Canto XXXI of Dante’s Inferno stands as one of La Commedia Divina’s most famous, and studied passages. This is despite its relative tameness in comparison with the bulk of the Inferno: we are not given hordes of the wailing damned, nor lakes of boiling blood as we see in Violence, nor souls bound writhing in the eternal fire of Heresy. These elements are widely considered Inferno’s major attractions, at least to the initiate Dantisti, for their graphic depiction of sin and the appropriation of poetic justice. Nevertheless, Canto XXXI’s major attraction, and the item for which it receives special attention, is a single line:

“Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi”

(XXXI.67)

Almost always, this line appears the same in English as it does in Italian. Indeed, it would be unchanged in French, Spanish, and German. The line is spoken by one of the main exhibitions of Inferno XXXI, the giant Nimrod, who with Ephialtes, Antaeus, and a host of others, form a spectacular ring of mammoth bodies to surround the boundary between the eighth and ninth circles of Hell ― creating what is commonly known as the Well of Giants. This peculiar line has endured analysis (or rather provoked it) so ubiquitously due to the fact that it was designed to resist; put plainly, Nimrod is speaking utter gibberish.

This harks back to Nimrod’s Biblical significance. A “mighty hunter before the Lord”,[1] Hebrew and Christian tradition taught that King Nimrod led the people of Shinar in the construction of the Tower of Babel, a challenge to and affront before God. This resulted in the cataclysmic Confusion of Tongues, where the previously unified language of the world was irreparably dissipated and the people thus divided.

Nimrod’s symbolic purpose is straightforward in this case: he operates to demonstrate the folly of Man’s pride, specifically in the face of the Almighty. His poetic justice (contrapasso) comes in the manner of his linguistic disability and isolation. As Virgil states, Nimrod speaks in a language which only he can understand, and rebukes him with the stern advice that he would be better to simply blow his horn in an effort to communicate. Nimrod’s words therefore function within their own language system, a paradoxical statement which both denies Nimrod the interpersonal connection which is essential to language and further illustrates the tragedy of sin which the Inferno dramatises.

Dante’s plurilingualism is an aspect which underpins La Commedia throughout. For example, another famous piece of untranslatable Satanic gibberish comes from Pluto in Inferno VII: “Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppé” (VII.1). We can also find Nimrod’s linguistic counterpoint in the language of Paradiso, where Latin verse becomes increasingly prevalent, to the point where Dante’s final Canto opens with a Latin hymn to the Virgin Mary, with the perceived divinity of the poetry increasing as Dante approaches the ineffable vision of God. In contrast, the Well of Giants is located on the very edge of Treachery, the final circle of Hell within which Lucifer resides. The language descends into confusion and an inexpressible kind of madness, prefacing Lucifer’s ultimate sin of the war in Heaven. The giants are embedded in the ground from the waist down, functioning as a precursor to Lucifer’s portrayal, stuck in ice at the foot of Hell.

 

 

In Dante’s interpretation, Lucifer is himself giant. He has three faces, and three mouths in which he chews the three greatest traitors: Cassius, Brutus, and Judas. While Nimrod at least has the capacity for sound, meaningless as it may be, Lucifer is shown to be incapable of any utterance at all. For Dante, the linguistics of these characters proclaims the central tragedy of sin: isolation. Not only does he show their physical entrapment, but the loneliness of their mental states. Language is the humanity’s tool to bridge mental separation, however Nimrod and Lucifer are denied this ability: theirs is a prison within a prison. Their physical immobilisation is tied to their linguistic confinement.  Hell first cages their bodies, and second, their minds.

Dante’s experimentation with the spectrum of language, ranging from the Satanic and indecipherable to the divinely inspired, is a hallmark of his contribution to medieval thought on the nature and function of language. It is explained in detail in his earlier work, De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular). This treatise argued for the contemporary Italian vernacular to be given the same legitimacy and dignity as Latin, and laid the groundwork for La Commedia to be written predominantly in the vernacular language, which became the basis of modern Italian. Dante also expands on this in La Vita Nuova and the Convivio, citing the vernacular’s greater utility, mutability, as well as his love for Italy’s mother tongue (which if universalised, could pacify national turmoil) as reasons to promote vernacular usage. He proposes the creation of a new variant, by which a dominant vernacular may be established. Envisaged in De vulgari eloquentia as the “illustrious vernacular”, the language of La Commedia, which innovatively treats theological material with the “common tongue” of Tuscan dialect, is the realisation of Dante’s linguistic ambition: the ennoblement of the common. Moreover, the world-view Dante presents begets the opposing extremes of this “illustrious vernacular”, as we go from the Satanic stasis of Pluto, Nimrod, and Lucifer to the divine enlightenment of Paradiso’s beatific vision.

Given his popular appraisal as “The Father of the Italian Language”, Dante’s wish to solidify Italian national identity through his language was a largely successful one, and his influence is widespread, ingrained in Italian culture. Nimrod is but a solitary pawn in Dante’s greater linguistic design, by which he popularised one dialect in a country bitterly divided. However, the imagination of Inferno’s punishment for Nimrod, this lingual paralysis and paradox of language, spectacularly displays the deep-rooted concerns of Dante’s poetry. We may easily compare the tragedy of Nimrod’s isolation to Dante’s real-life exile (on pain of death) from Florence in the 14th century, a city whose political corruption and vice explicitly inspire many of the punishments of Inferno. Dante penetrates the workings of the human consciousness and its interaction with sin, and how it wrestles with man’s injustice against his fellow man. Language in La Commedia acts as Dante’s most fundamental metaphor, providing an endemic framework for his grand allegory. It is mostly a subtle device, but it is fantastically illustrated in Nimrod’s nonsense, one of La Commedia’s most colourful episodes which portrays the necessary antithesis of Dante’s linguistic dream. As much as Purgatorio and Paradiso provide moral instruction, Inferno fires off severe warnings to Dante’s contemporaries. Nimrod embodies the cautionary tale concerning the breakdown of communication, and furthermore the breakdown of collective morality and humanism. However, the enduring appeal of the giant’s remarkable depiction, with his self-contained language, serves as one of the most crucial testaments to the overarching skill, literary daring, and vision of Dante’s masterpiece.

[1] King James Bible, Genesis 10.9