"Music as the Path to Universal Language"

"Music as the Path to Universal Language"

Karen Ordahl Kupperman (History, New York University)
As Silver Professor of History at New York University, Kupperman's scholarship focuses on the Atlantic world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly contacts and ventures between Europe and America and the ways that participants interpreted each other. Publications include The Early Modern Atlantic World, 2012; The Jamestown Project, 2007; Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 1993, 2007; Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America, 2000; and Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony, 1993. She has edited Richard Ligon: A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes, 2011; Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings, 1988, and America in European Consciousness,1995.

"As Europeans ventured into the oceans in the sixteenth century, they found that music opened doors for them in cases where language failed, and experience fed speculation. Contemporary scholars, who sought creation or restoration of a universal language, discussed the relationship between music and language, many arguing that singing actually preceded language in communication. In the later sixteenth century, key new ways of thinking about language emerged out of Europe's opening to the world. The central concept was recording language by sound rather than by meaning. Thomas Harriot, who was at the beginning of a distinguished career as a scientist and mathematician, invented a syllabary for recording coastal Carolina Algonquian in Ralegh's Roanoke colony. Harriot called it "An universall Alphabet conteyninge six & thirty letters, whereby may be expressed the lively image of mans voyce in what language soever; first devised upon occasion to seeke for fit letters to expresse the Virginian speche. 1585." Matteo Ricci landed in China two years before Harriot went to America, and his description of the Chinese language was read avidly by scholars in Europe. Because there was a character for every concept, ambiguity was banished and readers all over Asia could understand it But, because so many characters were required, spoken Chinese was tonal; European readers took this to mean it was sung. Ricci also translated the Analects of Confucius, in which music played a central role. In these ways, engagement with other cultures led to the belief that sound would lead to the hoped-for universal language."