Sunday, November 18, 2007

For a Polyglot Federation

By Umberto Eco

New Perspectives Quarterly, Winter 1993

UMBERTO ECO Author Of THE NAME OF THE ROSE and FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM, Umberto Eco is without doubt the world's most famous semiologist.

His comment here is adapted from an interview with his translator and friend, the writer Jean-Noel Schifano. A longer version of this interview appeared in LE MONDE.

The Quest for a Perfect Language in the History of European Culture is a subject containing a gargantuan utopia coupled with a search for the Grail. It is gargantuan and Rabelaisian -- a farfetched, extraordinary idea for a project. In order for all of it to be covered completely, 10 scholars should work for 20 years to produce 40 volumes. As it is, as I proceed into my third year of this project -- even I, who collect ancient books -- discover texts that are either completely unknown or were mentioned once by, let's say, Leibniz, another time by someone else.

What does this mean for Europe, which has constantly torn itself apart while dreaming of coming into being? It means that the history of Europe, traversed by breaks, wars, divisions and attempts to reestablish a Government, is continually accompanied by this quest, which is punctuated with possible political upheaval. Take Postel, for example, a man who dreamed of rediscovering the perfect original Hebrew that would make universal religious and political harmony possible under the King of France.

Or take the Rosicrucians, who sought a magical language -- one that would merge with the language of birds, the natural language of Jacob Bohme. Behind their quest, however, was also the search for universal peace, which was for them the peace between Catholics and Protestants.
And under the Convention, there was the perfect republican language of Delormel for the laical harmony of the Enlightenment.

This theme has always traversed European history. It is utopian -- a search for Grail -- and, therefore, doomed to failure. But -- and this is the idea that interests me- though it is a search that fails in each of its attempts, it produces what the English call "collateral effects": the language of Lulle failed as a language of religious harmony but gave rise to all of the combinatives, up to the word "computer." The language of Wilkins failed as a universal language but produced all the new classifications of the natural sciences. The language of Leibniz failed but produced modern formal logic. So, in each failed effort to formulate the perfect language a small inheritance remains.

Today, whether we are doing algebra or playing with the computer, we are, in effect, benefitting from some inheritance of the quest for a perfect language. It is even more fascinating for a linguist or semanticist, since, by studying the reasons why perfect languages did not work we discover why natural languages are what they are.


Every search for the perfect language started by describing the defects ofthe natural language. For an example, we need only look to Italy, where the language of Dante was born in response to the search for a perfect language. In the beginning, Dante discussed only the Language of Adam and its characteristics. He then made a truly marvelous decision: his own language would be the perfect language -- the language he invented for his poetic use -- which then became Italian, and artificially national.

While English was born imperfect but evolved as people reasoned for their own account, the Italian language has suffered from having been born of the project of a perfect language. Today Italy endures its language, which was and has remained a laboratory language. Since Italy is not a unified nation, Italian has never become the language spoken by everyone, though it remains the language of writers-and of television.

Indeed, the Italian language had its standard unification relatively recently, with television. Let us not forget that no more than 100 years ago Victor-Emmanuel, who unified Italy after the battle of San Martino, said to his officers: "Today we have given the Austrians a good thrashing." He said it in French, because he spoke French with his wife and his officers, in dialect with his soldiers, and perhaps in Italian with Garibaldi.


I share the feelings of those who think that a language, as a living organism, always manages to enrich itself and survive, to resist all "barbarization," to produce poems, etc. It is obvious that in New York, where there are Puerto Ricans, Indians, Pakistanis, etc., the mix of people imposes a simple language on the rest of the community: 2,000 or 3,000 words, with easy constructions. But I am not like those who become shocked when the new generations speak their standard jargon. Language is strong; it always has the upper hand.

What is left, however, is what socio-linguists have called the social division of languages. Obviously, a university professor has a richer language than a taxi driver. Richelieu had a richer language than his peasants.

The social division of language has always existed, but that statement of fact does not involve the notion of degeneration-enrichment. English is unquestionably the language with the richest lexicon, and- by virtue of the social division of languages, the taxi driver knows only a very small portion of this vocabulary. However, the richness of the English language is not in question: it survives through literature. Therefore, I do not think that a technological revolution can silence a language.

Look at Europe: Just 20 years ago, people were inclined to think that four or five basic languages could suffice for the European people. What we have seen, after the crumbling of the Soviet Empire, is a multiplication of regional languages: in ex-Yugoslavia, in the ex-Soviet Union. And these trends give strength to other minority languages such as Basque, Catalan, Breton.
Europe does not "melt" like the U.S., and so must therefore find a political unity above the great linguistic divide. The challenge for Europe is that of going toward multilingualism; we must place our hope in a polyglot Europe. The challenge for Europe is finding political unity through polyglotism. Even if the decision is made to speak Esperanto at the European Parliament and in airports, polyglotism will be the true unity of Europe.

Europe must take Switzerland and not Italy -- with its diversity of dialects and traditions, but a national language -- as its model. Europe must remain a multilinguistic community.


If one looks at what is happening in American universities, where studying Shakespeare is being advised against in order to study African or Indian culture, one sees a science fiction future in which Hemingway could be Menandre. But I am insistent about there being a quality, a force in Europe, which keeps us from falling into such naivete. In Paris, Western civilization can be studied, and an Institute of the Arab World is being constructed at which Oriental civilizations may also be studied.

One can picture a high school in which the history of France is studied at the same time as the history of the African people. Europe is not ingenuous enough to say: let us throw Shakespeare out so we can dive into the Hindu religions. Because of this, the possibility that a Valery will become a Menandre in Europe is less than in America. In order for Menandre to have become Menandre, his language had to die at a precise moment. Therefore, before the living languages of Europe become dead languages, with the capacity they have of rejuvenating themselves, there would really have to be a tragedy on a planetary scale, which would cause the western countries to fall into total ruin. And this is unlikely. The worldwide circulation of information makes it much more difficult for there to be the danger that one day Notre Dame will be regarded like the statues on Easter Island.


In 1943, Alberto Savinio wrote, "The concept of nation was originally an expansive concept and therefore active and fertile. As such, it inspired and formed the nations of Europe, in the middle of which we were born and have lived until now. This concept has since lost its expansive qualities and has now assumed restrictive qualities."

I share this unitary and European vision with Savinio. It is very improbable that in France today someone like Richelieu would intend that all of Europe speak French or that a Kaiser, someone like Frederick II, would want all of Europe to speak German.

Unfortunately, the French in the North, who fear that European unity will erase national identity, do not realize that Richelieu built the French nation but he did not keep someone from Marseille from feeling deeply Marseillais -- with all his meridional traditions, his culture and even his pronunciation and dialect.

In Italy, it is possible for the idea of nation to coexist with tradition. For instance, I feel intimately Piedmontese and believe that someone else living in Sicily feels deeply Napolitan. One must not think that Europe can be conceived without the expansive concept of nation. The European Union exists precisely to keep us from thinking of a German Europe or a French Europe. Nonetheless, the nation remains a deep element of identity. The problem with this element of identity is that it must merge into the multilinguistic perspective, into a Europe of polyglots.

Europe must become a land of translators -- people who have a deep respect for the original text and a deep love of their language of origin, but who also seek to build an equivalent. Such is the concept of Europe. Through translation, our language is enriched in order to understand itself better.

A Europe in which the franc and the mark no longer exist but the Ecu does is alright with me. But it must also be a Europe in which, when you are in Paris, you are in Paris; and when you are in Berlin, you are in Berlin! In these cities we must be able to feel two deeply different civilizations that make themselves understood and loved.


Between the 18th and I9th century, the myth of the Tower of Babel became a symbol of progress, of tomorrows that sing. There is no longer the fear of a tower reaching as high as God, out of defiance or pride. In the beginning Babel was a sin; it has become a virtue in the modern world. In fact, someone is planning to build a "never-ending tower" -- a Tower of Babel -- in the La Defense section of Paris. But the modern world has already made its decision to construct a Tower of Babel: the space shuttle. The modern world has constructed the Tower of Babel by going to the Moon and by seeking to understand what is happening at the furthermost bounds of the universe. Under these circumstances, Paris' current wish for a tower may be nothing but an archaic metaphor.