About the BookThe multitalented Umberto Eco--novelist, critic, and literary theorist--turns his attention to the history of linguistics. In linguistics, as in the other sciences, Eco explains, there are serendipities: "Even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious." In his earlier book The Search for the Perfect Language, for example, he discussed the project of discovering the language spoken before the collapse of the Tower of Babel. Although misconceived, the project by chance led to advances in mathematical logic, artificial intelligence, and even world peace--the goal of artificial languages like Esperanto and the unfortunately named Volapük. In the five essays in Serendipities, Eco explores some related serendipitous episodes in the history of linguistics; as always, his characteristic blend of playfulness and erudition is bound to be irresistible to any lover of language.
The first essay, "The Force of Falsity," discusses false documents with momentous repercussions, such as the letter of Prester John, which encouraged European explorers and conquerors to seek its supposed author, the Christian ruler of a distant and fantastically wealthy land. In the second essay, Eco considers Dante's relation to the idea of the perfect language. The third essay discusses early misinterpretations of Egyptian, Chinese, and Mexican ideograms. The Jesuit savant Athanasius Kircher, for example, devoted page upon page to mystical interpretations of a hieroglyph that later turned out to represent nothing more profound than the Greek letter lambda. The remaining two essays are devoted to single authors: "The Language of the Austral Land" concerns Gabriel de Foigny's instructive parody of contemporary attempts to devise the perfect language, while "The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre" endeavors, with indifferent success, to make sense of the counterrevolutionary Savoyard's musings on the nature of language. --Glenn Branch