“The limits of my language means the limits of my world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
As a rule, humans are a chatty species. We want to talk to stuff, from dolphins to demons, but rarely have a good plan for what to say to them, should we manage to communicate. Nonetheless, we seem to feel that if we can just establish a common language, maybe we can add them as Facebook friends or open a new franchise in previously underexploited territory, and as a side benefit might learn a little about linguistics, consciousness, and the human condition. Now whether you subscribe to a strong or weak version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (oddly named, since Sapir and Whorf never really collaborated, and neither actually put forward a hypothesis) that there is high correlation between language and thought, one must admit that we figure once we can start gabbing with someone or something, we might be able to get a handle on how their mind works. Sure we want to be pals, but this seems especially important with regards to those we think ultimately mean to do us harm.
We’re also a superstitious bunch of monkeys, so we’ve spent the past few millennia inventing celestial critters in our own image, who in most cases consider us with a relative degree of benign disdain. They speak our language and unwittingly share our cognitive frame, since in theory they are at least partially responsible for it. They get us. And we can’t quit them. And while we call them stuff like “ineffable” in the big monotheisms, we really mean that some unpleasant shit went down that we didn’t appreciate, and we don’t want to admit that we were just immaculately “unfriended”.
Through the past few thousands of years, a select few, who no doubt would have stellar careers in military intelligence had their bones not long ago turned to dust, have concluded that we had better get busy understanding the malicious forces of the universe, the incarnate evils that we’ve populated the eternal morality play with across time and culture. These canny lads want to talk to demons. Oh, sure you have your odd dark sorcerer or necromancer who’s in it for money, power, and chicks, but that strategy rarely seems to end well. Nevertheless, pious sages across many cultures have also concerned themselves with the language of demons for more practical and religiously orthodox reasons. Know thy enemy and all.
The notion that demons speak all languages, or no languages at all (being critters of pure spirit, they just do some sort of Vulcan mind meld) is relatively modern, by which of course from a folkloric perspective I mean Medieval, discernible in works such as Dante Alghieri’s treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia (his demons in The Divine Comedy talk, but this was poetic license as dude needed snappy dialogue). It was just a convenient way of saying that rather than busying themselves being the authors of all evil, devils were taking correspondence courses in thousands of human languages and consequently that Hell was the equivalent of an eternal community college. Saying that demons speak whatever language you speak is a tacit acknowledgement of your own linguistic frame, and all the reality that derives from that.
You have to dig a little further back to really see what demons were on about. Until the emergence of the global religious powerhouses, all demonality, like politics, was local. Your embodiment of evil spoke your language, since that was the only language that mattered, or alternatively, the language of your nasty neighbors. We had a long way to go before we started taking abstract concepts like “universal religion” seriously. Yeah, sure your god was bigger than their god, but when you sacked the temple, you just broke up the idols on a general principle of sacking and pillaging. They didn’t become theologically significant forces of evil in your thinking. Just dead gods who got their asses handed to them.
Obviously, this changed by the time the ancient Greeks declared that anybody who didn’t speak unaccented Greek was a barbarian, but in their polytheism they were a fairly agglutinative lot when it came to incorporating defeated divinities into their own theological conceptions. It’s all about perspective. When you dig in historically and cross-culturally to see where all our notions of the language of demons derived from, you start to notice a pattern. Prior to the idea that everybody should either worship the same god or get slaughtered, which we can lay at least partially at the doorstep of monotheism in all its incarnations, talking to demons and figuring out what language to speak to them was a far more instrumental affair. In fact, remnants of this practical approach to demons persist in odd places, long forgotten.
The first paragraph of the Haggadah read at the Passover Seder in Judaism is in Aramaic (written in Hebrew letters), the rest (except for the closing song) in Hebrew. Aramaic and Hebrew are certainly very closely related languages; the difference being that in its heyday, Aramaic was spoken by many non-Jewish communities. This is a little bit of an oddity, but was interpreted very early on by Talmudic scholars to relate to demons. This opening ceremony is an “Aramaic invitation to participate in the Passover meal, which serves as an introduction to the Seder service, on the ground that the demons, like the angels, speak Hebrew (cf. Hag. 16a), and an invitation in that language would overwhelm the proceedings with a host of these unwelcome guests” (Trachtenberg, 1939, p287). This is especially curious since it requires an invitation in a different language, as demons are presumed to speak your own language. And everybody knows demons make terrible houseguests. They never bring anything and your house smells like sulfur and brimstone for days after. Let’s not even talk about what they do to the plumbing.
That’s not to say that historically (and since we’ve only been scribbling notes for a few thousand years who’s to say precisely how long), we haven’t often assigned someone else’s language to demons, but as you can observe it’s sometimes a mere matter of practicality to ascribe your annoying neighbor’s language to the forces of evil, particularly if they keep beating you up or burning your cities. Ancient Indian texts cite Sanskrit as the language of the gods and Paiśācī as the language of demons (Colebrooke, 1807, p289). Paiśācī is part of the Prakrit language group, long dead, an eastern Middle-Indic dialect that may have been spoken in the mountain ranges that were the traditional boundary between northern and southern India. And you know how them Mountain Folk can be. Ask any American about West Virginia.
Although, the essential point is that until we stumbled upon the idea that our theology should be everybody else’s theology upon pain of death, the world was populated with all manner of demons. After all, one of the guiding forces of human behavior is how to explain our own bad behavior and the vagaries of human existence in terms that shift the responsibility to anybody but ourselves. If you’re going to do this effectively on a global scale, your demons have to be multilingual. Historically though, there is ample evidence that for the better part of our long tradition of speculating about how to talk to our demons, we regarded them as local agents of mischief that spoke the local dialect. This has led me to conclude that the many hells we’ve created across the eons must be a cacophony of misunderstanding, much like our own world. It’s a wonder they can get anything done.
Scholars estimate that there are currently somewhere around 7000 distinct living languages, and at least as many extinct languages (but likely far more). Don’t get me started on dead gods and vanished religions. That’s a whole lot of Hells. And I’m pretty sure your Zoroastrian demon doesn’t look too favorably upon some Catholic upstarts taking their jobs when they can’t speak the language – given how closely our view of the universe is tied to language, it makes it pretty hard to even come up with a universal framework of regulations that get you damned. Mankind has always been inclined towards condemning those who disagree with them on the finer points of philosophy or have cooler stuff to the Lake of Fire. Heck, we all like to believe that the annoying twit of a neighbor who blasts his awful music at 2 A.M. when I have an early morning meeting has eternal damnation and hellfire to look forward to. You don’t? Maybe I’m just getting grumpy and uncharitable in my old age. Given the math of it all, my recommendation to you, should you wish to have a chat with a demon is to pick the most obscure language you can manage to learn. You might be able to cut a better deal. It’s hard to get Rosetta Stone software shipped to Hell.
Trachtenberg, Joshua, 1904-. Jewish Magic And Superstition: a Study In Folk Religion. New York: Behrman’s Jewish Book House, 1939.
Colebrooke, H.T. “On the Sanskrit and Pracrit Languages”. The Edinburgh Review v7. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1807.