The Search for the Perfect Language Analysis

Umberto Eco

The Search for the Perfect Language

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

What is a “perfect language”? To Umberto Eco it might be one regarded as an original or mother tongue of humankind, an artificial one constructed to express ideas more precisely or to achieve universality or practical perfection, or a magical language meant for initiates only. Perfection being a relative concept whose achievement in fulfillment of one linguistic purpose, as in the case of a language intended for general communication worldwide, precludes fulfillment in another, as in that of a truly philosophical language, Eco has had to make a broad survey of notable attempts throughout the centuries, though limiting himself to those by Europeans.

Even measured by a relativistic standard, linguistic perfection is an elusive, not to say illusive, goal. Why, then, does a renowned professor of semiotics such as Eco devote a book to the history of this futile chase? For one thing, it is an activity that has engaged intellectuals of the caliber of Dante Alighieri, René Descartes, and Gottfried Leibniz. For another, it has usually been undertaken with the high-minded goal of overcoming political, religious, or ethnic conflicts and thus promoting universal harmony. Again, its unintended side effects have benefited humanity or at least foreshadowed beneficial achievements. Perhaps most of all, the subject fascinates its author. As to whether Eco succeeds in communicating his fascination to the reader, much depends on the reader. His accounts of the intricacies of these varied linguistic proposals and his criticisms thereof demand close attention and a degree of familiarity with linguistic and philosophical terminology. Any serious reader, however, will be stimulated by Eco’s intellectual framework for The Search for the Perfect Language.

In his first chapter, “From Adam to Confusio Linguarum,” as might be expected, Eco cites the profoundly influential eleventh chapter of Genesis, which begins with “the whole earth . . . of one language” and continues with the story of the Tower of Babel and the “confounding” of the builders’ language. Then, however, he steps back to the less dramatic, less often noticed, and even less often explained references to the different “tongues” of Noah’s sons in Genesis 10. Thus early in Judeo-Christian tradition linguistic confusion—and confusion about that confusion—emerges. Some subsequent pursuers of a perfect language, he alleges, “will oppose Genesis 10 to Genesis 11” with “devastating” results.

An early candidate for perfect language, needless to say, was ancient Hebrew, though its adherents did not agree on the reason. Hebrew was often thought to be the original language, that is, the one God presumably spoke to Adam and Eve; the medieval Jewish cabalistic tradition, on the other hand, favored it for its mystical symbolic density. It remained for Christian Europe a lost language, however, until the Protestant Reformers’ insistence on recovering the text of Holy Writ created the necessity of a new biblical scholarship.

Dante, whose Divina commedia, or Divine Comedy (composed c. 1308-1321), is generally judged the greatest literary work of the Middle Ages, had already (probably between 1303 and 1305) composed the first scheme for a perfect language by a medieval Christian writer, De vulgari eloquentia (On Vernacular Expression). For Dante the closest approximation to a perfect language was the Italian in which he would compose his great poem. His vote for his own language can be more easily forgiven than the similar partialities of later seekers of the perfect language, none of whom composed the literary masterpiece of his tongue. Yet his preference for the vernacular, despite its enormous implications for subsequent Western literature, clearly did not satisfy the seekers of a perfect language then or later.

At about the same time, a Franciscan friar, Raymond Lull, devised a system for a perfect language as a better way of converting infidels than the use of force. Lull sought to convey a system of universally held ideas by means of a universal mathematics of combination. He drew up a table of nine absolute principles (such as goodness and wisdom), nine relative principles, nine types of question, nine subjects, nine virtues, and nine vices and projected a series of figures to perform operations such as the construction of predications (“Goodness is great”) and syllogisms. His most famous figure took the form of a mechanism consisting of three concentric circles which could generate 1,680 answers to an established set of questions. Eco explains and criticizes this way of producing a vast quantity of philosophical content from fifty-four concepts (whose preestablished definitions were assumed). Lull’s perfect language, relying on mathematics and deductive logic, inspired a plethora of similar attempts in the centuries to follow, and it is easy to see that his was the type of mind that in the electronic age would require, and inevitably produce, the computer.

After a series of chapters tracing developments in the camps of the monogeneticists (those who assumed that all languages descended from one mother tongue), the cabalists, and the Lullists, Eco turns to the pursuit of a perfect hieroglyphic...

(The entire section is 2159 words.)