The Divine Language
Dear Mr. Kaplinski,
Hereby I send you a paper written by my regretted grandfather Alexander Kunileid. As you see from the text itself, he had written it the night before his execution by the Self-Defence men as a Communist supporter. The real cause of his murder was simpler and fouler: some of his former students wanted to take revenge on him for their poor achievements in the P... high school where he served as teacher of English and French. Somebody promised to take this paper out and send it to Sr. Borges as was my grandfather’s wish. Unfortunately, something happened, and the paper was never sent to the writer he had esteemed and admired: a quite astonishing fact, because Jorge Luis Borges acquired wider international fame later, according to my knowledge in the fifties. But when my grandfather spent a couple of months in Oxford, Britain, he heard about J. L. B. from an Argentinian he met there. He was able to read some of his works there (he could read Spanish) and found them very inspiring.
As to the paper itself, I found it among other materials concerning his arrest and execution by the German henchmen in the KGB archives. Typically enough, we were never informed about these materials (which included also some other documents of interest for us) by the Soviet authorities. My grandfather was never a Communist or a Communist collaborator, and as to his paper, the KGB experts or whoever had access to it, certainly considered it a dangerously religious and idealistic work, and decided to keep it well guarded in their archives. Now, in the newly independent Republic of Estonia, what remains of the KGB archives, is open to public, and we were able to see all the materials concerning him. I have no competence in philosophy, theology or linguistics, having studied chemical engineering, and I feel myself totally incompetent in matters he discusses in the manuscript. As I remember well our meeting at the building works in Kunda in 1962, and the evenings we spent, you, Madis the future dentist and me, discussing the general theory of everything including matters divine, and as I have read about your admiration for the philosophical works of Borges, I decided to send my grandfather’s paper to you. You are free to publish and quote it, whenever and wherever you will without asking further permission from me. It would have been great, if the paper would have reached Sr. Borges, but the Destiny wanted it to be otherwise. Maybe the two men can meet and exchange their ideas in another, hopefully more humane world.
A few words about my grandfather’s biography. He came from a pious family with strong Herrnhuter connections. His grandfather was a preacher, and his father, a village teacher and a cantor in the local Church. This religious background may explain his interests and his philosophical sympathies.
I hope the paper is of some interest to you.
With warmest wishes to you and to your family
Your former comrade and present reader
Tarmo Kunileid, engineer
This is the translation of a letter I received a couple of months ago from a person I dimly remember to have met at the place he mentions in his letter. A copy of his grandfather’s paper was in the same envelope. I studied it with great interest, and found it really stimulating, although very different from my own modest ideas about the nature of language. As the paper is written in a somehow old-fashioned English - Mr. Kunileid’s only longer visit to England took place in the mid-thirties, and he spent his time in Oxford - I finally decide to try to publish it in an English journal with a slight hope that thus it would reach people whom we could consider to be spiritual heirs of late Jorge Luis Borges. I think Mr. Kunileid’s ideas belong to us all, being a part - be it a tiny one - of the world heritage in the philosophy of language.
I made no corrections whatsoever in the original text, considering myself not competent enough in matters discussed, and, of course, being no native speaker of English. However, after some hesitation, I made a translation of the letter by Mr. Kunileid junior, being well aware of my limitations and proneness to various mistakes. I hope my readers forgive me, and find the spiritual testament by one of many marthyred Estonian intellectuals interesting and stimulating.
As Mr. Tarmo Kunileid writes, the paper was preserved in the archives of the German and then Soviet secret police, and thus couldn’t reach Sr. Borges. But studying the manuscript and preparing it for translation into my own language I noticed some strange things. The text was written with ink and pen on big sheets of paper. How could Alexander Kunileid have written it in a crowded cell he shared with many people waiting for their death? Why does he call them “these small pages?” The handwriting is not typical for somebody born in the 1880ties as Mr. Kunileid, it is rather that of a young woman, possibly a secretary or a clerk working in the Gestapo or KGB. Is the manuscript then a copy? Where is the original? Was it sent to another archive? Was it destroyed? Was it really smuggled out of the prison and out of the country? Could it even have reached Sr. Borges? I have no proof for any of these possible scenarios, but I feel I must return to the matter, maybe I can found something either in the archives or elsewhere that would make it possible to find out whether the manuscript is a copy of a lost original or not. And, of course, even the most intriguing hypotheses - that the manuscript could have reached Sr. Borges - cannot be ruled out. If true, could it perhaps explain some features in his work in the forties, especially his rising interest for constructed languages? Could the letter of an Estonian obscure teacher he wrote before his execution have served as a source of inspiration for one of the most important writers of this century? Although I like mysteries, I prefer not to have too many of them at once.
Veskimoisa, August 1997
Jaan Kaplinski, author
THE DIVINE LANGUAGE
Toward the restitution of the original language of mankind.
Honourable Señor Jorge Luis Borges,
I have read some of your works, I have heard about you from a compatriot of yours, Sr. Antonio Arensburg I met in Oxford, and have the feeling that you could have some understanding for my ideas. I have developed these ideas for years in solitude without being able to share them with anyone. Now, suddenly, my time is running out. The executioners will take me away from this crowded prison cell tomorrow morning and I will have no more time to spend on my never-ending quest for truth about the nature of the human language. It means that I must write down my thoughts in hope that these small pages will reach you and some other people after my death. I will die innocent, crushed by the military machinery run amoc, as many people and many ideas from all over Europe. Somebody has promised to smuggle these pages out from the prison. I cannot but trust him and give them to him; maybe he will keep his word. I beg your pardon not to have written in Spanish, but my command of that splendid language of yours is unfortunately too limited for such a demanding task.
We Christians believe in the Word of God . What does it mean? Words have many aspects. There are texts sacred for us as the Bible. Texts are written in a language that has its grammar and vocabulary. What is what makes the texts sacred? Is it only their content, the meaning of the text? In such a case it would be strange to speak about the Word of God, it would be more suitable to speak about the Thought or Idea of God. But this is definitely not the case. And not ideas or thoughts became flesh, but the Word. What does it mean? It means that there is something sacred in the language too. The language is essentially sacred. But why then are not all texts, every written or spoken sentence sacred? Why is most of our speech trivial, stupid, even obscene and blasphemic?
In my opinion, something has happened to our language. The original nature of the language has been adulterated as our own original nature, our anima naturaliter christiana. Originally our language was a gift of God, it was a Divine language, but we have spoilt it, made it a vehicle of our impure egoistic thoughts and passions, our ignorance and sin. Our language has fallen as we human beings too. But in both cases the fall is not final, there is something divine in us and our language that has been preserved, something that has not forgotten its original home. Both in us and in our language lives a dim memory of something lost, a glimpse of paradise we were driven off because of our foolishness. This makes it possible for us to seek redemption and find it. The way to redemption lies in listening to the Word of God. This Word is spoken to us in our own corrupt language, but even thus being it still remains the the Word of God. We should think about it! God himself and his only Son can speak to us in our own language or languages, although they are so corrupt and mixed up after the Fall and what most surely is the Fall of our language - the adventure of the Tower of Babylon.
Thus we see that our destiny and the destiny of our language are interconnected. They are interconnected in the Divine Plan of Salvation. Our salvation means also the salvation of our language.
For us men salvation means restoration, restitution of our original nature, rejection of everything that has corrupted it, as ignorance, hatred, carnal desires and other sins. We Christians believe that God will give us back what our ancestors have lost, we will once again become pure, unselfish, free of sins and death and decay shall have no dominion over us. This means that we know something about what the Divine restitution means for us, for our bodies and souls. But as I have proved in the first page of this paper, the language is equally an inalienable part of us, the language is our companion in misfortune. It will necessarily also be restituted and given back its original purity and perfection. What could this mean? What is a perfect language?
Some people may even object strongly to my asking such a question, and even more to my modest attempt of finding an answer to it. But as I am strongly convinced that our nature and the nature of the language are so closely interconnected, I cannot but make such an attempt. Understanding - albeit imperfectly - the Word of God spoken to us means that we can have an idea of what the restitution of our original nature means. The same understanding means also that we can have an idea about the restitution of our language, of a language regaining its original purity and perfection.
As a student and later teacher of languages I have from my youth on seen my task in trying to find some clues to this problem. I have tried to find out some features that - common to most civilized and even uncivilized languages I have had a chance to study - could give us hints about what the original language, the Divine Language was like. This is the way of inductive reasoning. In addition to that, I have also used the way of deduction, seeking for features the Divine Language must have, its characteristics sine qua non.
There can be little doubt that the Divine Language, the Original Language must have been pure. This means that in such a language any obscenity, rudeness, expression of hatred or carnal desire would simply be impossible to express. Maybe it would be close to what St. Paul calls the languages of angels. The Divine Language must also be a language of wisdom and understanding. It would be impossible to express any wrong and stupid ideas in that language. Even more: anything we say in the Divine Language must necessarily be true, and vice versa: any truth, anything really taking place must also have a counterpart in the language, being both a fact of life and a fact of language. This means that the Divine Language and Divine Reality are closely connected, are two sides of the same Reality. The rift between the two is not original, it is a result of the Fall and will be changed in the future Resurrection and Rebirth promised to us by His Word. In the world to come, our language will necessarily be transformed, as ourselves and the whole creation.
In the Divine language it will be impossible to deny the existence of God, God is present in the language, in everything we say as He is present in everything He has created. Only in our imperfect, corrupt language can we deny His existence, speak of things happening as if by itself. Our language is a language abandoned by God, abandoned by the Spirit, it is a half-dead language, a language that functions as if in deep sleep, without being properly conscious of itself.
In our language, the creation is divide into countless things, events and facts scarcely connected. In our language we do not speak of the world as a Divine creation, but as a chaos, a swarm of things in chaotic movement. At the same time, our language is not totally paralyzed and unconscious. Deep inside it, there is a longing, a dim awareness of something absolutely perfect, good and beautiful. And in the works of best poets of all nations and all times this longing and this awareness have found expression. The best poetry is nothing but mankind’s desperate calling for God, for resurrection and reunion with our Creator.
Our language is based on nouns that mean distinct things. The basic structure of our phrases consists of a noun and a verb or otherwise a adjective. A BOY SINGS. A BIRD FLIES. A TREE GROWS. In the beginning there is the noun, the thing. It becomes the subject. Then comes something we say about the thing - the predicate. Thus our language is always anchored in the lowest layer of creation, in separate things. With an intellectual effort we ascend a step or two, reach a more abstract level, meet some universal ideas. We can say that we ascend some steps on the ladder that can lead us closer to God, to perfect understanding, to the Divine language. But there is an immense gap between these two, between our earthbound language and the Divine one. Is it a gap we can never breach? It seems like that, but I dare to assert that this is not entirely the case. We language is imperfect and poor, but as we are conscious of its imperfection, we can make an effort to understand this imperfection and then to correct it. Yes, I believe that we can correct, improve our language, move it closer to its original (and final) perfection, help it to become more a language of wisdom and understanding, and less a language of wickedness and hatred.
This has been my big task, and I have worked with it for many years. Nearly every evening after having read the exercises of my pupils and prepared my lessons for next day I sat at my desk studying language. Of course, there are countless languages in the world, but I was convinced and am even more convinced now that these languages are not as disparate and different as they seem to be. All languages are have one and the same origin, they are originally one, and this original language cannot be but the Divine language itself. This speculative idea has in recent years found convincing proof by the research of the linguists as the Italian Alfredo Trombetti and the Russian Nikolai Marr who have succeeded in finding some elements common to all or nearly all languages of mankind. These elements are not many, and they have been worn out and corrupted by history, but their existence clearly points to our point of departure - the Paradise and the language the first human beings spoke between themselves and with God their Creator. This inspired me greatly and gave me energy to continue my own research. I believed and still believe that reconstructing a more perfect language, a language closer to the original one would greatly help mankind, would prepare us for the day when we have to answer to Him, telling him the truth about ourselves and nothing but the truth. I was working with reconstructing the language of truth.
My work had a different aim than the work of aforementioned linguists. They were interested in reconstructing the original phonemes and syllables of the primordial language. I made an effort to reconstruct its syntax, and this effort lead me directly to reconstructing the primordial, uncorrupted structure of human and Divine thought. As this thought is not alienated from the reality, and IS the reality itself, my reconstructions gave me also a glimpse of the creation in its original purity and glory.
The results of my long effort are not copious: up to this summer they consisted of a small introductory treatise and a tentative grammar and dictionary of a language I had reconstructed from existing ones. Unfortunately these papers have now perished, as the house where I preserved them was hit by a Russian shell and destroyed by fire. All I could find were some half-burned pages incomprehensible to anybody except myself. I cannot but see an evil will pursuing me and not allowing me to finish the work of my life. Now it is putting an end to my life, as if afraid that I would otherwise resume my research. All I can do now in these scanty hours left me is to resume my basic idea, the idea that served as the point of departure to my main work.
The idea is simple. As I already mentioned, our language is an ascending one, it proceeds from concrete, separate things and facts, trying to reach higher levels of abstraction, the universals. But it can never really reach them, because of its earthbound and inductive nature. A language Divine cannot be inductive, it must be deductive, because everything that was, is or will be, is deduced, has come out of God. The world is created by the Divine word, and this Divine word has not vanished, it exists outside the confines of space and time.
An inductive language proceeds from nouns that serve as subjects in its sentences. A deductive language must proceed from universals, it is not an ascending but a descending language. The first step in reconstructing it is simply changing the places of the subject and predicate in sentences. Instead of saying A BOY SINGS, A TREE GROWS, A BIRD FLIES, we should say something like *SINGING BOYS, *GROWTH TREES, *FLIGHT BIRDS. NB! This is not simply a nominalized sentence, but something really different. The subjects or nouns are names for universals: SINGING, GROWTH, FLIGHT. The predicate is a kind of a verb, in the Divine language there must be verbs, predicates like *TO BOY, *TO TREE, *TO BIRD. The structure of the sentence can be explained in the following way. A sentence describes an event; an event is an appearance of an universal, an universal taking a concrete form. The universal FLIGHT takes the form of a concrete flying bird. Of course, BIRD is also an universal, but an universal of a lower degree than FLIGHT. There is a hierarchy of universals beginning with substantives that design concrete things and ending with the universals as MOVEMENT, EXISTENCE, NON-EXISTENCE. The highest universal is GOD. In God all the universals meet, even those we consider to be incompatible as movement and rest, existence and non-existence. And in every event, God is present, every event proceeds from God, is God’s creation. Our deductive language expresses it, everything we say in such a language carries a trace of Divine presence. All movement and rest come from God, and if I rest, then I participate in God’s permanent work of creation. I think it is extremely important to keep this constantly in mind. The deductive language makes it impossible for us to forget our Creator.
In deductive language, every sentence describing an event begins with an explicit or implicit statement on creation. As we do not so far have the proper words for such a statement, we can choose between various ways of expressing it. For example, we can say GOD GIVES MOVEMENT. MOVEMENT CAN TAKE THE FORM OF SWIMMING. SWIMMING CAN MATERIALIZE AS FISH SWIMMING. WE HAVE IT HERE AND NOW. Such sentences seem awkward, and we cannot use them in everyday speech. But they are awkward only because we have to translate them into our corrupt speech, use our deficient words and expressions. What is essential here is the structure of sentences, the structure of language, not the words themselves.
I am convinced that language has always had both a spoken and a written form. The written form is ideographical consisting of hieroglyphs as the ancient Egyptian or Sumerian hieroglyphs. Indeed, the word hieroglyph means “sacred character”, hieroglyphic script was a sacred script, a script used for expression of matters sacred. I believe hieroglyphs are also fragments of the Divine language, fragments preserved by some nations, but perverted, serving not true God but false Gods. But I think the deductive language could be better expressed even by corrupt heathen hieroglyphs than our corrupt words. I can imagine a sentence in such a hieroglyphic script always beginning with the sign of Creation, be it a symbol of God’s hand or something else. Then follows a sign for a universal high in the hierarchy, then a lower universal and then a sign that the person who utters the sentence asserts that what he says is true. This is the sign of truth, the presence of such a sign in every sentence points to our responsibility for everything we say. Thus, every sentence begins with God and ends with us, human beings, confirming the intimate connection between us and our Creator. I believe that this is the case in the Divine language too.
My last hour is approaching. I am tired, and soon I must write my last words. I hope that I have succeeded in explaining my basic ideas in most concise form, that they will not get lost, and somebody will resume and continue my research for the benefit of mankind and to the glory of God. However, I must add one serious warning. As both our age and our language are corrupt, there exists a danger that the deductive language can lead some people astray, becoming instead of the vehicle of understanding and praising God and His creation, a vehicle of idolatry. The deductive language must include the infinite and not avoid paradoxes. Every event must proceed form the Infinite that is God. If we forget it, we can arrive at a form of deductive language that engenders false Gods. E.g. when we say instead of SUN SHINES - SHINE SUNS, the word SHINE can lead us into temptation to invent a God that is called THE SHINING ONE, in Greek Helios. According to the eminent scholar Max Mueller, this is exactly the origin of all the heathen Greek and Roman Gods. We must remember that there is no shining by itself, what shines shines because of God’s will and His act of creation. All light comes from Him, and we should never forget it. The sentences in the deductive language must begin with a sign of creation, not with a sign of shining, movement, blossoming (that has surely created the Goddess Flora) or singing.
I am sorry that I could not give you more concrete examples of my work. But I had not time for that, only for the basic and most general ideas. I hope that this essay will reach you, and the madness that has engulfed our old continent will spare the New World where you can continue your work and perhaps pay some attention to my brief paper written under such appalling circumstances. May God’s blessing be always with you and your family .
Alexander Kunileid, teacher of English from Estonia