Words and language have an almost magical power in the Inferno. Dante's words often stir souls to speak and share their stories, while Virgil's words move demons and other obstacles out of their way, as they journey through hell. At the gate to the city of Dis, the angel that opens the gate does so merely by speaking. And finally, Dante's entire journey is able to happen because it is divinely ordained by the word of God. This association of God with the mystical power of the word of God draws on the beginning of the book of John, in the New Testament, which starts, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This power of the word of God trickles down, so to speak, to his various agents, such as the angel and Virgil, who help carry out God's will.
Aside from this kind of holy language, words are also important for spirits suffering in hell, because the ability to speak means the ability to name oneself and thus attain fame in Dante's narrative. The punishments of hell cause pain in many ways, but almost always hurt sinners additionally by robbing them of language itself, reducing their voices to inarticulate screams and cries of pain. Those who, in the midst of their pain, can still talk to Dante are at least able to gain some kind of fame and remembrance in Dante's poem. Dante, in turn, is able to grant such sinners' a bit of fame precisely because of his skill with language as a poet. His use of the written word is what guarantees the fame of these sinners and of Dante himself.
However, Dante also shows the limits of language. He often worries that he cannot express in words what he saw in hell, that his poem is not adequate to represent the fantastical sights of hell, and that readers will not believe what he writes. The limits of Dante's language can be seen in his prolific use of long similes. In these similes, he can only express what he sees in hell in terms of what his readers have seen on earth. At a more fundamental level, Dante must also try to express the sights of hell in a language that only has words for things on earth. Dante's very language inevitably reduces what it describes to earthly terms. But we should not let Dante's posturing of humility deceive us: he is still immensely confident in his ability as a poet. Despite the limitations of language, Dante uses his talent as a poet to create a stirring, vivid portrait of hell. Ultimately, while there are limits to what language can do, exceptional people like Dante and Virgil (to say nothing of God himself) can use words to extraordinary ends.
Language Quotes in Inferno
Canst thou be Virgil? Thou that fount of splendour
Whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech?
Beatrice am I, who thy good speed beseech;
Love that first moved me from the blissful place
Whither I'd fain return, now moves my speech.
And greater honour yet they [Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan] did me—yea,
Into their fellowship they deigned invite
And make me sixth among such minds as they.
Nay, but I tell not all that I saw then;
The long theme drives me hard, and everywhere
The wondrous truth outstrips my staggering pen.
So we stirred
Our footsteps citywards, with hearts reposed,
Safely protected by the heavenly word.
Who, though with words unshackled from the rhymes,
Could yet tell full the tale of wounds and blood
Now shown me, let him try ten thousand times?
The self-same tongue that first had wounded me,
Bringing the scarlet blood to both my cheeks,
Thus to my sore applied the remedy.
That's Nimrod, by whose fault the gracious bands
Of common speech throughout the world were loosed.
We'll waste no words, but leave him where he stands,
For all speech is to him as is to all
That jargon of his which no one understands.
As ‘tis, I tremble lest the telling mar
The tale; for, truly, to describe the great
Fundament of the world is very far
From being a task for idle wits at play,
But may those heavenly ladies aid my lay
That helped Amphion wall high Thebes with stone,
Lest from the truth my wandering verses stray.
How cold I grew, how faint with fearfulness,
Ask me not, Reader; I shall not waste breath
Telling what words are powerless to express.