Francis Lodwick put it neatly: ‘A Common Writing: whereby two, although not understanding one the others language, yet by the helpe thereof, may communicate their minds one to another.’ This was his definition of a ‘Universal Language’ (UL). The most widely known of such languages is Esperanto, developed in the 1880s; it emerged from a number of competing schemes; its strongest rival was the ill-fated Volapük. These later ULs emerged at much the same time as the rise of social-democracy in Europe, and there is a very distinct flavour of socialism and pacifism in their aims. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Esperanto was later suppressed in Fascist Germany and Spain, and in Stalin’s Soviet Union. And yet, despite their progressive objectives, most of them displayed an unconscious imperialism: they were built exclusively around European vocabularies and grammar, and took no account of any Asian or African languages. While Esperanto did not seek to supplant native languages, since it was to be an ‘auxiliary’ language (the only secondary language anyone would ever need), objectively, in its design it reflected Western expansionism. As indeed the English language does now – effectively the dominant UL for science, politics, culture and trade. (But so, once, was Latin. So, once, was French. Who can say that English will not in time be superseded?) Nonetheless, Dr Zamenhof’s Esperanto was designed in the praiseworthy hope that ‘all nations would be united in a common brotherhood.’
But such a modern aspiration was probably far from the thoughts of Francis Lodwick. He set down his definition 240 years earlier than Zamenhof, and his scheme for a UL was just one among several developed during the 17th century, across Europe, but particularly in Britain. These earlier schemes may not have had internationalism at heart but, in several cases at least, their design was more radical, and potentially more culturally inclusive, than anything Zamenhof had dreamed up.
The impetus for the creation of a UL in the 17th century was a firm belief among philosophers that scientific investigation was exposing a rational structure to the world; and that existing languages were not merely inadequate at expressing this newly-discovered structure, but actively hindered the development of further insights. It was taken for granted that all ‘natural’ languages had grown out of one common language, but, since the fall of Biblical Babel, they had acquired bad habits and sloppy inconsistencies. Grammar and syntax were just a mess. Words to accurately describe the discoveries of the modern age were lacking. Much as some languages today struggle to cope with neologisms of the past half-century, so Latin – the international language of trade, diplomacy and learning, already in disfavour after the Reformation – was being pushed far beyond its limits.
But if we look more closely at the schemes of Lodwick and others, it becomes apparent that they were not ‘simply’ attempts to create a common language for all humanity. They were driven by a need to categorise and understand the world, to create a method of analysis which would advance the young and burgeoning natural sciences. The designers did so by inventing a new vocabulary, a new grammar and, not infrequently, a new way of writing. And in doing this, they created templates for classifying information, which arguably form the bedrock of scientific pursuit today. In undertaking our researches today, in whatever field, we are almost certainly following methods laid down in these ULs of two centuries ago.
The first person of interest in a long list of UL designers in Britain was Francis Bacon, who in 1623 published his 600-page De Augmentis Scientiarum. This dealt with the problems of restrictive natural languages, and introduced the concept of writing in ‘real characters’ – i.e. not using words with individual letters, but symbols expressing entire concepts. Bacon’s proposals were based on the Aristotelian system of logic which stated amongst other things that, as all things are reflected identically in the minds of every individual, it should be possible to bypass words and their sounds, and to depict, on the page, concepts readily understood by all.
The next significant attempt at designing a UL was made by Francis Lodwick (1619-1694). In 1647, he published the work whose title we have quoted at the start: A Common Writing etc. Lodwick planned a language containing a thousand categories (‘radixes’), comprising all the ideas and words necessary for communication. Each entry in the Lexicon would have a reference number associated with it; the number itself would be written by means of a composite symbol from a specially designed ‘Universal Alphabet’. These symbols bear a remarkable similarity to those deployed by the surprisingly numerous 17th century inventors of shorthand. Distinctive marks would be appended to the symbol to denote synonym, contradiction, relation, verb-tense, number, gender etc. (Lodwick gave working examples of how simple sentences should be translated: one of these – suggestive of more intemperate times – read: ‘Thomas beate John with a stik of ash on the head.’)
Over the following decades, a number of European intellectuals produced their own ideas for ULs – in Germany, Becher, Leibniz and Kircher; in France, Labbé, Besnier and de Bermonville; in Spain, Bermudo; in Moravia, Comenius. Leibniz envisaged highly sophisticated schemes, based around prime numbers and ‘real characters’. But leading the field were two men working at Oxford: George Dalgarno and John Wilkins.
First into print was George Dalgarno (1620-1687). In 1661, Dalgarno published his Ars Signorum. It is slightly ironic that many of the UL designers, whose main aim was to produce a language which superseded Latin, wrote their proposals … in Latin; in Dalgarno’s case, this included the translating dictionary appended to his book. On the plus side, however, he included a dedication to Charles II (‘Caroloi Kanel’) in his new language.
Dalgarno outlined a philosophical scheme which listed the major categories of the material world, then assigned an alphabetical letter to each. Under these twenty categories he placed 546 ‘radicals’ – much like Lodwick’s ‘radixes’. He deliberately avoided using ‘real characters’ for his vocabulary, preferring to stick with the letters of the Roman or Greek alphabets. The word for each radical began with the assigned letter for the category; hence, it was easy (in theory, at least) to narrow down the meaning. All N*T words are piscatorial, for example; NIT was ‘a flat-fish’. More complex things were expressed by combining three- or four-character radicals: thus an elephant was ‘nηkbeisap’ (η is pronounced like ‘ay’ in ‘bay’): ‘a beast, whole-footed’ + ‘mathematical accident’ + ‘superlative’.
Dalgarno is perhaps now better known for developing methods for deaf people to communicate; as for his Ars Signorum, alas, it vanished virtually without trace. The Oxford establishment and the group around the new Royal Society of London chose to completely blank Dalgarno: they had their own champion.
This was John Wilkins (1614-1672), Oxford academic, Bishop of Chester, and founder-member of the Royal Society. In 1668 he published his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. This work was the most exhaustive of the 17th century UL genre: it is a monster – running to a weighty 600 folio pages inclusive of a 150-page dictionary.
Wilkins covered everything. He began by reviewing, at length, ‘Past Tongues and Letters’. Then he discussed a ‘regular enumeration of things as a “Scientifical Part” comprehending Universal Philosophy’ – that is, a philosophical categorisation of the material and social world, under forty ‘genera’ or categories (which included Language itself). For example, ‘Herbs’ were listed according to their flowers – or alternatively their seed-vessels or leaves; ‘Insects’ according to those with feet, and those without (i.e. worms, snails etc). Each genus was then split into ‘differences’ or sub-categories. Within the forty genera, Wilkins identified no fewer than 4,000 ‘differences’; and each ‘difference’ could have limitless sub-entries.
Wilkins proceeded to design ‘real characters’ from these categories, using horizontal lines intersecting with, or hedged about by, marks indicating verbs, adjectives, adverbs, plurals etc. These marks comprised vertical or slanted lines, hooks, circles, dots. Wilkins’ symbol for ‘God’ is a plain unbroken line: all words are built around it. And to allow the new language to be spoken, Wilkins assigned a sound to each basic shape and its appendages. (Significant problems could arise, of course, if ink was accidentally spattered on the page…)
The final section in his work was the Lexicon. Most words listed are shown with a reference to their genus and difference. Thus, Wilkins’ elephant is Be.I.4 – genus of ‘Beast’, first difference, fourth species: just as precise as Dalgarno’s pachyderm; and, at risk of confusing everything, it is pronounced Zibi and written as
The most fascinating aspect of Wilkins’ massive volume is not the vast amount of knowledge that he displayed, nor the collaborative aspect of its development (colleagues such as Hooke and Pepys prepared long lists of specialist technical terms), but the sheer impossibility of it becoming a language easily learned, a flaw which he himself later acknowledged.
With a few curious and rather naive exceptions, the seventeenth century UL schemes were not about providing aids for trade and colonisation; nor were they intended for Everyman – these schemes were outrageously complex. And only secondarily were they ‘about’ vocabulary and grammar. Primarily, they laid out a method of analysis. In de-constructing Language itself, and re-constructing it according to the latest scientific principles, the UL pioneers were laying down a methodology for all scientific endeavour. They jettisoned the English and Latin languages and proposed to replace them with something which far more accurately reflected the new understanding of the world, in which birds and minerals and judicial matters were easily identified by category.
What links these obscure attempts to the modern day is both their scientific method and their concept-based writing: we can still find echoes of them in such accepted authorities as the chemist’s Periodic Table, the Linnaean biological taxonomy, and in Roget’s Thesaurus; and ‘real characters’ can be seen practically anywhere in esoteric scientific formulae and – yes – even in emojis. What separates them from our own times is, of course, some of the detail. We might now disagree that God is the foundation of all concepts. We might baulk at some strange categories, such as the legless insect. We would question the wisdom of limiting the number of philosophical categories. And we might well shy away in fear from the new-fangled ‘real characters’.
But even if now the early UL schemes are perceived as historical oddities, they amply reward closer study for another reason: their lists of ‘essential’ vocabulary open a window into the minds of our ancestors, their health concerns, and their attitudes to women, non-believers and foreigners; Wilkins’ four pages describing the ‘differences’ of crime and punishment in the genus ‘Judicial Relation’ are a particular eye-opener. And what is not to like in words such as ‘tweez’, or the equally obscure ‘chin-cough’ and ‘tighy’? (But perhaps we should temper our enthusiasm: Bishop Wilkins defined enthusiasm as ‘Counterfeited Inspiration’.)