on October 30, 1997
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
on March 11, 2000
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!
on April 5, 2001
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.
on July 14, 1999
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.
on August 14, 2001
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!
on March 3, 2007
As always, Umberto Eco amazes with his erudition and insight. The only reason I didn't give this book five stars is because I see that as reserved for the near perfect.
The felt need to transcend the frustrations of the world's great multiplicity of languages is clear, even in this age of on-line dictionaries, instant Google translations, etc. How much greater than need must have felt two or three centuries ago!
Eco painstakingly explores the strengths and weaknesses (with the latter usually prevailing) of the many attempts made to devise a much improved, if not perfect, langauge. It is quite amazing to contemplate the enormous efforts put into this project!
Successive attempts progressively elucidated the nature of the problems that had to be overcome, and ultimately the impossibility of the task, at least where one is envisaging a language to be used by the population at large. A major reason for this is the evolutionary and uncontrollable nature of a common language (which the French have sought to control in vain).
A most enjoyable read!
Umberto Eco has done a very fine job of cataloguing and elucidating Europe's historical search for the "perfect language". What is interesting is how he embeds the historical stages of the different definitions of "perfect language" into this book. Medieval Europe begins with a notion of a language in perfection spoken by Adam and passed down until the breakup at the Tower of Babel; then when it becomes apparent that no such language can be found, Renaissance philosophers take up attempts at finding a common root to all languages in order to help with religious conversions, missions, economy & trade; and finally, in our global community, efforts are being made to standardize certain linguistic derivatives in order to aid the advance of science and intergovernmental interactions. This book should be read by anyone interested in linguistics or European history in general.
on April 9, 2007
A scholarly tour de force. Eco demonstrates his famous erudition in a sweeping yet detailed-when-necessary overview of the search for the perfect language - from the monogenetic hypothesis to a priori philosophical languages. The breadth of his reading brings together a bibliographic database that will serve as a starting point for further research for anyone interested in babel, symbolic languages and of course the birth of languages and europe. I only wish he'd pushed his limit to include the non-european world, but that is of course asking for too much.
on March 6, 2013
Umberto Eco demonstrates how, from the search for what Adam called a cat to Wilkins's and Swift's universal machines for language, the dream of Babel has been a haunting ghost. The dream, if not the language itself, has given structure to our philosophical discourses and inquiries. Even if we have not achieved the universal language or the machine or the grand list or catalog, the very habit of mind or desire has been a structure itself driving us toward a common "Europe" (and, incidentally, America and Australia).
on February 18, 2015
Extremely useful for historians of Science. One book can not be exhaustive but this one is so full of facts, sources and ideas it will fill your mind as an exemplar of great research.