Sunday, January 31, 2010

Serendipities: Language and Lunacy by Umberto Eco

Let us for­get for a mo­ment that some of these false tales pro­duced pos­itive ef­fects, while oth­ers pro­duced hor­ror and shame. All cre­at­ed some­thing, for bet­ter or worse. Noth­ing in their suc­cess is in­ex­pli­ca­ble. What rep­re­sents a prob­lem is rather the way they man­aged to re­place oth­er tales that to­day we con­sid­er true. Some years ago, in an es­say of mine on fakes and coun­ter­feits, I con­clud­ed that al­though in­stru­ments, whether em­pir­ical or con­jec­tural, ex­ist to prove that some ob­ject is false, ev­ery de­ci­sion in the mat­ter pre­sup­pos­es the ex­is­tence of an orig­inal, au­then­tic and true, to which the fake is com­pared. The tru­ly gen­uine prob­lem thus does not con­sist of prov­ing some­thing false but in prov­ing that the au­then­tic ob­ject is au­then­tic.

Serendipities is a collection of essays by Umberto Eco chronicling the attempts of linguists and historians to trace language back to its original form, the mother tongue or linguistic matrix that forms the basis for all modern language and grammar. In tracing it back, he also touches extensively on the topics of religion, natural instinct, conspiracies, and various historical events that either prove or illustrated the points he's trying to make.

In all honesty, this was a pretty nerdy book. I really enjoyed it, but unless you have a vested interest in linguistics, it's probably not going to be too appealing. Eco does write in a very accessible style, even when talking about complex, unfamiliar concepts, so if you want to dip your toes in this might be a good place to start. if you just want to read some Eco though, I'd suggest picking up The Name of the Rose.

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