1. This is a transcription of the lectures series The Search of the Perfect Language given by the outstanding Italian linguist Umberto Eco at Casa Italiana of The Columbia University, November 1996
  2. This document is re-published in the hope that it will be useful, but not necessarily the maintainer of this site agree with the ideas contained in the document.

The Dream of a Perfect Language
Part IV

A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

November 26, 1996

These explorations in the history of perfect languages are not a mere archeological endeavor. The problems faced by Wilkins are reappearing today (albeit in more sophisticated forms) in the framework of many researches in Artificial Intelligence, in the theories of a computational nature of Mind (supposedly articulating a Language of Thought or Mentalese), as well in the researches on mechanical translation.

We know what a predicament translation represents for natural languages. It has been told that every language is a system in itself and that radical translation is impossible, except one is able to find a perfect language of Mind. Such a parameter for every translation was judged as essential by Walter Benjamin: since it is impossible to reproduce all the linguistic meanings of the source-language into a target-language, one is forced to place one's faith in the ideal convergence of all languages. In each language " taken as a whole, there is a self-identical thing that is meant, a thing which, nevertheless, is accessible to none of these languages taken individually, but only to that totality of all of their intentions taken as reciprocal and complementary, a totality that we call Pure Language (reine Sprache)" (Benjamin 1923). This reine Sprache would not be a real language. If we think of the mystic and Cabalistic sources which were the inspiration for Benjamin's thinking, we begin to sense the impending ghost of sacred languages, of something more akin to the secret genius of the Primeval Language than to the ideal of the a priori languages.

In many of the most notable projects for mechanical translation, there exists a notion of a parameter language, which does share many of the characteristics of the a priori languages. There must, it is argued, exist a tertium comparationis which might allow us to shift from an expression in language A to an expression in language B by deciding that both are equivalent to an expression of a metalaguage C. If such a tertium really existed, it would be a perfect language.

The only alternative would be to discover a natural language which is so "perfect" (so flexible and powerful) to serve as tertium comparationis. In 1603, the Jesuit Ludovico Bertonio (Arte de la lengua Aymara) described the Aymara language (still partially spoken by Indians living between Bolivia and Peru) as endowed with an immense flexibility and capability of accommodating neologisms, particularly adapted to the expression of abstract concepts, so much so as to raise a suspicion that it was an artificial invention. Later this language was described as the language of Adam, founded upon necessary and immutable ideas", a philosophical language if ever there were, and obviously somebody discovered that it had Semitic roots.

Recent studies have established Aymara is not based on an Aristotelian two-valued logic (either True or False), but on a three-valued logic it is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions. Thus there have been proposals to use Aymara to resolve all problems of computer translation. Unfortunately, it has been demonstrated that the Aymara would greatly facilitate the translation of any other idiom into its own terms, but not the other way around. Thus, because of its perfection, Aymara can render every thought expressed in other mutually untranslatable languages, but the price to pay for it is that (once the perfect language has resolved these thoughts into its own terms), they cannot be translated back into our natural native idioms. Aymara is a Black Hole.

It is not this evening that we can discuss the possibility of a new scientific Aymara and how to overcome all the predicaments of an allegedly perfect language. Thus let me conclude with a temporary remark, quoting an Arab writer of the tenth o eleventh century, Ibn Hazm.

According to him, in the beginning there existed a single language given by God, thanks to which Adam was able to understand the quiddity of things. This tongue provided a name for every thing, and a thing for each name. But if such a prior language existed, why should have men undergone the unprofitable task of inventing other idioms? And if it did not exist, which was the source of our natural languages? The only explanation is that there was an original language which included all others. The confusion did not depend on the accidental invention of new languages, but on the fragmentation of a unique tongue that existed ab initio and in which all the other were already contained. It is for this reason that all men are still able to understand the revelation of the Koran, in whatever language it is expressed. God made the Koranic verses in Arabic in order that they might be understood by His chosen people, not because the Arabic language enjoyed any particular privilege. In whatever language men may discover the spirit, the breath, the perfume, the traces of the original polylinguism.

Let us accept that suggestion coming from afar. Our mother tongue was not a single language but rather a complex of all languages. Perhaps Adam never received such a gift in full; it was promised to him. Thus the legacy that he has left to all his sons and daughters is the task of winning for themselves the full and reconciled mastery of the Tower of Babel.

Which means, even in this country where it seems that English is the vehicular universal language, but different people at every corner of New York City speak a different tongue, to be tentatively polyglots is the only chance for mutual understanding.

Once a young American met Roman Jakobson who was starting his teaching in this country and said to him: "Professor, I rushed here to learn from you, but your classes are given in Russian, and I do not understand it." Jakobson (who was told to speak Russian in forty languages) answered: "Try!"

I thank you for having generously tried, this evening, to understand my pidgin English as it were your own perfect language.