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by Dante Alighieri

Inferno Language and Communication Quotes

How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.

Quote #19

[Capocchio to Dante]: "…see that I’m the shade of that Capocchio
whose alchemy could counterfeit fine metals
And you, if I correctly take your measure,
recall how apt I was at aping nature." (Inf. XXIX, 136-139)

Capocchio’s attempt to equate his false art, alchemy, with Dante’ s art, writing, brings into question the relationship that both occupations have with nature. If Capocchio is correct, that writing is only an attempt to make an unnatural transformation out of natural materials, then writing has no more moral worth than alchemy. Worse, there is an implication that if Dante continues writing – and sinning – he could end up just like Capocchio, in Hell.

Quote #20

"Raphel mai amecche zabi almi,"
began to bellow that brute mouth, for which
no sweeter psalms would be appropriate.
And my guide turned to him: "O stupid soul,
keep to your horn and use that as an outlet
when rage or other passion touches you!
Look at your neck, and you will find the strap
that holds it fast; and see, bewildered spirit,
how it lies straight across your massive chest."
And then to me: "He is his own accuser;
for this is Nimrod, through whose wicked thought
one single language cannot serve the world.
Leave him alone – let’s not waste time in talk;
for every language is to him the same
as his to others – no one knows his tongue." (Inf. XXXI, 67-81)

For his crime of attempting to reach the Heavens with his Tower of Babel (which parallel’s Lucifer’s arrogance in challenging God), Nimrod is punished by a confusion of tongues, just as he was in life. Where the Tower of Babel ended with God striking down the Tower and transforming man’s single language into thousands of different, mutually unintelligible ones, Nimrod suffers a personal Babel. He babbles incoherently, his speech (as in this first line) incomprehensible to everyone. To emphasize his linguistic loss, Virgil calls him "stupid" (meaning "dumb" or "deaf") and "bewildered," emphasizing that intellect and reason are measured by one’s use of language.

Quote #21

Had I the crude and scrannel rhymes to suit
the melancholy hole upon which all
the other circling crags converge and rest,
the juice of my conception would be pressed
more fully; but because I feel their lack,
I bring myself to speak, yet speak in fear;
for it is not a task to take in jest,
to show the base of all the universe –
nor for a tongue that cries out, "mama," "papa."(Inf. XXXII, 1-9)

In the final circle of Hell, Dante finds words inadequate to express the terror located there. By describing language as a "tongue that cries out ‘mama’ [and] ‘papa,’ Dante suggests that language in general is too infantile to accurately describe the happenings in Hell. To describe language as infantile is to portray humanity in the same way because – in Dante’s eyes – language is what makes a creature human.

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