John Wilkins and a Universal Language

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As librarians and archivists, we have an interest in classification. We organize the resources we have – we try to understand what they are and what they’re about, to group them together in structured collections and place them on our shelves in a sequence that is – to a greater or lesser extent – logical. We do all this for you, dear reader, to help you find the information you need with the smallest fuss and, hopefully, to uncover things you didn’t know you wanted.

Larynx during pronounciation of letters, 17th century. From: An essay towrds a real character, and a philosophical language. By: John Wilkins Published: London 1668 Wellcome Images L0007911

Of course we know this kind or order is really impossible. We know that books and archives are as complex and unclassifiable as the individuals who produce them. For all our effort in imposing order we flirt with the absurdity of the apocryphal encyclopaedia described by Jorge Luis Borges “on [whose] remote pages it is written that animals are divided into:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor,
  2. Embalmed ones,
  3. Those that are trained,
  4. Sucking pigs,
  5. Mermaids,
  6. Fabulous ones,
  7. Stray dogs,
  8. Those that are included in this classification,
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. Innumerable ones,
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush,
  12. Others,
  13. Those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. Those that resemble flies from a distance.”

But what if we could categorize everything? What if the kind of taxonomies that exist in botany and in zoology could be extended to encompass every object, action and state of being in the world? And if this structure was created, could it form the basis of a new, more accurate, type of language?

This was a question that preoccupied a group of seventeenth century natural philosophers, including the earliest members of the Royal Society. Their goal was to construct a universal language which could replace the declining Latin as a lingua franca to converse with colleagues overseas. This new language was to rectify the inaccuracy of so-called ‘natural’ languages – which had developed organically in ways that were imprecise, unpredictable and, they believed, fundamentally untruthful. The new language would be clear, logical, and precise – a philosophical language. At its root would be a new taxonomy based on analysing and classifying the natural world into simple component parts. The language they constructed would describe this classification, so that each and every word related to a precise unit in the newly defined order.

A key figure in this quest was John Wilkins (1614-1672). Wilkins’ new  vocabulary was built up through systematic modification of basic terms that he believed could cover all potential topics. Each word would express its own meaning through its relationship to other concepts in the structure. His ultimate goal was to construct a writing system to notate his new language in which symbols related to things, rather than to words – in the same way as the symbol ‘5’ relates to- the quantity five, rather than the word ‘five’ (or cinq, cinco, fünf, etc. ). It is Wilkins’ 1668 work An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (EPB 56310/D) at which Borges’ satire was aimed, and his project was also lampooned in Swift’s Gullivers Travels – where the professors of the academy of Lagado propose a ‘universal language to be understood in all civilized nations’ whereby words are replaced by objects, which are carried around in sacks. But Wilkins was no crank. A theologian (later Bishop of Chester), as well as an author and natural philosopher, Wilkins was a great populariser of scientific discovery whose attempts to engage the public with the new planetary discoveries made him something akin to a seventeenth century Brian Cox. Wilkins was also a founder member and extremely active fellow of the Royal Society, well known amongst the movers and shakers of his time, including Samuel Pepys who valued his ‘good discourse’ and noted that Wilkins’ Essay Towards a Real Character ‘do please me infinitely’.

Title page of J. Wilkins' book: An essay towards a real character...

Wilkins; book, published 1668

Wilkins’ universal language was probably his most significant work, and certainly the closest to his heart. During the final stages of its preparation Wilkins lost his house and most of his belongings and papers in the Great Fire of London. The manuscript of the Essay was destroyed, along with all but two copies of the portion already printed. Yet Wilkins was still eager to complete the project, which he called his ‘darling’. He took the opportunity to improve the destroyed sections, enlisting the help of specialists including the naturalists John Ray and Francis Willoughby to whom he entrusted the botanical and zoological tables. It was a great sadness to Wilkins that in spite of the publication of the English version of his Essay,  the scheme remained incomplete at his death. The proposed Latin edition which would have made the language more widely known was never printed. Today, however, Wilkins‘ work continues to attract attention from those working on classification, semantics and logic; Dr. Peter Mark Roget used it as the basis of his famous thesaurus. But perhaps the its most lasting contribution lay in prompting  John Ray to develop his own studies into classification. The publication of his Historia Plantarum in 1686 and 1688 shaped the future of scientific taxonomy and earned him the title the Father of English natural history.

Further reading:

John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language  (London : Printed for S. Gellibrand & J. Martyn, 1668)

B. J. Shapiro, John Wilkins, 1614–1672: an intellectual biography (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1969)

M. M. Slaughter, Universal languages and scientific taxonomy in the seventeenth century (Cambridge : CUP, 1982)

Author: Jo Maddocks

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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