Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sister Hildegard’s Language

Saint Hildegard says not to write
anything nasty with her letters.
Happy St. Hildegard’s Day!

Today is the feast day of St. Hildegard of Bingen, who is probably the only saint to have created a language. She did other things to, but among those who study constructed languages, her “Lingua Ignota” has long held pride of place as the earliest recorded artificial language. She died on September 17, 1179. I’m not certain if that’s been adjusted for calendar changes, but about 853 years ago today.[1]

Her “unknown language” was doubly secret, as it had its own letterforms. The letter a looks like a y, the e like a q, and so forth. But it wasn’t just a substitution cipher for writing German or Latin; she made up words too. On the other hand, as she only created nouns (and a few adjectives), it’s not really a full language, more like using code names for various things. Although, maybe the 1011 words in her glossary were intended to be a start, so that the nuns could talk in a mystic language.

Certainly I could see the idea of a nun conceiving of a language only for prayer. One objection that was raised during the early days of the revival of Hebrew was that Hebrew was a holy language fit for prayers and it would be desecrated by using it for commerce or (worse) in anger. Perhaps if Hildegard had continued work on Lingua Ignota, she would have produced a full language.

Or, perhaps she did. Maybe in a some dusty corner of a library of medieval works is a full version of the Lingua Ignota (it’s shelved not far from Shakespeare’s rough drafts and three manuscripts of Beowulf).[2] Or, perhaps it was in the library of Monte Cassino, and was not among the manuscripts that were rescued.

And, of course, it could be a project that was started but never finished. Maybe she started and the nuns didn’t want to learn Sister Hildegard’s language, happy to talk in German instead. Or maybe Sister Hildegard didn’t quite approve of the things that Sister Helga was saying.

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  1. Unless you’re not reading this on September 17, 2014, in which case you can do the math yourself.  ↩
  2. I did hear of a British nobleman who has refused to allow scholars to examine his library. He noted that the scholars who contacted him don’t seem to understand the term “private library.” If I had to guess, not only does he have fine things that scholars would love to see, but also he’s trying to avoid the tax bill for owning them, as they would up the values of his possessions.  ↩

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