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Tag: Yaguello

Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages, 2

Giovan Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831

Giovanni Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831. Original held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a glorious eBook format posted by the Hathitrust and GoogleBooks among others. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco: A Dream that Refused to Die, 2



Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the philosophical tree, from Ars Magna Sciendi, 1669, digitized in 2007 and published on the web by the Complutense University of Madrid. This illustration courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 


“Again apropos of the crusty old myth of Hebrew as the original language, we can follow it in the entertaining compilation given in White (1917: II, 189-208).

Between the first and ninth editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1771 and 1885), a period of over one hundred years, the article dedicated to “Philology” passed from a partial acceptance of the monogenetic hypothesis to manifestations of an increasingly modern outlook in scientific linguistics.

Yet the shift took place only gradually–a series of timid steps. The notion that Hebrew was the sacred original language still needed to be treated with respect; throughout this period, theological fundamentalists continued to level fire at the theories of philologists and comparative linguists.

Still in 1804, the Manchester Philological Society pointedly excluded from membership anyone who denied divine revelations by speaking of Sanskrit or Indo-European.

The monogeneticist counterattacks were many and varied. At the end of the eighteenth century, the mystic and theosophist Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin dedicated much of the second volume of his De l’esprit des choses (1798-9) to primitive languages, mother tongues and hieroglyphics.

His conclusions were taken up by Catholic legitimists such as De Maistre (Soirées de Saint Petersburg, ii), De Bonald (Recherches philosophiques, iii, 2) and Lamennais (Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de religion).

These were authors less interested in asserting the linguistic primacy of Hebrew as such than in contesting the polygenetic and materialist or, worse, the Lockean conventionalist account of the origin of language.

Even today, the aim of “reactionary” thought is not to defend the contention that Adam spoke to God in Hebrew, but rather to defend the status of language itself as the vehicle of revelation.

This can only be maintained as long as it is also admitted that language can directly express, without the mediation of any sort of social contract or adaptations due to material necessity, the relation between human beings and the sacred.

Our own century has witnessed counterattacks from an apparently opposite quarter as well. In 1956, the Georgian linguist Nicolaij Marr elaborated a particular version of polygenesis.

Marr is usually remembered as the inventor of a theory that language depended upon class division, which was later confuted by Stalin in his Marxism and Linguistics (1953). Marr developed his later position out of an attack on comparative linguistics, described as an outgrowth of bourgeois ideology–and against which he supported a radical polygenetic view.

Ironically, however, Marr’s polygeneticism (based upon a rigid notion of class struggle) in the end inspired him–again–with the utopia of a perfect language, born of a hybrid of all tongues when humanity will no more be divided by class or nationality (cf. Yaguello 1984: 7, with a full anthology of extracts).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 113-5.

Eco: The Pre-Hebraic Language


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Origins of the Chinese Characters, China Illustrata, or China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae & artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata (1667), p. 229. Courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court de Gébelin seems, in the end, to have wanted too much. He wanted a universal grammar; he wanted the mother tongue; he wanted the biological and social origins of language.

He ended up, as Yaguello observes (1984: 19), by muddling them all together in a confused mass. To top it all off, he fell victim in the end to the siren call of the Celto-nationalist hypothesis which I shall be describing in the next section.

Celtic (being similar to oriental languages from which it originated) was the tongue of Europe’s first inhabitants. From Celtic had derived Greek, Latin, Etruscan, Thracian, German, the Cantabrian of the ancient Spaniards, and the Runic of the Norsemen (vol. V).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 91-5.

Eco: Search for the Perfect Language, 2.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569 CE), The Tower of Babel. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. One is kept in the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the second, this one, is held in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, while the disposition of the third version, a miniature on ivory, is unknown. Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569 CE), The Tower of Babel. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. One is kept in the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the second, this one, is held in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, while the disposition of the third version, a miniature on ivory, is unknown. Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.

“Beyond this, I have decided to consider only projects concerning true and proper languages. This means that, with a bitter sigh of relief, I have decided to consider only the following:

  1. the rediscovery of languages postulated as original or as mystically perfect — such as Hebrew, Egyptian or Chinese;
  2. the reconstruction of languages postulated, either fancifully or not, as original or mother tongues, including the laboratory model of Indo-European;
  3. languages constructed artificially for one of three ends: (a) perfection in terms of either function or structure, such as the a priori philosophical languages of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were designed to express ideas perfectly and to discover thereby new connections between the diverse aspects of reality; (b) perfection in terms of universality, such as the a posteriori international languages of the nineteenth century; (c) perfection in terms of practicality, if only presumed, such as the so-called polygraphies;
  4. more or less magic languages, whether they be discovered or fabricated, whose perfection is extolled on account of either their mystic affability or their initiative secrecy.

By contrast, I can give no more than bare notice to any of the following:

  1. oneiric languages, not expressly invented, such as the languages of the insane, or of trance states, or of mystic revelations (like the Unknown Language of Saint Hildegarde of Bingen), as well as all the cases of glossolalia or xenoglossia (cf. Samara 1972); Goodman 1972);
  2. fictitious languages, either in narrative (from Rabelais to Foigny up to Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ and Tolkien), or in poetry (like Chlebnikov’s transmental speech). In the majority of these cases, we are presented with only short stretches of speech, supposedly representing an actual language, for which, however, there is provided neither a lexicon nor a syntax (cf. Pons 1930, 1931, 1932, 1979; Yaguello 1984).
  3. bricolage languages, that is languages that are created spontaneously by the encounter of two linguistically distinct cultures. Typical examples are the pidgins arising in areas of colonialism. As cross-national as they may be, they are not universal. They are, rather, partial and imperfect because they have a limited lexicon and an oversimplified syntax; they are used to facilitate simple activities such as barter, but are unable to express higher types of experience (cf. Waldman 1977);
  4. natural tongues or jargons serving as vehicular languages in multilingual zones. An example of such a language of exchange might be Swahili, the lingua franca of large areas of East Africa. Modern English would be another example. French was formerly an example, if one considers that, during the Convention, the Abbé Gregoire revealed that, out of a population of twenty-six million, fifteen million French men and women spoke a language other than that of Paris (Calvet 1981: 110);
  5. formal languages whose use is limited to special scientific purposes, such as the languages of chemistry, algebra and logic (these will be considered only as they derive from projects defined by category 3(a) above;
  6. the immense and delectable category of the so-called fous du language (see, for example, Blavier 1982; Yaguello 1984). Admittedly, in such cases it is not always easy to distinguish between technical insanity and mild glottomania, and many of my own characters may sometimes show some aspects of lunacy. Still, it is possible to make a distinction. We will not consider belated glottomaniacs. Nevertheless, I have not always been able to keep down my taste for whimsicality, especially when (even though the belatedness was hardly justifiable) those attempts had, anyway, a certain, traceable, historic influence, or, at least, they documented the longevity of a dream.

Similarly, I do not claim here to examine the whole of the researches on a universal grammar (except in cases in which they clearly intersect with my topic), because they deserve a separate chapter of the history of linguistics.

Likewise, this is not (except, again, where the subject intersects with that of the perfect language) a book about the secular, or rather, millennial, question of the origins of language.

There are infinite discussions on the origins of human language which do not consider the possibility or the opportunity of returning back to the language of our origins, either because they assume that it had definitely disappeared, or because they consider it as radically imperfect.

Finally, were it up to me to decide under which heading this book should be filed in a library catalogue (an issue which, for Leibniz, was bound up with the problem of a perfect language), I would pick neither ‘linguistics’ nor ‘semiotics’ (even though the book employs semiotics as its instrument, and demands a certain degree of semiotic interest from its reader).

I would rather pick ‘history of ideas.’ This explains why I make no attempt to construct a rigorous semiotic typology for the various types of a priori and a posteriori languages: this would require a detailed examination of each and every project, a job for students of what is now called ‘general inter linguistics.’

The present book aims instead at delineating, with large brushstrokes and selected examples, the principle episodes of the story of a dream that has run now for almost two thousand years.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 2-5.

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