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  • Mithridates im Paradies. Kleine Geschichte des Sprachdenkens
  • Markus Wilczek
Jürgen Trabant, Mithridates im Paradies. Kleine Geschichte des Sprachdenkens. München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2003. 356 pages.

Jürgen Trabant's Mithridates im Paradies [Mithridates in Paradise] is a relatively short and readable history of reflections on language ("Sprachdenken") from Plato to Pinker. Directed not merely at a scholarly audience, but a general one as well, Mithridates im Paradies impressively accomplishes the difficult task of presenting the arguments of canonical texts in a perspicuous [End Page 1124] manner without compromising their complexity. As the book's emblematic title suggests, the focus rests on the tension between linguistic diversity and universalism. Siding neither with Mithridates—whom he describes as a "rather unpleasant potentate" (40)—nor with the prevailing trend toward universalism, Trabant pleads for the "rather improbable reconciliation" (10) of the opposition.

Given the status of language in current linguistics, philology, and politics, Trabant's undertaking may seem untimely. Facing the "wind of universalism" (11), the reflection on language has been confronted with two principal challenges: in a globalizing world, the diversity of languages is increasingly regarded as a hindrance to communication and thus, put pragmatically, a market barrier. Secondly, from a more theoretical point of view, language as such is often perceived as obstructing the access to 'truth.' In both cases, language poses a problem that needs to be done away with. Notwithstanding these challenges to the diversity of languages, Trabant maintains that linguistic conditions "somewhat more complicated" and "less convenient" than global monolingualism prove "inevitable for the freedom of the human spirit" (12). Hence, tracing the history of the reflection on language does not only serve the purpose of better understanding which traditions inform the current discussion about language diversity, but also of articulating what the stakes in this discussion are. Against this background, Trabant aptly describes his book as a "pamphlet"—or, less confidently, an "epitaph" (12).

Considering the stakes, it is remarkable that this book pursues its goals in a modest, quiet, almost unspectacular way. In times of an ever-growing exuberance in academia—who has not attended an "exciting" talk lately—one would not expect a scholar to label the rationale of his study as "uncool" (12). Yet, Jürgen Trabant does precisely that in order to characterize his argument "for thinking linguistic diversity in the global paradise to come" (12). Being uncool, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the book, means to take a step back from the busy promotion of methodological agendas and emerging "exciting" trends. Moreover, being uncool constitutes an attitude towards the subject matter that may be described as a sincere attempt to understand a text and what has been said about it, while avoiding sensationalist or polemical rhetoric. When Trabant quotes Locke's request that "it would become us to be charitable one to another in our interpretations or misunderstandings of those ancient writings" (170), he simultaneously comments on his own methodological premise.

Chapter 1, "Paradise," may best be understood as a prelude that introduces the basic theme of the investigation. Starting out with an examination of the biblical myths of language, Trabant observes that Pentecost—the one biblical scenario which does not conceive of linguistic diversity as an inherently negative affair—never gained the same significance in the "(West) European Christian tradition as the notion of a lingua adamica and its destruction in Babel" (22). The indifference of Greek philosophy towards linguistic diversity and the experience of a monolingual Roman empire—"a linguistic [End Page 1125] paradise here below" (39)—underpin this marginalization of the pentecostal experience and contribute to Europe's longing for "the old catholic union" (39) after the loss of this paradise.

Primarily dedicated to a discussion of Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, the second chapter is separated by an enormous chronological gap from the first one. Trabant emphasizes that Dante, notwithstanding his commitment to the Vulgare illustre cardinale aulicum cardinale, in fact continues the ancient tradition as he promotes the idea of universality: not of the lingua adamica or Latin, but of a particular Vulgare: "Unlike the Greek-Latin tradition which remained largely indifferent towards other languages . . ., Dante polemically argues against linguistic diversity and...


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