May 26th, 2011


K A P H D. (52)

Hildegard of Bingen's Unknown Language by Sarah L. Higley.

Tolkien wrote a hymn,
"Elbereth Gilthoniel,"
Tannhäuser's Venus.

I first learned of Hildegard of Bingen through Oliver Sacks'-- you know, the guy Bill Murray plays in The Royal Tenenbaums-- book Migraine, where he speculates that the source of her visions were acute migraines. All well & good, but it is her "Lingua Ignota" that really catches the eye-- over a thousand created words & a twenty-three letter script for writing it. Though the forms of "divine inspiration" are observed, as near as I can tell the Lingua Ignota is the first constructed language-- it isn't just word salad or a substitution cipher but a real attempt at a language. Sarah Higley digs into the Lingua Ignota, & discusses it through the lens of a variety of other conlangs, as well as printing the Riesencodex Lingua Ignota-- with notes from the other copy of the Lingua Ignota, the Berlin Manuscript-- & then an alphabetized list of the Lingua Ignota, with Latin translations & English translations. So, just in case somebody need help translating some Lingua Ignota, I've got a decent source for that. The metaphor Higley consistantly applies comes from the Lingua Ignota itself-- viriditas, a word of "greening" that incorporates a healthy vitality. There is even mention of sanctified excrement-- evoking Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics (16). The other rubric she applies is one of what she calls "onomaturge," or more to the point "glossopoeia," which is also the term J.R.R. Tolkien preferred (6, 20). There is a great quote by the noted fraud George Psalmanazar, when he says:

[Y]ou must think that I forg'd the whole Story out of my own Brain; & if so, I am sure you extravagantly magnifie the fertility of my Invention, & the strength of my Memory; for he must be a Man of prodigious parts, who can invent the Descriptions of a Country, contrive a Religion, frame the Laws & Customs, make a Language, & Letters, etc, & these different from all other parts of the world.

...well, yeah, George Psalmanazar, we world-builders are in fact made of prodigious parts (79). Higley deals with a good sample of constructed languages, from the biblical "Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin" to Dante's made-up language & onward (55, 58). She talks about Tolkien-- how could it be otherwise?-- as well as Smith's Martian, & More's Utopian (64, 74). Láadan uses "wa" & "wí" as evidence morphemes ("I saw" or "we all know") which made me think of Through the Language Glass, which touched on that topic as well (90). The discussion of Elgin's Láadan compares its fictional originating culture to Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, but Higley doesn't stop there, delving deep into the use of new technology aiding conlang community building (89). Tenga & Klingon, Enochian & Kesh, listserves & Livejournal, Sarah L. Higley weaves a web of a thousand different strands, all connecting back to the Lingua Ignota. I've got to say-- while Chapter Four "Fifteenth- to Nineteenth-Century Language Inventions" & Chapter Five "Play & Aesthetic in Contemporary Language Invention" may have gone a bit astray from Hildegard of Bingen, I found them deeply rewarding. I was sad to see only a casual mention of The Voynich Manuscript & no mention at all of M.A.R. Barker's Tsolyáni & other Tékumel languages. Alas, no one pays enough attention to M.A.R. Barker.