THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT LANGUAGE by Umberto Eco

THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT LANGUAGE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This dense archival study finds philosopher/novelist/essayist Eco (Semiotics/Univ. of Bologna, Italy; Foucault's Pendulum, 1989, etc.) excavating the labyrinthine history of early modern European linguistics. Eco traces how the desire to find--or, failing that, to forge--the ideal language motivated a series of philosophers to develop some of our most fundamental structures of thought. One line of descent begins with the Jewish Kabbalism of the Middle Ages. Kabbalistic practices of interpreting Torah by working out anagrams and other linguistic combinations inspired a host of philosophers. One key figure was Raymond Lull, a Christian mystic who sought to produce a new evangelical language. While Lull failed, his efforts influenced not only the magic languages of such occult figures as Jonathan Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, but also the scientific logic and encyclopedism of Enlightenment giants like Leibniz. Eco also traces how the search for the perfect language gave rise to linguistic ideas of history and national identity. Various thinkers sought to recapture the first language, some speculating on the secrets of the Garden of Eden, others attempting to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Authors such as Dante, in contrast, sought to legitimate their national vernaculars as potentially perfect. From these roots developed the scientifically modern but ethically hazardous project of tracing etymologies back to a common Indo-European, or Aryan, ur-language. A few purple passages aside, Eco focuses on complete coverage rather than on imaginative recreation. Thus, while the text is readable, even intriguing in places, the general reader perusing this volume should anticipate some tough going. The Tower of Babel; Leibniz's ""passion for universal peace""; Renaissance espionage techniques; the 20th century project of Esperanto: Eco has intriguing subject matter to work with here. But some of the material is so leaden, even Eco's magical wit can't turn it all to gold.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1995
Page count: 350pp
Publisher: Blackwell