In his classic study of The Search for the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe) , Umberto Eco summarizes Dante’s proto-Chomskyan argument about the effects of Babel on the forma locutionis , the innate grammar with which Adam was created. Eco says, “It seems most likely that Dante believed that, at Babel, there had disappeared the perfect forma locutionis whose principles permitted the creation of languages capable of reflecting the true essence of things; languages, in other words, in which the modi esendi of things were identical with the modi significandi . The Hebrew of Eden was the perfect and unrepeatable example of such a language. What was left after Babel? All that remained were shattered, imperfect formae locutionis , imperfect as the various vulgar Italian dialects whose defects and whose incapacity to express grand and profound thoughts Dante pitilessly analysed” (45).

Dante is, I think, quite wrong here. Humans have, of course, a hard-wired linguistic capacity, though whether Chomsky has captured it is another question. Where Dante goes astray is in thinking that there ever was or could be a language where signifier and signified perfectly coalesced without remainder. That might presume a metaphysics that fundamentally separates time and being; it presumes a world of timeless essences. Alternatively, it might imply a language (as Nietzsche understood) where every individual thing has its own name, and needs a new name every instant.

The asymmetry of signifier and signified is not an unfortunate lapse of language. It is what makes linguistic communication possible.

More on: Philosophy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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