In principio erat verbum (and not the noun)

I’ve been reading about Sigier de Courtrai, a lesser known grammarian belonging to the group of 13th and 14th-century Northern European speculative grammarians known as Modistae. Like the rest of the Modists, Sigier reflected on the relationship between mind and reality, and how language, or the ‘modes of signifying’ opens the latter to the former. Adopting and adapting Aristotle’s emphasis on the hierarchical structure of the universe, he concludes that within a sentence, the parts of speech gravitate around a heavy centre like an orb around another. Although the idea of syntactical government or regimen, the concept used in modern linguistics, was formulated by Peter Helias in the 12th century, Sigier makes it look like a cosmological (Aristotelico-Ptolemaic) system.

Having postulated a heavy core, Sigier went on to argue against his colleagues’ view that the verb, not the noun, should be granted this honour. Boethius of Dacia (i.e. Denmark), for instance, had argued that the noun, corresponding to the Aristotelian substance, should take precedence over the verb, the accident. This was because the substance corresponds to permanence and immobility, whereas the accident is movement, instability and transience.

These speculative claims were made in the margin of theological thought. As Elena Lombardi writes:

In Sigier’s argument, regimen becomes the key word for cosmic operation and order: instead of grammar being patterned on nature, nature begins to look like a giant grammatical construction that tends toward God.

‘The Syntax of Desire, Language and Love in Augustine, the Modistae and Dante’, p. 104′

As language is seen as a cosmological system, the primordial and ultimate substance becomes the verb, against the objection that the noun should instead coordinate the syntactical regimen. The reason is that the verb ensures that “the multitude of the parts tends toward the one that complies and renders perfect the sentence itself.” Instead of reaching perfection from bottom up (noun -> verb, substance -> accident), perfection is achieved through completion, which, occurring at the top, is filtered down to the bottom. (verb -> noun, accident -> substance). The verb’s ability to justify the proper place of each part of speech ensures its preeminence.

Sigier’s ideas may have been shaped by cosmology and theology, but they may also prompt a theological insight – which may have been made by Sigier himself or a modern scholar, but which I haven’t come across yet. That is the relationship between his idea and John 1:1: “In principio erat verbum”. Medieval theologians less sensitive to grammatical speculation would not have thought that verbum designates a grammatical verb rather than, canonically, the Divine Logos. Yet, Sigier’s speculation opens the perspective that the Divine word is, ultimately, a verb, the mover of God’s mind, and the prime mover of the universe.  As language, and we’re talking about universal language here, reflects the universe of God, so the gravitational pull of the verb on the rest of syntax points to the ‘princeps verbum’ lying deep within Creation’s nuclear reactor.

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