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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 41-65

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Urban Arcadia: Representations of the "Dialect" of Naples in Linguistic Theory and Comic Theater, 1696-1780

Barbara Ann Naddeo

The Enlightenment debate about language began in the late seventeenth century, when the biblical notion that God had revealed a complete language to Adam came under attack and an alternative secular narrative about the origins and nature of language first appeared. As Paolo Rossi has shown, the first blows to the biblical account of language came from seventeenth-century philosophers, such as Isaac de Lapeyrère, Thomas Hobbes, and Benedict Spinoza, who embraced a progressivist notion of humankind's mental and cultural worlds. 1 Hypothesizing that humankind's first mental tools were rudimentary and subject to development, modern philosophers offered an account of language that was irreconcilable with the traditional Adamic one. In short, the historical schema of modern philosophy transformed Adamfrom a divine subject endowed with the language of God into a stammering primitive with little more than the potential for language acquisition and, likewise, the cultural attributes of humanity.

In the eighteenth century, language was generally considered the benchmark of civilization or the sign of a people's psycho-cultural development. As the great French theorist of civilization, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, wrote in his article on "Etymology" for the Encyclopédie: "In the general progress of the human spirit, all nations depart from the same point and march toward the same goal, following more or less the same route, although at a very unequal pace. As we shall see, . . . languages are always pretty much the measure of the contemporary [End Page 41] ideas of the peoples who speak them; . . . one only invents names to the extent that one has ideas to express." 2 If language was the measure of a people's ideas, it also functioned as the quintessential cultural property of the "nation." "Language," as the Encyclopédie defined it, was the "manner in which men communicate their thoughts, by a series of words, gestures, and expressions adapted to their genius, customs and climates" or what was alternatively called the "esprit national." 3 Not only was it temporally bound, but it also indicated the ostensibly natural boundaries of a particular people or what in the German-speaking lands was called a Volk. As Johann Georg Hamann, the mentor of Johann Gottfried Herder, succinctly put it, "language determines the boundaries of a Volk." 4 Subsequently, maps of linguistic difference informed the first academic studies in ethnology or what was called Völkerkunde. 5 They provided the foundation for the investigation of the observed diversity of the peoples of humankind on the basis of kinship patterns.

Curiously enough, however, the idea of the dialect does not seem to have been among the factors operative in studies about the peoples constituent of a nation. The proliferation of dialects did not complicate the equation French, Scottish, and German theorists made between language, civilization, and nation. In my own review of select eighteenth-century sources, I have found that when the idea of the dialect is broached it is either associated with the first offshoots of primeval language 6 or with spoken language / orality 7 --with the notable exception of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who viewed dialects as the missing links between the distinct languages of contiguous peoples. 8 The Encyclopédistes insisted on the unity of the French nation, despite the cautiously admitted variety of France's local languages. Distinguishing the linguistic situation of France from that of ancient Greece as well as contemporary Germany and Italy, the author of the article "Langue," for example, referred to the linguistic variations within France as "patois" rather than as "dialects of the national tongue," so as to discredit them as evidence of individual "peoples," or ethnic distinctions, internal to the nation. 9 Similarly, in the German context, even Herder overlooked the wealth of differences associated with dialects in his studies of the "genius" of nations as expressed through their poetry. 10

It is in this context that the...


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