Colorado Research in Linguistics

Document Type

Working Paper


This interpretation of the De Vulgari Eloquentia is limited to Chapters I-VIII of Book One, which deal with language origin and the nature of language. I discuss four topics: (1) the species-specificity of language, (2) the possibility that thought may occur without language, (3) the form of language, and (4) the origin of language.

In section (1), I show that Dante bases the species-specificity theme on the claim that man has a unique nature. I describe Dante's comparison of Man to the other beings in creation, the angels and the beasts. Dante concludes that Man shares reason with the angels, and emotions with the beasts, and differs from both in possessing individual differences. The implications that I draw for language concern semantic creativity, inter-translatability, and the basic relation between meaning and sound.

A negative answer to (2), i.e., a conclusion that thought must take place by means of language, would imply that all thoughts can be expressed by language. Although I discuss this problem, I can draw no conclusions from the De Vulgari.

In section (3), I discuss the three entities considered under form: names, semantic order, and syntactic order. I interpret Dante as saying that sociological factors are extra-linguistic, and that dialect differences are a result of social differences.

Two interpretations emerge in my discussion of the origin of language. First, I give evidence that Dante presents the original language as equal in complexity to modern languages. Second, he implies that all languages have a common origin.

Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia treats of many ideas about language that are still problems for modern linguists. Since several of these concepts are couched in mythological terms, careful interpretation is required to make them explicit. In this paper I limit my discussion to Chapters I-VIII of Book One, which examine language origin and the general nature of language. While many of the ideas brought out in these chapters were also advanced by the contemporaries and predecessors of Dante, it is beyond the scope of this paper to trace these relationships.

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