peoples, and helped each people to preserve their national character and the habits which protected the purity of their folkways.

A national language linked a people to their state, stimulated patriotism and the cult of tradition. Degérando admitted that these considerations were hardly compatible with the ideals of universal brotherhood; still, he commented, “in this age of corruption, hearts must, above all else, be turned towards patriotic sentiments; the more egotism progresses, the more dangerous it is to become a cosmopolitan” (IV, 589).

If we wish to find historical precedents for this vigorous affirmation of the profound unity between a people and their language (as a gift due to the Babelic event), we need look no farther than Luther (Declamationes in Genesim, 1527).

It is this tradition, perhaps, that also stands behind Hegel’s decisive revaluation of Babel. For him the construction of the tower is not only a metaphor for the social structures linking a people to their state, but also occasions a celebration of the almost sacred character of collective human labor.

“What is holy?” Goethe asks once in a distich, and answers: “What links many souls together.” . . . In the wide plains of the Euphrates an enormous architectural work was erected; it was built in common, and the aim and content of the work was at the same time the community of those who constructed it.

And the foundation of this social bond does not remain merely a unification on patriarchal lines; on the contrary, the purely family unity has already been superseded, and the building, rising into the clouds, makes objective to itself this earlier and dissolved unity and the realization of a new and wider one.

The ensemble of all the peoples at that period worked at this task and since they all came together to complete an immense work like this, the product of their labor was to be a bond which was to link them together (as we are linked by manners, customs, and the legal constitution of the state) by means of the excavated site and ground, the assembled blocks of stone, and the as it were architectural cultivation of the country.”

(G.W.F. Hegel, trans. T.M. Knox: 638).

In this vision, in which the tower serves as a prefiguration of the ethical state, the theme of the confusion of languages can only be interpreted as meaning that the unity of the state is not a universal, but a unity that gives life to different nations (“this tradition tells us that the peoples, after being assembled in this one center of union for the construction of such a work, were once again dispersed and separated from each other”).

Nevertheless, the undertaking of Babel was still a precondition, the event necessary to set social, political and scientific history in motion, the first glimmerings of the Age of Progress and Reason. This is a dramatic intuition: to the sound of an almost Jacobin roll of muffled drums, the old Adam mounts to the scaffold, his linguistic ancien régime at an end.

And yet Hegel’s sentence did not lead to a capital punishment. The myth of the tower as a failure and as a drama still lives today: “the Tower of Babel […] exhibits an incompleteness, even an impossibility of completing, of totalizing, of saturating, of accomplishing anything which is in the order of building, of architectural construction” (Derrida 1980: 203).

One should remark that Dante (DVE, I, vii) provided a “technological” version of the confusio linguarum. His was the story not so much of the birth of the languages of different ethnic groups as of the proliferation of technical jargons: the architects had their language while the stone bearers had theirs (as if Dante were thinking of the jargons of the corporations of his time).

One is almost tempted to find here a formulation, ante litteram to say the least, of the idea of the social division of labor in terms of a division of linguistic labor.

Somehow Dante’s hint seems to have journeyed through the centuries: in his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon wondered whether the confusion of Babel might not have arisen from the fact that, when the workmen came to give names to their tools, each named them in his own way.

The suspicion that these hints reveal a long buried strand in the popular understanding of the story is reinforced by the history of iconography (cf. Minkowski 1983).

From the Middle Ages onwards, in fact, in the pictorial representations of Babel we find so many direct or indirect allusions to human labor–stonemasons, pulleys, squared building stones, block and tackles, plumb lines, compasses, T-squares, winches, plastering equipment, etc.–that these representations have become an important source of our knowledge of medieval building techniques.

And how are we to know whether Dante’s own suggestion might not have arisen from the poet’s acquaintance with the iconography of his times?

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the theme of Babel entered into the repertoire of Dutch artists, who reworked it in innumerable ways (one thinks, of course, of Bruegel), until, in the multiplicity of the number of tools and construction techniques depicted, the Tower of Babel, in its robust solidity, seemed to embody a secular statement of faith in human progress.

By the seventeenth century, artists naturally began to include references to the latest technical innovations, depicting the “marvelous machines” described in a growing number of treatises on mechanical devices.

Even Kircher, who could hardly by accused of secularism, was fascinated by the image of Babel as a prodigious feat of technology; thus, when Father Athanasius wrote his Turris Babel, he concentrated on its engineering, as if he were describing a tower that had once been a finished object.

In the nineteenth century, the theme of Babel began to fall from use, because of a lesser interest in the theological and linguistic aspects of the confusio: in exchange, in the few representations of the event, “the close up gave way to the “group,” representing “humanity,” whose inclination, reaction, or destiny was represented against the background of the “Tower of Babel.”

In these dramatic scenes the focus of the representation is thus given by human masses” (Minkowski 1983: 69). The example that readily springs to mind is in Doré’s illustrated Bible.

By now we are in the century of progress, the century in which the Italian poet, Carducci, celebrated the steam engine in a poem entitled, significantly, Hymn to Satan.

Hegel had taught the century to take pride in the works of Lucifer. Thus the gesture of the gigantic figure that dominates Doré’s engraving is ambiguous. While the tower projects dark shadows on the workmen bearing the immense blocks of marble, a nude turns his face and extends his arm towards a cloud-filled sky.

Is it defiant pride, a curse directed towards a God who has defeated human endeavors? Whatever it is, the gesture certainly does not signify humble resignation in the face of destiny.

Genette has observed (1976: 161) how much the idea of confusio linguarum appears as a felix culpa in romantic authors such as Nodier: natural languages are perfect in so far as they are many, for the truth is many-sided and falsity consists in reducing this plurality into a single definite unity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 337-44.


Eco: The Kircherian Ideology


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Egyptian pyramids by Gioseffo Petrucci, Prodromo apologetico alli studi chiercheriani, Amsterdam, 1677, reprinted from Sphinx Mystagoga, a selection of images related to Athanasius Kircher in the Stanford University Archives, curated by Michael John Gorman, 2001. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco: 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: Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), from Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Primo 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. 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.

“During these same years, thinkers also returned to reflect upon an older suggestion by Epicurus, who, in a letter to Herodotus, gave his opinion that the names of things were not  originally due to convention; human beings themselves had rather created them from their own natures.

Those of differing tribes, “under the impulse of special feelings and special presentations of sense,” uttered “special cries.” The air thus emitted was moulded by their different feelings or sense perceptions (letter to Herodotus, in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, X, 75-6).

Epicurus went on to add that, to eliminate confusion and for reasons of economy, the various peoples subsequently came to an agreement over what name they should give things.

He had no fixed opinion on whether this agreement had been made from instinct or “by rational thought” (cf. Formigari 1970: 17-28; Gensini 1991: 92; Manetti 1987: 176-7).

That was the first part of Epicurus‘ thesis, which emphasized the natural rather than conventional origin of languages; however, this idea was taken up by Lucretius: nature prompted human beings to emit the sounds of language; necessity gave birth to the names of things.

Therefore to suppose that someone then distributed names among things, and from him that men learnt their first words, is folly. For why should he have been able to mark all things with titles and to utter the various sounds of the tongue, and at the same time others not be thought able to have done it? . . .

Therefore if it is the various sensations that they feel which drive animals to emit differing sounds, even though they remain mute, how much more just is it to say that sensations induce mortals to indicate different things with different sounds. (De rerum natura, W.H.D. Rouse, tr., London: Heinemann, 1975: V, 1041-90).

This was a new view, one which we may call the materialist-biological theory of the origin of language. Language arose out of a natural inclination to transform sensations into ideas, which, for the sake of civil convenience, were then translated into sounds.

If it were true, as Epicurus had suggested, that this process of transformation might vary in different races, climates and places, it was hardly too much to imagine that, in diverse times and ways, the different races had originated different families of languages.

This was the intuition behind the theory that evolved in the eighteenth century: each language had its own genius.

Epicurus‘ thesis could not help but seem seductive in the “libertine” milieu of seventeenth-century France, in an atmosphere of skepticism ranging from sarcastic agnosticism to confessed atheism.

In 1655 there appeared the Systema theologicum ex prae-Adamitarum hypothesi, written by a Calvinist named Isaac de La Peyrère. Starting from an extremely original reading of the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, La Peyrère argued for the polygenesis of races and peoples.

Reports of missionaries and explorers had represented non-European civilizations, such as the Chinese, as so ancient that their histories were incommensurable with biblical chronology, especially in regard to their accounts of the origin of the world.

La Peyrère inferred from this that there existed a pre-Adamite human race, untouched by original sin. He concluded that the stories both of the original sin and of the Flood concerned only Adam and his descendants in the land of the Hebrews (cf. Zoli 1991: 70).

This was a hypothesis that had already appeared in Islamic culture. Drawing on the Koran (2:31), al-Maqdisi, in the tenth century, had alluded to the existence of different races prior to Adam (cf. Borst 1957-63: I, II, 9).

Quite apart from the obvious theological implications of such an assumption (and the works of La Peyrère were condemned to be burnt), it was clear that, by now, Hebrew civilization–along with its holy language–was falling from its throne.

If one accepted that species had developed differentially in differing conditions, and that their linguistic capacity reflected their degree of evolution and of adaptation to the environment, it was easy to accept the polygenetic hypothesis.

A particular brand of polygeneticism–certainly not of libertine inspiration–can be ascribed to Giambattista Vico. Vico was a thinker who naturally proceeded against the grain of his times.

Instead of searching for actual chronological origins, he set out to delineate an ideal and eternal history. Paradoxically, by jumping outside the bounds of history, Vico was to become one of the founders of modern historicism.

What Vico wished to tell was not, or–depending on how one wishes to take the chronological table at the beginning of his Scienza nuova seconda (1744)–not only, a historical course, but rather the ever recurring conditions in which languages are born and develop in every time and in every place.

Vico described an ideal line of descent which traced the development of language from the language of the gods to that of heroes and, finally, to that of human beings. The first language had to be hieroglyphic (“sacred or divine”), the second symbolic (“by heroic signs and devices”), and the third epistolary (“for men at a distance to communicate to each other the current needs of their lives,” para. 432).

According to Vico, language, at its ideal point of origin, was directly motivated by, and metaphorically congruent with, the human experience of nature. Only at a later state did language become organized in a more conventional form.

Vico affirms, however, that “as gods, heroes, and men began at the same time (for they were, after all, men who imagined the gods and who believed their own heroic nature to be a mixture of the divine and human natures), so these three languages began at the same time” (466).

Thus, circumventing the seventeenth-century question of whether or not a natural linguistic stage was succeeded by a conventional one, Vico directly addressed the question of why there existed as many different languages as there were different peoples.

He responded by asserting “this great truth . . . that, as the peoples have certainly by the diversity of climates acquired different natures, from which have sprung as many different customs, so from their different natures and customs as many different languages have arisen” (445).

As to the story of the primacy of Hebrew, Vico disposes of it in a series of observations tending to prove that, if anything, the Hebrews had derived their alphabet from the Greeks and not vice versa.

Nor was Vico susceptible to the Hermetic fantasies of the Renaissance, according to which all wisdom came from the Egyptians.

From his description there emerges instead a complex network of cultural and commercial trafficking, in which the Phoenicians–prompted by mercantile necessity–exported their characters to both the Egyptians and the Greeks, while, at the same time, spreading throughout the Mediterranean basin the set of hieroglyphic characters that they had borrowed from the Chaldeans and had adapted to fit their need for a numerical system to keep track of their stocks of merchandise (441-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 88-91.

Eco: The Etymological Furor, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Turris Babel, Amsterdam, 1679. The illustrations in Turris Babel were engraved by C. Decker. This copy is held by the University of St. Andrews, under call number 417f BS1238.B2K5. The librarian at St. Andrews, who signed himself simply as “DG,” quoted from a narrative posted on the site of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, recounting Genesis 10-11, in which Nimrod attempted to build a tower that reached the heavens. The Museum observes, “This model illustrates Kircher’s proof that Nimrod’s ambition was intrinsically flawed: in order to reach the nearest heavenly body; the Moon, the tower would have to be 178,672 miles high, comprised of over three million tons of matter. The uneven distribution of the Earth’s mass would tip the balance of the planet and move it from its position at the center of the universe, resulting in a cataclysmic disruption in the order of nature.” 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 thousand or so pages of Guichard are really little more than an extensive raiding expedition in which languages, dead and living, are pillaged for their treasures. More or less by chance, Guichard sometimes manages to hit upon a real etymological connection; but there is little scientific method in his madness.

Still, the early attempts by authors such as Duret and Guichard to prove the monogenetic hypothesis did lead to a conception of Hebrew as less “magical,” and this eventually helped clear the way for a more modern conception of comparative linguistics (cf. Simone 1990: 328-9).

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fantasy and science remained inextricably entangled. In 1667, Mercurius van Helmont published an Alphabeti veri naturalis Hebraici brevissima delineatio, which proposed to examine methods for the teaching to speak of deaf-mutes.

This was the sort of project which, during the Enlightenment in the following century, might have been the occasion for valuable reflections upon the nature of language. For van Helmont, however, science was subordinated to his own monogenetic fantasies.

He started with the presumption that there must be a primitive language, easy to learn, even for those who had never learned to speak a language at all, and that it could not be but Hebrew.

Then van Helmont proceeded to demonstrate that the sounds of Hebrew were the ones most easily produced by the human vocal organs. Then, with the assistance of thirty-three woodcuts, he showed how, in making the sounds of Hebrew, the movements of tongue, palate, uvula and glottis reproduced the shapes of the corresponding Hebrew letters.

The result was a radical version of the mimological theory: not only did the Hebrew sounds reflect the inherent nature of things themselves, but the very mud from which the human vocal organs were formed had been especially sculpted to emit a perfect language that God pressed on Adam in not only its spoken but evidently its written form as well (see figure 5.1).


Baron Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-98), Alphabet verè Naturalis Hebraici brevissima delineation, A Brief Delineation of the True Nature of the Hebrew Alphabet, Sulzbach: Abraham Lichtenthaler, 1667. Held in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress under call number 041.00.00. Reproduced as Figure 5.1 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 84. 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 Turris Babel of 1679, Kircher presented a synthesis of the various positions which we have been reviewing. After an examination of the history of the world from the Creation to the Flood, and, from there, to the confusion of Babel, Kircher traced its subsequent historical and anthropological development through an analysis of various languages.

Kircher never questioned Hebrew’s priority as the lingua sancta; this had been explicitly revealed in the Bible. He held it as self-evident that Adam, knowing the nature of each and every beast, had named them accordingly, adding that “sometimes conjoining, sometimes separating, sometimes permutating the letters of the divers names, he recombined them according to the nature and properties of the various animals” (III, 1, 8).

Since this idea is based on a citation from the kabbalistic writings of the Rabbi R. Becchai, we can infer that Kircher was thinking of Adam defining the properties of the various animals by permutating the letters of their names.

To be precise, first the names themselves mimic some property of the animals to which they refer: lion, for example, is written ARYH in Hebrew; and Kircher takes the letters AHY as miming the heavy sound of a lion panting.

After naming the lion “ARYH,” Adam rearranged these letters according to the kabbalist technique of temurah. Nor did he limit himself to anagrams: by interpolating letters, he constructed entire sentences in which every word contained one or more of the letters of the Hebrew word.

Thus Kircher was able to generate a sentence which showed that the lion was monstrans, that is, able to strike terror by his sole glance; that he was luminous as if a light were shining from his face, which, among other things, resembled a mirror . . . We see here Kircher playing with etymological techniques already suggested in Plato’s Cratylus (which he, in fact, cites, p. 145) to twist names to express a more or less traditional lore about people and animals.

At this point, Kircher took the story up to the present. He told how, after the confusion, five dialects arose out of Hebrew: Chaldean, Samaritan (the ancestor of Phoenician), Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic.

From these five he deduced, by various etymological means, the birth of various other languages (explaining the successive stages by which the alphabet developed along the way) until he reached the European languages of his own time.

As the story approaches the present, the argument becomes more plausible: linguistic change is seen as caused by the separation and mixture of peoples. These, in turn, are caused by the rise and fall of empires, migrations due to war and pestilence, colonialization and climatic variation.

He is also able to identify the process of creolization which can occur when two languages are put into contact with one another. Out of the multiplication of languages, moreover, are born the various idolatrous religions, and the multiplication of the names of the gods (III, I, 2).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 82-5.

Eco: The Monogenetic Hypothesis and the Mother Tongues


Athanasius Kircher, Turris Babel, Amsterdam, 1679. The illustrations in Turris Babel were engraved by C. Decker. This plate was based on an original by Lievin Cruyl (c. 1640-1720) in Rome. This is catalog no. 46, between pages 40-1 from the original work held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This plate was published by the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. Another copy is also held by the University of St. Andrews, under call number r17f BS1238.B2K5. Stanford University also has a copy. 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.

Editorial Note:

The formatting of this section differs from the original because I am tired of wrestling with the WordPress interface. Eco organizes this section with numbered paragraphs. I omit the numbering. Further, I insert paragraph breaks in the middle of Eco’s long paragraphs to ease readability.

The Monogenetic Hypothesis and the Mother Tongues

“In its most ancient versions, the search for a perfect language took the form of the monogenetic hypothesis which assumed that all languages descended from a unique mother tongue.

Before I tell the story of this hypothesis, however, we should note that most of the attempts suffered from a continuous confusion between different theoretical options.

The distinction between a perfect language and a universal language was not sufficiently understood. It is one thing to search for a language capable of mirroring the true nature of objects; it is quite another to search for the language which everyone might, or ought to, speak. There is nothing that rules out that a language which is perfect might be accessible only to a few, while a language that is universal might also be imperfect.

The distinction between the Platonic opposition of nature and convention was not kept separate from the general problem of the origin of language (cf. Formigari 1970). It is possible to imagine a language that expresses the nature of things, but which, none the less, is not original, but arises through invention.

It is also possible to discuss whether language originated as an imitation of nature (the “mimological” hypothesis, Genette 1976) or as the result of a convention, without necessarily posing the question of whether the former is better than the latter.

As a consequence, claims to linguistic superiority on etymological grounds (more direct filiation with an ancient language) are often confused with those on mimological grounds–while the presence of onomatopoetic words in a language can be seen as a sign of perfection, not as the proof of the direct descent of that language from a primordial one.

Despite the fact that the distinction was already clear in Aristotle, many authors failed to distinguish between a sound and the alphabetical sign that represented it.

As Genette (1976) has often reminded us, before the advent of comparative linguistics in the nineteenth century, most research on languages concentrated on semantics, assembling nomenclature families of supposedly related words (often, as we shall see, making up etymologies to match), but neglecting both phonology and grammar.

Finally, there was not a clear cut distinction between primordial language and universal grammar. It is possible to search for a set of grammatical principles common to all languages without wishing to return to a more primitive tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 73-4.

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