Umberto Eco

December 9, 2013

9780631205104I don’t really have heroes, but if I did, I think Umberto Eco would probably be one of them; he’s the kind of person I admire, knowledgeable, catholic in his interests, writing and exploring intelligently and communicating clearly in a wide range of genres – a polymath, I suppose. Ever since I came across The Name of the Rose many years ago, I’ve read and enjoyed, and learnt from, many of his books.

I’ve re-read The Search for the Perfect Language; not an easy read, but a fascinating one, and it has helped clear up for me what I think is Eco’s particular genius as it appeals to me. Everything I’ve read of his seems to show his fascination with how the human mind has changed over time, in the way it thinks and looks at and attempts to make sense of the world. So, for example, his novels in a mediaeval setting, such as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, as well as being entertaining stories, recognise and demonstrate that the people of that time saw the world through very different spectacles from those of our time, and that helps illuminate why we are the way we are now. His works on art, such as On Beauty and On Ugliness show how those concepts have changed and developed over time: what the Romans found beautiful, for instance, is not the same as what a twenty-first century observer might judge beautiful. And in the book I’ve been reading, he looks at language over time: how the understanding of the workings of language, and the science of etymology, has developed through the ages.

So, we are no longer preoccupied with such questions as ‘What language did God use when he said “Let there be light!”?’, or the language he used to talk with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or how Adam managed to name all the creatures that God brought to him to name (and how did he manage with the fish?) – questions which preoccupied earlier minds as they strove to rediscover the original language, which must have been perfect, of course, and have existed before the Tower of Babel…

These questions led learned men into horrendously complex attempts to codify language and speech and develop codes that, while they might have been perfect languages, would have been of almost no real use to the world, and unexpectedly led them towards structured approaches to translation, that actually overlap with how computer translation works nowadays…

Eco demonstrates how people went around in circles chasing something that was not practical or achievable, and then stopped as they gradually realised that language was constantly evolving and changing in everyday use, which implied that perfection could not be attained… I think. As I said, it was complicated. But I enjoyed it, and it got me thinking.

And… why is the alphabet in the order that it actually is?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: