From the 15th edition of Journal of Planned Languages
(1992)
Editor's note: One of the earliest constructed languages that we know of dates back to the 12th century. Accurate information about this language is difficult to obtain, but the following article sheds some light on the subject.




Lingua Ignota
per simplicem hominem Hildegardem
prolata



by W. J. A. Manders


Originally published in Sciencaj Studoj
(Copenhagen: Internacia Scienca Asocio Esperantista, 1958, pp. 57-60).
Translated from Esperanto by Don Harlow
Among the many works by Hildegardis, abbess of Rupertsberg near Bingen (1098-1179) is found the strange and until now scarcely noticed Lingua Ignota per simplicem hominem Hildegarden prolata. Drezen in his Historio de la Mondolingvo (p. 26-27) concisely mentions it, stating that Hildegardis "even ellaborated an entire system of a universal written and spoken language ... (which) in its structure is reminiscent of later 19th century projects. Its alphabet had 32 letters. The majority of the words (nouns) ended in z: aigonz - God, aiganz - angel, pariz - father, mariz - mother, juz - human being, etc. The entire vocabulary contained 900 words."
Drezen's information is false almost without exception: this is not an entire system, but only a glossary; the alphabet has 23, not 32, letters; the vocabulary contains more than 1000 words, and of the five quoted examples four are incorrect. But more important than these details is the general recognition that the Lingua Ignota was not, and did not claim to be, a universal language.
There exist only one complete and two partial editions of the Lingua Ignota, of which especially the complete one (by Roth, 1880) is difficult to get hold of. Its text consists of 1011 words in the Lingua Ignota, followed by the Latin or German gloss. Most often the translation is in Latin; only when notions are difficult to express with a Latin word do we find German glosses.
A partial edition was published by the famous Germanist Wilhelm Grimm (1848). He was interested not in the Lingua Ignota, but only in the old German glosses, and for that reason his list contains only the 291 words which were translated in German.
Another partial edition was presented by Descemet in the Analecta of Pitra (1882). Descemet limited himself to the names of plants (181 in all) and added to each gloss the official botanical term and in addition - when possible - the names that Hildegardis used for the plants in question in other parts of her works on natural science.
The Lingua Ignota contains only nouns and a few adjectives. Here are the first 30 words according to Roth's list:
• Aigonz (deus)
• Aieganz (angelus)
• Zuuenz (sanctus)
• Liuionz (salvator)
• Diueliz (diabolus)
• Ispariz (spiritus)
• Inimois (homo)
• Jur (vir)
• Vanix (femina)
• Peuearrez (patriarcha)
• Korzinthio (propheta)
• Falschin (vates)
• Sonziz (apostolus)
• Linschiol (martir)
• Zanziuer (confessor)
• Vrizoil (virgo)
• Jugiza (vidua)
• Pangizo (penitens)
• Kulzphazur (attavus)
• Phazur (avus)
• Peueriz (pater)
• Maiz (maler [mater? - DH])
• Hilzpeueriz (nutricus)
• Nilzmaiz (noverca)
• Scirizin (filius)
• Hilzscifriz (privignus)
• Limzkil (infans)
• Zains (puer)
• Zunzial (iuvenis Bischiniz adolescens)
These are followed by other familial relationships, body-parts, illnesses, religious and hierarchical terms, ranks of nobility, craftsmen, days, months, clothing, household instruments, many growing things and a few birds and insects. Quadrupeds are lacking.
It is not possible to analyze this (in many ways remarkable) a priori vocabulary in a few words. Further, more important than an examination of the details is the realization that this Lingua Ignota is definitely not a primitive attempt at a universal language, but a secret language. Here are a few arguments for this assertion:
1) The name Lingua Ignota itself already indicates that we are speaking of a secret language, and not of a universal language. A name less suitable than that of "unknown language" could scarcely be invented for a world language.
2) The Lingua Ignota consists only of nouns and a few adjectives. For this reason it can be used only on the basis of another language, from which it has to borrow its grammar and the words that are lacking. This is characteristic of all slangs and jargons which use hiding-expressions [kas^esprimoj] for those notions which are to be kept hidden from the non-initiate.
3) In the many works and letters of Hildegardis that have been preserved, we never read of her encouraging others to learn her unknown language.
4) There is an interesting letter from the monk Volmarus to the old abbess. Volmarus fears that Hildegardis is soon to die, and with regret he foresees that both her linguage and her mysical music will die with her: "ubi tunc vox inauditae melodiae? et vox inauditae lingua?" (Pitra p. 346). Obviously Volmarus considers the unknown language as a private language, not intended for general use.
Only once in Hildegardis' very wide-ranging works do we see her language being applied. Among her canticles (Carmina) there is one, "In dedicatione ecclesiae," which reads as follows:
O orzchis Ecclesia [1], armis divinis praecincta, et hyacinto ornata, tu es caldemia stignmatum loifolum et urbs scienciarum. O, o tu es etiam crizanta in alto sono, et es chorzta gemma.
This short text contains five words from the unknown language, of which only one is in the glossary (loifol = populus; loifol-um with the Latin genitive ending -um!). The four other words are complete riddles.
The text inarguably shows that Hildegardis used her language as a secret language. But this realization does not solve all problems, quite the opposite: to the question of the etymology and structure of the words is added another problem that is difficult to solve: What was the purpose of the Lingua Ignota? Who were the initiates into this secret jargon? How big was the vocabulary? The above-quoted canticle shows that our glossary is incomplete. That the language was intended not only for religious canticles but also for secular purposes, is made obvious by the meaning of the words, which belong to various fields. Especially noteworthy are the many botanical words and the names for body-parts and illnesses. Hildegardis was famous for her medical knowledge, and the Lingua Ignota contains an entire medical jargon.
Hildegardis was a mystic and a visionary. She attributed her unknown language, like her "unheard music," to divine revelation. This mysticism, an essential characteristic of all Hildegardis' works, cannot be captured through rationality, and for this reason a complete solution of the problems surrounding the Lingua Ignota is apparently not at all possible.
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Bibliography:
DREZEN, E., 1931: Historio de la Mondolingvo. Leipzig.
GRIMM, W., 1848: Wiesbader Glossen. - Zeitschr. f. Deutsches Althertum 6: 321-340.
PITRA, J. BAPT. CARD., 1882: Analecta Sancta Hildegardis Opera (analecta sacra T. VIII).
ROTH, F.W.E., 1880: Ignota Lingua per simplicem hominem Hildegardem prolata. Geschichtsquellen aus Nassau III. Wiesbaden.
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[1] Per Pitra 449; but in Pitra 361 I found "o orzchis Ecclesiae." Roth also published the Carmina; his text shows a few unimportant variations.