The Search for the Perfect Language

The Search for the Perfect Language

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by Umberto Eco
     
 

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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.

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is as much a history of the study of language and its origins as it is a tour de force pursuit using scholarly detection and cultural interpretation, thus providing a series of original perspectives on two thousand years of European history." The Medieval Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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. (Sept.)
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780631205104
Publisher:
Wiley
Publication date:
04/16/1997
Series:
Making of Europe Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
994,162
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"This is as much a history of the study of language and its origins as it is a tour de force pursuit using scholarly detection and cultural interpretation, thus providing a series of original perspectives on two thousand years of European history." The Medieval Review

Meet the Author

Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria in 1932 and has been Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna since 1975 and the President of the International Center for Semiotic and Cognitive Studies at the Universityu of San Marino since 1988. His books include The Name of the Rose (1980), Foucault's Pendulum (1988) and the more recent works include Semiotics and Philosophy of Lanaguage (1984) and The Limits of Interpretation (1990).

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Bologna, Italy
Date of Birth:
January 5, 1932
Date of Death:
February 19, 2016
Place of Birth:
Alessandria, Italy
Education:
Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

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