The idea that there once existed a language which perfectly andunambiguously expressed the essence of all possible things andconcepts has occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians,mystics and others for at least two millennia. This is aninvestigation into the history of that idea and of its profoundinfluence on European thought, culture and history.
From the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance it was widelybelieved that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was justsuch a language, and that all current languages were its decadentdescendants from the catastrophe of the Fall and at Babel. Therecovery of that language would, for theologians, express thenature of divinity, for cabbalists allow access to hidden knowledgeand power, and for philosophers reveal the nature of truth.Versions of these ideas remained current in the Enlightenment, andhave recently received fresh impetus in attempts to create anatural language for artificial intelligence.
The story that Umberto Eco tells ranges widely from the writingsof Augustine, Dante, Descartes and Rousseau, arcane treatises oncabbalism and magic, to the history of the study of language andits origins. He demonstrates the initimate relation betweenlanguage and identity and describes, for example, how and why theIrish, English, Germans and Swedes - one of whom presented Godtalking in Swedish to Adam, who replied in Danish, while theserpent tempted Eve in French - have variously claimed theirlanguage as closest to the original. He also shows how the lateeighteenth-century discovery of a proto-language (Indo-European)for the Aryan peoples was perverted to support notions of racialsuperiority.
To this subtle exposition of a history of extraordinarycomplexity, Umberto Eco links the associated history of the mannerin which the sounds of language and concepts have been written andsymbolized. Lucidly and wittily written, the book is, in sum, atour de force of scholarly detection and culturalinterpretation, providing a series of original perspectives on twothousand years of European History.
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