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Lingua Ignota

File:Hildegard von bingen - litterae ignotae.jpg
Hildegard's 23 litterae ignotae

A Lingua Ignota (Latin for "unknown language") was described by the 12th century abbess of Rupertsberg, Hildegard of Bingen, who apparently used it for mystical purposes. To write it, she used an alphabet of 23 letters, the litterae ignotae.[1]


She partially described the language in a work titled Lingua Ignota per simplicem hominem Hildegardem prolata, which survived in two manuscripts, both dating to ca. 1200, the Wiesbaden Codex and a Berlin MS. The text is a glossary of 1011 words in Lingua Ignota, with glosses mostly in Latin, sometimes in German; the words appear to be a priori coinages, mostly nouns with a few adjectives. Grammatically it appears to be a partial relexification of Latin, that is, a language formed by substituting new vocabulary into an existing grammar.[2]

The purpose of Lingua Ignota is unknown; nor do we know who besides its creator was familiar with it. In the 19th century some believed that Hildegard intended her language to be an ideal, universal language. However, nowadays it is generally assumed that Lingua Ignota was devised as a secret language; like Hildegard's "unheard music", it would have come to her by divine inspiration. Inasmuch as the language was constructed by Hildegard, it may be considered one of the earliest known constructed languages.

In a letter to Hildegard, her friend and provost Wolmarus, fearing that Hildegard would soon die, asks ubi tunc vox inauditae melodiae? et vox inauditae linguae? (Descemet, p. 346; "where, then, the voice of the unheard melody? And the voice of the unheard language?"), suggesting that the existence of Hildegard's language was known, but there were no initiates that would have preserved its knowledge after her death.

Sample text

The only extant text in the language is the following short passage:

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.

These two sentences are written mostly in Latin with five key words in Lingua Ignota; as only one of these is unambiguously found in the glossary (loifol "people"), it is clear that the vocabulary was larger than 1011 words. (Higley 2007 finds probable correspondences for two other words.)

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

loifol "people" apparently is inflected in Latin, yielding loifol-um in congruence with stigmatum, the plural genitive of stigma.

Newman (1987) conjectures the translation

"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."

The glossary

The glossary is in a hierarchical order, first giving terms for God and angels, followed by terms for human beings and terms for family relationships, followed by terms for body-parts, illnesses, religious and worldly ranks, craftsmen, days, months, clothing, household implements, plants, and a few birds and insects. Terms for mammals are lacking (except for the bat, Ualueria, listed among birds, and the gryphon, Argumzio, a half-mammal, also listed among the birds).

The first 30 entries are (after Roth 1880):

  • Aigonz: deus (God)
  • Aieganz: angelus (angel)
  • Zuuenz: sanctus (saint)
  • Liuionz salvator (saviour)
  • Diueliz: diabolus (devil)
  • Ispariz: spiritus
  • Inimois: homo (human being)
  • Jur: vir (man)
  • Vanix: femina (woman)
  • Peuearrez: patriarcha
  • Korzinthio: propheta
  • Falschin: vates
  • Sonziz: apostolus
  • Linschiol: martir
  • Zanziuer: confessor
  • Vrizoil: virgo (virgin)
  • Jugiza: vidua (widow)
  • Pangizo: penitens
  • Kulzphazur: attavus (great-great-great-grandfather)
  • Phazur: avus (grandfather)
  • Peueriz: pater (father)
  • Maiz: maler (sic, for mater, mother)
  • Hilzpeueriz: nutricus (stepfather)
  • Hilzmaiz: noverca (stepmother)
  • Scirizin: filius (son)
  • Hilzscifriz: privignus (stepson)
  • Limzkil: infans (infant)
  • Zains: puer (boy)
  • Zunzial: iuvenis (youth)
  • Bischiniz: adolescens (adolescent)

Nominal composition may be observed in peueriz "father" : hilz-peueriz "stepfather", maiz "mother" : hilz-maiz "stepmother", and scirizin "son" : hilz-scifriz "stepson", as well as phazur : kulz-phazur. Suffixal derivation in peueriz "father", peuearrez "patriarch".


  • Wilhelm Grimm (1848), listing only the 291 glosses with German translations
  • Roth (1880), consisting of the 1011 glosses.
  • Descemet, Analecta of Pitra (1882), listing only the 181 glosses giving the names of plants
  • Portmann and Odermatt (1986)
  • Hildegard of Bingen's Unknown Language: An Edition, Translation, and Discussion, ed. Sarah Higley (2007) [the entire Riesencodex glossary, with additions from the Berlin MS, translations into English, and extensive commentary]

See also


  • Traude Bollig / Ingrid Richter, Hildegard von Bingen, Heilwerden mit der Kraft ihrer Symbole, Aurum Verlag, ISBN 3-89901-006-X (an esoteric claim of decipherment of the litterae[1])
  • Jakob Grimm in: Haupt, Zeitschrift fur deutsch. Alterthum, VI, 321.
  • Hildegard of Bingen's Unknown Language: An Edition, Translation and Discussion by Sarah L. Higley. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
  • Laurence Moulinier, "Un lexique trilingue du XIIe siècle : la lingua ignota de Hildegarde de Bingen", dans Lexiques bilingues dans les domaines philosophique et scientifique (Moyen Âge-Renaissance), Actes du colloque international organisé par l’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes-Ive Section et l’Institut Supérieur de Philosophie de l’Université Catholique de Louvain, Paris, 12-14 juin 1997, éd. J. Hamesse, D. Jacquart, Turnhout, Brepols, 2001, p. 89-111. ISBN 2-503-51176-7
  • Jonathan P. Green, « A new gloss on Hildegard of Bingen's Lingua ignota », Viator, 36, 2005, p. 217-234.
  • Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
  • Marie-Louise Portmann and Alois Odermatt (eds.), Wörterbuch der unbekannten Sprache, Basel: Verlag Basler Hildegard-Gesellschaft (1986). ISBN 3-905143-18-6
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Emil Roth, "Glossae Hildegardis", in: Elias Steinmeyer and Eduard Sievers eds., Die Althochdeutschen Glossen, vol. III. Zürich: Wiedmann, 1895, 1965, pp. 390–404.
  • Jeffrey T. Schnapp, "Virgin's words : Hildegard of Bingen's Lingua Ignota and the Development of Imaginary Languages Ancient to Modern", Exemplaria, III, 2, 1991, pp. 267–298.


  1. Bingensis, Hildegardis (circa 1175-1190). Riesencodex. pp. 934, 464v. Retrieved 2014-08-26.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. Barbara Jean Jeskalian, Hildegard of Bingen: the creative dimensions of a Medieval personality." Graduate Theological Union

External links