An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language  

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"It were exceedingly desirable that the names of things might consist of such sounds as should bear in them some analogy to their natures; and the figure and character of their names should bear some proper resemblance to those sounds that men might easily guess at the sense or meaning of any name or word, upon the first hearing or sight of it. But how this can be done in all the particular species of things I understand not, and therefore shall take it for granted that this character must be by institution".

"For instance, zi indicates the genus of beasts, zit would be “rapacious beasts of the dog kind” whereas zid would be “cloven-footed beast.” Adding for the fourth character an a for species, indicating the second species in the difference, would give zita for dog and zida for sheep. In The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Jorge Luis Borges remarks that Wilkins has many “ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies” in the language and presents as a foil and parody an imagined ..." --Robert J. Glushko - 2016

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668) is the best-remembered of the numerous works of John Wilkins, in which he expounds a new universal language, meant primarily to facilitate international communication among scholars, but envisioned for use by diplomats, travelers, and merchants as well. Unlike many universal language schemes, it was meant merely as an auxiliary to — not a replacement of — existing "natural" languages.

Wilkins' scheme

Wilkin's "Real Character" is an ingeniously constructed family of symbols corresponding to an elaborate classification scheme developed at great labor by Wilkins and his colleagues, which was intended to provide elementary building blocks from which could be constructed the universe's every possible thing and notion. The Real Character is emphatically not an orthography in that it is not a written representation of oral speech. Instead, each symbol represents a concept directly, without (at least in the early parts of the Essay's presentation) there being any way of vocalizing it at all; each reader might, if he wished, give voice to the text in his or her own tongue. Inspiration for this approach came in part from (partially mistaken) accounts of the Chinese writing system.

Later in the Essay Wilkins introduces his "Philospophical Language," which assigns phonetic values to the Real Characters, should it be desired to read text aloud without using any of the existing national languages. (The term philosophical language is an ill-defined one, used by various authors over time to mean a variety of things; most of the description found at the article on "philosophical languages" applies to Wilkins' Real Character on its own, even excluding what Wilkins called his "Philosophical Language")

For convenience, the following discussion blurs the distinction between Wilkins' Character and his Language. Concepts are divided into forty main Genera, each of which gives the first, two-letter syllable of the word; a Genus is divided into Differences, each of which adds another letter; and Differences are divided into Species, which add a fourth letter. For instance, Zi identifies the Genus of “beasts” (mammals); Zit gives the Difference of “rapacious beasts of the dog kind”; Zitα gives the Species of dogs. (Sometimes the first letter indicates a supercategory— e.g. Z always indicates an animal— but this does not always hold.) The resulting Character, and its vocalization, for a given concept thus captures, to some extent, the concept's semantics.

The Essay also proposed ideas on weights and measure similar to those later found in the metric system. The botanical section of the essay was contributed by John Ray; Robert Morison's criticism of Ray's work began a prolonged dispute between the two men.

Related efforts, discussions, and literary references

The Essay has received a certain amount of academic and literary attention, usually casting it as brilliant but hopeless.

One criticism (among many) is that "words expressing closely related ideas have almost the same form, differing perhaps by their last letter only...[I]t would be exceedingly difficult to remember all these minute distinctions, and confusion would arise, in rapid reading and particularly in conversation." (Umberto Eco notes that Wilkins himself made such a mistake in the Essay, using Gαde (barley) where apparently Gαpe (tulip) was meant.)

George Edmonds sought to improve Wilkins' Philosophical Language by reorganizing its grammar and orthography while keeping its taxonomy. More recent a priori languages (among many others) are Solresol and Ro.

Jorge Luis Borges discusses Wilkins' philosophical language in his essay El idioma analítico de John Wilkins (The Analytical Language of John Wilkins), comparing Wilkins’ classification to the fictitious Chinese encyclopedia Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge and expressing doubts about any attempt at a universal classification.

In Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, character Daniel Waterhouse spends considerable time supporting the development of Wilkins' classification system.

See also

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