Thoughts on Language: The Search for a Pure Language

A restoration of the Adamic language was a life-long quest for Joseph Smith. The idea of a pure Adamic language is first raised in his translation of the Book of Mormon, where the text implies that the Jaredites (who came to this continent “from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people”) had preserved the Adamic tongue (Ether 1:33). Later, his translation of the Bible states that Adam kept a book of remembrance in “a language which was pure and undefiled” (Moses 6:6). But this Mormon quest had predecessors.

The biblical story of a post-lapsarian confusion of tongues occurs several chapters after Adam leaves the Garden. Following Noah’s flood, the Bible assures us, “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Gen. 11:1). However, when humanity decided to build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven,” God frustrated their efforts by confounding their language (11:7). “It is this story,” as Umberto Eco puts it, “that serves as a point of departure for any number of dreams to ‘restore the language of Adam.” Since it was believed to be “transparent, perfect, unique and . . . universal” Nathalie Gontier says the “Adamic language was understood to be a perfect instrument of knowledge as well as a universal means of communication.” Add to that the fact that Genesis 1 posits a God who creates by divine utterance, and it only serves to reason that language not only represents reality but creates it.

This idea that words are the genesis of creation led early Jewish readers to seek deeper meanings in each word and each letter of the biblical text. Mystics attempted to manipulate and vocalize the letters of the alphabet in order to induce ecstatic experiences. By the time of the Renaissance, restoring the lost language of Adam had become a quest for the linguistic Holy Grail. If such a restoration were possible, one would have access, as James J. Bono writes, to not only to “the essential link between words and things” but also to “Adam’s lost wisdom and harmony with nature.” There were three different schools of thought: Some believed that the confusion at Babel was not universal and that a few unaffected groups had preserved the Adamic tongue. John Webb (1678) believed it was Chinese, Augustine (and many others) thought it was Hebrew, while others argued for German, Dutch, Danish, and Swedish, based largely on nationalistic inclinations. Another school of thought believed that all peoples were affected by the confusion at Babel, but that each language preserved some vestige of the Adamic tongue, “traces of the verbum Dei.” Others saw the confusion of Babel as universal and pervasive. Such a one was Luther, who not only believed that the Adamic tongue was lost, but also that human reason was altogether incapable of understanding the divine.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the quest for the Adamic tongue was winding down. The Linguistic Society of Paris formally announced that “the dispute over the origin of language was now dead.” It was a subject in which “the number of theories held matches the number of scholars who have investigated it,” as Giambattista Vico wryly noted in 1725. Another search took its place, however. Thinkers like Schleiermacher and Wilhelm von Humboldt believed that a common “substratum of sense or understanding” undergirded all human language. As Scott Masson writes, “The power of this shared conviction prompted a great explosion of learning in the search for an ‘original’ or Indogermanic language behind all known languages in the nineteenth century, which bore a strange sort of correspondence with the search for an Adamic language in the Renaissance.” Again, Hebrew was seen as a likely source. Johann Gottfried Herder’s The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry assumes that Hebrew “expresses the earliest perceptions, the simplest forms, by which the human soul expressed its thoughts, the most uncorrupted affections that bound and guided it.’”

The quest to discover the ursprache replaced the quest for Adamic. Romantic poets, however, looked beyond linguistic correspondences to nature to find the language of God. From the Jena Romantics like Ludwig Tieck and Novalis through Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Nature was the source of an underlying hidden language to educate the soul. “Let nature be your teacher,” wrote Wordsworth. “One impulse from the vernal wood/May teach you more of man,/of moral evil and of good,/Than all the sages can.” As one writer succinctly put it, “The old Adamic dream of words that perfectly name the essence of objects [was] replaced by a Romantic dream of words that perfectly speak of the inner human world.”

Joseph Smith’s search for the Adamic tongue is in many ways reminiscent of the Renaissance philosophers in that he seemed to believe that Adamic is accessible and—based on some of his translations—that traces of it survive in English. However, I believe a Romantic spirit pervades his search for an original tongue. Rather than seeing Adamic language as a magical totem, Joseph Smith sees pure language as a medium for creating community. I’ll save that discussion for next time.<–>

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4 Responses to Thoughts on Language: The Search for a Pure Language

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    I loved this post. Funny serendipity, too: I referenced the Adamic language in something I wrote just a little while back.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    As one who knows little to nothing about the lore of the Adamic language, I’m seeking some understanding, because there’s an interesting set of (at least partially conflicting) ideas here.

    The core premise implies the presence of an/the Adamic tongue prior to Babel. Interestingly, that shared language neither managed to unify nations, cultures, nor religions as witnessed by the flood, etc. happening prior to the confusion.

    Why, then, is it assumed that anything like a pure language descended from Adam? And if it did, how can there be an assumption that the language itself is a special vector of either truth or understanding when dissent and misunderstanding was so great that Noah had to rescue a remnant of only marginally corrupted humanity from that flood?

    Seems like thought and communication were already confused long before Babel. Arguably, that very language was used to beguile Adam and Eve right out of the garden, meaning that either the language was imperfect, or that Adam and Eve actually understood what they were doing and the traditional Christian doctrine of the Fall as mistake loses its foundation (or that another language existed to facilitate the Fall).

    Which then begs additional questions–

    Assuming there was a spoken/written Adamic language that is perfect, how do we define perfection? Perfect exchange of information? Understanding? Intent? Emotion? All of it? Because it seems like those are different things that must integrate differently in each unique personality.

    Likewise, it seems like perfect data exchange is not entirely desirable if the plan is for us to learn it for ourselves. It’s precisely the struggle to interpret, to derive meaning, the map or restructure existing knowledge against the new idea. This is absolutely required of a unique personality if it is to develop into something more–integration with self, not replacement of self. Progression not just from a fallen to a saved state, but from a natural to a godly state.

    It just seems to me that the struggle to interpret and integrate is what’s required for understanding. If that understanding is simply transferred and not created, progression becomes meaningless.

    A perfect language seems like a result, not a cause. The yearning for perfect exchange requires that we first perfect the spirit behind it; the language will follow.

    And I can’t help but believe that there is more than one perfect language–or at least more than one way to enable perfect exchange. But that’s a thought for another day. Today I’m still trying to understand the basic ideas.

  3. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Seems to me that for LDS, at least, Moroni’s frustration with his own writing (and expressive) abilities, especially as compared to the superiority of Hebrew (as it had evolved by his day? or could they have kept it "pure"?) as a vehicle for conveying the Message, may have contributed to the idea of a "more perfect" language, even though not the Adamic language.

    (I hope that made sense.)

    This wouldn’t apply to other religions, however, so the idea of something better in the past might tie into the nostalgia Nibley talked about a lot (or so it seemed to me) that early recorders of history expressed. The past has always been better to some people? And that would include past languages, I think. Certainly the reverse of "social evolution" anyway.

  4. Teri Haux says:

    Although late to the picnic…. Another source of Adamic Language would be the Jaredites. Their language was not confounded at the tower of Babel and therefore they would’ve continued in the language of God. The Brother of Jared’s command of the language AND it’s meaning enabled him to perform the miracles he did and even see the Lord. (See Joseph Fielding Smith’s The Way to Perfection)
    @Scott Parkin… Adam taught his children to read and write; the Lord’s people are always literate to keep and add to their records. Not all of Adam’s children were righteous. The unrighteous would know how to speak to communicate, but would not necessarily know how to read, write and understand the meaning of the words and letters. Even if they did, they were still choosing not to be righteous.

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