The Search for the Perfect Language Essay - Critical Essays

Umberto Eco

The Search for the Perfect Language

THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT LANGUAGE examines how belief in an Ur-language, a universal medium of absolutely unambiguous expression, inspired scholars, cranks, and scoundrels throughout the centuries. As a legacy of Babel, according to the Biblical account, humans have become dispersed among a multitude of mutually unintelligible, and defective, languages. The quest to recover or replace the lost language of consummate expression and communion is Eco’s theme. He studies contributions not only by such eminent figures as Augustine, Dante, Rene Descartes, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz but also unfamiliar zealots including Raymond Lull, whose attempt to create a system for universal language in order to convert the infidels led to martyrdom at the hands of Saracens, and Guillaume Postel, judged not heretical but insane for fanatical insistence on Hebrew as the perfect primal language. Latin, Chinese, Egyptian, English, German, Dutch, Celtic, and later, the hypothetical Indo-European were other candidates for the honor, though in 1688 Andreas Kempe contended that God spoke Swedish, Adam Danish.

A zestful inquest into the history of ideas, THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT LANGUAGE is entertaining and informative, though general readers are unlikely to follow all the details of its excursions into Kabbala, cryptography, Rosicrucianism, and hieroglyphics. In the process of examining numerous efforts to reconstruct prototypical languages or to devise a priori philosophical languages and a posteriori international ones, Eco shed some light on nationalistic aspirations and the murky connections between the structure of thought and the structure of speech.

Eco’s book, which features an extensive bibliography, focuses on European approaches to language, at a time when his continent is beset by division but striving toward union. He demonstrates that multilingualism is a curse and a beneficence, as well as the inspiration for a formidable work of popular scholarship.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. November 5, 1995, p. 70.

Library Journal. CXX, September 15, 1995, p. 66.

London Review of Books. XVII, November 16, 1995, p. 13.

New Statesman and Society . VIII, October 6, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times. November 28, 1995, p. C13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, August 14, 1995, p. 68.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 3, 1995, p. 27.