Communication for Communion, Part 2: The Quest for the Adamic Language (Scholar’s Call)

Adam_naming_the_animals_-_St._Nicholas_Anapavsa_Monstery,_Meteora_-_Theophanes_of_Crete,_16th_c.

David Parry continues his Scholar’s Call series on communication and language. See Part 1 here

Post 2: The quest for the Adamic language

So what language did Adam and Eve speak in the Garden of Eden? This was a question of significant interest in the early modern period (around the 16th and 17th centuries).1 The majority scholarly opinion, following Augustine, went with Hebrew.2 However, other options were available. For instance, Jan van Gorp argued in his 1569 work Origines Antwerpianae that the original language was Dutch, and, in particular, the dialect of Antwerp, since the ancestors of the burghers of Antwerp were not present at the Tower of Babel when the languages were confused.3 Georg Philipp Harsdörffer argued in 1641 that it must have been German, since German “speaks in the languages of nature, quite perceptibly expressing all its sounds”.4 The varied suggestions were parodied in a 1688 pamphlet by Andreas Kempe, Die Sprachen des Paradises (The Languages of Paradise), which proposes that God spoke Swedish, Adam spoke Danish, and the serpent spoke French. Some concluded that the original God-given language was lost at the Tower of Babel and so was no longer in existence.5

But this question was not just a manifestation of antiquarian curiosity or a fondness for Bible trivia. Adamic language was thought to be significant because of the properties it was thought to have had. A biblical passage that attracted an enormous amount of early modern commentary was the following:

Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. (Genesis 2:19-20)

This is the first mention of human speech in Scripture – Adam speaks to name the animals. In this instance, speech is a way of classifying the world, of distinguishing one creature from another. This use of speech to classify things was seen by early modern commentators as the origin of natural philosophy, approximately equivalent to what we know as science, as well as the origin of human language.

Closer to our own time, this passage inspired Bob Dylan’s 1979 song ‘Man gave names to all the animals’, which begins like this:

Man gave names to all the animals

In the beginning, in the beginning.

Man gave names to all the animals

In the beginning, long time ago.

 

He saw an animal that liked to growl,

Big furry paws and he liked to howl,

Great big furry back and furry hair.

“Ah, think I’ll call it a bear.”6

It continues in like manner. The question this raises is on what basis the man thinks he’ll call this creature a “bear”. Is it just because he chooses to use this word to refer to this creature, or is it that the word “bear” (or whatever the actual Adamic word for “bear” was) corresponds in some way to the essence of bearness? While Thomas Hobbes thought that Adamic language was arbitrary,7 Milton and many others thought that Adamic language had a perfect correspondence to the nature of things.

It was commonly supposed that when the text says that “whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name”, it was not that the man arbitrarily chose a name that he liked, but that he perceived the essence of the creature, and named it with a fitting word, a word that corresponded to the nature of the creature.

As Milton’s Adam says in Paradise Lost:

I named them, as they passed, and understood

Their nature, with such knowledge God endued

My sudden apprehension[.]8

To name is to gain power over something – this is an idea to be found both in magical and in scientific modes of thinking. To place a curse on someone is thought to be more effective if the person’s name is used. To be able to name the sequence of the human genome is to gain the ability to do things with that information. To classify is to control. In the seventeenth century, there was not so much space as we might like to think between esoteric, sometimes occultic, modes of thinking, such as numerology and the Kabbalah,9 and the modes of thinking that have developed into modern science – Isaac Newton was an alchemist, after all, as well as a mathematician.

Thus the notion of a language that corresponds to how things really are and so gives humanity power over the world had an immense attraction. In theological terms, this was understood as providing the means to regain the dominion over the world that man lost at the Fall. This was a significant motivation for many of the founding members of the Royal Society of London, one of the earliest scientific professional organisations. One early member of the Royal Society was John Wilkins, a natural philosopher and Anglican bishop, whose 1668 work An Essay towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language proposed creating a language of direct correspondence between words and things, with no ambiguous words, no metaphors, and no synonyms. Many did not think it was possible to retrieve the original Edenic language itself, but they were inspired by the idea that it was possible to create a perfect language, perhaps a language of mathematical symbols, that did the same thing.10

This quest started to get people thinking about the structure of language as such, and not just about particular languages already in existence, and so this quest for the Adamic language helped to lay some of the theoretical foundations of modern linguistics.11

Although it is probable that the majority of secular scholars in the field of linguistics today do not believe in a historical Adam and Eve, the symbolism of the Adamic language and the hope for a language in which all humanity can communicate perfectly has retained its potency to this day even among secular linguists, as the Italian scholar (and novelist) Umberto Eco has chronicled.12

But was there ever a language in which the totality of a thing in its essence was communicated fully in words? We will consider this question further next time.

In Part 3 we explore how, although human linguistic diversity is affected by the Fall, it remains part of God’s good purposes for his creation.

Endnotes

1 See especially John Leonard, Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), and Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, trans. James Fentress (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995) [first published in Italian in 1993]. Much of what follows is taken from Leonard and Eco.

2 Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 15.

3 Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, pp. 96–97.

4 Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Frauenzimmer Gesprächspiele (1641–49), cited in Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 99.

5 Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 97.

6 Bob Dylan, ‘Man Gave Names to All the Animals’, from the album Slow Train Coming (1979).

7 Leonard, Naming in Paradise, pp. 12–14.

8 John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (2nd ed.; Harlow: Longman,. 1998), book VIII, lines 352–4.

9 On the convergence of radical puritanism and esoteric hermetic thought, see Nigel Smith, Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989).

10 Leonard, Naming in Paradise, pp. 17–18.

11 See, for instance, Hans Aarsleff, From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History (London: Athlone, 1982).

12 Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, passim. Eco’s best-known novel is The Name of the Rose (1980; Eng. trans. 1983), which was made into a film starring Sean Connery in 1986.


Image credit: Adam naming the animals – St. Nicholas Anapavsa Monstery, Meteora – Theophanes of Crete, 16th c. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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David Parry

David Parry currently teaches early modern/Renaissance English literature and practical criticism for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, where he pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies. He greatly enjoyed a year’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto before returning to Cambridge, and appreciates the ongoing friendships forged there. He is currently writing a book entitled Puritanism and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of Conversion and the Conversion of Rhetoric, and has published articles on various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century topics. He is an Associate Editor of The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (UK). He is also involved in the Cambridge University Christian Graduate Society and in Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHAS), an informal group of Christian graduate students and academics interested in relating their faith to their studies. Some of his academic work can be viewed at https://cambridge.academia.edu/DavidParry.

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