Eco: Side-Effects

by Esteban


Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1595), held in the Mittelrhein-Museum in Koblenz as Accession Number M31. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.   

“The story of the search for the perfect language is the story of a dream and of a series of failures. Yet that is not to say that a story of failures must itself be a failure. Though our story be nothing but the tale of the obstinate pursuit of an impossible dream, it is still of some interest to know how this dream originated, as well as uncovering the hopes that sustained the pursuers throughout their secular course.

Put in this light, our story represents a chapter in the history of European culture. It is a chapter, moreover, with a particular interest today when the peoples of Europe–as they discuss the whys and wherefores of a possible commercial and political union–not only continue to speak different languages, but speak them in greater number than ten years ago, and even, in certain places, arm against one another for the sake of their ethno-linguistic differences.

We shall see 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.

Besides, even if our story is nothing but a series of failures, we shall see that each failure produced its own side-effects. Punctually failing to come to fruition, each of the projects left a train of beneficial consequences in its wake.

Each might thus be viewed as a sort of serendipitous felix culpa: many of today’s theories, as well as many of the practices which we theorize (from taxonomy in the natural sciences to comparative linguistics, from formal languages to artificial intelligence and to the cognitive sciences), were born as side-effects of the search for a perfect language.

It is only fair, then, that we acknowledge these pioneers: they have given us a lot, even if it was not what they promised.

Finally, through examining the defects of the perfect languages, conceived in order to eliminate the defects of the natural ones, we shall end up by discovering that these natural languages of ours contain some unexpected virtues. This can finally serve us as consolation for the curse of Babel.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 19-20.

Editorial Note

This concludes my coverage of Chapter 1, From Adam to Confusio Linguarum, omitting in its entirety a section that Eco titled A Semiotic Model for Natural Language, pages 20-4.

I omit this section because it is Eco getting into the weeds of his semiotic method, and while he explains himself clearly, I find it boring. Should you need these pages, just ask. I have screenshots of them, and I can either post them as illustrations or attach them to an email. I am not in the mood to rekey these pages as text. Please accept my apologies.

Besides, Eco’s next chapter is titled The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, and it is fascinating. With no further ado, I will resume there, with his Chapter 2.