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In Defiance of Babel: The Quest for a Universal Language

ENGL 705.401

The primary listing for this course is SLAV526 and COML526.

Undergraduates are prohibited from taking 700-level courses.


This is a course in intellectual history. It explores the historical trajectory, from antiquity to the present day, of the idea that there once was, and again
could be, a universal and perfect language to explain and communicate the essence of human experience. The idea that the language spoken in the Garden of
Eden was a language which perfectly expressed the essence of all possible objects and concepts has occupied the minds of scholars for more than two
millennia. In defiance of the myth of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, they strived to overcome divine punishment and discover the path
back to harmonious existence. For philosophers, the possibility of recovering or recreating a universal language would enable apprehension of the laws of
nature. For theologians, it would allow direct experience of the divinity. For mystic-cabalists it would offer access to hidden knowledge. For
nineteenth-century philologists the reconstruction of the proto-language would enable a better understanding of human history. For contemporary scholars,
linguistic universals provide structural models both for human and artificial languages. For writers and poets of all times, from Cyrano de Bergerac to
Velimir Khlebnikov, the idea of a universal and perfect language has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Above all, the course examines fundamental
questions of what language is and how it functions. Among the course readings are works by Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Dante, Horapollo, Bacon, Giordano
Bruno, John Wilkins, Cyrano de Bergerac, Jonathan Swift, and Zamenhof.