The Wild Goose Chase

The Search for the Perfect Language

by Umberto Eco
Blackwell, 385 pp., $24.95

The Search for the Perfect Language is published in a series called “The Making of Europe,” of which the general editor is the eminent medieval historian Jacques Le Goff. Other volumes are by Peter Brown (The Rise of Western Christendom), Aaron Gurevich (The Origins of European Individualism), and Ulrich Im Hof (The Enlightenment). Some nine volumes have so far been published or are on the point of publication, and there are many more on the way, all by distinguished writers. The series is published in five languages. It may be unfair to say so, and it doesn’t appear that there is subvention from Brussels, but the augustly institutional air of such enterprises can be rather chilling, or some Euroskeptics may suspect this one of being highclass cultural propaganda for such projects as the single currency or other malign Eurocratic plots. Yet Professor Eco’s book, though it naturally has something to say about the problem of a common language, says nothing whatever about common money. A few pious pages near the end are devoted to the desirability of achieving a Europe “where differences of language are no longer barriers to communication, where people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best they can, the speech of others.”

There is no sign here that the professor considers a common language as even a remote possibility. The five publishers associated with these books were evidently equally skeptical about the possibility of issuing them in some supranational dialect, and sensibly decided to risk the well-known difficulty of accurate translation rather than commission works in Latin or Esperanto. As it happens, James Fentress has translated Eco’s book into English of remarkable elegance and resource, though it is true that readers without French, a smattering at least of Latin, and maybe some elementary Greek vocabulary may find it hard going. Translation of passages and titles in these languages is sporadic, and Eco, like some of the very dead scholars he discusses, is fond of unusual words like “pasigraphy,” “pansemiotism,” and “steganography.”

Again like these dead scholars, Eco is polymathic to an extent most will regard as practically inhuman, and he has never seemed more so than in this well-organized, sprightly, and exhaustingly informative book. He would hardly mind being compared with one predecessor in particular, the encyclopedic and fluent seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who wrote huge books on virtually everything—the Tower of Babel, Egypt, universal music, as well as the treatise on Universal Polygraphy that is part of Eco’s present concern. Kircher was very famous in his day, and so were many other scholars here considered, but unless, like Leibniz, they achieved distinction in studies less vulnerable to the action of time, they are now forgotten except by scholars interested in forgotten scholars.

The reason why is simple: unlike the calculus, a demonstration that Hebrew or Dutch or French is the closest surviving relative of an original universal and perfect language is unsustainable and useless, and…

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