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The Analytical Language of John Wilkins

Jorge Luis Borges  

I have verified that the fourteenth edition of the  British Encyclopaedia  delete article on John Wilkins. That omission is fair, if we remember the triviality of the article (twenty lines of mere biographical circumstances: Wilkins was born in 1614, Wilkins died in 1672, Wilkins was chaplain to Charles Louis, Italian prince; Wilkins was appointed rector of one of the Oxford colleges, Wilkins was the first secretary of the Royal Society of London, etc.); he is guilty, if we consider the speculative work of Wilkins. This one abounded in happy curiosities: he was interested in theology, cryptography, music, the manufacture of transparent hives, the course of an invisible planet, the possibility of a trip to the moon, the possibility and principles of a world language. To this last problem he dedicated the book  An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language  (600 pages in major fourth, 1668). There are no copies of that book in our National Library; I have questioned, to write this note,  The life and Times of John Wilkins  (1910) by PA Wrigh Henderson; the  Woertebuch der Philosophie  (1924) by Fritz Mathner;  Delphos  (1935), by E. Sylvia Pankhurst;  Dangerous Thoughts  (1939), by Lancelot Hogben.

All of us, at some time, have suffered those unappealable debates that a lady, with a collection of interjections and anacolutos swears that the word moon is more (or less) expressive than the word  moon. Outside of the obvious observation that the monosyllable  moon  it is perhaps more apt to represent a very simple object than the two-syllable word moon, nothing is possible to contribute to such debates; Discounting broken words and derivations, all the world's languages (not excluding Volapük Johann Martin Schleyer and Peano's Interlingua Romantic) are equally inexpressive. No edit of the  Grammar of the Royal Academy  that it does not ponder "the envied treasure of picturesque, happy and expressive voices of the very rich Spanish language", but it is a mere boast, without corroboration. For now, that same Royal Academy produces a dictionary every so many years, which defines the voices of Spanish ... In the universal language that Wilkins devised in the middle of the seventeenth century, each word defines itself. Descartes, in an epistle dated November 1629, had already noted that by means of the decimal numbering system, we can learn in a single day to name all quantities to infinity and to write them in a new language, which is that of figures; he had also proposed the formation of a general, analogous language that would organize and encompass all human thoughts. John Wilkins, around 1664, undertook this undertaking.

He divided the universe into forty categories or genera, later subdivisible into differences, further subdivided into species. He assigned each gender without a two-letter monosyllable; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, means element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a portion of the element of fire, a flame. In the analogous language of Letellier (1850) a, means animal; ab, mammal; abo, carnivore; aboj, feline; aboje, cat; abi, herbivore; abiv, equine; etc. In the Bonifacio Sotos Ochando (1854), imaba, means building; imaca, seraglio; image, hospital; imafo, lazaret; imarri, house; imaru, fifth; imedo, post; imede, pillar; imego, ground; imela, ceiling; imogo, window; bire, bookbinder; birer, bind. (I owe this last census to a book printed in Buenos Aires in 1886: the  Universal language course, by Dr. Pedro Mata).

The words of John Wilkins' analytic language are not clumsy arbitrary symbols; Each of the letters that make them up is significant, as were those of Sacred Scripture for the Kabbalists. Mauthner observes that children could learn that language without knowing that it is contrived; later in school, they will discover that it is also a universal key and a secret encyclopedia.

Once the Wilkins procedure has been defined, it remains to examine a problem that is impossible or difficult to postpone: the value of the quadragesimal table that is the basis of the language. Let us consider the eighth category, that of stones. Wilkins divides them into common (flint, gravel, slate), modest (marble, amber, coral), precious (pearl, opal), transparent (amethyst, sapphire), and insoluble (coal, clay, and arsenic). Almost as alarming as the eighth, it is the ninth category. This reveals that metals can be imperfect (vermilion, quicksilver), artificial (bronze, brass), regrind (filings, rust) and natural (gold, tin, copper). Beauty is in the sixteenth category; it is a viviparous, oblong fish. These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies are reminiscent of those that Dr. Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled  Celestial emporium of benevolent knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) trained, (d) piglets, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous, (g) loose dogs, (h) included in this classification, (i) that shake like crazy, (j) countless, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (1) etc., (m) that have just broken the vase, (n) that look like flies from a distance. The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels also exercises chaos: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, of which 262 corresponds to the Pope; 282, to the Roman Catholic Church; 263, to the Lord's Day; 268, to Sunday schools; 298, to Mormonism, and 294, to Brahmanism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. He does not refuse heterogeneous subdivisions, for example, 179: “Cruelty to animals. Protection of animals. Grief and suicide from the moral point of view. Vices and various defects. Various virtues and qualities. "

I have recorded the arbitrariness of Wilkins, of the unknown (or apocryphal) Chinese encyclopaedist, and of the Brussels Bibliographic Institute; notoriously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. The reason is very simple: we do not know what the universe is. “The world,” writes David Hume, “is perhaps the rudimentary sketch of some child god, who left it half done, ashamed of its poor execution; it is the work of a subaltern god, whom the higher gods mock; it is the confused production of a decrepit and retired divinity, who has already died ”(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, V. 1779). It is possible to go further; It is possible to suspect that there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense that has that ambitious word. If there is, it is necessary to conjecture its purpose; It remains to conjecture the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonyms, of God's secret dictionary.

The impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe, however, cannot dissuade us from planning human schemes, even if it is clear to us that these are provisional. Wilkins' analytical language is not the least admirable of these schemes. The genera and species that compose it are contradictory and vague; the artifice that the letters of words indicate subdivisions and divisions is undoubtedly ingenious. The word salmon tells us nothing; Zana, the corresponding voice; delfine (for the man versed in the forty categories and in the genres of those categories) a scaly, fluvial fish with reddish flesh. Theoretically, a language is not inconceivable where the man of each being indicates all the details of his destiny, past and future.)

Hopes and utopias aside, perhaps the most lucid thing that has been written about language are these words by Chesterton: “Man knows that there are in the soul more disconcerting, more innumerable and more anonymous than the colors of an autumnal forest ... he believes, however, that these tints, in all their fusions and conversions, are accurately representable by an arbitrary grunting and screeching mechanism. He believes that noises really come out of a bag holder that signify all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of longing ”(GFWatts, p.88, 1904).

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