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The Search for the Perfect Language

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  702 ratings  ·  51 reviews
From the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance it was widely believed that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was a perfect language, expressing all possible things, and that all current languages were its decadent descendants. This is an investigation into the history of this idea.
Paperback, 400 pages
Published July 1st 1997 by Fontana Press (first published 1993)
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Ankh156 A very illuminating book. The first part about the search for the roots of language in the pre-Babylon 'adamic' language was the best bit for me. Foll…moreA very illuminating book. The first part about the search for the roots of language in the pre-Babylon 'adamic' language was the best bit for me. Following the renaissance, it becomes a historical account of attemps to create purposed 'auxiliary' languages such as philosophical or international idioms like Esperanto. The pre-renaissance part of the story dredges up all sorts of classical and medeival notions, dripping with Kaballah and magic(k). His exposition of Ramon Lull's 'Ars Combinandi' is particularly interesting. Bravo Mæstro !(less)
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[The search for the perfect language]

"The utopia of a perfect language didn't obsess exclusively the European culture"

"In the beginning there existed a single language given by God, a language thanks to which Adam was able to understand the quiddity of things. It was a language that provided a name for every thing, be it substance or accident, and a thing for each name." Umberto Eco

"The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work [the tower of Babel] of the peop
Jun 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
After the twin realization that not only did I very much like Umberto Eco's work, but I also had read almost none of it, I went through my library seeing if I had any of his books tucked away and, lo and behold, I came up with this one. I honestly have no idea how I got it or how long I've had it, but it's got no jacket and has a chunk missing from the binding. In any case, I read it very quickly, pacing myself to only a few chapters a day, and found it delightful.

You may find it strange that I
Apr 09, 2014 rated it liked it
I skipped certain sections of this book but it was useful research for me and on a subject I've always been interested in reading ever science I read language thought and reality by whorf. This books is about the various methods there were used to create the perfect language eg Esperanto for example. It looks at some of the biblical references to languages, the link with Kabbalah, dantes language in his books, various monogenetic theories, language in china and how that developed, influence of G ...more
I so wanted to like this book. I looked forward to reading it. I was happy the day I came home from Borders with it. (Remember Borders?) It was so boring I had trouble finishing it. I like the topic, I should have liked this book. I threw it on my closet floor for a long time before I could bring myself to finish the last chapter. I still have this book. I keep thinking if I was perhaps smarter I would have appreciated it more so I hang onto it in some misguided attempt to make me feel good (or ...more
Douglas Summers-Stay
Jun 13, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A review of many attempts (from about 1200 to 1900) to reconstruct or invent a perfect language. At first this was based on the idea of Adam speaking in a perfect language before the tower of Babel. Later philosophers tried to construct perfect classification systems and rules of thought. Umberto Eco, being a postmodernist, uses the survey to point out the absurdity of any attempt to reduce the world to one comprehensive system. A scholarly look at a fascinating topic.
Bill Tucker
I gave up on this about a third of the way through. Someday, I'll pick it back up again. ...more
Jan 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics
One of the leitmotifs of European history since the Middle Ages has been the search for a language that is perfect: describes reality exactly, and is easy to learn and use. In Genesis 10:5, each tribe of humanity is said to speak its own language, and in Genesis 11:1, the whole earth was of one language and one speech; the modern Documentary Hypothesis says that these passages come from two different sources, yet for medieval Europeans this contradiction was at the heart of the world. Kabbalists ...more
Mar 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, reviewed
I first read this book in the late 90s. This book made a pleasing impression--from the physical aspects of the book such as the cover art and the typeface, to the writing style of Eco.

Since high school, I've been interested in the history of ideas. This book traces a certain strain in Western culture: the quest for the perfect language. Various figures in history believed that the attainment of a perfect language would bring benefits.

Here are some examples. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissanc
May 21, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to André by: André Meinunger, Erik Freiberg
This is really not one of my favorite books. It's a very VERY detailed description of the search for the perfect language, as the title implies. But nearly 90% of it actually is about religion. The author talks endlessly about what was written in the Bible, about Adam, about glossolalia, about the Tower of Babel and it sometimes seems as if he takes these things for granted. It's really difficult to read, because of all these heavy religious things and how people try to find out about the langua ...more
Jun 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Interesting point: I was lead to this book through a comment read on Facebook. A friend of one of my friends has always posts in all kinds of languages, some I speak myself. So we ended up being friends. She has a vast culture. She commented on this book once, and I was not disappointed reading it. Eco at his best, with fascinating stuff about the search for Adam’s possible language – didn’t he name the animals? Also on issues related to Babel – there was already a diversity of languages BEFORE ...more
Jul 12, 2008 rated it it was ok
I found that this book, considering what it was about, was nearly indecipherable...I think that is gloriously ironic, hence 2 stars rather than 1.
Kirk Lowery
Since ancient times and right down into the present, mankind has been searching for (1) the original language of humans, (2) the holy language that God and Adam used, (3) language that reveals the mystical essence of the universe and things, and (4) a language that eliminates the problems of ambiguity and ill logic so common to natural language, that reveals in its very form the scientific essence of things and (4) a simpler language that all people can learn and communicate with, and so achieve ...more
Mar 02, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: language, linguistics
I'm sure there was a really interesting story in there somewhere, but Eco just wasn't the person to bring it out. Parts of it were fascinating, but there was far too much detail, especially about the whackier ideas of Kabbalists and Renaissance loonies. The idea of the tower of Babel - well, I can understand why he'd theme the book around that. But I got the impression that it was more than just a fairy story to Eco, that at some level he considered it a reality. ...more
Jun 26, 2008 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: people with at least a master's degrees in linguistics
I only got a tiny bit into this book before I returned it--the structure and writing are so technical that the book is unreadable by laymen. It's a shame--the topic sounded extremely interesting. ...more
Apr 17, 2010 marked it as didnt-finish
Shelves: nonfiction
Wasn't really about what I wanted it to be about. ...more
Apr 09, 2014 rated it liked it
Incredibly interesting if you are looking for a Semiotics books, par excellence.
Jan 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an excellent overview of the history of 'perfect language projects,' including Cabalism, logic and auxiliary languages. It is an academic book, and is very technical. I had to read it fairly slowly and take good notes. This is definitely a book for research and study, rather than enjoyment. It is also one of the best linguistics books I've read. ...more
Mark Burns
Apr 17, 2015 rated it liked it
What a wonderful subject! Reviews of some attempts at rediscovering the magical, or holy, "Adamic" language, or creating pure "philosophic" languages out of the Age of Reason. It seems there were many such attempts and often by some big name philosophers too. It's not often you read a book and think, "Bloody hell, Leibniz, you idiot!" This book can give you that kind of boost. Also it contains a brief but fascinating description of the work of Thomas Sebeok, a semiotician employed by the Europea ...more
Apr 19, 2016 rated it liked it
This is essentially a book about the philosophy of language, but I found it annoyingly unphilosophical in the points where it matters. The Enlightenment was the age of algebra and taxonomy -- what sort of benefits did these writers see in developing a similar universal standard for natural language? How did the foreign languages they encountered (e.g. hieroglyphics, Hebrew, Chinese) influence their ideas of how language works in general? Eco's writing, simultaneously dense and chatty, is weakest ...more
Gideon Burton
Jan 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating survey of various efforts to get back to an original language (religiously) or to craft a perfect means of representation (scientifically). Gets to the heart of how humans both value language and agonize over its imperfections. An academic work, but with the kind of meat on it that I pick to the bones. A nice companion to works like George Steiner's After Babel. ...more
Jon Gauthier
Feb 02, 2012 rated it did not like it
Unreadable in both syntax and content. Though there are a few linguistic gems in the rough, the majority of the writing (of the first 19%, at least — I stopped there) is difficult and uninteresting given what one would expect this sort of book to cover. Perhaps worth a read if religion is your thing.
Apr 23, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: default
Thorough treatise on the 2000 years of a quest for a language that will not only provide signs for the things around us but a perfect, "natural" relationship. Entertaining, deep, intelligent and at times hilariously funny when it comes to all the erratic dead-end ideas and proposal that had been developed over the centuries. ...more
Oct 01, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting book...but very academic too! I struggled with going beyond a single essay each time I opened it primarily due to the academic flavor.. but the eventual stuff I learnt from it made it totally worth the effort.
Apr 03, 2007 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book about various ideas of what constitutes a perfect language. Written in a very approachable, pleasant style, really interesting history, and some nice reflections on language.
Feb 22, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: writing, psychology
Read the English version. Our thinking patterns are necessarily influenced by our language. Is there a "perfect" language in which thinking is clear? ...more
Read: 15 April-19 May 2009. Of some value but highly disappointing. The outtakes, which comprise Serendipities, make for a better read.
Nov 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The boundaries of our languages naturally represents the limits of our knowledge, or: if we don't have a name for a thing we don't know it, can't express it, can't engage or develop it. This book catalogues a bunch of people who thought that using various philosophical, mathematical, or taxonomical methods could re/create the perfect language lost during the "confusio linguarum" at the destruction of the tower of Babel. This perfect language would theoretically bestow us with complete knowledge ...more
Sinan Öner
Italian Writer, Historian Umberto Eco's "The Search for the Perfect Language" is one of the best history books about the history of "languages" in the European geography. Umberto Eco thinks on the changes in the structures of different European languages in his history. Umberto Eco says that the European nations need "the perfect language" which they will use to understand, to produce and to consume the world during their history since the ancient ages. Umberto Eco observes the history of "langu ...more
Philip Coulter
Sep 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Initially this book seemed quite esoteric (as Eco can be), but he got into some interesting discussions towards the second half of the book. Not an easy read, but worth persevering with.
Pegah Rezai
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought the book completely randomly. As a complete noob in the field, This book gave me a great insight on the topic. it was definitely a worthy read and I really enjoy it.
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Umberto Eco was an Italian writer of fiction, essays, academic texts, and children's books. A professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Eco’s brilliant fiction is known for its playful use of language and symbols, its astonishing array of allusions and references, and clever use of puzzles and narrative inventions. His perceptive essays on modern culture are filled with a delightful sen ...more

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