Universal language

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA072-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

1. Adamic language

The earliest source for the idea of a universal language is the biblical story of an original language used by Adam to name the different species of animals created by God (Genesis 2: 19–20). In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, it was commonly assumed that this ‘Adamic’ language expressed Adam’s perfect knowledge of things prior to the Fall: each name of a creature exactly conveyed its essence. It was natural to suppose a corruption of this language at the Fall; however, the crucial event in the loss of a universal language is told in the story of Babel, when ‘the Lord confused the language of all the earth’ (Genesis 11: 9). Thereafter, human beings were condemned to speak a multitude of languages and to suffer the pain of mutual incomprehension.

This biblical background remained central to conceptions of a universal language well into the seventeenth century. Numerous attempts were made to identify and recover the original language of Adam. Among Jewish and Christian thinkers alike, Hebrew retained the greatest claim to this honour, although other candidates were proposed (including Latin, Chinese, Dutch and Swedish). The attempt to recover the Adamic language, and the knowledge implicit in it, was significantly influenced by the Jewish kabbalah, which assigned a mystical significance to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and prescribed techniques for their interpretation and manipulation (see Kabbalah). Another important source was the thirteenth-century theologian Ramon Llull, who stressed a method of achieving universal knowledge through combinations of letters signifying fundamental categories of reality (see Llull, R. §2).

Citing this article:
Rutherford, Donald. Adamic language. Universal language, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA072-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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