Prophecies of Language: The Confusion of Tongues in German Romanticism

Prophecies of Language: The Confusion of Tongues in German Romanticism

Prophecies of Language: The Confusion of Tongues in German Romanticism

Prophecies of Language: The Confusion of Tongues in German Romanticism


The scenes of Babel and Pentecost, the original confusion of tongues and their redemption through translation, haunt German Romanticism and Idealism. This book begins by retracing the ways in which the task of translation, so crucial to Romantic writing, is repeatedly tied to prophecy, not in the sense of telling future events, but in the sense of speaking in the place of another-most often unbeknownst to the speaker herself. In prophetic speech, the confusion of tongues repeats, each time anew, as language takes place unpredictably in more than one voice and more than one tongue at once.

Mendicino argues that the relation between translation and prophecy drawn by German Romantic writers fundamentally changes the way we must approach this so-called "Age of Translation." Whereas major studies of the period have taken as their point of departure the opposition of the familiar and the foreign, Mendicino suggests that Romantic writing provokes the questions: how could one read a language that is not one? And what would such a polyvocal, polyglot language, have to say about philology-both for the Romantics, whose translation projects are most intimately related to their philological preoccupations, and for us?

In Prophecies of Language, these questions are pursued through readings of major texts by G.W.F. Hegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schlegel, and Friedrich Hölderlin. These readings show how, when one questions the presupposition of works composed by individual authors in one tongue, these texts disclose more than a monoglot reading yields, namely the "plus" of their linguistic plurality. From such a surplus, each chapter goes on to advocate for a philology that, in and through an inclination toward language, takes neither its unity nor its structure for granted but allows itself to be most profoundly affected, addressed-and afflicted-by it.


… But often as a firebrand
arises conf(used)usion of tongues. …

… Oft aber wie ein Brand
entstehet Sprachverw(irrt)irrung….

In the midst of a fragment from his Homburger Folioheft (Sämtliche Werke: Frankfurter Ausgabe 7: 377), a notebook that contains several late elegies and odes and even more notes for poems that would never be completed, Friedrich Hölderlin registers the confusion of tongues. His words arise among fragments written in several languages: his sentence appears to be written in German; a nearby marginal note in Latin reads, “sphere of the ecclesia [orbis ecclesiae]” (7: 374); several pages earlier, he records a passage in ancient Greek from Pindar’s thirteenth Olympian ode, below the bilingual heading “Origin of Loyoté [Ursprung der Loyoté]” (7: 365). Thus, Hölderlin’s sentence stands out, apart from the draft of the poem to which it seems to belong, as though to state yet again what takes place so often in these pages. The passage, “Oft aber wie ein Brand / Entstehet Sprachverw(irrt)irrung,” might thus be considered the fragment of fragments at this late stage of Hölderlin’s writing between 1803 and 1807, when he would produce the last poems to be published in his lifetime, as well as his translations of Sophocles’s Oedipus and Antigone. But it is more than a manifestation of Hölderlin’s late writing praxis. The excess at issue here, as tongues grow confounded with others and language emerges as fire, also speaks to the issues of translation, the origins of language, and prophecy that would preoccupy Hölderlin and many of his contemporaries, including Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schlegel, and G. W. F. Hegel. No sooner does language emerge than the problem of its plurality and translatablity begins. And even before there is any talk of language, fire—an element associated with ancient prophecy, Pentecost, and the of the Stoics—heralds its coming, and forebodes its end before it can even begin: “But often as a firebrand, arises confusion of tongues.”

But what does speaking in tongues say? And what could one say of it? Hölderlin’s fragment speaks to the precariousness of any inquiry into the . . .

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