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The Search for the Perfect Language Hardcover – October 30, 1995

ISBN-13: 978-0631174653 ISBN-10: 0631174656
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers 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.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From 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.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 396 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (October 30, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0631174656
  • ISBN-13: 978-0631174653
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,392,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Umberto Eco (born 5 January 1932) is an Italian novelist, medievalist, semiotician, philosopher, and literary critic.

He is the author of several bestselling novels, The Name of The Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of The Day Before, and Baudolino. His collections of essays include Five Moral Pieces, Kant and the Platypus, Serendipities, Travels In Hyperreality, and How To Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays.

He has also written academic texts and children's books.

Photography (c) Università Reggio Calabria

Customer Reviews

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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By lommel@alaska.net on October 30, 1997
Format: Hardcover
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
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By A. G. Plumb on April 5, 2001
Format: Paperback
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.
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57 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Sean Burke on March 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
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!
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 14, 1999
Format: Paperback
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.
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