Lingua Ignota — The Earliest Known Constructed Language?

23 letters. 1011-word glossary. Some short manuscripts. This is among what remains of the legacy of St. Hildegard of Bingen OSB, one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony, and the creation of this language she called Lingua Ignota. If confirmed, it could mean that Lingua Ignota is the oldest constructed language in human history, far outdating that of Balaibalan and Logopandecteision, both of which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries respectively. In fact, Lingua Ignota was estimated to date back to the 12th century. However, the grammar of this language remains largely unknown due to the substantial absence of writings of that language.

The Wiesbaden codex and Berlin MS are perhaps the only pieces of writing that contained descriptions of Lingua Ignota, making the name of the language very much fitting for a language this unknown. These texts were first collected by Sir Thomas Phillipps in the 19th century, and to date, fewer than 20 publications and literature exist documenting the constructed language. In the codices, the texts contained a glossary with glosses in Latin, and some in Middle German, making it relatively easy to obtain English translations of the texts. These writings used an alphabet called the Litterae Ignotae, a system of 23 letters with 2 special characters denoting special abbreviations.

Litterae Ignotae – 23 letters in an alphabet

From what could be interpreted from the passages, it seemed that Lingua Ignota adopted a grammar similar to that of Latin, with a vocabulary specially constructed using a priori methods, and most of the words in the 1011-word glossary were nouns, with a few adjectives. Thus, Lingua Ignota seemed like a constructed language created by substituting novel vocabulary into a pre-existing grammar. A sample passage and its literal translation is done as such:

O orzchis Ecclesia, armis divinis praecincta, et hyacinto ornata, tu es caldemia stigmatum loifolum et urbs scienciarum. O, o tu es etiam crizanta in alto sono, et es chorzta gemma.

“O orzchis Ecclesia, girded with divine arms, and adorned with hyacinth, you are the caldemia of the wounds of the loifols, and the city of sciences. O, O, and you are the crizanta in high sound, and you are the chorzta gem.”

From the translation, there are several words which were untranslated, as unambiguous translations could not be obtained given information from the glossary. This indicated that the vocabulary was clearly larger than the 1011 words written in the glossary. These gaps in translation brought along conjectures on what these words could mean, as Newman proposed in 1987:

“O measureless Church, girded with divine arms and adorned with jacinth, you are the fragrance of the wounds of nations and the city of sciences. O, o, and you are anointed amid-noble sound, and you are a sparkling gem.”

This proposed translation likely involved analysing semantics and associating nouns or adjectives given the context of the passage. It is in no way a definitive translation, since no glosses were provided for those words.

The glossary of Lingua Ignota was split between two codices, but contained a hierarchical order of words. Aigonz (God), aigenz (angel), and Zuuenz (saint) were among the first listed words, indicating that priority was giving to divine beings. Next came humans and family, then body parts, illnesses and religious and worldly ranks. Some time expressions were also listed, followed by clothing and household items. Last were other organisms like plants, some invertebrates and birds. Curiously, this section also included mythical animals like the griffin (Argumzio).

No one really knows why this language was created, although some evidence points towards the intention to create a universal auxiliary language, while others argue it was intended as a secret language, like the unheard music Hildegard created. In anyway, Lingua Ignota still lives on, albeit very little-known, as the world’s earliest constructed language so far.

Further Reading

Schnapp, J. (1991) Virgin’s words: Hildegard of Bingen’s Lingua Ignota and the development of imaginary languages ancient to modern, Exemplaria, III (2), 267–298.

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