The idea that there once existed a language which perfectly and
unambiguously expressed the essence of all possible things and
concepts has occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians,
mystics and others for at least two millennia. This is an
investigation into the history of that idea and of its profound
influence on European thought, culture and history.
From the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance it was widely
believed that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was just
such a language, and that all current languages were its decadent
descendants from the catastrophe of the Fall and at Babel. The
recovery of that language would, for theologians, express the
nature of divinity, for cabbalists allow access to hidden knowledge
and power, and for philosophers reveal the nature of truth.
Versions of these ideas remained current in the Enlightenment, and
have recently received fresh impetus in attempts to create a
natural language for artificial intelligence.
The story that Umberto Eco tells ranges widely from the writings
of Augustine, Dante, Descartes and Rousseau, arcane treatises on
cabbalism and magic, to the history of the study of language and
its origins. He demonstrates the initimate relation between
language and identity and describes, for example, how and why the
Irish, English, Germans and Swedes - one of whom presented God
talking in Swedish to Adam, who replied in Danish, while the
serpent tempted Eve in French - have variously claimed their
language as closest to the original. He also shows how the late
eighteenth-century discovery of a proto-language (Indo-European)
for the Aryan peoples was perverted to support notions of racial
To this subtle exposition of a history of extraordinary
complexity, Umberto Eco links the associated history of the manner
in which the sounds of language and concepts have been written and
symbolized. Lucidly and wittily written, the book is, in sum, a
tour de force of scholarly detection and cultural
interpretation, providing a series of original perspectives on two
thousand years of European History.
The paperback edition of this book is not available through
Blackwell outside of North America.