Major Themes: Language

In this section we will examine:

  • Dante’s idea of language

  • some of the ways in which Dante’s idea of language is reflected in the Inferno.

Dante's idea of language 

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Dante’s idea of language for our understanding of the Commedia. Language, for Dante, is related to the very essence of human nature. It is inextricably linked to reason, and to man’s nature as a rational animal. It is also inextricably linked to man’s nature as a social, or political, animal.

The place in his work where Dante most extensively and explicitly deals with the nature of language is in the first eight chapters of Book I of De vulgari eloquentia. You need not at present be concerned with all of the views presented in these eight chapters. In any case, by the time Dante wrote the Commedia he himself had changed his mind regarding some of his earlier views. Some of the views expressed in the first eight chapters of De vulgari eloquentia, however, hold for the Commedia too.

The passage below is taken from De vulgari eloquentia. What does it tell us about Dante’s idea of language? What does it tell us about the way in which, for Dante, language is related to human nature?

[…] of all creatures that exist, only human beings were given the power of speech, because only to them was it necessary. It was not necessary that either angels or the lower animals should be able to speak; rather, this power would have been wasted on them, and nature, of course, hates to do anything superfluous.

Now, if we wish to define with precision what our intention is when we speak, it is clearly nothing other than to expound to others the concepts formed in our minds. Therefore, since the angels possess, in order to communicate their own glorious conceptions, a ready and ineffable sufficiency of intellect – through which they make themselves, in themselves, completely known to each other, or, at least, are reflected, in the fullness of their beauty and ardour, by that resplendent mirror [God] which retains an image of all of them – they seem not to have needed signs to represent speech. […]

As for the lower animals, since they are guided only by their natural instinct, it was not necessary for them to be given the power of speech. For all animals that belong to the same species are identical in respect of action and feeling; and thus they can know the actions and feelings of others by knowing their own. Between creatures of different species, on the other hand, not only was speech unnecessary, but it would have been injurious, since there could have been no friendly exchange between them. […]And so it is clear that the power of speech was given only to human beings. But now I shall try briefly to investigate why it should have been necessary for them.

Since, therefore, human beings are moved not by their natural instinct but by reason, and since that reason takes diverse forms in individuals, according to their capacity for discrimination, judgement, or choice – to the point where it appears that almost everyone enjoys the existence of a unique species – I hold that we can never understand the actions or feelings of others by reference to our own, as the baser animals can. Nor is it given to us to enter into each other’s minds by means of spiritual reflection, as the angels do, because the human spirit is so weighed down by the heaviness and density of the mortal body.

So it was necessary that the human race, in order for its members to communicate their conceptions among themselves, should have some signal based on reason and perception.

Since this signal needed to receive its content from reason and convey it back there, it had to be rational; but since nothing can be conveyed from one reasoning mind to another except by means perceptible to the senses, it had also to be based on perception.

For, if it were purely rational, it could not make its journey; if purely perceptible, it could neither derive anything from reason nor deliver anything to it.

This signal, then, […] is perceptible, in that it is a sound, and yet also rational, in that this sound, according to convention, is taken to mean something.

(De vulgari eloquentia, I, ii–iii)

What this passage reveals is that, for Dante, language pertains to human beings insofar as they are rational and social animals. Language is the form in which human beings think, exchange thoughts, and relate to each other. Language, for Dante, simply is the way in which human existence, intended as social and rational, unfolds. This is an extremely important idea for our understanding of the Inferno. According to Dante, to sin is to misuse reason in creating relationships with other people. It follows, given what has just been said, that, for Dante, to sin is also to misuse language. To speak, for Dante, is never a morally neutral act. It is therefore essential that, in reading the Inferno, you ask yourself how Dante’s idea of language is reflected in the text; how, that is, the way language is used by the poet and by his characters may be related to the moral message the text wishes to convey.

The Inferno and Dante’s idea of language

Given what was said in the first part of this section, it should come as no surprise that the first direct impression of Hell described in the Commedia – Inferno III, 22–30 – is an acoustic and linguistic one. Hell is first described by Dante in terms of cacophony – the ‘tumulto’ of line 28. Different vocal sounds and uses of language combine to create a horrific atmosphere of chaos and confusion. Although this cacophony is specifically related to the punishment of the ignavi, it may also be seen to carry broader significance for our understanding of the importance of language in the Inferno. By having the ‘tumulto’ of Inferno III as the first impression of Hell, Dante is making a strong link between Hell and the improper use of language. In Dante-poeta’s and the reader’s first impression of Hell, language does not, as it is supposed to, create rational and meaningful communication between human beings. The linguistic cacophony of the ignavi is an indication that the reader should always take into account the significance that language and its misuse, confusion and perversion have in the Inferno.

The misuse, confusion and perversion of language are present in the Inferno in a variety of ways. Consider, for example, the role played in the narrative by bestial and/or meaningless utterances. Language and its misuse also play a very important role in the Inferno through the speeches of the sinners Dante meets. These often reflect particular psychological traits, moral characteristics, or even the nature of the sin for which the sinner is punished.

In considering the importance of language for understanding the Inferno we also need to consider how Dante’s idea of language may relate to his own poetry. Poetry, more than prose, allows an author to emphasise the physical features of language as much as its semantic or (to use Dante’s term) ‘rational’ component. In the Commedia Dante exploits to great effect the physical features of language (sound, rhythm/metre, etc.) for the purpose of enhancing the meaning of the text.

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame