The Search for the Perfect Language

by Umberto Eco, James Fentress, Jacques Le Goff,
xii, 385 pages,
ISBN: 0631174656

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Eco on Babel & Brussels
by Michael Stickings

Nationalism and supranationalism have been struggling for mastery since the Cold War ended. Europe is trying to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable political movements: unification and fragmentation. How can the European Union be built, when so many of the component parts are unstable and ideologically anti-European? And what is to be done about the old nation-states, so firmly rooted in their own mythologies and their own centuries-long organic developments? This historical problem ought to be a source of profound intellectual reflection on the meaning of Europe.

Yes, Europe is a spatio-temporal construct and would not exist but for the fortuitous workings of geological forces. But that does not dispose of the matter.

As modernity fades, the primacy of the European nation-state (once a given) has to meet the rising challenges of globalism and tribalism. Questions on the meaning of Europe must now be rigorously asked and vigorously debated. Yet most current European political discourse is shallow, as we can see in supranationalism's indifference to history and in the pseudo-histories of nationalism. On one side, micronationalism, setting ever-lower thresholds for sovereignty, inevitably collapses into jingoism and violence, as in Catalonia and Bosnia. On another side, Eurocrats in Brussels and Strasbourg content themselves with regulating every possible aspect of human life, informing the English that a pint is not acceptable and the Portuguese that a carrot is in fact a fruit. On still another side, national politicians, notably in Bonn and Paris, proclaim euphoric Europhilia to conceal their own national interests.

But there is hope. The shallowness of political discourse is not always reflected in current European scholarship. A fine and welcome example of intellectual reflection on the meaning of Europe is "The Making of Europe", a dynamic new series of scholarly works on various aspects of comparative European history. The general editor is the distinguished French mediaevalist Jacques Le Goff. The series is an ambitious collaborative effort, bringing together five European publishing houses: Great Britain's Blackwell, France's Le Seuil, Italy's Laterza, Germany's Beck, and Spain's Critica. And the works themselves, all written for lay readers, are no less ambitious in scope: for instance, Le Goff's The University in European History, Charles Tilly's European Revolutions, 1492-1992, Peter Burke's The European Renaissance, Aaron Gurevich's The Origins of European Individualism, Massimo Montanari's The Culture of Food, Leonardo Benevolo's The European City, Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom, and Michel Mollat's Europe and the Sea. Le Goff remarks in his editor's preface that the aim of the series is "to describe the evolution of Europe"; he adds that "those committed to the European enterprise will not succeed if their view of the future is unencumbered by an understanding of the past." No doubt, such an understanding is also important for those who find fault with the enterprise as it now stands.

Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language finds a suitable place in Le Goff's project. Eco, of course, is well-known for his three bestselling novels (The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before), his collections of essays on everything from Aquinas to soccer and pornography (Travels in Hyperreality, Misreadings, How to Travel with a Salmon), and his extremely technical studies in semiotics and linguistics (such as The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, and The Limits of Interpretation). One forgets, however, that this foremost of European intellectuals is also an astute student of European history.

His new book is a rich and multi-layered consideration of that history from the perspective of the history of linguistics. The search for the perfect language seems an unlikely place from which to survey the making of Europe, but Eco's explicit intent is to link the meaning of Europe with linguistics, as one cannot understand the continent's past and present, nor forecast its future, without first coming to terms with the genealogy of this obscure search. Eco demands of his readers some interest in semiotics and linguistics, as well as in history, but for the most part he is a clear, precise, and accessible writer who artfully weaves the various and divergent plots and subplots, as well as the innumerable characters, of this fantastic genealogy, into an engaging, provocative, and masterfully elegant "story of the confusion of tongues, and of the attempt to redeem its loss through the rediscovery or invention of a language common to all humanity."

Eco's story begins with God's language at the beginning of time. But what was that language? One prominent, though less historically significant, strand of Eco's story is kabbalism: the idea that creation is "a linguistic phenomenon". But kabbalism is a subterranean current lurking beneath the surface of European philosophy and Christian theology. Its influence on prominent thinkers, both Jewish and Christian, is well-known, but Hebrew's claim to be the language of God was untenable for most thinkers in Latin Rome and Greek Byzantium. Except for certain Hebrew mystics and their Christian followers, the real problem, the real impetus behind the search for the perfect language, arose from the distressing teaching of Genesis 11: that after Babel there was a "confusion of tongues", a curse on man. Genesis 10, which points to natural processes guiding and shaping the development of language, was largely ignored. Concern over the confusio linguarum initiated the search for the perfect language, whether it was Hebrew, an Adamic language of gestures and sounds, the original matrix for all languages, or a new and entirely artificial language. Despite the perpetuation of linguistic nationalisms throughout the world, of course, the multiplicity of languages is no longer considered to be a significant problem, let alone a terrible blemish on man; however, the curse of Babel, as derived from belief in Scripture, compelled early linguists to confront language as the foremost semiotic tool, hence as the foremost aspect of all human interaction. This confrontation impregnated European consciousness with the millennial hope that the Adamic state of man's union with God might be recovered.

Eco is quick to point out that "the search for the perfect language is the story of a dream and of a series of failures." He also points to the many "beneficial consequences" that have arisen as side-effects of this search, such as comparative linguistics. But from the perspective of European history, it is evident that "the dream of a perfect language has always been invoked as a solution to religious or political strife. It has even been invoked as the way to overcome simple difficulties in commercial exchange. The history of the reasons why Europe thought that it needed a perfect language can thus tell us a good deal about the cultural history of that continent." It is understandable, then, why the search for the perfect language is traced back to the discordant centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the apparent demise of civilization in Europe. Eco asks: "How are we to date when the history of Europe begins?" Certainly not with Rome; perhaps with the Carolingians. Alas, "the dates of great political events and battles will not do." This is rather provocative, for he is arguing quite persuasively that traditional history, the history of the achievements of Charles Martel and Charlemagne, of Western Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire, cannot reveal much, if anything, about the making, and hence the fundamental meaning, of Europe. Eco answers his question by saying that "the dates of linguistic events must serve" in place of the better-known dates. Specifically, Europe was born out of, or rather as a reaction to, the confusio linguarum: "Europe was forced at the very moment of its birth to confront the drama of linguistic fragmentation, and European culture arose as a reflection on the destiny of a multilingual civilization.

But let us accept for now Eco's questionable premise: If one rests the birth of Europe on the multiplicity of languages (rather than on Charlemagne's coronation as emperor, for instance), one must begin European history with Dante's vernacular, for Dante's perfect language was his own poetic language. His views on language were set out in Latin, in his De vulgari eloquentia, Europe's first "systematic project for a perfect language," a project that foreshadowed later attempts to recover the "primordial affinity between words and objects". Eco's story jumps back and forth across time and place, but in general it follows a progressive chronological current. Thus-to simplify-Dante's poetic vernacular is followed by a revival of the single-origin hypothesis of Origen and St. Augustine, with Hebrew as the primordial, or proto-, language. But Hebrew's privileged position was finally rejected outright by Locke and Vico, who both stressed the natural processes that guide and shape the diversity of languages. Similarly, the discovery of pre-Hebraic civilizations, such as China's, pointed to more distant linguistic ancestors, from which certain European linguists, through the Jesuits, proposed the mimological hypothesis and the ideographic theory of writing. But this is now the age of absolutism and the building of nation-states: it is the age of emergent nationalism, of the search for meaning and stability following the devastation wrought by the Thirty Years' War. Indeed, that time witnessed a barrage of nationalistic hypotheses of post-Babel linguistic perfection. This, too, was a reaction to the political fragmentation brought about by the Thirty Years War, as various nation-states, shifting from the Hebrew myth (of linguistic primacy) to the Aryan myth (of cultural primacy), defended the alleged perfection of their own vernaculars and jockeyed for position and influence in the new Europe.

The philosophic revolution of the Enlightenment, built within and upon the fertile milieu of the seventeenth century, established a "change in paradigm" in the search for the perfect language. The a priori philosophical languages that emerged with the universal and artificial languages of George Dalgarno and John Wilkins owe much to Francis Bacon's faith in reason as the just replacement for the religious obscurantism which, in his view, enshrouded Europe. Bacon did not develop a new language, but his attack on vagueness, symbolism, and idolatry, all in the name of science, as well as his formulation of an "alphabet of fundamental notions", or primitives, set and captured the intellectual mood of the time. A more thorough, though far from exhaustive, system of classification was devised later by John Webster, Dalgarno, and Wilkins, for the idea is that, in a philosophical language, the content-plane must precede the expression-plane. Knowledge, in the form of primitive notions, is arranged hierarchically in a "dictionary-like structure", a Porphyry's Tree, whereupon a symbol, such as a letter or number, is assigned to each notion: thus are generated new words composed of symbols that together reveal the nature of the thing in question. Such languages have highly simplified grammar and syntax, but, as Eco says, an a priori language is little more than Linnaean taxonomy. For a full definition of any given thing, one must turn to a natural language; in short, one must turn to an encyclopedia, hence to Diderot and D'Alembert or to Leibniz, because a priori languages are intrinsically defective and cannot reveal or convey the nature of things: only an encyclopedia, with its index of "transversal connections" captures human knowledge and learning in a labyrinthine "network of inter-related ideas". But, of course, an encyclopedia is not a perfect language-though it is, for Leibniz, himself a librarian who rejected Locke's division of knowledge, a vehicle for universal peace and understanding.

After Leibniz, who abandoned his own search for primitives (since there are no absolute primitives, only general notions) but whose binary calculus is a kind of logical, "proto-scientific" language (strictly syntactic and non-semantic), the search for the perfect language is turned over to the world of eccentrics. More than ever before, many of the projects that emerged after the Enlightenment resemble nothing but intellectual party games or lunatic visions. The nineteenth century witnessed attempts to revive Latin as the universal language, musical languages based on natural languages, and various other experiments. A priori languages still abound, however: Hans A. Freudenthal's Lincos, a language to be taught to extra-terrestrial beings, computer languages like BASIC and Pascal, and forms of artificial intelligence. As with their predecessors, of course, these languages are defective, since they all rest on natural languages, specifically on Indo-European ones. And yet Eco is quick to note that both logic and linguistic analysis as they are now understood and practised have been built upon these earlier experiments; thus Russell, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein are direct descendants of Baconian thought. Projects in scientific language (as opposed to "pasigraphic", or spoken, language) continue, of course, but the a priori languages of Dalgarno and Wilkins have been eclipsed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the search for a language based on the brain's neuro-physiology, by the search for a universal grammar, or forma locutionis, underpinning all language, and by various projects for a universal a posteriori language derived from natural languages, in short, an International Auxiliary Language, the most successful of which has been, and continues to be, Esperanto. Yet, despite the simplicity of Esperanto, or any other IAL, a posteriori languages lack history, flexibility, and elegance, the cardinal virtues of natural languages, the languages of Shakespeare and Balzac, Dante and Goethe.

Eco asserts, seemingly without much basis, that Europe is in dire need of a common language. He is not a utopian pacifist like Ludwik Zamenhof, the Lithuanian Jew who developed Esperanto as a means to universal brotherhood. But he says that since "linguistic fragmentation is no longer felt as an unfortunate accident but rather as a sign of national identity and as a political right," any attempt at European unity, a unity with which he seems to sympathize, necessitates "the full adoption of a vehicular language for Europe." This is troubling, since European unity, as it is envisioned by Eurocrats and Europhiles today, involves top-heavy management, paralysing regulation, and stifling homogenization with little regard for Europe's nation-states and their traditions, including their linguistic and literary traditions. Eco is aware of these factors; however, he expresses surprising confidence, especially for someone so well-attuned to the dynamics of European history, that a supranational governing body, bolstered by the mass media, would be capable of imposing a new universal language on Europe. Certainly, such a challenge to the continent's long romance with nationalism would provoke an opposite reaction with two prongs: the entrenching of authority in the nation-state and the reawakening of regionalism and tribalism. Eco does not seem to consider that ties to nation are invariably stronger than ties to Europe.

Yet ultimately, he pulls back. He admits that the imposition of a new language for Europe (and perhaps, we might add, the construction of the Union itself) would be, in a sense, anti-European, since, despite its "linguistic fractures,.Europe needs to remain true to its historic vocation as the continent of different languages, each of which, even the most peripheral, remains the medium through which the genius of a particular ethnic group expresses itself, witness and vehicle of a millennial tradition." It is this conclusion, this recognition of an extraordinary historical diversity, over against "the need for a common language", which "the peoples of Europe", "as they discuss the whys and wherefores of a possible commercial and political union," ought to consider. For, as Eco himself argues, "it is only when we reconsider past projects revealed as utopian or a failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects. The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an antiquarian pastime, it is an immunological precaution"-a precaution against ill-founded projects, political and linguistic, which homogenize the richness of Europe's past and present, including the confusio linguarum, in the name of some hollow utopian future.


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