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20 Feb

Eco on a Perfect Language: Gaelic

The dream of a perfect language did not only obsess European culture. The story of the confusion of tongues, and of the attempt to redeem its loss through the rediscovery or invention of a language common to all humanity, can be found in every culture.
[…]
It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. It is contained in an attempt, on the part of the Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over written Latin. In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (‘the precepts of the poets’), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows: ‘Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen and bitumen…These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.’
Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues. It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius.

Umberto Eco (1995) The Search for a Perfect Language (trans. James Fentress), London:Fontana Press, pp. 1, 17, 18.


An idea of a perfect language obsessed the Enlightenment: a language that all could read easily, that would relate closely to reality and that would facilitate search for the truth. Some looked for it in the past (like Frederick II), some sought to create one (like Leibniz) and some satirised the dream (like Swift). Eco, in tracing the history of the idea, finds the first idea of creation of a perfect language in the writing of Irish grammarians justifying the use of Gaelic. They claimed that Gaelic was made by taking the best from each language which had emerged from the fall of Babel and the loss of the original perfect language. Gaelic, “this first-born and, consequently, supernatural language retained traces of its isomorphism with the created world” (Eco, 1995, p. 18).

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3 thoughts on “Eco on a Perfect Language: Gaelic

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