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The Search for the Perfect Language [Illustrated] [Hardcover]

Umberto Eco
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 30 1995 0631174656 978-0631174653 First Edition
The idea that there once existed a language which perfectly and unambiguously expressed the essence of all possible things and concepts has occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians, mystics and others for at least two millennia. This is an investigation into the history of that idea and of its profound influence on European thought, culture and history.

From the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance it was widely believed that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was just such a language, and that all current languages were its decadent descendants from the catastrophe of the Fall and at Babel. The recovery of that language would, for theologians, express the nature of divinity, for cabbalists allow access to hidden knowledge and power, and for philosophers reveal the nature of truth. Versions of these ideas remained current in the Enlightenment, and have recently received fresh impetus in attempts to create a natural language for artificial intelligence.

The story that Umberto Eco tells ranges widely from the writings of Augustine, Dante, Descartes and Rousseau, arcane treatises on cabbalism and magic, to the history of the study of language and its origins. He demonstrates the initimate relation between language and identity and describes, for example, how and why the Irish, English, Germans and Swedes - one of whom presented God talking in Swedish to Adam, who replied in Danish, while the serpent tempted Eve in French - have variously claimed their language as closest to the original. He also shows how the late eighteenth-century discovery of a proto-language (Indo-European) for the Aryan peoples was perverted to support notions of racial superiority.


To this subtle exposition of a history of extraordinary complexity, Umberto Eco links the associated history of the manner in which the sounds of language and concepts have been written and symbolized. Lucidly and wittily written, the book is, in sum, a tour de force of scholarly detection and cultural interpretation, providing a series of original perspectives on two thousand years of European History.

The paperback edition of this book is not available through Blackwell outside of North America.


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From Publishers Weekly

Before the bewildering Babel of tongues described in Genesis, humanity had just one perfect language, originating in the Garden of Eden, or so theologians and philosophers believed from the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance. In this erudite study, which will be heavy going for most readers, famed Italian novelist and linguist Eco mines a wealth of esoteric lore as he investigates a neglected chapter in the history of ideas. He begins with Dante's proposal for a universal vernacular in place of Latin, and Catalan friar Raymond Lull's combinatorial system of letters and symbols designed to explore metaphysical connections. He goes on to examine the Kabbalistic search for hidden messages in sacred Hebrew texts, the Rosicrucian society's symbolic writing in 17th-century Germany and French Enlightenment thinkers' invention of philosophical languages organized around fundamental categories of knowledge. He also surveys the search for a primordial language assumed by Augustine to be Hebrew and by later mother tongue-seekers to be Aramaic or various other languages.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The myth of primordial language in which the word corresponds to being, or the dream of a universal language, has long fascinated thinkers. In this provocative history of ideas, noted Italian linguist and semiologist Eco (The Island of the Day Before, LJ 7/95) traces the quest for a perfect language. For Eco, this quest informs the myth of Adam, Cabalism, Enlightenment theories of classification and the encyclopedias, the search for Indo-European universal grammars, as well as the development of International Auxiliary Languages. He also includes illuminating chapters on Dante, Raymond Lull, Francis Lodwick, and others. Eco's complex yet lucid account of the nature of language is the most stimulating since George Steiner's After Babel (Oxford Univ. Pr., 1975). For academic libraries.
T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, Ga.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent short review that is true to its title Aug. 14 2001
Format:Paperback
This is an excellent short review of European quest for a language to unite its disparate nations with each other and the rest of the world. I thought that the book did an excellent job of staying on the subject and illustrating the progression of thought in this area. It does confine itself to Europe and time period as defined in the beginning of the book. That is excellent, there is simply no other way to cover as much ground as the book attempts to do, and I feel that it does suceed admirably. As usual, Eco's erudition and research are amazing. This book is published in the context of a European series of books about Europe and I wish there was a similar book series that would cover this ground for Far East and India as well. I am sure people there worked on the same kind of problems. Some of the problems with languages and methods described seem so obvious that one has to wonder what the authors themselves thought about them. Of course, this is a whole other book series. I wish there was a 4 1/2 rating as I do not think this is truly a masterpiece, but certainly a very very good book from a very very good author of fiction and non-fiction. A bonus for fans of Focault's Pendulum -- a lot of data in that fiction book refers to work discussed in this non-fiction work. Great fun!
Was this review helpful to you?
4.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary view of language April 5 2001
Format:Paperback
This is an amazing book. My only complaint is that it is about a topic with no resolution - it is a catalogue of attempts that have all met with failure. But it is instructive that so many have tried to create the perfect language, and are still trying. Perhaps it is the hand of God from the moment of the tower of Babel that is blocking success.
When I first started reading linguistics (triggered by an SF novel by Sam Delany called 'Babel 7') I soon learned that the origins of language were taboo. Linguists had decided the topic had been subject to so much questionable and unsuccessful research that they would concentrate their work elsewhere. But in this book Mr Eco explores these early searches for the pre-Adamic language that all human kind were supposed to have evolved with (provided evolution was allowed anyway). Of course Hebrew was THE candidate in the West, but even Chinese was considered by some.
When this line of investigation petered out the philosophers tried to develop generic languages that could be understood by all people and to do this they had to think carefully about the logic of naming things and the logic of the grammar that connects ideas. The categories of knowledge and the development of encyclopedias were triggered by these endeavours. As I read this book, gradually I could see forming in the corners of my mind just what these people were doing, just what they were trying to create. And I suspect it could be successful if we were taught with it, grew up with it. But it is such a daunting task and always the expressiveness of natural language - what we have grown up with and what has grown with us as need has required - makes it seem a thankless task.
Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
5.0 out of 5 stars Points out a secret myth of Western culture March 11 2000
Format:Paperback
This book traces a pesky idea that's been bumping around Western culture for centuries: the idea that a language (or language-like formalism) is possible (which either existed, or which we can devise) which is somehow truer than our mundane languages. Eco traces this idea starting from its roots in ancient times, and he goes into fine detail in discussing the "philosophical languages" of the Renaissance, before discussing more recent constructed languages (Esperanto and the like).
The prose is very clear and straightforward, and the subject full of interesting nooks and crannies.
The book is most valuable in that, once you've read it, you will start recognizing the "perfect language" idea popping up everywhere -- the idea that if we just stick to a really rigid formalism (which we're /almost/ finished coming up with!), then we can get everything right. This idea appears in everything from formalist linguistics ("since the framework is perfect, you just plug in the right parameters for your language, and it works!"), to the voodoo equations of quantitative political science ("and this formula /explains/ why the Sino-Japanese war happened!"), to American law ("I don't care if this law is just -- I'm talking about whether, formally, it's Constitutional; because that's what really matters!"), to the endless wars over which is the best programming language ("Python is better than Perl because it's based on objects, and if you don't understand why that's important, you need to learn more lambda calculus, and indent your code more /correctly/!").
It'll make you think twice about anything that needlessly uses a formalism for expressing what could be said just fine in one of these mundane languages we speak!
Was this review helpful to you?
5.0 out of 5 stars A nonfiction that makes you wonder. July 14 1999
Format:Paperback
It is hardly suprising that Eco, a professor of semiotics would write a thought provoking book on the subject of semiotics. But this is a thought provoking book on so many subjects, for example: The invention of the database,the invention of hypertext, the Cabbala(something of a favourite with him, see also Foucault's pedulum)Plato's theory of forms (a favourite subject with Borges, a writer who Eco clearly admires greatly,Theological history,Biblical history To say nothing of the books main theme the search for a means of unambiguous communication or the first experiments at encryption, or a marvelour story dealing with the burying of nuclear waste in the deserts of Arizona, but like this whole book, true, probably. Not that I am doubting for a moment the veracity of the book but it generated in me a similar excitement to reading fiction.
The book, in short, has the power to provoke thought on so many subjects it has to read more than once.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars gance into the (largely) unknown roots of modern linguistics Oct. 30 1997
By lommel@alaska.net - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language should be required reading for linguists in training. Although Eco refrains from overtly stating his opinions it is clear that his book is much a critique on the modern linguist's ignorance of linguistic history and the errors which result from such ignorance as it is an historical work. He briefly goes through the history of the search for an ur- or perfect language and explains the politics and personalities behind the quest. Anyone familiar with modern linguistics, particularly of the Chomskyan strains, will be aware of how similar many earlier linguistic endevours are to our own modern theory and should be able to glean valuable insights into the success and failure of current efforts. Eco's prose is witty, entertaining and thought-provoking. This volume should also be read prior to reading Foucalt's Pendulum as many of the concepts which are difficult for the average reader of Foucalt's Pendulum are explained very well in the present volume. In addition there is a great deal of material which goes quite nicely with Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language and makes the latter an easier read.
Overall, The Search for the Perfect Language is one of the best studies in linguistic history and theory that I have read
53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Points out a secret myth of Western culture March 11 2000
By Sean Burke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book traces a pesky idea that's been bumping around Western culture for centuries: the idea that a language (or language-like formalism) is possible (which either existed, or which we can devise) which is somehow truer than our mundane languages. Eco traces this idea starting from its roots in ancient times, and he goes into fine detail in discussing the "philosophical languages" of the Renaissance, before discussing more recent constructed languages (Esperanto and the like).
The prose is very clear and straightforward, and the subject full of interesting nooks and crannies.
The book is most valuable in that, once you've read it, you will start recognizing the "perfect language" idea popping up everywhere -- the idea that if we just stick to a really rigid formalism (which we're /almost/ finished coming up with!), then we can get everything right. This idea appears in everything from formalist linguistics ("since the framework is perfect, you just plug in the right parameters for your language, and it works!"), to the voodoo equations of quantitative political science ("and this formula /explains/ why the Sino-Japanese war happened!"), to American law ("I don't care if this law is just -- I'm talking about whether, formally, it's Constitutional; because that's what really matters!"), to the endless wars over which is the best programming language ("Python is better than Perl because it's based on objects, and if you don't understand why that's important, you need to learn more lambda calculus, and indent your code more /correctly/!").
It'll make you think twice about anything that needlessly uses a formalism for expressing what could be said just fine in one of these mundane languages we speak!
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary view of language April 5 2001
By A. G. Plumb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is an amazing book. My only complaint is that it is about a topic with no resolution - it is a catalogue of attempts that have all met with failure. But it is instructive that so many have tried to create the perfect language, and are still trying. Perhaps it is the hand of God from the moment of the tower of Babel that is blocking success.
When I first started reading linguistics (triggered by an SF novel by Sam Delany called 'Babel 7') I soon learned that the origins of language were taboo. Linguists had decided the topic had been subject to so much questionable and unsuccessful research that they would concentrate their work elsewhere. But in this book Mr Eco explores these early searches for the pre-Adamic language that all human kind were supposed to have evolved with (provided evolution was allowed anyway). Of course Hebrew was THE candidate in the West, but even Chinese was considered by some.
When this line of investigation petered out the philosophers tried to develop generic languages that could be understood by all people and to do this they had to think carefully about the logic of naming things and the logic of the grammar that connects ideas. The categories of knowledge and the development of encyclopedias were triggered by these endeavours. As I read this book, gradually I could see forming in the corners of my mind just what these people were doing, just what they were trying to create. And I suspect it could be successful if we were taught with it, grew up with it. But it is such a daunting task and always the expressiveness of natural language - what we have grown up with and what has grown with us as need has required - makes it seem a thankless task.
I guess this type of perfect language - unambiguous and universal - has never cemeted itself in anyone's mind - it has always been a dimly glowing ideal on the periphery of understanding. Perhaps we are not genetically equipped for this type of language. I value the effort Mr Eco has put into sharing these ideas with us, and value the time I have spent trying to grasp them.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A nonfiction that makes you wonder. July 14 1999
By "nevi11e" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It is hardly suprising that Eco, a professor of semiotics would write a thought provoking book on the subject of semiotics. But this is a thought provoking book on so many subjects, for example: The invention of the database,the invention of hypertext, the Cabbala(something of a favourite with him, see also Foucault's pedulum)Plato's theory of forms (a favourite subject with Borges, a writer who Eco clearly admires greatly,Theological history,Biblical history To say nothing of the books main theme the search for a means of unambiguous communication or the first experiments at encryption, or a marvelour story dealing with the burying of nuclear waste in the deserts of Arizona, but like this whole book, true, probably. Not that I am doubting for a moment the veracity of the book but it generated in me a similar excitement to reading fiction.
The book, in short, has the power to provoke thought on so many subjects it has to read more than once.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent short review that is true to its title Aug. 14 2001
By Slava F. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is an excellent short review of European quest for a language to unite its disparate nations with each other and the rest of the world. I thought that the book did an excellent job of staying on the subject and illustrating the progression of thought in this area. It does confine itself to Europe and time period as defined in the beginning of the book. That is excellent, there is simply no other way to cover as much ground as the book attempts to do, and I feel that it does suceed admirably. As usual, Eco's erudition and research are amazing. This book is published in the context of a European series of books about Europe and I wish there was a similar book series that would cover this ground for Far East and India as well. I am sure people there worked on the same kind of problems. Some of the problems with languages and methods described seem so obvious that one has to wonder what the authors themselves thought about them. Of course, this is a whole other book series. I wish there was a 4 1/2 rating as I do not think this is truly a masterpiece, but certainly a very very good book from a very very good author of fiction and non-fiction. A bonus for fans of Focault's Pendulum -- a lot of data in that fiction book refers to work discussed in this non-fiction work. Great fun!
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