Study Guide

The Alchemist Language and Communication

By Paulo Coelho

Language and Communication

Part 1
The Gypsy Woman

"And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks our language, I can interpret what he has said. But if he speaks in the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand." (1.48)

According to the Gypsy woman, our dreams are a form of communication with the divine. She divides dreams into "our language" and "the language of the soul." It seems that everyone has their own individual language of the soul, which God uses to tell them a secret, but that it's also possible to dream in a collective language that others can understand. So … wonder what she'd make about our dream that all of our books suddenly developed thick pelts of fur?

When he had gone only a short distance, he realized that, while they were erecting the stall, one of them had spoken Arabic and the other Spanish.

And they had understood each other perfectly well. (1.244-45)

This little scene reminds us of the Christian concept of Pentecost, when Jesus' disciples were able to speak to crowds of people who spoke various languages, and everyone somehow understood what they were saying. The Alchemist is full of echoes of Christianity like this one. (Either echoes of Christianity, or echoes of Star Trek. Your pick.)

Part 2
The Englishman

"If I could, I'd write a huge encyclopedia just about the words luck and coincidence. It's with those words that the universal language is written." (2.122)

So is the universal language kind of like binary code, with "luck" and "coincidence" repeated over and over instead of 0s and 1s? Not exactly; it's more that the universe brings like things together (coincidence) or blazes trails for people (luck) as a way of speaking or communicating with them.

I don't know why these things have to be transmitted by word of mouth, he thought. [. . .] He had only one explanation for this fact: things have to be transmitted this way because they were made up from the pure life, and this kind of life cannot be captured in pictures or words. Because people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World. (2.219-21)

The alchemist's line of thinking is a little bit hard to follow—not surprising for a 200-year-old professional wise man. He knows that the ancient art of alchemy can only be transmitted through oral language, "by word of mouth." Except that the knowledge can't be captured in words. Ergo, there must be something meaningful about the way the knowledge is spoken, rather than the actual words used.

Battles had been fought nearby, and the wind reminded the boy that there was the language of omens, always ready to show him what his eyes had failed to observe. (2.471)

In The Alchemist, language goes way beyond the words that come out of your mouth. Instead, Coelho seems to use "language" to refer to any sign that has a meaning. So the smell of blood on the wind is a sign of battle. The smell of chocolate in the air is a sign of cookies. This type of language is a way of gaining knowledge that isn't so closed-off and limited to words. And, when it comes to cookies, much tastier.

Even though the sheep didn't teach me to speak Arabic.

But the sheep had taught him something even more important: that there was a language in the world that everyone understood, a language the boy had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired. (2.74)

While we're really not surprised that the sheep didn't teach Santiago Arabic (duh, they're Spanish sheep), we do think it's cool that he's learned people can recognize good qualities in each other through their actions and gestures. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.

When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke—the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. (2.256)

Now we're getting to the good stuff. All that talk about the universal language and the pure life are really just other ways of talking about love. And that gives love some serious heavyweight cred — it's not just hearts and chocolate and hugs and kisses; it's the universal language, the ultimate communication. Heavy, right? We're almost tempted to stick with the xs and os.

The bird knew the language of the desert well, and whenever they stopped, he flew off in search of game. (2.470)

We like to think of language as one of the things that separates the humans from the animals, but not Coelho: he mixes things up and lets animals into our exclusive club. Birds also have to read and interpret signs in order to find what they're looking for.

The man was speaking the language of alchemy. But the boy knew that he was referring to Fatima. (2.468)

We know all about metaphors at Shmoop, right? (If not, check out our Literature Glossary real quick.) That's what's going on here. The alchemist is comparing Santiago's relationship with Fatima to the work of the alchemist, trying to find gold in the common metals. Santiago thinks he's found the real deal in Fatima, and the alchemist tells him to have faith just like he would in an alchemy lab. Aw.

In less than a year, he would have doubled his flock, and he would be able to do business with the Arabs, because he was now able to speak their strange language. (2.30)

In The Alchemist, language isn't all soul- and God-talk. There are also known, concrete languages like Spanish and Arabic, languages that people have to learn to get by in their day-to-day lives. Santiago realizes the economic benefits of being able to speak as second language after his time in Tangier. Moral: you can't just wait around for the Soul of the World to drop a pile of money on your lap. You just might have to have to invest in some Rosetta Stone software, too.