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On the Ineffable


This 18th century depiction of Yamantaka, a violent expression of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, defeats Yama, god of death, and demolishes the cycle of samsara on the path to enlightenment. This painting, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was purchased in 1969 courtesy of a bequest by Florence Waterbury. Its Accession Number is 69.71. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional public domain work of art. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years.

This is my review of Nick Stockton’s “Time Might Only Exist in Your Head. And Everyone Else’s.” From Wired, 26 September, 2016. Published at 0600 hrs. I later modified this piece on 17 October, 2016. It keeps bothering me like a splinter in my mind. In its current revision, it comprises 2,537 words.

“Some physicists blame gravity for time. Others blame observers. Time, the arrow of time, the linearity of time flowing from the infinite past through the present into the indefinite future, cannot exist unless an intelligence, something sentient, exists to observe it, they say.

The moment when particle physics and classical mechanics merge is called “decoherence,” and it also happens to be the moment when time’s direction becomes mathematically important.

Mr. Stockton’s article points out that superposition in quantum mechanics means that an electron can exist in either of two places, a property called probability, but it is impossible to say where an electron is until that electron is actually observed.

Some physicists also say that what matters is not whether time exists, but what direction that time flows. (Claus Kiefer, “Can the Arrow of Time Be Understood From Quantum Cosmology?” in L. Mersini-Houghton and R. Vaas, The Arrow of Time, Springer, Berlin, 2010.)

I marvel that anything can move at all, as any distance can incorporate an infinitude simply by holding your fingers a centimeter apart.

Your fingertips are not necessary, of course. You can imagine an infinite digression between any two points. You can even imagine the digression without the points, which is where things get interesting for me.

Not surprisingly, this reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in the academic tradition of droll footnotes, citing “the last magician,” Isaac Newton, saying that “Each particle of space is eternal, each indivisible moment of duration is everywhere.” Principia, III, 42. (Isaac Newton, Newton’s Principia, New York: Daniel Adee, 1846. Borges wrote his 1946 revision of “A New Refutation of Time” in Sur, 1944. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, Penguin, 1999.)

How anything can leap across the infinitudes separating all things from everything else mystifies me, and how we can imagine infinity without beginning or without end leaves me without words.

Miraculously, everything in this multiverse can leap infinities, and so we have progression, which is synonymous with time. Even using a term like “infinity” forces a compromise upon us, it is a convention, and these are the paradoxes that compel some physicists to suspect that time emerges from decoherence.

Mr. Stockton’s article explains that the most prominent theory addressing decoherence is the 1960’s-era Wheeler-DeWitt equation, by Dr. Bryce DeWitt and Dr. John Archibald Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler claimed that this equation “erases the seams between quantum and classical mechanics.”

Then Mr. Stockton acknowledges the weirdness underlying decoherence and “so-called quantum gravity.” I love the fact that physicists use a term like “weird” and nobody thinks that it is strange. Because these matters are supremely weird.

The second law of thermodynamics ordains that the amount of disorder, or entropy, in our multiverse will always increase. In 1865 Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) infamously observed: “The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” This is the source of the directionality of time: disorder always increases, so time can only move in one direction.

The Wheeler-DeWitt equation notoriously does not include a variable for time. Time, it says, is something that cannot be measured in terms of itself: in physics it is measured as correlations between an object’s location.

In this article, however, the writers (Dr. Robert Lanza and Dr. Yasunori Nomura) insist that gravity is too slow to account for a universal arrow of time.

Worse, because the Wheeler-DeWitt equations do not explain why time moves from the past through the present to the future–in other words, the directionality of time is not explained by the Wheeler-DeWitt equations–all that remains to be examined is us, meaning we, the observers.

One of the writers, Dr. Robert Lanza, founded biocentrism, a theory that space and time are constructs of biological sensory limitations.

Dr. Lanza speculates that time moves as it does because humans, and other sentient beings, for that matter, are biologically, neurologically and philosophically hardwired to experience time in that way.

In fact, Dr. Lanza says, “In his papers on relativity, Einstein showed that time was relative to the observer.”

I do not see how it could be otherwise. While you can claim that mathematics exists independently of human perception, because equations do not depend upon witnesses to observe them, we obviously only know about mathematics because we perceive such equations.

I will go one step further and say that equations, all the equations in an infinitude of mathematics, already exist, and merely await a conjunction of time and sentience to be discovered. But they are already there. We are just not yet smart enough to discern them.

Tibetan Buddhism, in fact, features a category of knowledge of this kind, calling it terma. It refers to objects or ideas which are surfaced to human knowledge when we as a species are ready for them. Some believe that we knew this information in earlier incarnations, and we forgot it, as we submerged into ignorance and amnesia. Now we are gradually, slowly, reawakening.

Dr. Lanza, this article says, goes even further, saying that we the observers create time and its directionality. This is actually a very old idea, and I discuss it in an article that I published on this site almost a year ago, Smoke Signals: Borges, Tzahi Weiss, Kabbalah.

Is it possible to say that there is an independent time, a time that exists without anyone or anything to perceive it? I suppose so. Is there also a time that exists because we perceive it? I think that this is inescapable.

Borges says:

” … Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations.

Our destiny (as contrasted with the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and ironclad.

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

(Jorge Luis BorgesSelected Non-Fictions, 1999, p. 290.)

The time that you experience is not the same time that I experience. Neither of us experiences time as Borges did. Can “the concept of time be defined mathematically without including observers in the system?”

One stance says no, as there is no way to subtract observers from the equations, as equations by default, almost by definition, you could say, are performed by sentient intelligences.

Dr. Yasunori Nomura states that these equations also fail to consider that the entire multiverse as we perceive it exists in a medium that we call spacetime.

By definition, when you talk about spacetime, he says, “you are already talking about a decohered system.”

This article concludes, like most interpretations of spacetime, that everything is relative, everything is subjective.

We are in self-defined prisons of perception, but we imagine paradises where we share the same perceptions, the same spacetime, and we perceive the same physics. The sad thing is, this is maya, or illusion. Some of us know better, and we have been told.

We do not need these physics, not for awakening from the stupor of the mind to anatta, the emptiness of the self, the realization of the non-duality of the absolute and the relative.

Think on this for a moment. The absolute and the relative form a duality that is artificial, this is a construct that we create to help us understand what we perceive. It is, in a sense, a filter. We need no such filters.

Borges, in the quote above, in a denial of denial, refused to renounce temporal succession, rejected the renunciation of the self, repudiated the rejection of the astronomical universe, and dismissed the effort as an “apparent desperation,” slyly condemning it as a “secret consolation.”

It was long a secret, as Tibet was closed to mankind for centuries, but Borges understood what he was rejecting. Borges referred to “the hell of Tibetan mythology” for precisely this reason, and that is why I illustrated this article with a painting depicting Yamantaka, just one aspect of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, vanquishing Yama, the god of death. Borges was telling those of us with eyes to see that he was an idealist, not a nihilist. Borges concluded that we manifest everything.

It is useful, I think, to consider Borges’ reference to fire by juxtapositioning it to this excerpt from the Buddha’s Fire Sermon:

Bikkhus, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, volitional formations are burning, consciousness is burning. Seeing this, bikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form … feeling … perception …. volitional formations … consciousness …Through dispassion [this mind] is liberated…”

Adittapariyaya Sutta, or the Aditta Sutta, aka The Fire Sermon

In Theravada Buddhism, anatta is considered the no-self or no-soul doctrine. In Mahayana Buddhism, true knowledge is comprehending emptiness.

It is not understood by laymen, much less by our physicists in this article, but Buddhism is inimical to the concept of a soul. Nirvana is the state attained when the practitioner realizes that he has no self, and he has no soul. Self-negation attains its ultimate realization as it vanishes.

In Sanskrit and Pali, nirvana means “blown out,” in the same sense that a candle flame is snuffed. I am certain that Borges knew. Borges knew everything, he read all books, and he made few mistakes.

These ideas contradict the Western philosophical tradition, our mathematics, our physics, our spacetime, even though Hinduism insists that there is an eternal atman, and an ultimate metaphysical reality. Contradictions and confusions abound.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1, the atman is expressed as “I am” at an eternal moment when nothing existed at the beginning of the multiverse. Because we built the Hubble telescope, we estimate that this eternal moment transformed into the Big Bang and this multiverse approximately 13.7 billion years ago.

Using Hubble, we can measure the speed and distances of galaxies, and hence how fast our multiverse is expanding. Comparing these measurements to the age of the oldest globular star clusters gives us a figure of 13 billion years, which compares favorably to the 14 billion years of our observable multiverse.

Due to the speed of light, Hubble cannot see further than 14 billion years away. When the James W. Webb telescope comes online, we expect to confirm that our observable multiverse represents a tenth of the theoretical galaxies on the near side of our cosmological horizon.

But when you consider that the Big Bang might have been just the latest in an infinite series of singularities, interspersed by an unknowable number of periods of quantum potential, the possibility that the multiverse is infinite, literally without end, looms.

So is consciousness 14 billion years old? The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest, dated to approximately 700 BCE, but this is a compromise, as scholarly estimates range between 900 BCE to 600 BCE, preceding Buddhism.

Human consciousness is very young, even assuming that the priests of Neith who admonished Solon in the Timaeus were correct, the Timaeus is dated to 360 BCE, and I am mindful that when the Temple of Neith in Sais was excavated no records of ancient conflagrations or deluges were recovered. But how old is cosmic consciousness? It is absurd that we even imagine the question.

When the atman awakes, the Hindu say, it is synonymous with Brahman, the basis of everything, indistinguishable in my mind from God, and this is the path to liberation, or so they say.

It is helpful to cite this Upanishad’s verse 1.4.1 in its entirety, as it redolently presages Genesis.

“In the beginning, this (universe) was but the self (Virāj) of a human form. He reflected and found nothing else but himself. He first uttered, ‘I am he.’ Therefore he was called Aham (I). Hence, to this day, when a person is addressed, he first says, ‘It is I,’ and then says the other name that he may have. Because he was first and before this whole (band of aspirants) burnt all evils, therefore he is called Puruṣa. He who knows thus indeed burns one who wants to be (Virāj) before him.”

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1.)

As perplexed as I am by yet another reference to fire, the Buddhist Suttas, or Sutras, as I prefer, insist that everything, especially nirvana, is non-self, total non-attachment. The Suttas in Pali refer exclusively to the scriptures of the early Pali Canon, the canonical works of Theravada Buddhism, which are said to be the oral teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha himself admonished the Sangha not to deify his person, so I prefer the Sutras, the less exclusive, more encompassing genre of ancient Indian texts, which include the foundational works of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The Buddha started the Wheel of Karma turning as he preached his first sermon at  the Deer Park in Sarnath near Benares, early in the 5th century BCE. It was in his second sermon that he expounded on the no-soul thesis, anatta-vada, which some Western academics criticize as “an extreme empiricist doctrine.” (Brian Morris, Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction (London: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 51.)

Anatta is one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism, with anicca, or impermanence, and dukkha, or suffering. The three comprise the samsara cycle of existence, addressed in canonical Buddhist texts like the Dhammapada.

The Four Noble Truths insist that there is a way out of samsara. I interpret spacetime as samsara, yet another filter created by subjective consciousness, to help us make sense of our multiverse.

In anatta, the mind returns to its original prelinguistic emptiness of non-attachment, non-discrimination, and non-duality, and the awakening, as it is described, entails the absorption of cessation: it is tantamount to the dissolution of the self.

This “pure consciousness event” is wakeful, without content, and completely non-intentional. It goes without saying that our spacetime and our cosmological horizon are irrelevant to it: It is ineffable. (Yaroslav Komarkovski, Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Experience, (London: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 28.)

As Borges said, we are indistinguishable from spacetime. We do not need eyes to see, so death, transformation, is dissolution into nothingness, which many religious traditions summarize as the godhead.

Ironically, it was William James who said:

“The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”

(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1982.)”

Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez, “On the Ineffable”

Bangkok, 17 October, 2016

Howl for Malcolm Forsmark


The incipit of Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), Howl, City Lights Books: San Francisco, 1959, as presented by Christopher Skinner on his Lestaret blog. This rendering © 2010 Lestaret.

For Malcom Forsmark

(Because Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl for Carl Solomon.)

“It is the belief in the art of poetry that has gone hand in hand with this man into his Golgotha, from that charnel house, similar in every way, to that of the Jews in the past war. But this is in our own country, our own fondest purlieus. We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels.”

William Carlos Williams, from Allen Ginsberg, Howl, City Lights, San Francisco, 1959.

I realize now that the multiverse nudged me to contemplate Moloch, as I watched several YouTube documentaries about the Bohemian Grove.

I finally ended reading Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, scene 2, “Weaving spiders, come not here!”

For the crux of Ginsberg’s Howl is this excerpt from the midpoint of part II, the literal halfway point of the poem:

Moloch whose name is the Mind!”

You can argue that Howl is a paean to Moloch, but like most long poems Howl is many things. One thing that it is not, with no apologies to William Carlos Williams, is angelic.

It took me a couple of tries to reread it today, I last read it years ago, and at first I loathed it. I hated the description of “negro streets,” and worst of all, the word “Mohammedan” made me stop reading and write this commentary.

It felt like Ginsberg used those words because he thought that they were edgy in 1954, and all those words did for me was confirm that Ginsberg was talking about things that he did not know. The terms “negro streets” and “Mohammedan” feel prosaic and inauthentic as I write this in 2016.

What did Allen Ginsberg know about Islam? Nothing in 1954 when he began Howl, nothing compared to what we know now, courtesy of YouTube, in anno 2016.

I carried a gun in Baghdad myself in 2003 and 2004, aware that I was stalking in the land of the four rivers, the Pison, the Gihon, the Euphrates and the Tigris, where Sumerian cuneiform blossomed out of oral traditions some four thousand years before.

A young lady who ran my office, born Sunni, explained that Islam made her feel loved, not oppressed, even as she wore sunglasses in the office to avoid tormenting men with the vision of her eyes.

Then I remembered Patti Smith proclaiming that she was a Moslem, in her immortal babelogue, circa 1978. This was Ginsberg’s Islam of 1954, but 24 years later:

” …  I wake up. I am lying peacefully I am lying peacefully and my knees are open to the sun.

I desire him, and he is absolutely ready to seize me.

In heart I am a Moslem; in heart I am an American; in heart I am Moslem, in heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt.”

Patti Smith, babelogue, Easter, Arista Records, 1978.

I always loved babelogue for Patti Smith‘s unrepentant sluttiness and the irony that Muslims chant: “the sun is not God!”

Then Ginsberg wrote this:

” … who wandered around and around at midnight in the railway yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night … “

Allen GinsbergHowl, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1959.

Yes, “boxcars” is a poetic gimmick, but it works. The more that you read the sentence, the more that you admire it. “Grandfather night” is so good that I intend to steal it.

I am also stealing Ginsberg’s description of poets whose “heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion,” as we are all of us destined for oblivion. Indeed, “Writing for oblivion” is the tagline on all of my websites.

I also admire the irony of Ginsberg writing,

” … who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish…”

As this happens to every poet. I also remember Oscar Wilde, with Lord Darlington’s caveat in Act III of Lady Windermere’s Fan, writing that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.”


I also liked this part:

” … the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”

Which brings us back to Moloch, reminding me that legalized, systemic abortion is indistinguishable from state-sponsored child sacrifice.

One profane theme eulogized by Ginsberg is the hyper-sexuality of homosexuals. As Paris Hilton famously observed, “gay guys are the horniest people in the world.” Anyone who knows many homosexuals knows that Ms. Hilton had a point, and Ginsberg’s Howl parodies sacred sexuality.

I am less repelled by Howl’s eroticism, however, than I am by its junkies, as Ginsberg’s glorification of heroin addiction unmasks him as an effete poseur reveling in his own appetites.

I respect Ginsberg’s occidental Buddhism and his later popularization of Hindu mantra, for it needed to be done, but the final straw for me was Ginsberg’s defense of NAMBLA, and his apologia for pederasty.

Pedophiles may be programmed by nature with proscribed urges, but I have no patience for an advocacy organization that rationalizes statutory rape with, “age is just a number.” I tolerate the sexual exploitation of children by nobody, the child bride of the Prophet included (may peace be upon him).

At first reading I felt nothing beautiful from the first page of Howl, so I said the hell with it, why waste time reading it. I celebrate beauty, not vomitus, and prospecting for pearls in shit is irredeemable.

Then I remembered the pilgrimage that Malcolm Forsmark and I made to the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1979, just before I joined the Army. We arrived late. It was closed.

We were disappointed, because we lived in Boulder, and a journey to San Francisco was an expedition. We got drunk and we shouted Howl to the gleaming jewel lights of the city. I did not know then that I would live in San Francisco in 1986, and come to make that metropolis my own.

Sometime that night, Malcolm told me that he met Allen Ginsberg at a party in Boulder. The Naropa crowd thought that they were so countercultural. I did not understand this at the time, I was too young, but it is very clear to me now, with the hindsight of a lifetime focusing my memory. Ginsberg exclaimed, “ah, another up and coming young faggot!”

Actually, no. Malcolm Forsberg was a classicist and an autodidact, a scholar of Latin and Greek whose erudition was staggering. Malcolm eclipsed any academic on the Naropa faculty. I have not spoken to Malcolm in decades, but I knew him so well that I know that I know him still.

I know that wherever he is, he is writing poetry: the poetry of Malcolm Forsmark.

” … exhausted cigarette butts

nodding in opiate daze

burning down to grimy fingers.”

Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez

Bangkok, updated 17 October 2016.

Physics and the Great Architect of the Universe



This photo graced the article, “Scientists Discover a Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics,” an original article by Natalie Wolchover published from Quanta on Wired on December 11, 2013. The photo is credited to Rick Leche on Flickr. 

I cross-posted this on both my Magic Kingdom Dispatch on Facebook and Samizdat on Facebook pages. It has been a couple of weeks since I last posted on Samizdat, as I finished rekeying Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language and I still need to combine all those posts into one giant manuscript so that book will be available for free download on the web for as long as the web shall last.

“I flinched when I read that “Physicists reported this week the discovery of a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality.”

Then I went back to read the date, and sure enough, the article was dated 12-11-13, which I am choosing to note but not to consider too carefully. It could be coincidence, or somebody could have a sense of humor.

Or the multiverse could be sending us more smoke signals.

Wired Magazine did it to me again, though, presenting an article from Quanta. This happens to me like once a month, when Wired / Quanta flip me out with an article about physics.

Then the article states:

“The new geometric version of quantum field theory could also facilitate the search for a theory of quantum gravity that would seamlessly connect the large- and small-scale pictures of the universe. Attempts thus far to incorporate gravity into the laws of physics at the quantum scale have run up against nonsensical infinities and deep paradoxes. The amplituhedron, or a similar geometric object, could help by removing two deeply rooted principles of physics: locality and unitarity.”

The article then states, “Locality is the notion that particles can interact only from adjoining positions in space and time.” I am not sure what this can even mean in a multiverse where the word “position” is imbued with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which insists that simply observing something collapses its wave form.

Not to mention the idea of entanglement.

The writers carefully admit that the “amplituhedron itself does not describe gravity.” Right. This remains the grail of physics, incorporating gravity into the laws of physics at the quantum scale.

The article continues: “But Arkani-Hamed and his collaborators think there might be a related geometric object that does. Its properties would make it clear why particles appear to exist, and why they appear to move in three dimensions of space and to change over time.”

Oh, my.

The article trips me up again when the writers say, “In 1986, it became apparent that Feynman’s apparatus was a Rube Goldberg machine.” A “Rube Goldberg machine?” Ah. A contraption that is deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion. Ok.

Then the article explains that the inside of a triangle is a region in a two-dimensional space bounded by intersecting lines, so a positive Grassmanian is a “region in an N-dimensional space bounded by intersecting planes.”

This leads to: “They have also found a “master amplituhedron” with an infinite number of facets, analogous to a circle in 2-D, which has an infinite number of sides.”

I love these kinds of articles.

“Its volume represents, in theory, the total amplitude of all physical processes.”

Who needs intoxicants? Contemplating these subjects, when linear thinking evaporates into totality, you are experiencing infinitude between your ears. The meat of our brains somehow reflects concepts without limits.

While the grail of quantum physics remains gravity, these mischievous physicists are already reaching beyond, asking whether the discovery of the amplituhedron could enable us to give up space and time as fundamental constituents of nature.

We are in pure geometry: “The object is basically timeless.”

How is this not a contemplation of God?”

Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez, “Physics and the Great Architect of the Universe,” Samizdat.

Bangkok, 27 September, 2016.


Eco: The Gift to Adam

Ibn Hazm, Tawq al-hamama fi al-ulfa

Ibn Hazm (994-1064), The Ring of the Dove (Tawq al-Hanamah), circa 1022, held in the University Library Leiden, Oriental Collections. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“What was the exact nature of the gift of tongues received by the apostles? Reading St. Paul (Corinthians 1:12-13) it seems that the gift was that of glossolalia–that is, the ability to express oneself in an ecstatic language that all could understand as if it were their own native speech.

Reading the Acts of the Apostles 2, however, we discover that at the Pentecost a loud roar was heard from the skies, and that upon each of the apostles a tongue of flame descended, and they started to speak in other languages.

In this case, the gift was not glossolalia but xenoglossia, that is, polyglottism–or, failing that, at least a sort of mystic service of simultaneous translation. The question of which interpretation to accept is not really a joking matter: there is a major difference between the two accounts.

In the first hypothesis, the apostles would have been restored to the conditions before Babel, when all humanity spoke but a single holy dialect.

In the second hypothesis, the apostles would have been granted the gift of momentarily reversing the defeat of Babel and finding in the multiplicity of tongues no longer a wound that must, at whatever cost, be healed, but rather the key to the possibility of a new alliance and of a new concord.

So many of the protagonists in our story have brazenly bent the Sacred Scriptures to suit their purposes that we should refrain ourselves from doing likewise. Ours has been the story of a myth and of a wish. But for every myth there exists a counter-myth which marks the presence of an alternative wish.

If we had not limited ourselves from the outset to Europe, we might have branched out into other civilizations, and found other myths–like the one located in the tenth-eleventh century, at the very confines of European civilization, and recounted by the Arab writer Ibn Hazm (cf. Arnaldez 1981: Khassaf 1992a, 1992b).

In the beginning there existed a single language given by God, a language thanks to which Adam was able to understand the quiddity of things. It was a language that provided a name for every thing, be it substance or accident, and a thing for each name.

But it seems that at a certain point the account of Ibn Hazm contradicts itself, when saying that–if the presence of homonyms can produce equivocation–an abundance of synonyms would not jeopardize the perfection of a language: it is possible to name the same thing in different ways, provided we do so in an adequate way.

For Ibn Hazm the different languages could not be born from convention: if so, people would have to have had a prior language in which they could agree about conventions.

But if such a prior language existed, why should people have undergone the wearisome and unprofitable task of inventing other tongues? The only explanation is that there was an original language which included all others.

The confusio (which the Koran already regarded not as a curse but as a natural event–cf. Borst 1957-63: I, 325) depended not on the invention of new languages, but on the fragmentation of a unique tongue that existed ab initio and in which all the others were already contained.

It is for this reason that all people are still able to understand the revelation of the Koran, in whatever language it is expressed. God made the Koranic verses in Arabic in order that they might be understood by his chosen people, not because the Arabic language enjoyed any particular privilege. In whatever language, people may discover the spirit, the breath, the perfume, the traces of the original polylinguism (sic).

Let us accept the suggestion that comes from afar. Our mother tongue was not a single language but rather a complex of all languages. Perhaps Adam never received such a gift in full; it was promised to him, yet before his long period of linguistic apprenticeship was through, original sin severed the link.

Thus the legacy that he has left to all his sons and daughters is the task of winning for themselves the full and reconciled mastery of the Tower of Babel.”


Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 351-3.

Eco: Translation

Diego de Torres Rubio de la Copania de Jesus, 1616

Diego de Torres Rubio (1547-1638), Arte de la lengua aymara, Lima, Francisco del Canto, 1616. Digitized courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“Today more than ever before, at the end of its long search, European culture is in urgent need of a common language that might heal its linguistic fractures.

Yet, at the same time, Europe needs to remain true to its historic vocation as the continent of different languages, each of which, even the most peripheral, remains the medium through which the genius of a particular ethnic group expresses itself, witness and vehicle of a millennial tradition.

Is it possible to reconcile the need for a common language and the need to defend linguistic heritages?

Both of these needs reflect the same theoretical contradictions as well as the same practical possibilities. The limits of any possible international common language are the same as those of the natural languages on which these languages are modeled: all presuppose a principle of translatability.

If a universal common language claims for itself the capacity to re-express a text written in any other language, it necessarily presumes that, despite the individual genius of any single language, and despite the fact that each language constitutes its own rigid and unique way of seeing, organizing and interpreting the world, it is still always possible to translate from one language to another.

However, if this is a prerequisite inherent to any universal language, it is at the same time a prerequisite inherent to any natural language. It is possible to translate from a natural language into a universal and artificial one for the same reasons that justify and guarantee the translation from a natural language into another.

The intuition that the problem of translation itself presupposed a perfect language is already present in Walter Benjamin: since it is impossible to reproduce all the linguistic meanings of the source language into a target language, one is forced to place one’s faith in the convergence of all languages.

In each language “taken as a whole, there is a self-identical thing that is meant, a thing which, nevertheless, is accessible to none of these languages taken individually, but only to that totality of all of their intentions taken as reciprocal and complementary, a totality that we call Pure Language [reine Sprache].” (Benjamin 1923).

This reine Sprache is not a real language. If we think of the mystic and Kabbalistic sources which were the inspiration for Benjamin’s thinking, we begin to sense the impending ghost of sacred languages, of something more akin to the secret genius of Pentecostal languages and of the language of birds than to the ideal of the a priori languages.

“Even the desire for translation is unthinkable without this correspondence with the thought of God (Derrida 1980: 217; cf. also Steiner 1975: 64).

In many of the most notable projects for mechanical translation, there exists a notion of a parameter language, which does share many of the characteristics of the a priori languages.

There must, it is argued, exist a tertium comparationis which might allow us to shift from an expression in language A to an expression in language B by deciding that both are equivalent to an expression of a metalanguage C.

If such a tertium really existed, it would be a perfect language; if it did not exist, it would remain a mere postulate on which every translation ought to depend.

The only alternative is to discover a natural language which is so “perfect” (so flexible and powerful) as to serve as a tertium comparationis. In 1603, the Jesuit Ludovico Bertonio published his Arte de lengua Aymara (which he supplemented in 1612 with a Vocabulario de la lengua Aymara).

Aymara is a language still partially spoken by Indians living between Bolivia and Peru, and Bertonio discovered that it displayed an immense flexibility and capability of accommodating neologisms, particularly adapted to the expression of abstract concepts, so much so as to raise a suspicion that it was an artificial invention.

Two centuries later, Emeterio Villamil de Rada described it as the language of Adam, the expression of “an idea anterior to the formation of language,” founded upon “necessary and immutable ideas” and, therefore, a philosophic language if ever there were one (La Lengua de Adan, 1860). After this, it was only a matter of time before the Semitic roots of the Aymara language were “discovered” as well.

Recent studies have established that unlike western thought, based on a two-valued logic (either true or false), Aymara thought is based on a three-valued logic, and is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions.

Thus, to conclude, there have been proposals to use Aymara to resolve all problems of computer translation (see Guzmán de Rosas n.d., which includes a vast bibliography). Unfortunately, “due to its algorithmic nature, the syntax of Aymara would greatly facilitate the translation of any other idiom into its own terms (though not the other way around)” (L. Ramiro Beltran, in Guzmán de Rosas n.d.: III).

Thus, because of its perfection, Aymara can render every thought expressed in other mutually untranslatable languages, but the price of this is that once the perfect language has resolved these thoughts into its own terms, they cannot be translated back into our natural native idioms.

One way out of this dilemma is to assume, as certain authors have recently done, that translation is a matter to be resolved entirely within the destination (or target) language, according to the context.

This means that it is within the framework of the target language that all the semantic and syntactic problems posed by the source text must be resolved.

This is a solution that takes us outside of the problem of perfect languages, or of a tertium comparationis, for it implies that we need to understand expressions formed according to the genius of the source language and to invent a “satisfying” paraphrase according to the genius of the target language.

Yet how are we to establish what the criteria of “satisfaction” could be?

These were theoretical difficulties that Humboldt had already foreseen. If no word in a language exactly corresponds to a word in another one, translation is impossible. At most, translation is an activity, in no way regulated, through which we are able to understand what our own language was unable to say.

Yet if translation implied no more than this it would be subject to a curious contradiction: the possibility of a relation between two languages, A and B, would only occur when A was closed in a full realization of itself, assuming to had understood B, of which nothing could any longer be said, for all that B had to say would by now have been said by A.

Still, what is not excluded is the possibility that, rather than a parameter language, we might elaborate a comparative tool, not itself a language, which might (if only approximately) be expressed in any language, and which might, furthermore, allow us to compare any two linguistic structures that seemed, in themselves, incommensurable.

This instrument or procedure would be able to function in the same way and for the same reason that any natural language is able to translate its own terms into one another by an interpretive principle: according to Peirce, any natural language can serve as a metalanguage to itself, by a process of unlimited semiosis (cf. Eco 1979: 2).

See for instance a table proposed by Nida (1975: 75) that displays the semantic differences in a number of verbs of motion (figure 17.1).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 17.1, p. 348.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 17.1, p. 348.

We can regard this table as an example of an attempt to illustrate, in English–as well as by other semiotic means, such as mathematical signs–what a certain class of English terms mean.

Naturally, the interpretative principle demands that the English speaker also interpret the meaning of limb, and indeed any other terms appearing in the interpretation of the verbal expression.

One is reminded here of Degérando’s observations concerning the infinite regress that may arise from any attempt to analyze fully an apparently primitive term such as to walk.

In reality, however, a language always, as it were, expects to define difficult terms with terms that are easier and less controversial, though by conjectures, guesses and approximations.

Translation proceeds according to the same principle. If one were to wish, for example, to translate Nida’s table from English into Italian, one would probably start by substituting for the English verbs Italian terms that are practically synonymous: correre for run, camminare for walk, danzare for dance, and strisciare for crawl.

As soon as we got to the verb to hop, we would have to pause; there is no direct synonym in Italian for an activity that the Italian-English dictionary might define as “jumping on one leg only.”

Nor is there an adequate Italian synonym for the verb to skip: Italian has various terms, like saltellare, ballonzolare and salterellare; these can approximately render to skip, but they can also translate to frisk, to hop or to trip, and thus do not uniquely specify the sort of alternate hop-shuffle-step movement specified by the English to skip.

Even though Italian lacks a term which adequately conveys the meaning of to skip, the rest of the terms in the table–limb, order of contact, number of limbs–are all definable, if not necessarily by Italian synonyms, at least by means of references to contexts and circumstances.

Even in English, we have to conjecture that, in this table, the term contact must be understood as “contact with the surface the movement takes place upon” rather than as “contact with another limb.”

Either to define or to translate, we thus do not need a full fledged parametric language at our disposition. We assume that all languages have some notion that corresponds to the term limb, because all humans have a similar anatomy.

Furthermore, all cultures probably have ways to distinguish hands from arms, palms from fingers, and, on fingers, the first joint from the second, and the second from the third; and this assumption would be no less true even in a culture, such as Father Mersenne imagined, in which every individual pore, every convolute of a thumb-print had its own individual name.

Thus, by starting from terms whose meanings are known and working to interpret by various means (perhaps including gestures) terms whose meanings are not, proceeding by successive adjustments, an English speaker would be able to convey to an Italian speaker what the phrase John hops is all about.

These are possibilities for more than just the practice of translation; they are the possibilities for coexistence on a continent with a multilingual vocation. Generalized polyglottism is certainly not the solution to Europe’s cultural problems; like Funes “el memorioso” in the story by Borges, a global polyglot would have his or her mind constantly filled by too many images.

The solution for the future is more likely to be in a community of peoples with an increased ability to receive the spirit, to taste or savor the aroma of different dialects.

Polyglot Europe will not be a continent where individuals converse fluently in all the other languages; in the best of cases, it could be a continent where differences of language are no longer barriers to communication, where people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best they can, the speech of others.

In this way, even those who never learn to speak another language fluently could still participate in its particular genius, catching a glimpse of the particular cultural universe that every individual expresses each time he or she speaks the language of his or her ancestors and his or her own tradition.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 344-51.

Eco: Conclusion


Gustav Doré (1832-1883), The Confusion of Tongues, 1865-68, currently held privately. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Plures linguas scire gloriosum esset, patet exemplo Catonis, Mithridates, Apostolorum.”

Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima

“This story is a gesture of propaganda, in so far as it provided a particular explanation of the origin and variety of languages, by presenting it only as a punishment and a curse [ . . . ] Since the variety of tongues renders a universal communication among men, to say the least, difficult, that was certainly a punishment.

However, it also meant an improvement of the original creative powers of Adam, a proliferation of that force which allowed the production of names by virtue of a divine inspiration.”

J. Trabant, Apeliotes, oder der Sinn der Sprache

“Citizens of a multiform Earth, Europeans cannot but listen to the polyphonic cry of human languages. To pay attention to the others who speak their own language is the first step in order to establish a solidarity more concrete than many propaganda discourses.”

Claude Hagège, Le souffle de la langue

“Each language constitutes a certain model of the universe, a semiotic system of understanding the world, and if we have 4,000 different ways to describe the world, this makes us rich. We should be concerned about preserving languages just as we are about ecology.”

V.V. Ivanov, Reconstructing the Past

“I said at the beginning that it was the account in Genesis 11, not Genesis 10, that had prevailed in the collective imagination and, more specifically, in the minds of those who pondered over the plurality of languages.

Despite this, as Demonet has shown (1992), already by the time of the Renaissance, a reconsideration of Genesis 10 was under way, provoking, as we saw, a rethinking of the place of Hebrew as the unchanging language, immutable from the time of Babel.

We can take it that, by then, the multiplicity of tongues was probably accepted as a positive fact both in Hebrew culture and in Christian Kabbalistic circles (Jacquemier 1992). Still, we have to wait until the eighteenth century before the rethinking of Genesis 10 provokes a revaluation of the legend of Babel itself.

In the same years that witnessed the appearance of the first volumes of the Encyclopédie, the abbé Pluche noted in his La méchanique des langues et l’art de les einsegner (1751) that, already by the time of Noah, the first differentiation, if not in the lexicon at least in inflections, between one family of languages and another had occurred.

This historical observation led Pluche on to reflect that the multiplication of languages (no longer, we note, the confusion of languages) was more than a mere natural event: it was socially providential. Naturally, Pluche imagined, people were at first troubled to discover that tribes and families no longer understood each other so easily. In the end, however,

“those who spoke a mutually intelligible language formed a single body and went to live together in the same corner of the world. Thus it was the diversity of languages which provided each country with its own inhabitants and kept them there. It should be noted that the profits of this miraculous and extraordinary mutation have extended to all successive epochs.

From this point on, the more people have mixed, the more they have produced mixtures and novelties in their languages; and the more these languages have multiplied, the harder it becomes to change countries. In this way, the confusion of tongues has fortified that sentiment of attachment upon which love of country is based; the confusion has made men more sedentary.” (pp. 17-8).

This is more than the celebration of the particular “genius” of each single language: the very sense of the myth of Babel has been turned upside down. The natural differentiation of languages has become a positive phenomenon underlying the allocation of peoples to their respective territories, the birth of nations, and the emergence of the sense of national identity.

It is a reversal of meaning that reflects the patriotic pride of an eighteenth century French author: the confusio linguarum was the historically necessary point of departure for the birth of a new sense of the state. Pluche, in effect, seems to be paraphrasing Louis XIV: “L’état c’est la langue.”

In the light of this reinterpretation it is also interesting to read the objections to an international language made by another French writer, one who lived before the great flood of a posteriori projects in the late nineteenth century–Joseph-Marie Degérando, in his work, Des signes. Degérando observed that travelers, scientists and merchants (those who needed a common language) were always a minority in respect of the mass of common citizens who were content to remain at home peaceably speaking their native tongues.

Just because this minority of travelers needed a common language, it did not follow that the majority of sedentary citizens needed one as well. It was the traveler that needed to understand the natives; the natives had no particular need to understand a traveler, who, indeed, had an advantage over them in being able to conceal his thoughts from the peoples he visited (III, 562).

With regard to scientific contact, any common language for science would grow distant from the language of letters, but we know that the language of science and the language of letters influence and fortify each other (III, 570). An international language of purely scientific communication, moreover, would soon become an instrument of secrecy, from which the humble speakers of their native dialects would be excluded (III, 572).

And as to possible literary uses (and we leave Degérando the responsibility for such a vulgar sociological argument), if the authors were obliged to write in a common tongue, they would be exposed to international rivalries, fearing invidious comparisons with the works of foreign writers.

Thus it seems that for Degérando circumspection was a disadvantage for science and an advantage for literature–as it was for the astute and cultivated traveler, more learned than his native and naive interlocutors.

We are, of course, at the end of the century which produced de Rivarol‘s eulogy to the French language. Thus, although Degérando recognized that the world was divided into zones of influence, and that it was normal to speak German in areas under German political influence just as it was normal to speak English in the British Isles, he could still maintain, were it possible to impose an auxiliary language, Europe could do no better than to choose French for self-evident reasons of political power (III, 578-9).

In any case, according to Degérando, the narrow mindedness of most governments made every international project unthinkable: “Should we suppose that the governments wish to come to an agreement over a set of uniform laws for the alteration of national languages? How many times have seen governments arrive at an effective agreement over matters that concern the general interest of society?” (III, 554).

In the background is a prejudice of the eighteenth century–and eighteenth century Frenchmen in particular–that people simply did not wish to learn other tongues, be they universal or foreign. There existed a sort of cultural deafness when faced with polyglottism, a deafness that continues on throughout the nineteenth century to leave visible traces in our own; the only peoples exempt were, remarked Degérando, those of northern Europe, for reasons of pure necessity.

So diffuse was this cultural deafness that he even felt compelled to suggest provocatively (III, 587) that the study of foreign languages was not really the sterile and mechanical exercise that most people thought.

Thus Degérando had no choice but to conduce his extremely skeptical review with an eulogy to the diversity of tongues: diversity placed obstacles in the way of foreign conquerers, prevented undue mixing between different peoples, and helped each people to preserve their national character and the habits which protected the purity of their folkways.

A national language linked a people to their state, stimulated patriotism and the cult of tradition. Degérando admitted that these considerations were hardly compatible with the ideals of universal brotherhood; still, he commented, “in this age of corruption, hearts must, above all else, be turned towards patriotic sentiments; the more egotism progresses, the more dangerous it is to become a cosmopolitan” (IV, 589).

If we wish to find historical precedents for this vigorous affirmation of the profound unity between a people and their language (as a gift due to the Babelic event), we need look no farther than Luther (Declamationes in Genesim, 1527).

It is this tradition, perhaps, that also stands behind Hegel’s decisive revaluation of Babel. For him the construction of the tower is not only a metaphor for the social structures linking a people to their state, but also occasions a celebration of the almost sacred character of collective human labor.

“What is holy?” Goethe asks once in a distich, and answers: “What links many souls together.” . . . In the wide plains of the Euphrates an enormous architectural work was erected; it was built in common, and the aim and content of the work was at the same time the community of those who constructed it.

And the foundation of this social bond does not remain merely a unification on patriarchal lines; on the contrary, the purely family unity has already been superseded, and the building, rising into the clouds, makes objective to itself this earlier and dissolved unity and the realization of a new and wider one.

The ensemble of all the peoples at that period worked at this task and since they all came together to complete an immense work like this, the product of their labor was to be a bond which was to link them together (as we are linked by manners, customs, and the legal constitution of the state) by means of the excavated site and ground, the assembled blocks of stone, and the as it were architectural cultivation of the country.”

(G.W.F. Hegel, trans. T.M. Knox: 638).

In this vision, in which the tower serves as a prefiguration of the ethical state, the theme of the confusion of languages can only be interpreted as meaning that the unity of the state is not a universal, but a unity that gives life to different nations (“this tradition tells us that the peoples, after being assembled in this one center of union for the construction of such a work, were once again dispersed and separated from each other”).

Nevertheless, the undertaking of Babel was still a precondition, the event necessary to set social, political and scientific history in motion, the first glimmerings of the Age of Progress and Reason. This is a dramatic intuition: to the sound of an almost Jacobin roll of muffled drums, the old Adam mounts to the scaffold, his linguistic ancien régime at an end.

And yet Hegel’s sentence did not lead to a capital punishment. The myth of the tower as a failure and as a drama still lives today: “the Tower of Babel […] exhibits an incompleteness, even an impossibility of completing, of totalizing, of saturating, of accomplishing anything which is in the order of building, of architectural construction” (Derrida 1980: 203).

One should remark that Dante (DVE, I, vii) provided a “technological” version of the confusio linguarum. His was the story not so much of the birth of the languages of different ethnic groups as of the proliferation of technical jargons: the architects had their language while the stone bearers had theirs (as if Dante were thinking of the jargons of the corporations of his time).

One is almost tempted to find here a formulation, ante litteram to say the least, of the idea of the social division of labor in terms of a division of linguistic labor.

Somehow Dante’s hint seems to have journeyed through the centuries: in his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon wondered whether the confusion of Babel might not have arisen from the fact that, when the workmen came to give names to their tools, each named them in his own way.

The suspicion that these hints reveal a long buried strand in the popular understanding of the story is reinforced by the history of iconography (cf. Minkowski 1983).

From the Middle Ages onwards, in fact, in the pictorial representations of Babel we find so many direct or indirect allusions to human labor–stonemasons, pulleys, squared building stones, block and tackles, plumb lines, compasses, T-squares, winches, plastering equipment, etc.–that these representations have become an important source of our knowledge of medieval building techniques.

And how are we to know whether Dante’s own suggestion might not have arisen from the poet’s acquaintance with the iconography of his times?

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the theme of Babel entered into the repertoire of Dutch artists, who reworked it in innumerable ways (one thinks, of course, of Bruegel), until, in the multiplicity of the number of tools and construction techniques depicted, the Tower of Babel, in its robust solidity, seemed to embody a secular statement of faith in human progress.

By the seventeenth century, artists naturally began to include references to the latest technical innovations, depicting the “marvelous machines” described in a growing number of treatises on mechanical devices.

Even Kircher, who could hardly by accused of secularism, was fascinated by the image of Babel as a prodigious feat of technology; thus, when Father Athanasius wrote his Turris Babel, he concentrated on its engineering, as if he were describing a tower that had once been a finished object.

In the nineteenth century, the theme of Babel began to fall from use, because of a lesser interest in the theological and linguistic aspects of the confusio: in exchange, in the few representations of the event, “the close up gave way to the “group,” representing “humanity,” whose inclination, reaction, or destiny was represented against the background of the “Tower of Babel.”

In these dramatic scenes the focus of the representation is thus given by human masses” (Minkowski 1983: 69). The example that readily springs to mind is in Doré’s illustrated Bible.

By now we are in the century of progress, the century in which the Italian poet, Carducci, celebrated the steam engine in a poem entitled, significantly, Hymn to Satan.

Hegel had taught the century to take pride in the works of Lucifer. Thus the gesture of the gigantic figure that dominates Doré’s engraving is ambiguous. While the tower projects dark shadows on the workmen bearing the immense blocks of marble, a nude turns his face and extends his arm towards a cloud-filled sky.

Is it defiant pride, a curse directed towards a God who has defeated human endeavors? Whatever it is, the gesture certainly does not signify humble resignation in the face of destiny.

Genette has observed (1976: 161) how much the idea of confusio linguarum appears as a felix culpa in romantic authors such as Nodier: natural languages are perfect in so far as they are many, for the truth is many-sided and falsity consists in reducing this plurality into a single definite unity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 337-44.


Eco: Limits and Effability of an IAL


Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491), La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465, on display in the Florence Cathedral. Photo by Jastrow, who kindly releases this photo into the public domain as the copyright holder, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions. 

“If one considers the efforts made by many IALs in order to translate all the masterpieces of world literature, one wonders whether, by using an IAL originally, it is possible to achieve artistic results.

One is tempted to cite a celebrated (if misunderstood) boutade attributed to Leo Longanesi: “You can’t be a great Bulgarian poet.” The boutade is not a nasty comment about Bulgaria: Longanesi wanted to say that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language spoken only by a few million people in a country which (whatever else it is) has remained for centuries on the margins of history.

I do not think Longanesi meant that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language unknown to the rest of the world.

This seems reductive, for poetic greatness is surely not dependent on diffusion. It seems more likely that Longanesi wanted to say that a language is the sum and consequence of a variety of social factors which, over the course of history, have enriched and strengthened it.

Many of these factors are extra-linguistic: these include provocative contacts with other cultures, new social needs to communicate new experiences, conflicts and renewals within the speaking community.

If that community, however, were a people on the margins of history, a people whose customs and whose knowledge have remained unchanged for centuries; it it were a people whose language has remained unchanged as well, nothing more than the medium of worn-out memories and rituals ossified over centuries; how could we ever expect it to be a vehicle for a great new poet?

But this is not an objection that one could make against an IAL. An IAL is not limited in space, it exists in symbiosis with other languages. The possible risk is rather that the institutional control from above (which seems an essential prerequisite for a successful IAL) will become too tight, and the auxiliary language will lose its capacity to express new everyday experiences.

One could object that even medieval Latin, ossified though it was in the grammatical forms of which Dante spoke, was still capable of producing liturgical poetry, such as the Stabat Mater or the Pange Lingua, not to mention poetry as joyful and irreverent as the Carmina Burana. Nevertheless, it is still true that the Carmina Burana is not the Divine Comedy.

An IAL would certainly lack a historic tradition behind it, with all the intertextual richness that this implies. But when the poets of medieval Sicilian courts wrote in a vernacular, when the Slavic bards sang The Song of Prince Igor and the Anglo-Saxon scop improvised Beowulf, their languages were just as young–yet still, in their own way, capable of absorbing the entire history of the preceding languages.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 335-6.

Eco: The “Political” Possibilities of an IAL


Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), Histoire des Oracles, La Haye: Gosse et Néalme, 1728. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Up to now, vehicular languages have been imposed by tradition (Latin as the language of politics, learning and the church in the Middle Ages), by political and economical hegemony (English after World War II), or by other imponderable reasons (Swahili, a natural language spoken on the coast of east Africa, gradually and spontaneously penetrated the interior and, in the wake of commercial and, later, colonial contacts, was simplified and standardized, becoming the common language for a vast African area).

Would it be possible for some international body (the UN or the European Parliament) to impose a particular IAL as a lingua franca (or, perhaps, sanction the actual diffusion of one)? It would be a totally unprecedented historical event.

No one could deny, however, that today many things have changed: that continuous and curious exchanges among different peoples–not just at the higher social levels, but at the level of mass tourism–are phenomena that did not exist in previous eras.

The mass media have proved to be capable of spreading comparatively homogeneous patterns of behavior throughout the entire globe–and in fact, in the international acceptance of English as a common language, the mass media have played no small part.

Thus, were a political decision to be accompanied by a media campaign, the chances of success for an IAL would be greatly improved.

Today, Albanians and Tunisians have learned Italian only because they can receive Italian TV. All the more reason, it seems, to get people acquainted with an IAL, provided it would be regularly used by many television programs, by international assemblies, by the pope for his addresses, by the instruction booklets for electronic gadgets, by the control towers in the airports.

If no political initiative on this matter has emerged up till now, if, indeed, it seems difficult to bring about, this does not mean that a political initiative of this sort will never be made in the future.

During the last four centuries we have witnessed in Europe a process of national state formation, which required (together with a customs policy, the constitution of regular armies, and the vigorous imposition of symbols of identity) the imposition of single national languages.

Schools, academies and the press have been encouraged to standardize and spread knowledge of these languages. Speakers of marginal languages suffered neglect, or, in various political circumstances, even direct persecution, in order to ensure national homogeneity.

Today, however, the trend has reversed itself: politically, customs barriers are coming down, national armies are giving way to international peace-keeping forces, and national borders have become “welcome to” signs on the motorway.

In the last decades, European policy towards minority languages has changed as well. Indeed, in the last few years, a much more dramatic change has taken place, of which the crumbling of the Soviet empire is the most potent manifestation: linguistic fragmentation is no longer felt as an unfortunate accident but rather as a sign of national identity and as  a political right–at the cost even of civil wars.

For two centuries, America was an international melting pot with one common language–WASP English: today, in states like California, Spanish has begun to claim an equal right; New York City is not far behind.

The process is probably by now unstoppable. If the growth in European unity now proceeds in step with linguistic fragmentation, the only possible solution lies in the full adoption of a vehicular language for Europe.

Among all the objections, one still remains valid: it was originally formulated by Fontenelle and echoed by d’Alembert in his introduction to the Encyclopédie: governments are naturally egotistical; they enact laws for their own benefit, but never for the benefit of all humanity.

Even if we were all to agree on the necessity of an IAL, it is hard to imagine the international bodies, which are still striving to arrive at some agreement over the means to save our planet from an ecological catastrophe, being capable of imposing a painless remedy for the open wound of Babel.

Yet in this century we have become used to a constantly accelerating pace of events, and this should make would-be prophets pause. National pride is a two-edged sword; faced with the prospect that in a future European union the language of a single national might prevail, those states with scant prospects of imposing their own language and which are afraid of the predominance of another one (and thus all states except one) might band together to support the adoption of an IAL.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 332-5.

Eco: Theoretical Objections and Counter-objections


Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), Projet d’éléments d’idéologie, Paris, 1801. This copy in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“A fundamental objection that can be applied to any of the a posteriori projects generically is that they can make no claim to having identified and artificially reorganized a content system.

They simply provide an expression system which aims at being easy and flexible enough to express the contents normally expressed in a natural language. Such a practical advantage is also a theoretical limit. If the a priori languages were too philosophical, their a posteriori successors are not philosophical enough.

The supporters of an IAL have neither paid attention to the problem of linguistic relativism, nor ever been worried by the fact that different languages present the world in different ways, sometimes mutually incommensurable.

They have usually taken it for granted that synonymous expressions exist from language to language, and the vast collection of books that have been translated into Esperanto from various of the world’s languages is taken as proof of the complete “effability” of this language (this point has been discussed, from opposite points of view, by two authors who are both traditionally considered as relativist, that is, Sapir and Whorfcf. Pellerey 1993: 7).

To accept the idea that there is a content system which is the same for all languages means, fatally, to take surreptitiously for granted that such a model is the western one. Even if it tries to distance itself in certain aspects from the Indo-European model, Esperanto, both in its lexicon and in its syntax, remains basically an Indo-European tongue.

As Martinet observed, “the situation would have been different if the language had been invented by a Japanese” (1991: 681).

One is free to regard all these objections as irrelevant. A theoretical weak point may even turn out to be a practical advantage. One can hold that linguistic unification must, in practice, accept the use of the Indo-European languages as the linguistic model (cf. Carnap in Schlipp 1963:71).

It is a view that seems to be confirmed by actual events; for the moment (at least) the economic and technological growth of Japan is based on Japanese acceptance of an Indo-European language (English) as a common vehicle.

Both natural tongues and some “vehicular” languages have succeeded in becoming dominant in a given country or in a larger area mainly for extra-linguistic reasons. As far as the linguistic reasons are concerned (easiness, economy, rationality and so on), there are so many variables that there are no “scientific” criteria whereby we might confute the claim of Goropius Becanus that sixteenth century Flemish was the easiest, most natural, sweetest and most expressive language in the entire universe.

The predominate position currently enjoyed by English is a historical contingency arising from the mercantile and colonial expansion of the British Empire, which was followed by American economic and technological hegemony.

Of course, it may also be maintained that English has succeeded because it is rich in monosyllables, capable of absorbing foreign words and flexible in forming neologisms, etc.: yet had Hitler won World War II and had the USA been reduced to a confederation of banana republics, we would probably today use German as a universal vehicular language, and Japanese electronics firms would advertise their products in Hong Kong airport duty-free shops (Zollfreie Waren) in German.

Besides, on the arguable rationality of English, and of any other vehicular language, see the criticism of Sapir (1931).

There is no reason why an artificial language like Esperanto might not function as an international language, just as certain natural languages (such as Greek, Latin, French, English, Swahili) have in different historical periods.

We have already encountered in Destutt de Tracy an extremely powerful objection: a universal language, like perpetual motion, is impossible for a very “peremptory” reason: “Even were everybody on earth to agree to speak the same language from today onwards, they would rapidly discover that, under the influence of their own use, the single language had begun to change, to modify itself in thousands of different ways in each different country, until it produced in each a different dialect which gradually grew away from all the others” (Eléments d’idéologie, II, 6, 569).

It is true that, just for the above reasons, the Portuguese of Brazil today differs from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal so much that Brazilian and Portuguese publishers publish two different translations of the same foreign book, and it is a common occurrence for foreigners who have learned their Portuguese in Rio to have difficulty understanding what they hear on the streets of Lisbon.

Against this, however, one can point out the Brazilians and Portuguese still manage to understand each other well enough in practical, everyday matters. In part, this is because the mass media help the speakers of each variety to follow the transformations taking place on the other shore.

Supporters of Esperanto like Martinet (1991: 685) argue that it would be, to say the least, naive to to suppose that, as an IAL diffused into new areas, it would be exempt from the process through which languages evolve and split up into varieties of dialects.

Yet in so far as an IAL remained an auxiliary language, rather than the primary language of everyday exchange, the risks of such a parallel evolution would be diminished.

The action of the media, which might reflect the decisions of a sort of international supervisory association, could also contribute to the establishment and maintenance of standards, or, at least, to keeping evolution under control.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 330-2.

Eco: An Optimized Grammar

Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, 1889

L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), as Dr. Esperanto, An Attempt Towards An International Language, Henry Phillips, Jr., trans., New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1889. Courtesy of Cornell University Library and This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“The twenty eight letters of the Esperanto alphabet are based on a simple principle: for each letter one sound, and for each sound one letter. The tonic accent always falls on the penultimate syllable. There is only one article, la, invariable for words of all genders–thus la homo, la libroj, la abelo. Proper names do not take an article. There is no indefinite article.

Concerning the lexicon, the young Zamenhof had already noted that in many European languages there was a logic of suffixes that produced both feminine and many derivative forms (Buch / Bücherei, pharmakon / pharmakeia, child / childish, rex / regina, host / hostess, gallo / gallina, hero / heroine, Tsar / Tsarina), while the formation of contraries was governed by prefixes (heureux / malheureux, happy / unhappy, legal / illegal, fermo / malfermo, rostom / malorostom–the Russian for “high” and “low.”)

In a letter of 24 September 1876, Zamenhof described himself as ransacking the dictionaries of the various European languages trying to identify terms with a common root–lingwe, lingua, langue, lengua, language; rosa, rose, roza, etc. This was already the seminal idea of an a posteriori language.

Wherever Zamenhof was unable to discover a common root, he coined his own terms, privileging Romance languages, followed by the Germanic and Slavic ones. As a result, any speaker of a European language who examined an Esperanto word list would discover:

(1). Many terms that were easily recognizable as being similar or identical to his or her own;

(2). Terms which, though deriving from a foreign language, were still easily recognizable;

(3). Terms which, though strange at first sight, once their meaning had been learned, turned out to be easily recognizable; and finally,

(4). A reasonably limited number of terms to be learned ex novo.

Here are some examples: abelo (ape), apud (next to), akto (act), alumeto (match), birdo (bird), cigaredo (cigarette), domo (home), fali (to fall), frosto (frost), fumo (smoke), hundo (dog), kato (cat), krajono (pencil), kvar (quarter).

Esperanto also includes a comparatively large number of compound words. They are not inspired by the a priori projects, where composition is the norm, since the terms work like a chemical formula; Zamenhof could find compound words in natural languages (think of man-eater, tire-bouchon, schiaccianoci, to say nothing of German).

Compound words, moreover, permitted the exploitation of a limited number of radicals to the maximum. The rule governing the formation of compounds was that the principal word appeared at the end: thus–as in English–a “writing-table” becomes skribotablo.

The agglutinative principle which governs the formation of compound words allows for the creation of easily recognizable neologisms (cf. Zinna 1993).

From the radical stem, the neutral form is given by the suffix -o. This is not, as might appear, for example, to Italian or Spanish speakers, the suffix for the masculine gender, but merely serves as a mark for singular.

The feminine gender is “marked” by inserting an -in- between the stem and the singular ending -o. Thus “father / mother” = patr-o / patr-in-o, “king / queen” = reg-o / reg-in-o, male / female = vir-o / vir-in-o.

Plurals are formed by adding -j to the singular: thus “fathers / mothers” = patr-o-j / patr-in-o-j.

In natural languages many terms belonging to the same conceptual fields are frequently expressed by radically different lexical items. For instance, in Italian, given the conceptual field of parenthood, one must learn the meaning of padre, madre, suocero, genitori (father, mother, father-in-law and parents) before acknowledging that these terms belong to the same notional family.

In Esperanto, knowing the meaning of the radical patr, it is immediately possible to guess the meaning of patro, patrino, bopatro and gepatroj.

Likewise, in English (as well as in other languages) there are different endings for terms which all express a job or an occupation, like actor, driver, dentist, president, surgeon.

In Esperanto the words for all occupations are marked by the suffix –isto, so that anyone who knows that dento is “tooth” will automatically know that a dentisto is a professional who deals with teeth.

The rule for the formation of adjectives is also simple and intuitively clear: adjectives are formed by adding the suffix -a to the root stem: “paternal” = patr-a; and they agree with nouns in number: “good parents” = bonaj patroj.

The six verbal forms are not conjugated, and are always marked by six suffixes. For instance, for the verb “to see” we have vid-i (infinitive), vid-as (present), vid-is (past), vid-os (future), vid-us (conditional) and vid-u! (imperative).

Zinna has observed (1993) that, while the a priori languages and “laconic” grammars tried, at all cost, to apply a principle of economy, Esperanto follows a principle of optimization. Following the principle of economy, Esperanto abolishes case endings, yet it makes an exception of the accusative–which is formed by adding an -n to the noun: “la patro amas la filon, la patro amas la filojn.”

The motivation for this exception was that in non-flexional languages the accusative is the only case which is not introduced by a preposition, therefore it had to be marked in some way. Besides, the languages that, like English, had lost the accusative for nouns retain it for pronouns (I / me). The accusative also permits one to invert the syntactic order of the sentence, and yet to identify both the subject and the object of the action.

The accusative serves to avoid other ambiguities produced by non-flexional languages. As in Latin, it serves to indicate motion towards, so that in Esperanto one can distinguish between “la birdo flugas en la gardeno” (in which the bird is flying about within the garden) from “la birdo flugas en la gardenon” (in which the bird is flying into the garden).

In Italian “l’uccello vola nel giardino” remains ambiguous. In English, “I can hear him better than you” is ambiguous, for it can mean either “I can hear him better than you can hear him” or “I can hear him better than I can hear you” (the same happens in French with “je l’écoute mieux que vous,” or in Italian with “lo sento meglio di te“).

The Esperanto accusative renders this distinction very simply: the first case is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vi,” while the second is “mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 327-30.

Eco: Esperanto


L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), creator of the IAL Esperanto. This photo from the Congressional Book of the 4th World Esperanto Congress in Dresden, 1908. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Esperanto was first proposed in 1887 in a book, written in Russian and published in Warsaw at the Kelter Press, entitled The International Language. Preface and Complete Manual (for Russians). The author’s name was Dr. Ledger Ludwik Zamenhof; yet he wrote the book under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (Dr. Hopeful), and this was soon adopted as the name of his language.

Zamenhof, born in 1859, had been fascinated with the idea of an international language since adolescence. When his uncle Josef asked him what was the non-Hebrew name he had, according to custom, chosen for his contacts with Gentiles, the seventeen year old Zamenhof replied that he had chosen Ludwik because he had found a reference to Lodwick (also spelled Lodowick) in a work by Comenius (letter of 31 March 1876; see Lamberti 1990: 49).

Zamenhof’s origins and personality helped shape both his conception of the new language and its eventual success. Born of a Jewish family in Bialystok, an area of Polish Lithuania then part of the Tsarist empire, Zamenhof passed his childhood in a crucible of races and languages continually shaken by nationalist ferment and lasting waves of anti-Semitism.

The experience of oppression, followed by the persecution of intellectuals, especially Jewish, at the hands of the Tsarist government, ensured that Zamenhof’s particular fascination with international languages would become mixed with a desire for peace between peoples.

Besides, although Zamenhof felt solidarity towards his fellow Jews and forecast their return to Palestine, his form of secular religiosity prevented him from fully supporting Zionist ideas; instead of thinking of the end of the Diaspora as a return to Hebrew, Zamenhof hoped that all the Jews could be, one day, reunited in an entirely new language.

In the same years in which, starting in the Slavic-speaking lands, Esperanto began its spread throughout Europe–while philanthropists, linguists and learned societies followed its progress with interest, devoting international conferences to the phenomenon–Zamenhof had also published an anonymous pamphlet, which extolled a doctrine of international brotherhood, homaranism.

Some of his followers successfully insisted on keeping the Esperanto movement independent of ideological commitments, arguing that if Esperanto were to succeed, it would do so only by attracting to its cause men and women of different religious, political and philosophical opinions.

They even sought to avoid any public reference to Zamenhof’s own Jewish origins, given that–it must be remembered–just at that historical moment there was growing up the theory of a great “Jewish conspiracy.”

Even so, despite the movement’s insistence on its absolute neutrality, the philanthropic impulse and the non-confessional religious spirit that animated it could not fail to influence the followers of the new language–or samideani, that is, participating in the same ideal.

In the years immediately following its emergence, moreover, the language and its supporters were almost banned by the Tsarist government, congenitally suspicious towards idealism of any sort, especially after Esperanto had had the fortune / misfortune to obtain the passionate support of Tolstoy, whose brand of humanist pacifism the government regarded as a dangerous form of revolutionary ideology.

Even the Nazis followed suit, persecuting Esperanto speakers in the various lands under their occupation (cf. Lins 1988). Persecution, however, only reinforces an idea: the majority of international languages represented themselves as nothing more than instruments of practical utility; Esperanto, by contrast, came increasingly to gather in its folds those religious and pacifist tensions which had been characteristics of many quests for a perfect language, at least until the end of the seventeenth century.

Esperanto came to enjoy the support and sympathy of many illustrious figures–linguists such as Baudoin de Courtenay and Otto Jespersen, scientists such as Peano, or philosophers such as Russell. Rudolf Carnap‘s comments are particularly revealing; in his Autobiography (in Schilpp 1963: 70) he described feeling moved by a sense of solidarity when he found himself able to converse with people of other countries in a common tongue.

He noted the quality of this living language which managed to unify a surprising degree of flexibility in its means of expression with a great structural simplicity. Simplest perhaps was the lapidary formulation of Antoine Meillet: “Toute discussion théoretique est vaine: l’Esperanto fonctionne” (Meillet 1918: 268).

Today the existence of the Universala Esperanto-Asocio in all of the principal cities of the world still testifies to the success of Zamenhof’s invention. Over one hundred periodicals are currently published in Esperanto, there is an original production of poetry and narrative, and most of the world literature has been translated into this language, from the Bible to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

Like Volapük, however, especially in the first decades, the Esperanto movement was nearly torn apart by battles raging over proposed lexical and grammatical reforms. In 1907, Couturat, as the founder and secretary of the Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, attempted what Zamenhof considered a coup de main: he judged Esperanto to be the best IAL, but only in its approved version, that is, only in the version that had been reformed by the French Esperanto enthusiast, Louis De Beaufront, and renamed Ido.

The majority of the movement resisted the proposed modifications, according to a principle stated by Zamenhof: Esperanto might accept enrichments and lexical improvements, but it must always remain firmly attached to what we might call the “hard core” as set down by its founder in Fundamento de Esperanto (1905).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 324-6.

Eco: The Babel of A Posteriori Languages


Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), Italian mathematician, circa 1910. Photographer unknown. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Among the international artificial languages, the project that was presented in 1734 under the pseudonym of Carpophorophilus probably takes the prize for seniority; the next was Faiguet’s Langue Nouvelle; after this, in 1839, was the Communicationssprache of Schipfer. After these, there came a tide of IALs in the nineteenth century.

If one takes samples from a number of systems, a set of family resemblances soon appears. There is usually a prevalence of Latin roots plus a fair distribution of roots derived from other European languages.

In this way, the speakers of any one of the major European languages will always have the impression of being in, at least partially, familiar territory:

“Me senior, I sende evos un grammatik e un verb-bibel de un nuov glot nomed universal glot. (Universal sprache, 1868).

Ta pasilingua era una idioma per tos populos findita, una lingua qua autoris de to spirito divino, informando tos hominos zu parlir, er creita. (Pasilingua, 1885).

Mesiur, me recipi-tum tuo epistola hic mane gratissime. (Lingua, 1888).

Con grand satisfaction mi ha lect tei letter [ . . . ] Le possibilità de un universal lingue pro la civilisat nations ne esse dubitabil. (Mondolingue, 1888).

Me pen the liberté to ecriv to you in Anglo-Franca. Me have the honneur to soumett to yoùs inspection the prospectus of mès object manufactured. (Anglo-Franca, 1889).

Le nov latin non requirer pro la sui adoption aliq congress. (Nov Latin, 1890).

Scribasion in idiom neutral don profiti sekuant in komparision ko kelkun lingu nasional. (Idiom Neutral, 1902).”

In 1893 there even appeared an Antivolapük which was really an anti-IAL: it consisted of nothing but a skeletal universal grammar which users were invited to complete by adding lexical items from their own language; for example:

French-international: IO NO savoir U ES TU cousin . . .

English-international: IO NO AVER lose TSCHE book KE IO AVER find IN LE street.

Italian-international: IO AVER vedere TSCHA ragazzo e TSCHA ragazza IN UN strada.

Russian-international: LI dom DE MI atijez E DE MI djadja ES A LE ugol DE TSCHE ulitza.

Of like perversity was Tutonisch (1902), an international language only comprehensible to German speakers (or, at most, to speakers of Germanic languages like English).

Thus the opening of the Lord’s Prayer sounds like this: “vio fadr hu be in hevn, holirn bi dauo nam.” The author was later merciful enough to provide Romance-language speakers with a version of their own, so that they too might pray in Tutonisch: “nuo opadr, ki in siel, sanktirn bi tuo nom.”

If our story seems to be taking a turn for the ridiculous, it is due less to the languages themselves (which taken one by one are frequently well done) than to an inescapable “Babel effect.”

Interesting on account of its elementary grammar, the Latino Sine Flexione of the great mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano (1903) was wittily designed. Peano had no intention of creating a new language; he only wanted to recommend his simplified Latin as a written lingua franca for international scientific communication, reminiscent of the “laconic” grammars of the Encyclopédie.

Peano stripped Latin of its declensions, with, in his own words, the result that: “Con reductione qui praecede, nomen et verbo fie inflexible; toto grammatica latino evanesce.”

Thus, no grammar (or almost no grammar) and a lexicon from a well-known language. Yet this result tended perhaps to encourage pidgin Latin. When an English contributor wished to write for one of the mathematical journals which, under the influence of Peano, accepted articles in Latino Sine Flexione, he naturally retained the modal future; thus he translated, “I will publish” as me vol publica.

The episode is not only amusing: it illustrates the possibility of an uncontrolled development. As with other international languages, Latino Sine Flexione depended less upon its structural merits than on establishing a consensus in its favor. Failing to achieve this, it became another historical curiosity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 321-4.

Eco: The Mixed Systems


Johann Martin Schleyer (1831-1912), a drawing of the creator of Volapük by Theodor Mayerhofer (1855-1941) in Sigmund Spielmann, Volapük- Almanach für 1888, Leipzig. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Volapük was perhaps the first auxiliary language to become a matter of international concern. It was invented in 1879 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a German Catholic priest who envisioned it as an instrument to foster unity and brotherhood among peoples.

As soon as it was made public, the language spread, expanding throughout south Germany and France, where it was promoted by Auguste Kerkhoffs. From here it extended rapidly throughout the whole world.

By 1889 there were 283 Volapükist clubs, in Europe, America and Australia, which organized courses, gave diplomas and published journals. Such was the momentum that Schleyer soon began to lose control over his own project, so that, ironically, at the very moment in which he was being celebrated as the father of Volapük, he saw his language subjected to “heretical” modifications which further simplified, restructured and rearranged it.

Such seems to be the fate of artificial languages: the “word” remains pure only if it does not spread; if it spreads, it becomes the property of the community of its proselytes, and (since the best is the enemy of the good) the result is “Babelization.”

So it happened to Volapük: after a few short years of mushroom growth, the movement collapsed, continuing in an almost underground existence. From its seeds, however, a plethora of new projects were born, like the Idiom Neutral, the Langue Universelle of Menet (1886), De Max’s Bopal (1887), the Spelin of Bauer (1886), Fieweger’s Dil (1887), Dormoy’s Balta (1893), and the Veltparl of von Arnim (1896).

Volapük was an example of a “mixed system,” which, according to Couturat and Leau, followed the lines sketched out by Jacob von Grimm. It resembles an a posteriori language in the sense that it used as its model English, as the most widely spread of all languages spoken by civilized peoples (though, in fact, Schleyer filled his lexicon with terms more closely resembling his native German).

It possessed a 28 letter alphabet in which each letter had a unique sound, and the accent always fell on the final syllable. Anxious that his should be a truly international language, Schleyer had eliminated the sound r from his lexicon on the grounds that it was not pronounceable by the Chinese–failing to realize that for the speakers of many oriental languages the difficulty is not so much pronouncing r as distinguishing it from l.

Besides, the model language was English, but in a sort of phonetic spelling. Thus the word for “room” was modeled on English chamber and spelled cem. The suppression of letters like the r sometimes introduced notable deformations into many of the radicals incorporated from the natural languages.

The word for “mountain,” based on the German Berg, with the r eliminated, becomes bel, while “fire” becomes fil. One of the advantages of a posteriori language is that its words can recall the known terms of a natural language: but bel for a speaker of a Romance language would probably evoke the notion of beautiful (bello), while not evoking the notion of mountain for a German speaker.

To these radicals were added endings and other derivations. In this respect, Volapük followed an a priori criterion of rationality and transparency. Its grammar is based upon a declensional system (“house:” dom, doma, dome, domi, etc.).

Feminine is derived directly from masculine through an invariable rule, adjectives are all formed with the suffix –ik (if gud is the substantive “goodness,” gudik will be the adjective “good”), comparatives were formed by the suffix –um, and so on.

Given the integers from 1 to 9, by adding an s, units of ten could be denoted (bal = 1, bals = 10, etc.). All words that evoke the idea of time (like today, yesterday, next year) were prefixed with del-; all words with the suffix –av denoted a science (if stel = “star,” then stelav = “astronomy”).

Unfortunately, these a priori criteria are used with a degree of arbitrariness: for instance, considering that the prefix lu– always indicates something inferior and the term vat means “water;” there is no reason for using luvat for “urine” rather than for “dirty water.” Why is flitaf (which literally means “flying animal”) used for “fly” and not for “bird” or “bee?”

Couturat and Leau noted that, in common with other mixed systems, Volapük, without claiming to be a philosophical language, still tried to analyze notions according to a philosophical method.

The result was that Volapük suffered from all the inconveniences of the a priori languages while gaining none of their logical advantages. It was not a priori in that it drew its radicals from natural languages, yet it was not a posteriori, in so far as it subjected these radicals to systematic deformations (due to an a priori decision), thus making the original words unrecognizable.

As a result, losing all resemblance to any natural language, it becomes difficult for all speakers, irrespective of their original tongue. Couturat and Leau observe that mixed languages, by following compositional criteria, form conceptual agglutinations which, in their awkwardness and their primitiveness, bear a resemblance to pidgin languages.

In pidgin English, for example, the distinction between a paddle wheeler and a propeller-driven steam boat is expressed as outside-walkee-can-see and inside-walkee-no-can-see.

Likewise, in Volapük the term for “jeweler” is nobastonacan, which is formed from “stone” + “merchandise” + “nobility.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 319-21.

Eco: The International Auxiliary Languages

Couturat & Leau, Histoire de la Langue Universelle, 1903

Louis Couturat (1868-1914) & Léopold Leau (1868-1943), Histoire de la langue universelle, Hachette, Paris, 1903, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed a revolution in transport and communications. In 1903 Couturat and Leau noted that it was now possible to voyage around the world in just forty days; exactly one half of the fateful limit set by Jules Verne just thirty years before.

Now the telephone and the wireless knitted Europe together and as communication became faster, economic relations increased. The major European nations had acquired colonies even in the far-flung antipodes, and so the European market could extend to cover the entire earth.

For these and other reasons, governments felt as never before the need for international forums where they might meet to resolve an infinite series of common problems, and our authors cite the Brussels convention on sugar production and international accord on white-slave trade.

As for scientific research, there were supranational bodies such as the Bureau des poides et  mesures (sixteen states) or the International Geodesic Association (eighteen states), while in 1900 the International Association of Scientific Academies was founded.

Couturat and Leau wrote that such a growing of scientific information needed to be organized “sous peine de revenir à la tour de Babel.”

What could the remedy be? Couturat and Leau dismissed the idea of choosing a living language as an international medium as utopian, and found difficulties in returning to a dead language like Latin.

Besides, Latin displays too many homonyms (liber means both “book” and “free”), its flexions create equivocations (avi might represent the dative and ablative of avis or the nominative plural of avus), it makes it difficult to distinguish between nouns and verbs (amor means both love and I am loved), it lacks a definite article and its syntax is largely irregular . . . The obvious solution seemed to be the invention of an artificial language, formed on the model of natural ones, but which might seem neutral to all its users.

The criteria for this language should be above all a simple and rational grammar (as extolled by the a priori languages, but with a closer analogy with existing tongues), and a lexicon whose terms recalled as closely as possible words in the natural languages.

In this sense, an international auxiliary language (henceforth IAL) would no longer be a priori but a posteriori; it would emerge from a comparison with and a balanced synthesis of naturally existing languages.

Couturat and Leau were realistic enough to understand that it was impossible to arrive at a preconceived scientific formula to judge which of the a posteriori IAL projects was the best and most flexible. It would have been the same as deciding on allegedly objective grounds whether Portuguese was superior to Spanish as a language for poetry or for commercial exchange.

They realized that, furthermore, an IAL project would not succeed unless an international body adopted and promoted it. Success, in other words, could only follow from a display of international political will.

What Couturat and Leau were facing in 1903, however, was a new Babel of international languages invented in the course of the nineteenth century; as a matter of fact they record and analyze 38 projects–and more of them are considered in their further book, Les nouvelles langues internationales, published in 1907.

The followers of each project had tried, with greater or lesser cohesive power, to realize an international forum. But what authority had the competence to adjudicate between them?

In 1901 Couturat and Leau had founded a Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, which aimed at resolving the problem by delegating a decision to the international Association of Scientific Academies.

Evidently Couturat and Leau were writing in an epoch when it still seemed realistic to believe that an international body such as this would be capable of coming to a fair and ecumenical conclusion and imposing it on every nation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 317-9.

Eco: Some Ghosts of the Perfect Language

Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Pearl of Wisdom, 1503

Gregor Reisch (1467-1525), title page of Margarita philosophica, or the Pearl of Wisdom, Freiburg, 1503. Multiple copies of this work are preserved. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“We have often paused to draw attention to side-effects. Without forced comparisons and without exaggerated claims, it seems permissible at this point to ask informed readers to reconsider various chapters of the history of philosophy, especially those concerning the advent of contemporary logic and linguistic analysis.

Would these developments have been possible without the secular debate on the nature of the perfect language, and, in particular, the various projects for philosophical a priori languages?

In 1854, George Boole published his Investigations of the Laws of Thought. He announced his intention to discover the fundamental laws governing the mental operations of the process of reasoning. He observed that without presupposing these laws, we could not explain why the innumerable languages spread around the globe have maintained over the course of centuries so many characteristics in common (II, 1).

Frege began his Begriffsschrift (on ideography, 1879) with a reference to Leibniz’s characteristica. In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918-9), Russell noted that in a perfectly logical language, the relation of a word to its meaning would always be one to one (excepting words used as connectives).

When he later wrote Principia mathematica with Whitehead, he noted that, although their language possessed a syntax, it could, with the addition of a vocabulary, become a perfect language (even though he also admitted that is such a language were to be constructed it would be intolerably prolix).

For his part, Wittgenstein, renewing Bacon’s complaint concerning the ambiguity of natural languages, aspired to create a language whose signs were univocal (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 1921-2, 3.325ff) and whose propositions mirrored the logical structure of reality itself (4.121).

Carnap proposed constructing a logical system of objects and concepts such that all concepts might be derived from a single nucleus of prime ideas (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1922-5). In fact, the entire logical positivist movement was heir to the Baconian polemic against the vagaries of natural languages productive of nothing but metaphysical illusions and false problems (cf. Recanati 1979).

These philosophers all hoped to construct a scientific language, perfect within its chosen range of competence, a language that would be universal as well; none, however, claimed that such a language would ever replace natural language.

The dream had changed, or, perhaps, its limitations had finally, reluctantly been accepted. From its search for the lost language of Adam, philosophy had by now learned to take only what it could get.

In the course of centuries through which our particular story has run, another story began to disentangle itself as well–the search for a general or universal grammar. I said in the introduction that this was not a story that I intended to tell here.

I shall not tell it because the search for a single corpus of rules underneath and common to all natural languages entailed neither the invention of a new language nor a return to a lost mother tongue. None the less, the search for what is constant in all languages can be undertaken in two ways.

The first way is to follow empirical and comparative methods; this requires compiling information on every language that exists–or existed (cf. Greenberg 1963).

The second way can be traced back to the time in which Dante (influenced or not by the doctrines of the Modists) attributed the gift of a forma locutionis to Adam. On this line of thought, scholars have more often tried to deduce the universal laws of all languages, and of human thought, from the model of the only language they knew–scholastic Latin–and in 1587 Francisco Sanchez Brocense was still doing so with his Minerva, seu causis linguae latinae.

The novelty of the Grammaire générale et raisonnée of Port Royal (1660) was simply the decision of taking as a model a modern language–French.

Choosing this way requires never being brushed by the scruple that a given language represents only a given way of thinking and of viewing the world, not universal thought itself.

It requires regarding what is called the “genius” of a language as affecting only the surface structures rather than the deep structure, allegedly the same for all languages.

Only in this way will be be possible to regard as universal, because corresponding to the only logic possible, the structures discovered in the language in which one is used to think.

Nor does it necessarily alter the problem to concede that–certainly–the various languages do exhibit differences at their surface level, are often corrupted through usage or agitated by their own genius, but still, if universal laws exist, the light of natural reason will uncover them because, as Beauzée wrote in his article on grammar in the Encyclopédie, “la parole est une sorte de tableau dont la pensée est l’original.”

Such an argument would be acceptable, but in order to uncover these laws one needs to represent them through a metalanguage applicable to every other language in the world. Now, if one chooses as metalanguage one’s own object language, the argument becomes circular.

In fact, as Simone has put it (1969: XXXIII), the aim of the Port Royal grammarians…

“…is therefore, in spite of the appearances of methodological rigor, prescriptive and evaluative, in so far as it is rationalist. Their scope was not to interpret, in the most adequate and coherent way possible, the usages permitted by the various languages.

If it were so, a linguistic theory should coincide with whole of the possible usages of a given tongue, and should take into account even those that native speakers consider as “wrong.”

Instead, their aim was to emend this variety of uses in order to make them all conform to the dictates of Reason.”

What makes the search for a universal grammar of interest in our story is, as Canto has noted (1979), that in order to be caught within the vicious circle, it is only necessary to make one simple assumption: the perfect language exists, and it is identical to one’s own tongue.

Once this assumption is made, the choice of the metalanguage follows: Port Royal anticipates de Rivarol.

This is a problem that remains for all attempts–contemporary ones included–to demonstrate that syntactic or semantic universals exist by deducing them from a given natural language, used simultaneously both as a metalanguage and as object language.

It is not my argument here that such a project is desperate: I merely suggest that it represents but another example of the quest for a philosophical a priori language in which, once again, a philosophical ideal of grammar presides over the study of a natural language.

Thus (as Cosenza has shown, 1993) those modern day branches of philosophy and psychology which deliberately appeal to a language of thought are also descendants of those older projects.

Such a “mentalese” would supposedly reflect the structure of mind, would be purely formal and syntactical calculus (not unlike Leibniz’s blind thought), would use non-ambiguous symbols and would be based upon innate primitives, common to all species.

As happened with Wilkins, it would be deduced according to a “folk psychology,” naturally within the framework of a given historical culture.

There are perhaps more remote descendants of the a priori projects, which have sought to found a language of mind not upon Platonic abstractions but upon the neuro-physiological structures of the brain.

Here the language of mind is the language of the brain; the software is founded upon the hardware. This is a new departure; since the “ancestors” of our story never dreamed of venturing this far, and many of them were not even certain that the res cogitans was located in the brain rather than the heart or the liver (even though an attractive wood cut showing the localization of the faculty of language in the brain–as well as those for imagination, estimation and memory–already appears in the fifteenth century in Gregor Reysch’s Margarita philosophica.

Differences are sometimes more important than identities or analogies; still, it would hardly be a waste of time if sometimes even the most advanced students in the cognitive sciences were to pay a visit to their ancestors.

It is frequently claimed in American philosophy departments that, in order to be a philosopher, it is not necessary to revisit the history of philosophy. It is like the claim that one can become a painter without having seen a single work of Raphael, or a writer without having ever read the classics.

Such things are theoretically possible; but the “primitive” artist, condemned to an ignorance of the past, is always recognizable as such and rightly labelled as a naïf. It is only when we reconsider past projects revealed as utopian or as failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects.

The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an antiquarian pastime, it is an immunological precaution.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 312-6.

Eco: Artificial Intelligence

The Arecibo Message.svg

Frank Drake (1930-), Carl Sagan (1934-96), et al, The Arecibo Message, 1974. The Arecibo Message was broadcast into space via FM radio waves from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico on 16 November, 1974. Aimed at the globular star cluster M13, the message comprised 1,679 binary digits. Total broadcast time was less than three minutes in duration. This representation of the message is by Arne Nordmann, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. 

Lincos does furnish us with an image of a language that is almost purely “mental” (its level of expression is supported by nothing more than electromagnetic phenomena). This reminds us of other languages which are, in one way or another, the heirs of the ancient search for the perfect language.

Computer languages, like BASIC or Pascal, are, in fact, a priori languages. They are not full languages because their syntax, though rigorous, is simplified and limited, and they remain parasitic on the natural languages which attach meanings to their empty symbols, which, for the most part, serve as logical connectors of the type if . . . then.

None the less, they are universal systems: they are comprehensible to speakers of differing natural languages and are perfect in the sense that they permit neither error nor ambiguity.

They are a priori, in that they are based not on the rules which govern the surface structures of natural languages, but rather, ideally, on a presumed deep grammar common to all natural languages.

They are, finally, philosophical because they presume that this deep grammar, based on the laws of logic, is the grammar of thought of human beings and machines alike. They also exhibit the two limitations inherent in philosophical a priori languages:

(1) their rules of inference are drawn from the western logical tradition, and this may mean, as many have argued, that they reflect little more than the basic grammatical structures common to the Indo-European family of languages;

(2) their effability (sic) is limited; that is, they are capable of expressing only a small proportion of what any natural language can express.

The dream of a perfect language which covers all the meanings and connotations of the vocabulary of a natural language, and in which human beings and machines can engage in “meaningful” conversations (or machines can draw inferences as happens in natural languages), underlies much of contemporary research into artificial intelligence.

Machines are provided, for example, with rules of inference by which they can “judge” whether or not a certain story is coherent, or decide that, if someone is ill, then someone needs medical assistance–and so on.

By now, the literature on this subject is vast, and the proposed systems are many: they run from those that still adhere to the ideal of a componential semantics based on primitives, to those that furnish the machine with schemes of action or a typology of “frames,” “scripts” and “goals.”

In general all of these projects succeed in solving certain problems only through imposing ad hoc solutions, which work only for local portions of the range of action of natural languages.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 310-2.

Eco: Space Languages


Hans Freudenthal (1905-1990). This photograph is assumed to be copyrighted and unlicensed, but qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law to illustrate the subject in question where no free equivalent is available, as Professor Freudenthal is deceased and no free replacement can be made. 

“Almost at the bounds of science fiction, though still with an undoubted scientific interest, is the project of the Dutch mathematician Hans A. Freudenthal (Lincos, 1960) for a language in which eventual encounters with the inhabitants of other galaxies may be conducted (see Bassi 1992).

Lincos is not designed as a language to be spoken; it is rather a model for inventing a language and at the same time teaching it to alien beings that have presumably traditions and biological structure different from ours.

Freudenthal starts off by supposing that we can beam into space signals, which we might picture as radio waves of varying length and duration. The significance of these waves derives not from their expression-substance, but rather from their expression-form and content-form.

By endeavoring to understand the logic that determines the expression-form being transmitted to them, the space aliens are supposed to extrapolate a content-form that will not be alien to them.

During the first phase, the messages consist of regular sequences of pulses. These are intended to be interpreted quantitatively–four pulses standing for the number 4, etc. As soon as it is assumed that the aliens have correctly interpreted these first signals, the transmission passes to the second phase, in which it introduces simple arithmetic operators:

* * * < * * * *

* * * * = * * * *

* * * * + * * = * * * * * *

In the next phase, the aliens are taught to substitute for the pulses a system of binary numbers (in which * * * * = 100, * * * * * = 101, * * * * * * = 110); this makes it possible, using only ostension and repetition, to communicate some of the principle operations in mathematics.

The transmission of temporal concepts presents a more complex problem. Freudenthal, however, presumes that by constantly receiving a signal of the same duration, constantly associated to the same number of pulses, the aliens will begin to compute a certain duration in seconds. Lincos also teaches conversational rules, training the aliens to understand sequences such as “Ha says to Hb: what is that x such that 2x = 5?”

In one sense, we are treating the space aliens like circus animals; we subject them to a repeated stimulus, giving them positive reinforcement whenever they exhibit the desired response. In the case of animals, however, the reinforcement is immediate–we give them food; in the case of aliens, the reinforcement cannot but be a broadcast signal that they should interpret as “OK.”

By this means, the aliens are meant to learn to recognize not only mathematical operations but also concepts such as “because,” “as,” “if,” “to know,” “to want,” and even “to play.”

The project presupposes that the alines have the technological capability to receive and decode wave-length signals, and that they follow logical and mathematical criteria akin to our own.

They should share with us not only the elementary principles of identity and non-contradiction, but also the habit of inferring a constant rule through induction from many similar cases.

Lincos can only be taught to those who, having guessed that for the mysterious sender 2 x 2 = 4, will assume that this rule will remain constant in the future. This is, in fact, a big assumption; there is no way of ruling out that there exist alien cultures who “think” according to rules which vary according to time and circumstances.

What Freudenthal is aiming for is, explicitly, a true characteristica universalis; in Lincos, however, only a handful of original syntactic rules are formulated in the beginning. As to the rest (as to, for example, the rules governing questions and answers), the model implicitly assumes that the interlocutors will use the rules, and even the pragmatics, of a natural language.

We can, for example, imagine a community of angels, each of whom either reads the thoughts of the others or learns truths directly through beholding them in the mind of God: for such beings, the set of interactional rules governing questions and answers would make no sense at all.

The problem with Lincos is that, although provided with a formal structure, it is conceived as an instrument for “natural” communication, and thus it is inherently uncertain and imprecise. In other words, it cannot possess the tautological structure of a formalized language.

Lincos is probably more interesting from a pedagogical point of view: can one teach a language without ostension?

If the answer is positive, Lincos would allow a situation different from that imagined by philosophers of language, when they skeptically imagine a scene in which a European explorer interacts with a native, each party tries to communicate with the other by pointing at bits of space-time and uttering a given sound, and there is no way for the explorer to be certain whether the native is denoting a given object located in that space-time portion, or the fact that something is happening there, or is expressing his or her refusal to answer (see Quine 1960).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 308-10.

Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages, 2

Giovan Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831

Giovanni Giuseppe Matraja, Genigrafia italiana, 1831. Original held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a glorious eBook format posted by the Hathitrust and GoogleBooks among others. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Vismes was not the only one to fall foul of this seemingly elementary snare. In 1831 Father Giovan Giuseppe Matraja published his Genigrafia italiana, which is nothing other than a polygraphy with five (Italian) dictionaries, one for nouns, one for verbs, one for adjectives, one for interjections and one for adverbs.

Since the five dictionaries account for only 15,000 terms, Matraja adds another dictionary that lists 6,000 synonyms. His method managed to be both haphazard and laborious: Matraja divided his terms into a series of numbered classes each containing 26 terms, each marked by an alphabetical letter: thus A1 means “hatchet,” A2 means “hermit,” A1000 means “encrustation,” A360 means “sand-digger,” etc.

Even though he had served as a missionary in South America, Matraja was still convinced that all cultures used the same system of notions. He believed that western languages (all of which he seemed to imagine were derived from Latin grammar) might perfectly well serve as the basis for another language, because, by a special natural gift, all peoples used the same syntactic structures when speaking–especially American Indians.

In fact, he included a genigraphical translation of the Lord’s Prayer comparing it with versions in twelve other languages including Nahuatl, Chilean and Quechua.

In 1827 François Soudre invented the Solresol (Langue musicale universelle, 1866). Soudre was also persuaded that the seven notes of the musical scale composed an alphabet comprehensible by all the peoples of the world, because the notes are written in the same way in all languages, and could be sung, recorded on staves, represented with special stenographic signs, figured in Arabic numerals, shown with the seven colors of the spectrum, and even indicated by the touch of the fingers of the right and left hands–thus making their representation comprehensible even for the deaf, dumb and blind.

It was not necessary that these notes be based on a logical classification of ideas. A single note expresses terms such as “yes” (musical si, or B) and “no” (do, or C); two notes express pronouns (“mine” = redo, “yours” = remi); three notes express everyday words like “time” (doredo) or “day” (doremi).

The initial notes refer to an encyclopedic class. Yet Soudre also wished to express opposites by musical inversion (a nice anticipation of a twelve-tone music procedure): thus, if the idea of “God” was naturally expressed by the major chord built upon the tonic, domisol, the idea of “Satan” would have to be the inversion, solmido.

Of course, this practice makes nonsense of the rule that the first letter in a three-note term refers to an encyclopedic class: the initial do refers to the physical and moral qualities, but the initial sol refers back to arts and sciences (and to associate them with Satan would be an excess of bigotry).

Besides the obvious difficulties inherent in any a priori language, the musical language of Soudre added the additional hurdle of requiring a good ear. We seem in some way to be returning to the seventeenth century myth of the language of birds, this time with less glossolalic grace, however, and a good deal more pure classificatory pedantry.

Couturat and Leau (1903: 37) awarded to the Solresol the encomium of being “the most artificial and most impracticable of all the a priori languages.” Even its number system is inaccessible; it is based on a hexadecimal system which, despite its claims to universality, still manages to indulge in the French quirk of eliminating names for 70 and 90.

Yet Soudre labored for forty-five years to perfect his system, obtaining in the meantime testimonials from the Institut de France, from musicians such as Cherubini, from Victor Hugo, Lamartine and Alexander von Humboldt; he was received by Napoleon III; he was awarded 10,000 francs at the Exposition Universale in Paris in 1855 and the gold medal at the London Exposition of 1862.

Let us neglect for the sake of brevity the Système de langue universelle of Grosselin (1836), the Langue universelle et analytique of Vidal (1844), the Cours complet de langue universelle by Letellier (1832-55), the Blaia Zimandal of Meriggi (1884), the projects of so distinguished a philosopher as Renouvier (1885), the Lingualumina of Dyer (1875), the Langue internationale étymologique of Reimann (1877), the Langue naturelle of Maldant (1887), the Spokil of Dr. Nicolas (1900), the Zahlensprache of Hilbe (1901), the Völkerverkehrsprache of Dietrich (1902), and the Perio of Talundberg (1904).

We will content ourselves with a brief account of the Projet d’une langue universelle of Sotos Ochando (1855). Its theoretical foundations are comparatively well reasoned and motivated; its logical structure could not be of a greater simplicity and regularity; the project proposes–as usual–to establish a perfect correspondence between the order of things signified and the alphabetical order of the words that express them.

Unfortunately–here we go again–the arrangement is empirical: A refers to inorganic material things, B to the liberal arts, C to the mechanical arts, D to political society, E to living bodies, and so forth.

With the addition of the morphological rules, one generates, to use the mineral kingdom as an example, the words Ababa for oxygen, Ababe for hydrogen, Ababi for nitrogen, Ababo for sulphur.

If we consider that the numbers from one to ten are siba, sibe, sibi, sibo, sibu, sibra, sibre, sibri, sibro, and sibru (pity the poor school children having to memorize their multiplication tables), it is evident that words with analogous meanings are all going to sound the same.

This makes the discrimination of concepts almost impossible, even if the formation of names follows a criterion similar to that of chemistry, and the letters stand for the components of the concept.

The author may claim that, using his system, anyone can learn over six million words in less than an hour; yet as Couturat and Leau remark (1903: 69), learning a system that can generate six million words in an hour is not the same as memorizing, recognizing, six million meanings.

The list could be continued, yet towards the end of the nineteenth century, news of the invention of a priori languages was becoming less a matter for scientific communications and more one for reports on eccentric fellows–from Les fous littéraires by Brunet in 1880 to Les fous littéraires by Blavier in 1982.

By now, the invention of a priori languages, other than being the special province of visionaries of all lands, had become a game (see Bausani 1970 and his language Markuska) or a literary exercise (see Yaguello 1984 and Giovannoli 1990 for the imaginary languages of science fiction).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 305-8.

Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes, Pasilogie, ou de la musique, consideree comme langue universelle, 1806

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes (1745-1819), Pasilogie, ou de la musique, considérée comme langue universelle, Paris, 1806. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Nor was even this the end of attempts at creating a philosophic language. In 1772 there appeared the project of Georg Kalmar, Praecepta grammatica atque specimina linguae philosophicae sive universalis, ad omne vitae genus adcomodatae, which occasioned the most significant discussion on our topic written in Italian.

In 1774, the Italian-Swiss Father Francesco Soave published his Riflessioni intorno alla costituzione di una lingua universaleSoave, who had done much to spread the sensationalist doctrine to Italy, advanced a criticism of the a priori languages that anticipated those made by the Idéologues (on Soave see Gensini 1984; Nicoletti 1989; Pellerey 1992a).

Displaying a solid understanding of the projects from Descartes to Wilkins and from Kircher to Leibniz, on the one hand Soave advanced the traditional reservation that it was impossible to elaborate a set of characters sufficient to represent all fundamental concepts; on the other hand, he remarked that Kalmar, having reduced these concepts to 400, was obliged to give different meanings to the same character, according to the context.

Either one follows the Chinese model, without succeeding in limiting the characters, or one is unable to avoid equivocations.

Unfortunately, Soave did not resist the temptation of designing a project of his own, though outlining only its basic principles. His system of classification seems to have been based on Wilkins; as usual he sought to rationalize and simplify his grammar; at the same time, he sought to augment its expressive potential by adding marks for new  morphological categories such as dual and the neuter.

Soave took more care over his grammar than over his lexicon, but was mainly interested in the literary use of language: from this derives his radical skepticism about any universal language; what form of literary commerce, he wondered, could we possibly have with the Tartars, the Abyssinians or the Hurons?

In the early years of the next century, Soave’s discussion influenced the thinking of Giacomo Leopardi, who had become an exceptionally astute student of the Idéologues.

In his Zibaldone, Leopardi treated the question of universal languages at some length, as well as discussing the debate between rationalists and sensationalists in recent French philosophy (see Gensini 1984; Pellerey 1992a).

Leopardi was clearly irritated by the algebraic signs that abounded in the a priori languages, all of which he considered as incapable of expressing the subtle connotations of natural languages:

“A strictly universal language, whatever it may be, will certainly, by necessity and by its natural bent, be both the most enslaved, impoverished, timid, monotonous, uniform, arid, and ugly language ever.

It will be incapable of beauty of any type, totally uncongenial to imagination [ . . . ] the most inanimate, bloodless, and dead whatsoever, a mere skeleton, a ghost of a language [ . . . ] it would lack life even if it were written by all and universally understood; indeed it will be deader than the deadest languages which are no longer either spoken or written.” (23 August 1823, in G. Leopardi, Tutte le opere, Sansoni: Florence 1969: II, 814).

Despite these and similar strictures, the ardor of the apostles of philosophic a priori languages was still far from quenched.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Anne-Pierre-Jacques de Vismes (Pasilogie, ou de la musique considérée come langue universelle, 1806) presented a language that was supposed to be a copy of the language of the angels, whose sounds derived from the affections of the soul.

Vismes argued that when the Latin translation of Genesis 11:1-2 states that “erat terra labii unius” (a passage to which we usually give the sense that “all the world was of one language”), it used the word labium (lip) rather than lingua (tongue) because people first communicated with each other by emitting sounds through their lips without articulating them with their tongue.

Music was not a human invention (pp. 1-20), and this is demonstrated by the fact that animals can understand music more easily than verbal speech: horses are naturally roused by the sound of trumpets as dogs are by whistles. What is more, when presented with a musical score, people of different nations all play it the same way.

Vismes presents enharmonic scales of 21 notes, one for each letter of the alphabet. He did this by ignoring the modern convention of equal temperament, and treating the sharp of one note as distinct from the flat of the note above.

Since Vismes was designing a polygraphy rather than a spoken language, it was enough that the distinctions might be exactly represented on a musical stave.

Inspired, perhaps, indirectly by Mersenne, Vismes went on to demonstrate that if one were to combine his 21 sounds into doublets, triplets, quadruplets, etc., one would quickly arrive at more syntagms than are contained in any natural language, and that “if it were necessary to write down all the combinations that can be generated by the seven enharmonic scales, combined with each other, it would take almost all of eternity before one could hope to come to an end.” (p. 78).

As for the concrete possibility of replacing verbal sounds by musical notes, Vismes devotes only the last six pages of his book to such a topic–not a great deal.

It never seems to have crossed Visme’s mind that, in taking a French text and substituting tones for its letters, all he was doing was transcribing a French text, without making it comprehensible to speakers of other languages.

Vismes seems to conceive of a universe that speaks exclusively in French, so much so that he even notes that he will exclude letters like K, Z and X because “they are hardly ever used in languages” (p. 106).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 302-4.

Eco: Eighteenth Century Projects, 2

Fenelon Adventures of Telemachus

François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, aka François Fénelon (1651-1715), frontispiece and title page of the 1715 English translation of Les Aventures de Télémaque, The Adventures of Telemachus, first published in French in 1699. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Even though the primitives were no longer such, they remained a compositional criterion. For instance, given in first position the letter a, which refers to grammar, the depending letters have a mere distinctive value and refer back to grammatical sub-categories.

A third and final letter specifies a morphological termination or other derivation. Thus a list of terms is derived: ava (grammar), ave (letter), alve (vowel), adve (consonant) and so on. The expressions function like a chemical formula, which synthetically reveals the internal composition of its content, and like a mathematical expression in that the system attributes to each letter a value determined by its position.

Nevertheless, this theoretical perspicuity is bought at a dear price because, in practice, the lexicon becomes obsessively monotonous.

Equally, the Pasigraphie of De Maimieux institutes a graphic code of twelve characters that can be combined according to fixed rules. Each combination expresses a definite thought (the model is the Chinese character).

Other characters are placed on the outside of the “body” of the word to modify the central idea. The body of the word can contain three, four or five characters. Words of only three characters signify either “pathetic” terms or connectives linking parts of discourse, and are classified in an indicule.

Words of four characters stand for ideas in practical life (like friendship, kinship, business), and are classified in petit nomenclateur. Five character words concern categories such as art, religion, morality, science and politics, and are classified in a grand nomenclateur.

None of these categories is primitive; they have rather been isolated in terms of common sense as the most manageable way of subdividing contemporary knowledge. De Maimieux went so far as to admit that he had not sought for an absolute ordering but rather any ordering whatsoever, fût-il mauvais (p. 21).

The system, unfortunately, provides no way of eliminating synonyms; they are constitutional, and De Maimieux only says how to identify them. In fact, every expression in the pasigraphy can be connected not to a single meaning but to three or four different contents.

These different meanings can be distinguished according to the position of the characters on a sort of pentagram. This method imposes no small amount of tedium on the reader, who, as the characters display no iconic similarity with their content, is continually forced to consult the indicule, the petit nomenclateur or the grand nomenclateur, depending on the length of the expression.

Thus, to give an example, if we run across a five letter syntagm, we must seek first in the grand nomenclateur

“the class that begins with the first character of the term. Inside this class, we seek for the framework listing the second character of the term. Inside this framework, we seek for the column containing the third character of the term. Finding the right column, we seek the section (tranche) with the fourth character of the term.

Finally, within this section we seek the line containing the fifth character. At this point we will discover that, as the meaning, we have found a line listing four verbal words; it will then be necessary to observe which of the characters in the pasigraphic term is graphically tallest in order to determine which of the four possible words is the one corresponding to the term.” (Pellerey 1992a: 104).

A real piece of drudgery, though not enough to dampen the ardor of the project’s enthusiasts, who, starting with the abbé Sicard and finishing with various contemporary reviewers wishing to favor the diffusion of the system, entered into pasigraphic correspondence with each other and with De Maimieux, who even composed pasigraphic poetry.

De Maimieux spoke of his pasigraphy as an instrument for checking the accuracy of translations. Many theories of translation, in fact, presuppose the existence of a “parameter language” with which one can control the correct correspondence between the original text and the translated one.

De Maimieux aimed at proposing a supposedly neutral metalanguage which could track the correspondence between expressions in System A and those in system B. What was never placed in discussion was the fact that the content of this metalanguage was structured along the lines of Indo-European languages, and of French in particular.

As a consequence we have “the immense drama of ideography: it can identify and describe its contents, which are supposedly ideas or notions in themselves, only by naming them with words from a natural language–a supreme contradiction for a project created expressly to eliminate verbal languages.” (Pellerey 1992a: 114).

As can be seen, neither in technique nor in underlying ideology have we advanced very far from the time of Wilkins.

This disingenuousness is carried to paroxysms in the Palais de soixante-quatre fenêtres [ . . . ] ou l’art d’écrire toutes les langues du monde comme on les parle (1787, by the Swiss writer J.P. De Ria.

(Editorial note: Eco writes “De Ria,” yet Google returns “Jean-Pierre Deriaz” as the author of the work, and beautifully offers the 1787 document as a free eBook. Thank you, Google. Yet, history must agree with Eco, as the title page depicts the author as “J.P. De Ria,” as Eco attests.).

Despite its pretentious title, the book is nothing but a manual of phonetics or, perhaps, a proposal for the orthographic reform of French, written in a febrile, quasi-mystic style.

It is not in the least clear how the reform could be applied to all the languages of the world (it would, for example, be particularly inapplicable to English phonetics); but this is an unimaginable question for the author.

Returning to De Maimieux, the flexibility displayed in his choice of the pseudo-primitives seems to associate his project with the empiricist tendencies of the Encyclopédie; yet, once they were chose, his belief in them, and the self-confidence with which he sought to impose them on everyone else, still reflected the rationalist temperament.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that De Maimieux sought to provide for the rhetorical use of his language and the possibility of oratory: we are, of course, in a time of eloquence where the life or death of a revolutionary faction might depend on its ability to sway its audience by the force of its words.

Where the a priori linguists of the eighteenth-century were most critical of their predecessors, however, was in the matter of grammar. All were inspired by the “laconic” ideal proposed in the Encyclopédie.

In the grammar of De Maimieux, the number of grammatical categories originally  projected by Faiguet is somewhat amplified; in the case of Delormel, however, the grammar is so laconic that Couturat and Leau (1903: 312), who spend long chapters describing other systems, liquidate his in a page and a half (Pellerey’s treatment is more accurate and generous; 1992a: 125).

Hourwitz, whose project remains akin to the seventeenth century polygraphies, produced a grammar that was, perhaps, the most laconic of all: one declension, one conjugation for verbs; the verbs were to be expressed in the infinitive with a few additional signs that specify tense and mood.

The tenses themselves were reduced to a system of three steps from the present, either backwards or forwards in time: thus A 1200 means “I dance;” A/1200 means “I have danced;” A 1200/ means “I will dance.”

If the grammar was made laconic, it followed that the syntax needed to be drastically simplified as well; Hourwitz proposed retaining the direct word order of French. In this respect, the relevance of Count Antoine de Rivarol’s pamphlet, De l’universalité de la langue française (1784), becomes apparent.

What was the need for a universal language, asked the count, when a perfect language existed already? The language was, of course, French. Apart from its intrinsic perfection, French was already an international language; it was the language most diffused in the world, so much that it was possible to speak of the “French world” just as, in antiquity, one could speak of the “Roman world.” (p. 1).

According to de Rivarol, French possessed a phonetic system that guaranteed sweetness and harmony, as well as a literature incomparable in its richness and grandeur; it was spoken in that capital city which had become the “foyer des étincelles répandues chez tous les peuples” (p. 21).

In comparison with French all other languages paled: German was too guttural, Italian too soft, Spanish too redundant, English too obscure. Rivarol attributed the superiority of French to its word order: first subject, then verb, and last object. This word order mirrored a natural logic which was in accordance with the requirements of common sense.

This common sense is, however, linked to the higher activity of our minds: for if we were to base our syntactical order on the order of our perceptions, it is plain that we would start with the object, which first strikes our senses.

The polemical reference to the sensationalism of Condillac is evident when de Rivarol asserts that, if other people, speaking in other tongues, had abandoned the natural, direct word order, it was because they had let their passions prevail over their intellect (p. 25-6).

This retreat from natural reason, moreover, was responsible for the syntactic inversion that had provoked the confusions and ambiguities prevalent in natural languages other than French. Naturally, those languages which tried to compensate for their lack of direct word order with declensions were among the most confused of all.

We might bear in mind that, even though, in 1784, while he was writing his pamphlet, de Rivarol was an habitué of Enlightenment circles, after the advent of the revolution, he revealed himself to be a conservative legitimist.

To a man so spiritually tied to the ancien régime, the philosophy and linguistics of the sensationalists may (quite justifiably) have appeared as a harbinger of an intellectual revolution which emphasized the passions as the fundamental force motivating humanity.

If this were the case, then “the direct word order acquires the value of an instrument of protection [ . . . ] against the inflammatory style of the public orators who, in a few short years, would be preaching revolution and manipulating the masses.” (Pellerey 1992a: 147).

Yet what really characterized the eighteenth century debate was the desire not so much to simplify grammar as to show that there existed a natural and normal grammar, universally present in all human languages. This grammar is not, however, manifestly apparent; it must be sought instead beneath the surface of human languages, all of which are, in some degree or other, derivations from it.

As can be seen, we have returned to the ideal of a universal grammar, only now one is trying to identify it by reducing every existing language to its most laconic form.

Attentive as we have been throughout this story to the issue of side-effects, we ought here to note that without this eighteenth century intuition of an original, laconic grammar, our contemporary notions of generative and transformational grammar would be quite inconceivable, even if their origins are usually traced back to the Cartesianism of Port Royal.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 296-302.

Eco:Eighteenth Century Projects


François Fénelon (1651-1715), Telemachus, or the first page of the first book of Les Aventures de Télémaque, first published anonymously in 1699, and translated into English in London in 1715. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Even under the weight of the Enlightenment critique, the dream of the perfect language refused to die. In 1720 there appeared a “Dialogue sur la facilité qu’il y auroit d’établir un Caractère Universel qui seroit commun à toutes les Langues de l’Europe, et intelligible à différens Peuples, qui le liroient chacun dans la propre Langue” (in the Journal littéraire de l’anné 1720).

As the title itself suggests, the project was for a polygraphy, in the sense we saw in Kircher, and, at most, it is worthy of note in that its attempt to include a contracted grammar points the way to future developments.

In any case, the proposal is distinguished by including an appeal, by the anonymous author, for a commission which would develop the project and for a prince who would impose its adoption.

Such an appeal “cannot help but remind us of a possibility, which must have seemed evident in the year 1720, that a phase of stability for Europe was about to open, and that, consequently, sovereigns might be expected to be more willing to patronize linguistic and intellectual experiments” (cf. Pellerey 1992a: 11).

In his article on “Langue” in the Encyclopédie, even a rationalist like Beauzée had to concede that, since it would be difficult to come to an agreement over a new language, and an international language still seemed to him to be necessary, Latin had to remain the most reasonable candidate.

For their part, the empiricists among the encyclopedists felt duty-bound to consider the idea of a universal language, too. As a sort of coda to the article on “Langue,” Joachim Faiguet wrote four pages on a project for a langue nouvelle. Couturat and Leau (1903: 237) consider this as representing a first attempt at overcoming the problems inherent in the a priori languages and at sketching out an example of the a posteriori languages we will be discussing in the next chapter.

As his model, Faiguet took a natural language–French. He formed his lexicon on French roots, and concentrated on the delineation of a simplified and regularized grammar, or a “laconic” grammar.

Following the authors in the previous century, Faiguet eliminated those grammatical categories that seemed to him redundant: he suppressed the articles, substituted flexions with prepositions (bi for the genitive, bu for the dative, and de and po for the ablative), transformed adjectives (indeclinable) into adverbial forms, standardized all plurals (always expressed by an s); he simplified verb conjugations, making them invariable in number and person, adding endings that designated tenses and modes (I give, you give, he gives became Jo dona, To dona, Lo dona); the subjunctive was formed by adding an r to the stem, the passive by the indicative plus sas (meaning to be: thus to be given became sas dona).

Faiguet’s language appears as wholly regular and without exceptions; every letter or syllable used as endings had a precise and unique grammatical significance. Still, it is parasitic on French in a double sense: not only is it a “laconicized” French at the expression-level; it is French that supplies the content-level as well. Thus Faiguet’s was little less than a sort of easy-to-manage Morse code (Bernadelli 1992).

The most important projects for a priori languages in the eighteenth century were those of Jean Delormel (Projet d’une langue universelle, 1795), of Zalkind Hourwitz (Polygraphie, ou l’art de correspondre à l’aide d’un dictionaire dans toutes les langues, même celles dont on ne possède pas seulement les lettres alphabétiques, 1800), and of Joseph de Maimieux (Pasigraphie, 1797).

As can be seen, De Maimieux’s project was a pasigraphy–that is, a universal written language. Since, however, in 1799 this same author had also formulated a pasilalie–adding rules for pronouncing his language–his project can be considered as an a priori language.

For its part, Hourwitz’s project was for a polygraphy, too–even though he seemed unaware that his was by no means the first project of this type. Still, in its structure, Hourwitz’s polygraphy was an a priori language.

Although all three projects still followed the principles laid down in the seventeenth century tradition, they were different in three fundamental ways: their purposes, the identification of their primitives, and their grammars.

Delormel presented his scheme to the Convention; De Maimieux published his Pasigraphie under the Directory; Hourwitz wrote under the Consulate: every religious motivation had disappeared.

De Maimieux spoke of communication between European nations, between Europeans and Africans, of providing a means of checking the accuracy of translations, of speeding up diplomacy and civil and military undertakings, of a new source of income for teachers, writers and publishers who should “pasigraphize” books written in other languages.

Hourwitz added to this list other purely practical considerations, such as the advantages in the relations between doctors and patients or in courtroom procedures. As one symptom of a new political and cultural atmosphere, instead of using the Lord’s Prayer as a sample translation, Hourwitz chose the opening of Fénelon’s Aventures de Télemaque–a work which, despite its moralizing bent, was still a piece of secular literature portraying pagan gods and heroes.

The revolutionary atmosphere imposed, or at least encouraged, considerations of fraternité. Thus Delormel could claim that:

“in this revolutionary moment, when the human spirit, regenerating itself among the French people, leaps forward with renewed energy, is it too much to hope that perhaps [ . . . ] we might offer to the public a new language as well, a language that facilitates new discoveries by bringing students of various nations together, a language that serves as a common term for all languages, a language easy to grasp even for men with but a slight aptitude for instruction, a language, in short, which will soon make out of all the people of mankind a single, grand family? [ . . . ] The Light of Reason brings men together and thus reconciles them; this language, by facilitating its communication, will help to propagate that Light.” (pp. 48-50).

Each of the authors was aware of the objections made by the authors of the Encyclopédie; thus the a priori languages which they proposed were all ordered according to an encyclopedia-like structure, easy to understand and designed upon the model of the eighteenth century system of knowledge.

Gone was the grandiose pansophist afflatus that animated baroque encyclopedias; the criterion of selection was rather that of Leibniz: the inventors of the languages behaved as if they were conscientious librarians hoping to make consultation as easy as possible, without worrying whether or not their ordering corresponded to the theater of the world.

Absent as well was the search for “absolute” primitives; the fundamental categories were the large-scale divisions of knowledge; under these were listed dependent notions attached as sub-headings.

Delormel, for example, assigned different letters of the alphabet to several encyclopedic classes in a way reminiscent not so much of Wilkins as of the anonymous Spaniard–grammar, art of speech, states of things, correlatives, useful, pleasurable, moral, sensations, perception and judgement, passions, mathematics, geography, chronology, physics, astronomy, minerals, etc.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 293-6.

Eco: The “Library” of Leibniz and the Encyclopédie


Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, Figurative System of Human Knowledge, or the Tree of Diderot and d’Alembert, from the Encyclopédie, circa 1752. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“During the Enlightenment there began to develop a critical attitude towards any attempt to construct a system of a priori ideas. It was a critique founded, in large part, upon the considerations advanced by Leibniz.

Thus it was in terms that closely recalled Leibniz’s own description of an ideal library that, in his introduction to the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert was to sound the death knell for projects for philosophical a priori languages.

Presented with the practical problem of organizing an encyclopedia and justifying the way that it divided its material, the system of scientific knowledge began to take on the appearance of a labyrinth, a network of forking and twisting paths that put paid to any notion that knowledge might be represented in a tree diagram of any sort.

Knowledge might still be divided into branches, “some of which converge at a common center; and, since, starting from the center, it is impossible to follow all the branches at once, the choice [of pathway] is determined by the nature of the different intellects.”

The philosopher was whoever discovered the hidden passageways within that labyrinth, the provisional interconnections, the web of mutually dependent associations which constituted such a network as a geographical representation.

For this reason the authors of the Encyclopédie decided that each single article would appear as only one particular map, which, in its small way, might reflect the entire global map:

“objects approach each other more or less closely, presenting different aspects according to the perspective chosen by the particular geographer [ . . . ].

Thus it is possible to imagine that there are as many systems of human knowledge as there are representations of the world constructed according to differing projections [ . . . ].

Often, an object placed in one particular class on account of one or another of its properties may reappear in another class because of other properties.”

Following the suggestion of Locke, the Enlightenment was less concerned with the search for perfect languages than with the provision of therapies for already existing ones.

After denouncing the limits of natural languages, Locke (Essay, III, X) had passed to an analysis of the abuse which must occur whenever words are used that do not correspond to clear and distinct ideas, whenever they are used inconsistently, whenever they are employed with the affectation of obscurity, whenever words are taken for things, whenever they are used for things which possess no meaning, and whenever we imagine that others must necessarily associate with the words we use the same ideas as we do.

Locke fixed a set of norms to combat these abuses, and, since Locke was not concerned with lexical or syntactical reform, but simply with subjecting usage to a measure of vigilance and philosophical common sense, these norms had no bearing on the theme of philosophical languages.

Instead of a systematic reform of language, Locke modestly suggested that we be more conscientious in the way we use words to communicate with one another.

This was to be the line adopted by the encyclopedists of the Enlightenment and those whom they inspired.

The encyclopedists launched their attack on philosophical a priori languages principally in their entry under the heading “Caractère,” which was the result of the collaboration of several authors.

Du Marsais made an initial distinction between numerical characters, characters representing abbreviations, and literal characters; these last were further subdivided into emblematic characters (still the accepted interpretation of hieroglyphics) and nominal characters, primarily the characters of the alphabet.

D’Alembert accepted the criticisms that had traditionally been made of the characters used in natural languages, and then discussed the various projects for the construction of real characters, showing an extensive knowledge of the projects in the previous century.

It was a discussion which often confused characters that were ontologically real, that directly expressed, that is, the essence of the things they represented, with characters that were only logically real, capable, that is, of expressing by convention a single idea unequivocally. Still, d’Alembert advanced a number of criticisms that applied equally to both types.

In contrast to those of the seventeenth century, philosophers in the Enlightenment had radically changed the focus of their reflection on language. It now seemed clear that thought and language influenced each other, each proceeding with the other step by step, and that, consequently, language, as it evolved, would constantly modify thought.

Thus it no longer made sense to accept the rationalist hypothesis of a single grammar of thought, universal and stable, which all languages in one way or another reflected. No system of ideas postulated on the basis of abstract reasoning could thus ever form an adequate parameter of and criterion for the formation of a perfect language.

Language did not reflect a preconstituted mental universe, but collaborated in its growth.

The Idéologues demonstrated the impossibility of postulating a universal way of thinking, independent of the human semiotic apparatus. Destutt de Tracy (Eléments d’idéologie, I, 546, n.) argued that it was not possible to confer on all languages the attributes of algebra. In the case of natural languages:

“we are often reduced to conjectures, inductions, and approximations [ . . . ]. Almost never can we have a perfect certainty that an idea which we have constructed for ourselves under a certain sign and by various means is really utterly and entirely the same as the idea that those who taught us the sign as well as anyone else who might subsequently use the sign might attribute to it.

Hence words may often, insensibly, take on differences in meaning without anyone noting these changes; for this reason we might say that while every sign is perfectly transparent for whomever invents it, it is somewhat vague and uncertain for those who receive it [ . . . ].

I might even carry this further: I said that every sign is perfect for whomever invents it, but this is only really true at the precise instant when he invents the sign, for when he uses this same sign in another moment in his life, or when his mind is in another disposition, he can no longer be entirely sure that he has gathered up under this sign the same collection of ideas as he had the first time he used it.” (pp. 583-5).

Tracy understood that the prerequisite of all philosophical languages was the absolute and univocal correspondence between signs and the ideas they represented. An examination, however, of the seventeenth century English systems led him to the conclusion that “it is impossible that the same sign possess the same meaning for all who use it [ . . . ]. We thus must give up the idea of perfection.” (Eléments d’idéologie, II, 578-9).

This was a theme that was common to empiricist philosophy, to which all the Idéologues referred. Locke had already noted that although the names glory and gratitude were

“the same in every Man’s mouth, through a whole country, yet the complex, collective Idea, which everyone thinks on, or intends by that name, is apparently very different in Men using the same language. [ . . . ]

For though in the Substance Gold, one satisfies himself with Color and Weight, yet another thinks solubility in Aqua Regia, as necessary to be join’d with that Color in his Idea of Gold, as any one does its Fusibility; Solubility in Aqua Regia, being a Quality as constantly join’d with its Color and and Weight, as Fusibility, or any other; others put its Ductility or Fixedness, etc. as they had been taught by Tradition and Experience.

Who, of all these, has establish’d the right termination of the word Gold?” (Essay, III, IX, 8, 13).

Returning to the Idéologues, Joseph-Marie Degérando, whose criticisms of Wilkins we have already encountered, observed (Des signes et l’art de penser considérés dans leur rapports mutuels, 1800) that the ensemble of associated ideas represented by the word man would be more extensive in the mind of a philosopher than in that of a common laborer, and that the word liberty could not have meant in Sparta what it did in Athens (I, 222-3).

The impossibility of elaborating a philosophic language is finally due to the fact that since languages develop through a set of stages, a development that the Idéologues delineated with great precision, there was no way of deciding the linguistic stage of development that a perfect language should represent.

Choosing to reflect one stage rather than another, a philosophical language will then continue to reflect all the limitations of that linguistic stage, while just to overcome these limitations humanity had passed to further and more articulate stages.

Once it had been perceived that the process of linguistic change is continuous, that language is subject to change not only at its prehistoric point of origin, but also in the present day, it became obvious that any thought of reviving the idea of a philosophic language was destined to fail.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 288-92.

Eco: Side-effects


Ernst Hähnel, statue of Leibniz, 1883, Leipzig, Germany. Photo © Ad Melkens / Wikimedia Commons.  

“Thus all of the ingenuity expended upon the invention of philosophic a priori languages allowed Leibniz to invent a language of a radically different type, which–though remaining a priori–was no longer a practical, social instrument but rather a tool for logical calculation.

In this sense, Leibniz’s language, and the contemporary language of symbolic logic that descended from it, are scientific languages; yet, like all scientific languages, they are incapable of expressing the entire universe, expressing rather a set of truths of reason.

Such languages do not qualify as a universal language because they fail to express those truths that all natural languages express–truths of fact. Scientific languages do not express empirical events.

In order to express these we would need “to construct a concept which possesses an incalculable number of determinations,” while the completely determined concept of any individual thing or person implies “spatial-temporal determinations which, in their turn, imply other spatial-temporal successions and historical events whose mastery is beyond the human eye, and whose control is beyond the capacity of any man.” (Mugnai 1976: 91).

None the less, by anticipating what was to become the language of computers, Leibniz’s project also contributed to the development of programs well adapted for the cataloguing of the determinations of individual entities, which can tell us that there exists an entity called Mr. X such that this entity has booked a flight from A to B.

We may well fear that by controlling our determinations so well the computer eye has begun to infringe on our privacy, checking on the hour in which we reserved a room in a certain hotel in a certain city. This, then, is one of the side-effects of a project that commenced with the idea of expressing a merely theoretical universe populated with universal ideas such as goodness, angels, entity, substance, accidents, and “all the elephants.”

Dalgarno could never have imagined it. Passing through the mathematical filter of Leibniz, renouncing all semantics, reducing itself to pure syntax, his philosophical a priori language has finally managed to designate even an individual elephant.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 287-8.

Eco: The I Ching and the Binary Calculus


The French Jesuit Joachim Bouvet (1656-1730) sent this unattributed diagram of hexagrams to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1730) circa 1701. The arabic numerals written on the diagram were added by Leibniz. This artifact is held in the Leibniz Archive, Niedersächsische Landesbibliothek, and was published in Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light, Cambridge,2004, p. 117. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Leibniz’s tendency to transform his characteristica into a truly blind calculus, anticipating the logic of Boole, is no less shown by his reaction to the discovery of the Chinese book of changes–the I Ching.

Leibniz’s continuing interest in the language and culture of China is amply documented, especially during the final decades of his life. In 1697 he had published Novissima sinica (Dutens 1768: IV, 1), which was a collection of letters and studies by the Jesuit missionaries in China.

It was a work seen by a certain Father Joachim Bouvet, a missionary just returned from China, who responded by sending Leibniz a treatise on the ancient Chinese philosophy which he saw as represented by the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching.

The Book of Changes had for centuries been regarded as a work of millennial antiquity. More recent studies, however, have dated it to the third century BCE. Nevertheless, scholars of the time of Leibniz still attributed the work to a mythical author named Fu Hsi.

As its function was clearly magical and oracular, Bouvet not unnaturally read the hexagrams as laying down the fundamental principles for Chinese traditional culture.

When Leibniz described to Bouvet his own research in binary arithmetic, that is, his calculus by 1 and 0 (of which he also praised the metaphysical ability to represent even the relation between God and nothingness), Bouvet perceived that this arithmetic might admirably explain the structure of the Chinese hexagrams as well.

He sent Leibniz in 1701 (though Leibniz only received the communication in 1703) a letter to which he added a wood-cut showing the disposition of the hexagrams.

In fact, the disposition of the hexagrams in the wood-cut differs from that of the I Ching, nevertheless, this error allowed Leibniz to perceive a signifying sequence which he later illustrated in his Explication de l’arithmétique binaire (1703).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.1, p. 285

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.1, p. 285. 

Figure 14.1 shows the central structure of the diagrams seen by Leibniz. The sequence commences, in the upper left hand corner, with six broken lines, then proceeds by gradually substituting unbroken for broken lines.

Leibniz read this sequence as a perfect representation of the progression of binary numbers (000, 001, 010, 110, 101, 011, 111 . . . ). See figure 14.2.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.2, p. 286

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.2, p. 286. 

Once again, the inclination of Leibniz was to void the Chinese symbols of whatever meaning was assigned to them by previous interpretations, in order to consider their form and their combinatorial possibilities.

Thus once more we find Leibniz on the track of a system of blind thought in which it was syntactic form alone that yielded truths. Those binary digits 1 and 0 are totally blind symbols which (through a syntactical manipulation) permit discoveries even before the strings into which they are formed are assigned meanings.

In this way, Leibniz’s thought not only anticipates by a century and a half Boole’s mathematical logic, but also anticipates the true and native tongue spoken by a computer–not, that is, the language we speak to it when, working within its various programs, we type expressions out on the keyboard and read responses on the screen, but the machine language programmed into it.

This is the language in which the computer can truly “think” without “knowing” what its own thoughts mean, receiving instructions and re-elaborating them in purely binary terms.

Certainly Leibniz mistook the nature of the I Ching, since “the Chinese interpreted the kua in every manner except mathematically” (Lozano 1971). Nevertheless, the formal structures that he (rightly enough) isolated in these diagrams appeared to him so esoterically marvelous that, in a letter to Father Bouvet, he did not hesitate in identifying the true author of the I Ching as Hermes Trismegistus–and not without reasons, because Fu Hsi was considered in China as the representative of the era of hunting, fishing and cooking, and thus can be considered, as can Hermes, the father of all inventions.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 284-7.

Eco: Blind Thought, 2

Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1899-1951), portrait by Moritz Nähr (1859-1945), 1930, held by the Austrian National Library under Accession Number Pf 42.805: C (1). This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less. 

“As Leibniz observed in the Accessio ad arithmeticum infinitorum of 1672 (Sämtliche Schriften und Briefen, iii/1, 17), when a person says a million, he does not represent mentally to himself all the units in that number. Nevertheless, calculations performed on the basis of this figure can and must be exact.

Blind thought manipulates signs without being obliged to recognize the corresponding ideas. For this reason, increasing the power of our minds in the manner that the telescope increases the power of our eyes, it does not entail an excessive effort.

“Once this has been done, if ever further controversies should arise, there should be no more reason for disputes between two philosophers than between two calculators. All that will be necessary is that, pen in hand, they sit down together at a table and say to each other (having called, if they so please, a friend) “let us calculate.” (In Gerhardt 1875: VII, 198ff).

Leibniz’s intention was thus to create a logical language, like algebra, which might lead to the discovery of unknown truths simply by applying syntactical rules to symbols. When using this language, it would no more be necessary, moreover, to know at every step what the symbols were referring to than it was necessary to know the quantity represented by algebraic symbols to solve an equation.

Thus for Leibniz, the symbols in the language of logic no longer stood for concrete ideas; instead, they stood in place of them. The characters “not only assist reasoning, they substitute for it.” (Couturat 1901: 101).

Dascal has objected (1978: 213) that Leibniz did not really conceive of his characteristica as a purely formal instrument apparatus, because symbols in his calculus are always assigned an interpretation. In an algebraic calculation, he notes, the letters of the alphabet are used freely; they are not bound to particular arithmetical values.

For Leibniz, however, we have seen that the numerical values of the characteristic numbers were, so to speak, “tailored” to concepts that were already filled with a content–“man,” “animal,” etc.

It is evident that, in order to demonstrate that “man” does not contain “monkey,” the numerical values must be chosen according to a previous semantic decision. It would follow that what Leibniz proposed was really a system both formalized and interpreted.

Now it is true that Leibniz’s posterity elaborated such systems. For instance, Luigi Richer (Algebrae philosophicae in usum artis inveniendi specimen primum, “Melanges de philosophie et de mathématique de la Societé Royale de Turin,” 1761: II/3), in fifteen short and extremely dry pages, outlined a project for the application of algebraic method to philosophy, by drawing up a tabula characteristica containing a series of general concepts (such as aliquid, nihil, contingens, mutabile) and assigning to each a conventional sign.

The system of notation, semicircles orientated in various ways, makes the characters hard to distinguish from one another; still, it was a system of notation that allowed for the representation of philosophical combinations such as “This Possible cannot be Contradictory.”

This language is, however, limited to abstract reasoning, and, like Lull, Richer did not make full use of the possibilities of combination in his system as he wished to reject all combinations lacking scientific utility (p. 55).

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, in a manuscript dating 1793-4, we also find Condorcet toying with the idea of a universal language. His text is an outline of mathematical logic, a langue des calculs, which identifies and distinguishes intellectual processes, expresses real objects, and enunciates the relations between the expressed objects and the intellectual operations which discover the enunciated relations.

The manuscript, moreover, breaks off at precisely the point where it had become necessary to proceed to the identification of the primitive ideas; this testifies that, by now, the search for perfect languages was definitively turning in the direction of a logico-mathematical calculus, in which no one would bother to draw up a list of ideal contents but only to prescribe syntactic rules (Pellerey 1992a: 193ff).

We could say that Leibniz’s characteristica, from which Leibniz had also hoped to derive metaphysical truths, is oscillating between a metaphysical and ontological point of view, and the idea of designing a simple instrument for the construction of deductive systems (cf. Barone 1964: 24).

Moreover, his attempts oscillate between a formal logic (operating upon unbound variables) and what will later be the project of many contemporary semantic theories (and of artificial intelligence as well), where syntactic rules of a mathematical kind are applied to semantic (and therefore interpreted) entities.

But Leibniz ought to be considered the forerunner of the first, rather than of the second, line of thought.

The fundamental intuition that lies behind Leibniz’s proposal was that, even if the numbers were chose arbitrarily, even if it could not be guaranteed that the primitives posited for the same of argument were really primitive at all, what still guaranteed the truth of the calculus was the fact that the form of the proposition mirrored an objective truth.

Leibniz saw an analogy between the order of the world, that is, of truth, and the grammatical order of the symbols in language. Many have seen in this a version of the picture theory of language expounded by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, according to which “a picture has logico-pictorial form in common with what it depicts” (2.2).

Leibniz was thus the first to recognize that the value of his philosophical language was a function of its formal structure rather than of its terms; syntax, which he called habitudo or propositional structure, was more important than semantics (Land 1974: 139).

“It is thus to be observed that, although the characters are assumed arbitrarily, as long as we observe a certain order and certain rule in their use, they give us results which always agree with each other. (Dialogus in Gerhardt 1875: VII, 190-3).

Something can be called an “expression” of something else whenever the structure [habitudines] subsisting in the expression corresponds to the structure of that which it wishes to express [ . . . ].

From the sole structure of the expression, we can reach the knowledge of the properties of the thing expressed [ . . . ] as long as there is maintained a certain analogy between the two respective structures.” (Quid sit idea in Gerhardt 1875: VII, 263-4).

What other conclusion could the philosopher of preestablished harmony finally have reached?”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 281-4.

Eco: Blind Thought


Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728-1777), Neues Organon, Leipzig, Johann Wendler, 1764. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“We have seen that Leibniz came to doubt the possibility of constructing an alphabet that was both exact and definitive, holding that the true force of the calculus of characteristic numbers lay instead in its rules of combination.

Leibniz became more interested in the form of the propositions generated by his calculus than in the meaning of the characters. On various occasions he compared his calculus with algebra, even considering algebra as merely one of the possible forms that calculus might take, and thought more and more of a rigorously quantitative calculus able to deal with qualitative problems.

One of the ideas that circulated in his thought was that, like algebra, the characteristic numbers represented a form of blind thought, or cogitatio caeca (cf. for example, De cognitione, veritate et idea in Gerhardt 1875: IV, 422-6). By blind thought Leibniz meant that exact results might be achieved by calculations carried out upon symbols whose meanings remained unknown, or of which it was at least impossible to form clear and distinct notions.

In a page in which he defined his calculus as the only true example of the Adamic language, Leibniz provides an illuminating set of examples:

“All human argument is carried out by means of certain signs or characters. Not only things themselves but also the ideas which those things produce neither can nor should always be amenable to distinct observation: therefore, in place of them, for reasons of economy we use signs.

If, for example, every time that a geometer wished to name a hyperbole or a spiral or a quadratrix in the course of a proof, he needed to hold present in his mind their exact definitions or manner in which they were generated, and then, once again, the exact definitions of each of the terms used in his proof, he would be likely to be very tardy in arriving at his conclusions. [ . . . ]

For this reason, it is evident that names are assigned to the contracts, to the figures and to various other types of things, and signs to the numbers in arithmetic and to magnitudes in algebra [ . . . ]

In the list of signs, therefore, I include words, letters, the figures in chemistry and astronomy, Chinese characters, hieroglyphics, musical notes, steganographic signs, and the signs in arithmetic, algebra, and in every other place where they serve us in place of things in our arguments.

Where they are written, designed, out sculpted, signs are called characters [ . . . ]. Natural languages are useful to reason, but are subject to innumerable equivocations, nor can be used for calculus, since they cannot be used in a manner which allows us to discover the errors in an argument by retracing our steps to the beginning and to the construction of our words–as if errors were simply due to solecisms or barbarisms.

The admirable advantages [of the calculus] are only possible when we use arithmetical or algebraic signs and arguments are entirely set out in characters: for here every mental error is exactly equivalent to a mistake in calculation.

Profoundly meditating on this state of affairs, it immediately appeared as clear to me that all human thoughts might be entirely resolvable into a small number of thoughts considered as primitive.

If then we assign to each primitive a character, it is possible to form other characters for the deriving notions, and we would be able to extract infallibly from them their prerequisites and the primitive notions composing them; to put it in a word, we could always infer their definitions and their values, and thereby the modifications to be derived from their definitions.

Once this had been done, whoever uses such characters in their reasoning and in their writing, would either never make an error, or, at least, would have the possibility of immediately recognizing his own (or other people’s) mistakes, by using the simplest of tests.” (De scientia universalis seu calculo philosophico in Gerhardt 1875: VII, 198-203).

This vision of blind thought was later transformed into the fundamental principle of the general semiotics of Johann Heinrich Lambert in his Neues Organon (1762) in the section entitled Semiotica (cf. Tagliagambe 1980).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 279-81.

Eco: The Encyclopedia and the Alphabet of Thought


Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790), Frontispiece of L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des artes, et des métiers, abbreviated as L’Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia. One source claims that this illustration was entitled Lycurgus blessé dans une sédition, while another states that it depicts la Raison et la Philosophie arrachant son voile à la Vérité rayonnante de lumière. Drawn by Cochin in 1764, it was engraved by Benoît-Louis Prévost (1735-1804) in 1765. 

“The idea of a universal encyclopedia was something that Leibniz was never to give up. Leibniz was, for a long period, a librarian; as such, and as a historian and érudit, he could not have failed to follow the pansophic aspirations and encyclopedic ferment that filled the closing years of the seventeenth century–tremors that would yield their fruits in the century to come.

For Leibniz, the interest in the idea of a universal encyclopedia grew less and less as the basis of an alphabet of primitive terms, and more and more as a practical and flexible instrument which might provide for everyone an access to and control over the immense edifice of human learning.

In 1703, he wrote the Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain (which did not appear until 1765, after Leibniz’s death). This book was a confutation of the doctrines of Locke, and ends with a monumental fresco of the encyclopedia of the future.

The point of departure was a rejection of Locke’s tripartite division of knowledge into physical, ethical and logical (or semiotic). Even such a simple classification was untenable, Leibniz argued, because every item of knowledge might reasonably be considered from more than one of the three divisions.

We might treat the doctrine of spirits either as a philosophical or as a moral problem, placing it in the province either of logic or of ethics. We might even consider that a knowledge of the spirit world might prove efficacious for certain practical ends; in which case we might want to place it in the physical province.

A truly memorable story might deserve a place in the annals of universal history; yet it might equally well deserve a place in the history of a particular country, or even of a particular individual. A librarian is often undecided over the section in which a particular book needs to be catalogued (cf. Serres 1968: 22-3).

Leibniz saw in an encyclopedia the solution to these problems. An encyclopedia would be a work that was, as we might now say, polydimensional and mixed, organized–as Gensini observes (Gensini 1990: 19)–more according to “pathways” than by a classification by subject matters; it would be a model of a practico-theoretical knowledge that invited the user to move transversally, sometimes following deductive lines, as mathematicians do, and sometimes moving according to the practical purposes of the human users.

It would be necessary also to include a final index that would allow the user to find different subjects or the same subject treated in different places from different points of view (IV, 21, De la division des sciences).

It is almost as if Leibniz intended here to celebrate as a felix culpa that monument of non-dichotomical incongruity that was the encyclopedia of Wilkins; as if he were writing a rough draft for the very project that d’Alembert was to set forth at the beginning of the Encyclopédie. Dimly shining from beneath the project of Wilkins, Leibniz has recognized the first idea of a hypertext.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 278-9.

Eco: The Problem of the Primitives

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, frontispiece

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, frontispiece, Dissertation on the Art of Combinations or On the Combinatorial Art, Leipzig, 1666. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“What did Leibniz’s ars combinatoria have in common with the projects for universal languages? The answer is that Leibniz had long wondered what would be the best way of providing a list of primitives and, consequently, of an alphabet of thoughts or of an encyclopedia.

In his Initia et specimina scientiae generalis (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 57-60) Leibniz described an encyclopedia as an inventory of human knowledge which might provide the material for the art of combination.

In the De organo sive arte magna cogitandi (Couturat 1903: 429-31) he even argued that “the greatest remedy for the mind consists in the possibility of discovering a small set of thoughts from which an infinity of other thoughts might issue in order, in the same way as from a small set of numbers [the integers from 1 to 10] all the other numbers may be derived.”

It was in this same work that Leibniz first made hints about the combinational possibilities of a binary calculus.

In the Consilium de Encyclopedia nova conscribenda methodo inventoria (Gensini 1990: 110-20) he outlined a system of knowledge to be subjected to a mathematical treatment through rigorously conceived propositions. He proceeded to draw up a plan of how the sciences and other bodies of knowledge would then be ordered: from grammar, logic, mnemonics topics (sic) and so on to morals and to the science of incorporeal things.

In a later text on the Termini simpliciores from 1680-4 (Grua 1948: 2, 542), however, we find him falling back to a list of elementary terms, such as “entity,” “substance” and “attribute,” reminiscent of Aristotle’s categories, plus relations such as “anterior” and “posterior.”

In the Historia et commendatio linguae characteristicae we find Leibniz recalling a time when he had aspired after “an alphabet of human thoughts” such that “from the combination of the letters of this alphabet, and from the analysis of the vocables formed by these letters, things might be discovered and judged.”

It had been his hope, he added, that in this way humanity might acquire a tool which would augment the power of the mind more than telescopes and microscopes had enlarged the power of sight.

Waxing lyrical over the possibilities of such a tool, he ended with an invocation for the conversion of the entire human race, convinced, as Lull had been, that if missionaries were able to induce the idolators to reason on the basis of the calculus they would soon see that the truths of our faith concord with the truths of reason.

Immediately after this almost mystical dream, however, Leibniz acknowledged that such an alphabet had yet to be formulated. Yet he also alluded to an “elegant artifice:”

“I pretend that these marvelous characteristic numbers are already given, and, having observed certain of their general properties, I imagine any other set of numbers having similar properties, and, by using these numbers, I am able to prove all the rules of logic with an admirable order, and to show in what way certain arguments can be recognized as valid by regarding their form alone.” (Historia et commendatio, Gerhardt 1875: VII, 184ff).

In other words, Leibniz is arguing that the primitives need only be postulated as such for ease of calculation; it was not necessary that they truly be final, atomic and unanalyzable.

In fact, Leibniz was to advance a number of important philosophical considerations that led him to conclude that an alphabet of primitive thought could never be formulated. It seemed self-evident that there could be no way to guarantee that a putatively primitive term, obtained through the process of decomposition, could not be subjected to further decomposition.

This was a thought that could hardly have seemed strange to the inventor of the infinitesimal calculus:

There is not an atom, indeed there is no such thing as a body so small that it cannot be subdivided [ . . . ] It follows that there is contained in every particle of the universe a world of infinite creatures [ . . . ] There can be no determined number of things, because no such number could satisfy the need for an infinity of impressions.” (Verità prime, untitled essay in Couturat 1903: 518-23).

If no one conception of things could ever count as final, Leibniz concluded that we must use the conceptions which are most general for us, and which we can consider as prime terms only within the framework of a specific calculus.

With this, Leibniz’s characteristica breaks its link with the research into a definitive alphabet of thought. Commenting on the letter to Mersenne in which Descartes described the alphabet of thoughts as a utopia, Leibniz noted:

“Even though such a language depends upon a true philosophy, it does not depend upon its perfection. This is to say: the language can still be constructed despite the fact that the philosophy itself is still imperfect.

As the science of mankind will improve, so its language will improve as well. In the meantime, it will continue to perform an admirable service by helping us retain what we know, showing what we lack, and inventing means to fill that lack.

Most of all, it will serve to avoid those disputes in the sciences that are based on argumentation. For the language will make argument and calculation the same thing.” (Couturat 1903: 27-8).

This was not only a matter of convention. The identification of primitives cannot precede the formulation of the lingua characteristica because such a language would not be a docile instrument for the expression of thought; it is rather the calculating apparatus through which those thoughts must be found.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 275-7.

Eco: Characteristica and Calculus

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, an excerpt from his first doctoral dissertation, Dissertation on the Art of Combinations, Leipzig, 1666. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The theme of invention and discovery should remind us of Lull; and, in fact, Lull’s ars combinatoria was one of Leibniz’s first sources. In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz composed his own Dissertatio de arte combinatoria (Gerhardt 1875: IV, 27-102). But the dream of the combinatoria was to obsess him for the rest of his life.

In his short Horizon de la doctrine humaine (in Fichant 1991), Leibniz dealt with a problem that had already troubled Father Mersenne: how many utterances, true, false or even nonsensical, was it possible to formulate using an alphabet of 24 letters?

The point was to determine the number of truths capable of expression and the number of expressions capable of being put into writing. Given that Leibniz had found words of 31 letters in Latin and Greek, an alphabet of 24 letters would produce 2432 words of 31 letters.

But what is the maximum length of an expression? Why should an expression not be as long as an entire book? Thus the sum of the expressions, true or false, that a man might read in the course of his life, imagining that he reads 100 pages a day and that each page contains 1,000 letters, is 3,650,000,000.

Even imagining that this man can live one thousand years, like the legendary alchemist Artephius, it would still be the case that “the greatest expressible period, or the largest possible book that a man can read, would have 3,650,000,000,000 [letters], and the number of truths, falsehoods, or sentences expressible–that is, readable, regardless of pronounceability or meaningfulness–will be 24365,000,000,001 – 24/23 [letters].”

We can imagine even larger numbers. Imagine our alphabet contained 100 letters; to write the number of letters expressible in this alphabet we would need to write a 1 followed by 7,300,0000,000,000 (sic) zeros. Even to write such a number it would take 1,000 scribes working for approximately 37 years.

Leibniz’s argument at this point is that whatever we take the number of propositions theoretically capable of expression to be–and we can plausibly stipulate more astronomical sums than these–it will be a number that vastly outstrips the number of true or false expressions that humanity is capable of producing or understanding.

From such a consideration Leibniz concluded paradoxically that the number of expressions capable of formulation must always be finite, and, what is more, that there must come a moment at which humanity would start to enunciate them anew.

With this thought, Leibniz approaches the theme of the apochatastasis or of universal reintegration–what we might call the theme of the eternal return.

This was a line of speculation more mystical than logical, and we cannot stop to trace the influences that led Leibniz to such fantastic conclusions.

It is plain, however, that Leibniz has been inspired by Lull and the kabbala, even if Lull’s own interest was limited to the generation of just those propositions that expressed true and certain knowledge and he thus would never have dared to enlarge his ars combinatoria to include so large a number of propositions.

For Leibniz, on the contrary, it was a fascination with the vertiginous possibilities of discovery, that is of the infinite number of expressions of which a simple mathematical calculation permitted him to conceive, that served as inspiration.

At the time he was writing his Dissertatio, Leibniz was acquainted with Kircher’s Polygraphia, as well as with the work of the anonymous Spaniard, of Becher, and of Schott (while saying that he was waiting for the long-promised Ars magna sciendi of the “immortal Kircher“).

He had yet to read Dalgarno, and Wilkins had still not published his Essay. Besides, there exists a letter from Kircher to Leibniz, written in 1670, in which the Jesuit confessed that he had not yet read Leibniz’s Dissertatio.

Leibniz also elaborated in the Dissertatio his so-called method of “complexions,” through which he might calculate, given n elements, how many groups of them, taken t at a time, irrespective of their ordering, can be ordered.

He applied this method to syllogisms before he passed to his discussion of Lull (para. 56). Before criticizing Lull for limiting the number of his elements, Leibniz made the obvious observation that Lull failed to exploit all the possibilities inherent in his combinatorial art, and wondered what could happen with variations of order, which could produce a greater number.

We already know the answer: Lull not only limited the number of elements, but he rejected those combinations that might produce propositions which, for theological and rhetorical reasons, he considered false.

Leibniz, however, was interested in a logica inventiva (para. 62) in which the play of combinations was free to produce expressions that were heretofore unknown.

In paragraph 64 Leibniz began to outline the theoretical core of his characteristica universalis. Above all, any given term needed to be resolved into its formal parts, the parts, that is, that were explicitly entailed by its definition.

These parts then had to be resolved into their own components, and so on until the process reached terms which could not, themselves, be defined–that is, the primitives. Leibniz included among them not only things, but also modes and relations.

Other terms were to be classified according to the number of prime terms they contained: if they were composed from 2 prime terms, they were to be called com2nations; if from 3 prime terms, com3nations, and so forth. Thereby a hierarchy of classes of increasing complexity could be created.

Leibniz returned to this argument a dozen years later, in the Elementa characteristicae universalis. Here he was more generous with his examples. If we accept the traditional definition of man as “rational animal,” we might consider man as a concept composed of “rational” and “animal.”

We may assign numbers to these prime terms: animal = 2, and rational = 3. The composite concept of man can be represented as the expression 2 * 3, or 6.

For a proposition to be true, if we express fractionally the subject-predicate (S/P) relationship, the number which corresponds to the subject must be exactly divisible by the number which corresponds to the predicate.

Given the preposition “all men are animals,” the number for the subject (men), is 6; the number for animals is 2; the resulting fraction is 6/2 = 3. Three being an integer, consequently, the preposition is true.

If the number for monkey were 10, we could demonstrate the falsity of either the proposition “all men are monkeys” or “all monkeys are men:” “the idea of monkey does not contain the idea of man, nor, vice versa, does the idea of the latter contain the former, because neither can 6 be exactly divided by 10, nor 10 by 6” (Elementa, in Couturat 1903: 42-92). These were principles that had all been prefigured in the Dissertatio.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 271-5.

Eco: From Leibniz to the Encyclopédie


Johann Friedrich Wentzel (1670-1729), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), circa 1700. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In 1678 Leibniz composed a lingua generalis (in Couturat 1903). After decomposing all of human knowledge into simple ideas, and assigning a number to each, Leibniz proposed a system of transcription for these numbers in which consonants stood for integers and vowels for units, tens and powers of ten:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270. 

In this system, the figure 81,374, for example, would be transcribed as mubodilefa. In fact, since the relevant power of ten is shown by the following vowel rather than by the decimal place, the order of the letters in the name is irrelevant: 81,374 might just as easily be transcribed as bodifalemu.

This system might lead us to suspect that Leibniz too was thinking of a language in which the users might one day discourse on bodifalemu or gifeha (= 546) just as Dalgarno or Wilkins proposed to speak in terms of nekpot or deta.

Against this supposition, however, lies the fact that Leibniz applied himself to another, particular form of language, destined to be spoken–a language that resembled the latino sine flexione invented at the dawn of our own century by Peano.

This was a language whose grammar was drastically simplified and regularized: one declension for nouns, one conjunction for verbs, no genders, no plurals, adjectives and adverbs made identical, verbs reduced to the formula of copula + adjective.

Certainly, if my purpose were to try to delineate the entire extent of the linguistic projects undertaken by Leibniz throughout the course of his life, I would have to describe an immense philosophical and linguistically monument displaying four major aspects:

(1) the identification of a system of primitives, organized in an alphabet of thought or in a general encyclopedia;

(2) the elaboration of an ideal grammar, inspired probably by the simplifications proposed by Dalgarno, of which the simplified Latin is one example;

(3) the formulation of a series of rules governing the possible pronunciation of the characters;

(4) the elaboration of a lexicon of real characters upon which the speaker might perform calculations that would automatically lead to the formulation of true propositions.

The truth is, however, that by the end of his career, Leibniz had abandoned all research in the initial three parts of the project. His real contribution to linguistics lies in his attempts at realizing the fourth aspect.

Leibniz had little interest in the kinds of universal language proposed by Dalgarno and Wilkins, though he was certainly impressed by their efforts. In a letter to Oldenburg (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 11-5), he insisted that his notion of a real character was profoundly different from that of those who aspired to a universal writing modeled on Chinese, or tried to construct a philosophic language free from all ambiguity.

Leibniz had always been fascinated by the richness and plurality of natural languages, devoting his time to the study of their lineages and the connections between them. He had concluded that it was not possible to identify (much less to revive) an alleged Adamic language, and came to celebrate the very confusio linguarum that others were striving to eliminate (see Gensini 1990, 1991).

It was also a fundamental tenet of his monadology that each individual had a unique perspective on the world, as if a city would be represented from as many different viewpoints as the different positions of its inhabitants.

It would have been incongruous for the philosopher who held this doctrine to oblige everyone to share the same immutable grillwork of genera and species, without taking into account particularities, diversities and the particular “genius” of each natural language.

There was but one facet of Leibniz’s personality that might have induced him to seek after a universal form of communication; that was his passion for universal peace, which he shared with Lull, Cusanus and Postel.

In an epoch in which his english predecessors and correspondents were waxing enthusiastic over the prospect of universal languages destined to ease the way for future travel and trade, beyond an interest in the exchange of scientific information, Leibniz displayed a sensitivity towards religious issues totally absent even in high churchmen like Wilkins.

By profession a diplomat and court councillor, Leibniz was a political, rather than an academic, figure, who worked for the reunification of the church. This was an ecumenicism that reflected his political preoccupations; he envisioned an anti-French bloc of Spain, the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and the German princes.

Still, his desire for unity sprang from purely religious motives as well; church unity was the necessary foundation upon which a peaceful Europe could be built.

Leibniz, however, never thought that the main prerequisite for unity and peace was a universal tongue. Instead, he thought that the cause of peace might be better served by science, and by the creation of a scientific language which might serve as a common instrument in the discovery of truth.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 269-1.

Eco: Francis Lodwick, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, p. 311

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668, p. 311. Reproduced as Figure 13.2 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, “Francis Lodwick,” 1995, p. 264. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“This idea of a non-hierarchical organization seems, at one point, to have occurred to Wilkins as well. Figure 13.2 reproduces a table found on p. 311 of his Essay. The table describes the workings of prepositions of motion by relating the possible positions (and possible actions) of a human body in a three-dimensional space.

It is a table in which there is no principle of hierarchy whatsoever. Yet this is an isolated example, and Wilkins seems to have lacked the courage to extend this principle to his entire system of content.

Unfortunately, even Lodwick’s primitives for actions were not really primitive at all. It would undoubtedly be possible to identify a series of positions assumed by the human body in space–such as getting up or lying down–and argue that these were intuitively and universally comprehensible; yet the sixteen radicals proposed by Lodwick can be criticized in the same way as Degérando would later do for Wilkins: even such a simple notion as to walk must be defined in terms of movement, the notion of movement requires as its components those of place, of existence in a given place, of a moving substance which in different instants passes from one place to another.

All this presupposes the notions of departure, passage and arrival, as well as that of a principle of action which imparts motion to a substance, and of members which support and convey a body in motion in a specific way (“car glisser, ramper, etc., ne sont pas la même chose que marcher;” “since sliding, climbing, etc., are not the same as walking;” Des signes, IV, 395).

Moreover, it is also necessary to conceive of a terrestrial surface upon which movement was to take place–otherwise one could think of other actions like swimming or flying. However, at this point one should also subject the ideas of surface or members to the same sort of regressive componential analysis.

One solution would be to imagine that such action primitives are selected ad hoc as metalinguistic constructs to serve as parameters for automatic translation. An example of this is the computer language designed by Schank and Abelson (1977), based on action primitives such as PROPEL, MOVER, INGEST, ATRANS OR EXPEL, by which it is possible to analyze more complex actions like to eat (however, when analyzing the sentence “John is eating a frog,” Schank and Abelson–like Lodwick–cannot further analyze frog).

Other contemporary semantic systems do not start by seeking a definition of a buyer in order to arrive eventually at the definition of the action of buying, but start rather by constructing a type-sequence of actions in which a subject A gives money to a subject B and receives an object in exchange.

Clearly the same type-sequence can be employed to define not only the buyer, but also the seller, as well as the notions of to buy, to sell, price, merchandise, and so forth. In the language of artificial intelligence, such a sequence of actions is called a “frame.”

A frame allows a computer to draw inferences from preliminary information: if A is a buyer, then he may perform this and that action; if A performs this or that action, then he may be a buyer; if A obtains merchandise from B but does not pay him, then A is not a guyer, etc., etc.

In still other contemporary semantics, the verb to kill, for example, might be represented as “Xs causes (Xd changes to (- live Xd)) + (animate Xd) & (violent Xs):” if a subject (s) acts, with violent means or instruments, in a way that causes another subject (d), an animate being, to change from a state of living to a state of death, then s has killed d. If we wished, instead, to represent the verb to assassinate, we should add the further specification that d is not only an animate being, but also a political person.

It is worth noting that Wilkins‘ dictionary also includes assassin, glossing it by its synonym murther (erroneously designating it as the fourth species of the third difference in the genera of judicial relations: in fact, it is the fifth species), but limiting the semantic range of the term by “especially, under pretence of Religion.”

It is difficult for a philosophic a priori language to follow the twists and turns of meaning of a natural language.

Properly worked out, Lodwick’s project might represent to assassinate by including a character for to kill and adding to it a note specifying purpose and circumstances.

Lodwick’s language is reminiscent of the one described by Borges in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (in Ficciones), which works by agglutinations of radicals representing not substances but rather temporary fluxes. It is a language in which there would be no word for the noun moon but only the verb to moon or to moondle.

Although it is certain that Borges knew, if only at second hand, the work of Wilkins, he probably had never heard of Lodwick. What is certain, however, is that Borges had in mind the Cratylus, 396b–and it is by no means impossible that Lodwick knew this passage as well.

Here Plato, arguing that names are not arbitrary but motivated, gives examples of the way in which, rather than directly representing the things that they designate, words may represent the origin or the result of an action.

For instance, the strange difference (in Greek) between the nominative Zeus and the genitive Dios arose because the original name of Jupiter was a syntagm that expressed the habitual activity associated with the king of the gods: di’hoòn zen, “He through whom life is given.”

Other contemporary authors have tried to avoid the contortions that result from dictionary definitions by specifying the meaning of a term by a set of instructions, that is, a procedure which can decide whether or not a certain word can be applied.

This idea had already appeared in Charles Sanders Pierce (Collected Papers, 2.330): here is provided a long and complex explanation of the term lithium, in which this chemical element was defined not only in relation to its place in the periodic table of elements and by its atomic weight, but also by the operations necessary to produce a specimen of it.

Lodwick never went as far as this; still, his own intuition led him to run counter to an idea that, even in the centuries to follow, proved difficult to overcome. This was the idea that nouns came first; that is, in the process in which language had emerged, terms for things had preceded terms for actions.

Besides, the whole of Aristotelian and Scholastic discussion privileged substances (expressed by common nouns) as the subjects of a statement, in which the terms for actions played the role of predicates.

We saw in chapter 5 that, before the advent of modern linguistics, theorists tended to base their research on nomenclature. Even in the eighteenth century, Vico could still assume that nouns arose before verbs (Scienza nuova seconda, II, 2.4). He found this to be demonstrated not only by the structure of a proposition, but by the fact that children expressed themselves first in names and interjections, and only later in verbs.

Condillac (Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, 82) also affirmed that “for a long time language remained with no words other than nouns.” Stankiewicz (1974) has traced the emergence of a different trend starting with the Hermes of Harris (1751: III), followed by Monboddo (Of the Origins and Progress of Language, 1773-92) and Herder, who, in his Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (1787), noted that a noun referred to things as if they were dead while a verb conferred movement upon them, thus stimulating sensation.

Without following Stankiewicz’s reconstruction step by step, it is worth noting that the reevaluation of the role of the verb was assumed in the comparative grammars by the theorists of the Indo-European hypothesis, and that in doing so they followed the old tradition of Sanskrit grammarians, who derived any word from a verbal root (1974: 176).

We can close with the protest of De Sanctis, who, discussing the pretensions of philosophic grammars, criticized the tradition of reducing verbs to nouns and adjectives, observing that: “I love is simply not the same as I am a lover [ . . . ] The authors of philosophical grammars, reducing grammar to logic, have failed to perceive the volitional aspect of thought” (F. De Sanctis, Teoria e storia della litteratura, ed. B. Croce, Bari: Laterza, 1926: 39-40).

In this way, in Lodwick’s dream for a perfect language there appears the first, timid and, at the time, unheeded hint of the problems that were to become the center of successive linguistics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 264-8.

Eco: Francis Lodwick


Francis Lodwick (1619-1694), eight verses from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John in Francis Lodwick’s common writing, next to the numerical key composed for it. A Common Writing, London, 1647. Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

Lodwick wrote before either Dalgarno or Wilkins, both of whom had thus the opportunity to know his work. Salmon (1972: 3) defines him as the author of the first attempt to construct a language in universal character. His first work, A Common Writing, appeared in 1647; The Groundwork or Foundation Laid (or So Intended) for the Framing of a New Perfect Language and a Universal Common Writing dates from 1652.

Lodwick was not a learned man–no more than a merchant, as he humbly confessed. Though, in his Ars signorum, Dalgarno praised Lodwick for his endeavors, he was unable to hold back the supercilious observation that he did not possess the force adequate so such an undertaking, being a man of the arts, born outside of the Schools (p. 79).

In his writings, Lodwick advanced a number of proposals, some more fruitful than others, on how to delineate a language that would both facilitate commercial exchange and permit the easy acquisition of English.

His ideas, moreover, changed over time, and he never managed to design a complete system. None the less, certain of what appears in the most original of his works (A Common Writing, hardly thirty pages long) reveals him as striking off in a direction very different from other authors of his time, making him a precursor of certain trends of contemporary lexical semantics.

In theory, Lodwick’s project envisioned the creation of a series of three numbered indexes; the purpose of these was to refer English words to the character and these to its words. What distinguished Lodwick’s conception from those of the polygraphers, however, was the nature of its lexicon.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 13.1, p. 261

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 13.1, p. 261.

Lodwick’s idea was to reduce the number of terms contained in the indexes by deriving as many of them as possible from a finite number of primitives which express actions. Figure 13.1 shows how Lodwick chooses a conventional character (a sort of Greek delta) to express the action of drinking; then, by adding to this radix different grammatical marks, makes the different composite characters express ideas such as the actor (he who drinks), the act, the object (that which is drunk), the inclination (the drunkard), the abstraction, and the place (the drinking house, or tavern).

From the time of Aristotle up until Lodwick’s own day, names of substances had invariably been the basis upon which a structure of classification had been erected. Lodwick’s original contribution, however, was to commence not with substantives but with verbs, or schemes of actions, and to populate these schemes with roles–what we would now call actants–such as agent, object, place and so on.

Lodwick designed his characters to be easily recognized and remembered: as we have seen, to drink was specified by a sort of Greek delta, while to love was a sort of L. The punctuation and added notes are vaguely reminiscent of Hebrew. Finally, as Salmon suggests, Lodwick probably took from contemporary algebra the idea of substituting letters for numbers.

In order to set up his finite packet of radicals Lodwick devised a philosophical grammar in which even grammatical categories expressed semantic relations. Derivatives and morphemes could thus become, at the same time, criteria of efficiency to reduce each grammatical category further to a component of action.

By such means the number of characters became far small than the words of a natural language found in a dictionary, and Lodwick endeavored to reduce this list further by deriving his adjectives and adverbs from the verbs.

From the character to love, for example, he derived not only the object of the action (the beloved) but also its mode (lovingly); by adding a declarative sign to the character to cleanse, he asserted that the action of cleansing has been performed upon the object–thereby deriving the adjective clean.

Lodwick realized, however, that many adverbs, prepositions, interjections and conjunctions were simply not amenable to this sort of derivation; he proposed representing these as notes appended to the radicals. He decided to write proper names in natural languages.

He was embarrassed by the problem of “natural kinds” (let us say, names of substances like cat, dog, tree), and resigned himself to the fact that, here, he would have to resort to a separate list. But since this decision put the original idea of a severely limited lexicon in jeopardy, he tried to reduce the list of natural kinds as much as possible, deciding that terms like hand, foot or land could be derived from actions like to handle, to foot or to land.

In other cases, he resorted to etymology, deriving, for instance, king from the archaic radical to kan, claiming that it meant both to know and to have power to act. He pointed out that Latin rex was related to the verb regere, and suggested that both the English king and the German emperor might be designated by a simple K followed by the name of the country.

Where he was not able to find appropriate verbal roots, he tried at least to reduce as many different sounds as possible to a single root. He thus reduced the names for the young of animals–child, calfe, puppy, chikin–to a single root.

Moreover, Lodwick thought that the reduction of many lexical items to a unique radical could also be performed by using analogies (seeing as analogous to knowing), synonymy (to lament as a synonym of to bemoane), opposition (to curse as the opposite of to bless), or similarities in substance (to moisten, to wet, to wash and even to baptize are all reduced to moisture).

All these derivations were to be signaled by special signs. Wilkins had had a similar idea when proposing the method of transcendental particles, but it seems that Lodwick’s procedure was less ambiguous.

Lodwick barely sketched out his project; his system of notation was cumbersome; nevertheless (with a bare list of sixteen radicals–to be, to make, to speake, to drinke, to love, to cleanse, to come, to begin, to create, to light, to shine, to live, to darken, to comprehend, to send and to name), he managed to transcribe the opening of the gospel of St. John (“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God . . .”).

Beginning was derived of course from to begin, God from to be, Word from to speake, and so on (the idea of all things is derived from to create).

Just as the polygraphers had taken Latin grammar as a universal model, so Lodwick did the same for English–though his English grammatical categories still reflected the Latin model. Nevertheless he succeeded in avoiding certain limits of the Aristotelian classification of substances, because no previous tradition obliged him to order an array of actions according to the rigid hierarchical schema requested by a representation of genera and species.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 260-3.

Eco: The Hypertext of Wilkins


Joseph-Marie Degérando (1772-1842), author of Des signes et de l’Art de penser considėrés dans leurs rapports mutuels, 1799-1800. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“What if we regarded the defect in Wilkins‘ system as its prophetic virtue? What if we treated Wilkins as if he were obscurely groping towards a notion for which we have only recently invented a name–hypertext?

A hypertext is a program for computers in which every node of element of the repertory is tied, through a series of internal references, to numerous other nodes. It is possible to conceive of a hypertext on animals where, starting from the unit dog, one can get information (1) on the place of dogs on a tree of biological taxa which comprises also cats, horses or wolves; (2) on the properties and habits of dogs; (3) on dogs in history (the dog in the Neolithic, dog in medieval castles, etc.); (4) on the image of the dog in great works of art; and so on.

In the end, this was perhaps what Wilkins really wanted to do when he considered defence from the perspective both of the duties of a citizen and of military strategy.

If this were the case, many of the system’s contradictions would disappear, and Wilkins could be considered as a pioneer in the idea of a flexible and multiple organization of complex data, which will be developed in the following century and in those after.

Yet, if such was his project, then we can no longer speak of him in the context of the search for a perfect language; his was instead the search for ways to articulate all that natural languages permit us to say.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 258-9.

Eco:The Limits of Classification, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay, the Lords Prayer, Ch.II, p. 8

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. Chapter II, p. 8, a discussion of the changes in the Lord’s Prayer. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Let us try to understand a little better what is happening here. Suppose we wanted to use the real character to understand the difference between a dog and a wolf. We discover only that the dog, Zitα, is the first member of the first specific pair of the fifth difference of the genus Beasts, and that the wolf Zitαs, is the opposing member of this pair (s being the character for specific opposition).

But in this way the character says what is the position of a dog in a universal classification of beasts (which, like Fish and Bird are animate sensitive sanguineous substances), without providing information either on the physical characteristics of dogs or on the difference between a dog and a wolf.

To learn more about dogs and wolves we must read further in the tables. Here we can learn (1) that clawed viviparous animals have toes at the end of their feet; (2) that rapacious viviparous animals have generally “six short pointed incisors, or cutting teeth, and two long fangs to hold their prey;” (3) that the head of dog-kind beasts is oblong, while the head of cat-kind animals is roundish; (4) that the larger of the dog-kind fall into two further groups–“either that which is noted for tameness and docility; or for wildness and enmity to sheep.”

With this, we finally know the difference between a dog and a wolf.

Thus genera, differences and species only serve to “taxonomize” entities rather than to define the properties by which we recognize them. To make these properties evident it is necessary to attach a running commentary to the classification.

Within Aristotelian classification, defining man as a rational animal was perfectly adequate. But this is not adequate for Wilkins, for he lived in an age that wished to discover the physical and biological nature of things.

He thus needed to know what were the morphological and behavioral characteristics of dogs as well. Yet his tables only allowed him to express this information in the form of additional properties and circumstances, and this additional information had to be expressed in natural language because the characteristic language lacked the formulae to render it evident.

This consecrates the failure of Wilkins‘ project, considering that, according to his project, “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

One might wish at least to call Wilkins a pioneer of modern, scientific taxonomy (like the taxonomy shown in figure 10.3). Yet, as Slaughter has noted, he has lumped together the pre-scientific taxonomies and folk taxonomy.

To classify, as we usually do, onions and garlic as foodstuffs and lilies as flowers is an instance of folk taxonomy: from a botanical point of view, onions, garlic and lilies are all members of the Liliaceae family.

See how Wilkins, when he classifies dogs, starts out using morphological criteria, then goes on mixing functional and even geographical criteria.

What, then, is that character Zitα that tells us so little about dogs, forcing us to learn more by inspecting the tables? One might compare it with a pointer which permits access to information stored in the computer’s memory–and which is not provided by the form of the character itself.

The speakers who wished to use the characteristic language as their natural idiom should have already memorized all that information in order to understand the character. But that is exactly the same type of competence requested of speakers who, instead of Zitα, say cane, dog, per or Hund.

For this reason, the encyclopedic information that underlies the list of primitives negates the compositional principle of Wilkins‘ language. Wilkins‘ primitives are not primitives at all. His species do not emerge from the composition of genera and differences alone; they are also names used as pegs to hang up encyclopedic descriptions.

Moreover, not even genera and differences are primitive, since they can be defined only through encyclopedic definitions. They neither are innate notions, nor can be immediately grasped by intuition: if one could still say so of the ideas of “God” or “world,” one would hardly do so for, let us say, “naval and ecclesiastical relations.”

Genera and differences are not primitive notions because–if they were–they should be definable by nature, while the tables are conceived just in order to define them by means of a natural language, Wilkins‘ English.

If Wilkins‘ classification were logical consistent, it should be possible to assume that it is analytically true that the genus of Beasts entails Animate Substance, which in its turn entails Creatures Considered Distributively.

Even this, in fact, is not always the case. The opposition vegetative / sensitive, for example, in the table of genera serves to distinguish Stone and Tree (and has an uncertain status); but the same opposition reappears (not once but twice) in the table of the World (see figure 12.6, where repeated terms are in bold).

Thus, on the basis of figure 12.1, one should admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an animate creature, while according to figure 12.6, one should (rather contradictorily) admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an element of both the spiritual and the corporeal world.

It is obvious that these various entities (be they genera, species or whatever) are considered under a different point of view every time they appear in the tables. Yet, in this case, we are no longer confronting a classification whose purpose is to construct a tree of organized terms in which every entity is unequivocally defined by the place it holds within the classification; we are, instead, confronting a great encyclopedia in which it is only expected that the same topics will be treated from more than one point of view in different articles.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257.

Consulting the table for Economic Relations, we find, among its species, the pair Defending versus Deserting. If we turn to the table for Military Relations we still find Defense; though this time it is opposed to Offense.

It is true that when defense is considered as an economic relation and the opposite of desertion, it is written Coco, while considered as a type of military action, the opposite of offense, it is written Sibα.

Thus two different characters denote two different notions. Yet are they really different notions rather than one notion considered from two viewpoints? As a matter of fact, the ideas of economic defence and military defence seem to have something in common.

In both cases we are facing an act of war, which is seen the first time as a patriotic duty and the second time as a response to the enemy. The fact that the two notions are conceptually related, however, implies that within the structure of pseudo-dichotomies there also exist transversal connections, linking the nodal points in different sections of the tree.

Yet is such connections exist, then the tree is no more a hierarchical tree; it is rather a network of interrelated ideas.

In his work De signes, written in 1800, Joseph-Marie Degérando accused Wilkins of continually confusing classification with division:

“Division differs from classification in that the latter bases itself upon the intimate properties of the objects it wishes to distribute, while the former follows a rule to a certain end to which these objects are destined.

Classification apportions ideas into genera, species, and families; division allocates them into regions of greater or lesser extent. Classification is the method of botanists; division is the method by which geography is taught.

If one wishes for an even clearer example, when an Army is drawn up in battle formation, each brigade under its general, each battalion under its commander, each company under its captain, this is an image of division; when, however, the state of this army is presented on a role, which principally consists of en enumeration of the officers of each rank, then of the subalterns, and finally of the soldiers, this is an image of classification (IV, 399-400).”

Degérando is doubtlessly thinking here of Leibniz’s notion of the ideal library and of the structure of the Encyclopédie of which we will later speak), that is, of a criterion for subdividing matter according to the importance that it has for us.

Yet a practical classification follows criteria different from those which should rule a system of primitives based on metaphysical assumptions.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 254-8.

Eco: The Limits of Classification

John Wilkins, An Essay, the Lords Prayer, Ch.II, p. 7

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. Chapter II, p. 7, a discussion of the changes in the Lord’s Prayer. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Using 40 genera and 251 differences, Wilkins‘ tables manage to define 2,030 species. If, however, the division were dichotomic, as happens with the Aristotelian system of classification, in which each genus was assigned two decisive differences which constituted to new species below, and in which each of these new species then played the role of genera at the lower level in the process of dichotomization, there should have been at least 2,048 species (as well as 1,025 intermediary genera plus the category at the apex) and an equal number of differences.

If the figures do not add up in the way that they should, it is clear that, in reconstructing a single general tree from the 41 particular trees represented in the tables, one would not find a constant dichotomic structure.

The structure is not dichotomic because Wilkins mixes substances and accidents together; but since, as Dalgarno had recognized, the number of accidents is infinite, there is no way that they can be hierarchically ordered.

In fact, Wilkins must classify fundamental and Platonic conceptions, like God, world or tree, together with drinks, like beer, political offices, military and ecclesiastical ranks–in short, the whole notional world of a seventeenth century Englishman.

It suffices to look at figure 12.1 to see that the accidents are subdivided into five categories each yielding from three to five genera. There are three subdivisions of the genus Herb as well as of the genus Transcendental things.

With a dichotomic structure it would be easy, once having established the number of embedded levels, to control the total number of entities in the system; once the pattern has been broken, however, and more than two subdivisions allowed to appear at each nodal point, the whole system begins to spin out of control.

The system is open to new discoveries, but, at the same time, surrenders its control over the number of primitives.

When he reaches the last differences, Wilkins arranges them in pairs. Yet, as he is the first to recognize, he has made his arrangement “for the better helming of the memory” (p. 22), not according to a rigorous criterion of opposition.

He informs us that pairs are based sometimes on opposition and sometimes on affinity. He admits to having coupled his differences in an arguable way, but says that he did so “because I knew not to provide for them better” (p. 22).

For instance, in the first genus, General Transcendental, the third difference, Diversity, generates as the second of its species Goodness and its opposite, Evil; but the second difference, Cause, generates as its third species Example and Type.

These two categories are not opposed; in fact it is not clear what their relation to each other is. We can imagine some sort of relation of affinity or similarity; yet, in whatever case, the criterion seems weak and ad hoc.

Among the accidents of Private Relations, under the species Economical Relations, we find both Relations of Consanguinity (like Progenitor / Descendant, Brother / Half-Brother, Coelebs / Virgin–but Coelebs has among its synonyms both Bachelour and Damosel, while Virgin only Maid) and Relations of Superiority (Direct / Seduce, Defending / Deserting).

It is clear that all of these oppositions lack a constant criterion. Among the same Private Relations there are also the Provisions, which includes pairs such as Butter / Cheese, but also actions such as Butchering / Cooking and Box / Basket.

Frank has observed that Wilkins considered as semantically equivalent different kinds of pseudo-opposition as they appear in natural languages, which can work by antonymy (good / evil), by complementarity (husband / wife), by conversely (buy / sell), by relativity (over / under, bigger / smaller), by temporal gradation (Monday / Tuesday / Wednesday), by quantitative gradation (centimeter / meter / kilometer), by antipodality (north / south), by orthogonality (north-east / south-east), or by vectorial conversely (depart / arrive).

It is hardly by chance that Wilkins is repeatedly forced to justify his language on mnemonic grounds. In fact, Wilkins takes some of his procedures from the traditional arts of memory.

His criterion for establishing pairs is based on the most common mnemonic habits. Rossi (1960: 252) notes that Wilkins‘ botanist, John Ray, complained that he was not permitted to follow the commandments of nature, but rather the exigencies of regularity, almost as if he were forced to adapt his classification more to requirements of the traditional theaters of memory than to the canons of modern taxonomies.

Nor is it even clear what, in the tree of genera (figure 12.1), the subdivisions in lower case actually mean. They cannot be differences, because the differences appear later, in successive tables, and determine how, in each of the 40 major genera, the dependent species are to be generated.

Some of these lower-case entities seem to serve as super-genera; yet others appear in an adjectival form. Certain of these latter look like differences in the Aristotelian tradition–like animate / inanimate, for example. We might regard them as pseudo-differences.

However, if the generative path “substances + inanimate = ELEMENTS” seems to follow an Aristotelian criterion, the disjunctions after animate are established in a quite different fashion.

Animate substances are divided into parts and species, the species are divided into vegetative and sensitive, the vegetative species into imperfect and perfect, and it is only at the end of these disjunctions that it is possible to isolate genera like Stone or Metal.

This is not the only instance of this sort of confusion. Moreover, given a pair of opposed categories, such as Creator / creature, the first term of the division is a genus, but the second appears as a pseudo-difference through which, after other disjunctions, it is possible to isolate other genera.

Likewise, in the group Herb, Shrub and Tree, the last two are genera; the first is a sort of super-genus (or pseudo-difference) subdivided into three further genera.

It would be nice, Wilkins confessed (p. 289), if each of his differences had its own transcendental denomination; yet there did not seem to be sufficient terms in the language for this.

He admitted as well that while, in theory, a well-enough individuated difference would immediately reveal the form which gave the essence to each thing, these forms remained largely unknown.

So he had to content himself by defining things through properties and circumstances.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 251-4.

Eco: An Open Classification?

John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, 1668, p. a from the Epistle

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, page a from the Epistle. London, John Martin, 1668. GoogleBooks offers a digital version of the complete text. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In reality, Wilkins’ classification ought to be regarded as an open one. Following a suggestion of Comenius‘ (in the Via lucis), Wilkins argued that the task of constructing an adequate classification could only be undertaken by a group of scientists working over a considerable period of time, and to this end he solicited the collaboration of the Royal Society.

The Essay was thus considered no more than a first draft, subject to extensive revision. Wilkins never claimed that the system, as he presented it, was finished.

Looking back at figures 12.3 and 12.4, it is evident that there are only nine signs or letters to indicate either differences or species. Does this mean that each genus may have no more than nice species? It seems that the number nine had no ontological significance for Wilkins, and that he chose it simply because he thought nine was the maximum number of entities that might easily be remembered.

He realized that the actual number of species for each genus could not be limited. In fact, certain of the genera in the tables only have six species, but there are ten species for the Umbelliferous and seventeen for the Verticillates Non Fruticose.

To accommodate genera with over nine species Wilkins invented a number of graphic artifices. For simplicity’s sake, let us say that, in the spoken language, to specify a second group of nine species an l is added after the first consonant of the name, and that to specify a third group an r is added.

Therefore if Gαpe is normally Tulip (third species of the fourth difference of the genus Herbs according to their leaves), then Glαpe will be Ramsom, because the addition of the l means that the final e no longer indicates the third species in the genus but the twelfth.

Yet is precisely at this point that we come across a curious error. In the example we just gave, we had to correct Wilkins‘ text (p. 415). The text uses the normal English terms Tulip and Ramsom, but designates them in characters by Gαde and Glαde rather than Gαpe and Glαpe (as it should be).

If one checks carefully on the tables, one discovered that Gαde denotes Barley, not Tulip. Wilkins‘ mistake can be easily explained: regardless of whatever botanical affinities the plants might possess, in common English, the words Tulip and Barley are phonetically dissimilar, and thus unlikely to ever be confused with each other.

In a philosophical language, however, members of the same species are easy to muddle either phonetically or graphically. Without constant double-checking against the tables, it is difficult to avoid misprints and misunderstandings.

The problem is that in a characteristic language, for every unit of an expression one is obliged to find a corresponding content-unit. A characteristic language is thus not founded–as happens with natural languages–on the principle of double articulation, by virtue of which meaningless sounds, or phonemes, are combined to produce meaningful syntagms.

This means that in a language of “real” characters any alteration of a character (or of the corresponding sound) entails a change of sense.

This is a disadvantage that arises from what was intended as the great strength of the system, that is, its criterion of composition by atomic features, in order to ensure a complete isomorphism between expression and content.

Flame is Debα, because here the α designates a species of the element Fire. If we replace the α  with an a we obtain a new composition, Deba, that means Comet. When designing his system, Wilkins‘ choice of α and a was arbitrary; once they are inserted into a syntagm, however, the syntagmatic composition is supposed to mirror the very composition of the denoted thing, so that “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

This creates the problem of how to find the name for yet unknown things. According to Frank (1979: 80), Wilkins‘ language, dominated by the notion of a definitively pre-established Great Chain of Being, cannot be creative. The language can name unknown things, but only within the framework of the system itself.

Naturally, one can modify the tables by inserting into them a new species, but this presupposes the existence of some sort of linguistic authority with the power to permit us to think of a new thing. In Wilkins’s language neologisms are not impossible, but harder to form than in natural languages (Knowlson 1975: 101).

One might defend Wilkins‘ language by arguing that it really encompasses a rational methodology of scientific research. If, for example, we were to transform the character Detα (rainbow) into Denα we would obtain a character that we could analyze as denoting the first species of the ninth difference of the genus Element.

Yet there is no such species in the tables. We cannot take the character metaphorically, because only characters followed by transcendental particles may be so interpreted. We can only conclude that the character unequivocally designates an as yet to be discovered content, and that even if the content remains undiscovered, the character has at least told us the precise point where it is to be found.

But what and where is that “point?” If the tables were analogous to the periodic table in chemistry, then we really would know what to look for. The periodic table contains boxes which, though momentarily empty, might, one day, be filled.

Yet the language of chemistry is rigorously quantitative; the table gives the atomic number and weight of each missing element. An empty space in Wilkins‘ classification, however, merely tells us that there is a hole at that point; it does not tell us what we need to fill it up, or why the hole appears in one space rather than another.

Since Wilkins‘ language is not based on a rigorous classification, it cannot be used as a procedure of scientific discovery.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 248-51.

Eco: The Dictionary–Synonyms, Periphrases, Metaphors


Mary Beale (1633-1672), Portrait of John Wilkins, c. 1670-2, © The Royal Society. Wikipedia and the Royal Society website state that the original portrait was held by the Royal Society since it was acquired in the 1670’s. 

Wilkins‘ language provides names for 2,030 primitives, that is to say, species. These species include not only natural genera and artifacts, but also relations and actions. From these latter are derived the verbs.

As in Dalgarno, Wilkins used the copula + adjective formula for verbs, so “I love” is, again, “I am lover.” Besides this, the grammatical particles allow for the expression of tenses and modes for the verbs to be and to have as well as for pronouns, articles, exclamations, prepositions, conjunctions; the accidental differences express number, case, gender and comparatives.

But 2,030 primitive terms is still far too few to support discourse on a wide enough variety of topics. To increase the range of his language, Wilkins provided at the end of his Essay a list of 15,000 English terms not directly represented in his language, indicating the way that these might still be expressed.

The first way was by synonyms. For terms not included among the original 2,030, the list seeks to find the semantically closest primitive. To translate Result, the list suggests using primitive terms such as Event, Summe or Illation, without specifying in which context one should use the most appropriate synonym.

The list of possible synonyms can sometimes be very complex; for Corruption Wilkins suggests Evil, Destruction, Spoiling, Infection, Decay or Putrefaction. Some lists are even comic, as in the sequence of synonyms box-chest of drawers-ark-dresser-coffin-table.

The second way is periphrasis. The final dictionary records the term Abbie which has no corresponding primitive. There are primitives, however, for both Colledge and Monk. Thus, through periphrasis, Abbie can be rendered as Colledge of Monks.

The third way is that of the so-called transcendental particles. Faithful to his conception of a componential semantics based on primitive terms, Wilkins argued that there was no need to provide an additional character for Calf, since it is possible to express the same concept through Cow + Young, nor a primitive for Lioness when there was both a primitive for Lion and a marker for the feminine gender.

Thus in his grammar, Wilkins provided a system of transcendental particles (which then become a system of special markers for writing and pronunciation) that amplified or changed the meaning of the characters to which they were linked.

The 48 particles were articulated into eight classes, though there was little system in the classification. In fact, Wilkins drew from the Latin grammar the idea of different terminations such as “inceptives” (lucesco, aquosus, homunculus), “segregates” (gradatim or verbatim), endings indicating place (vestiarium) or agent (arator).

Sometimes these markers were essentially grammatical; as happens with those of gender, but for others Wilkins also took into account rhetorical devices such as metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche.

The particles in the class “metaphorical-like” indicate that the terms to which they are apposited are to be taken in a figurative sense. In this way, the primitive root can be modified so as to mean original, or light to mean evident.

Other particles seem to indicate relations such as cause and effect, container and thing contained, function and activity. Here are a few examples:

like + foot = pedestal

like + dark = mystical

place + metal = mine

officer + navy = admiral

artist + star = astronomer

voice + lion = roaring

Unfortunately, this incorporation of rhetorical solutions adds an element of imprecision to the entire system, and this weakens the project as a whole. Although Wilkins gave a list of examples showing the correct use of the particles, he was forced to acknowledge that they were just examples.

This list remains open, and its further elaboration is left to the inventiveness of the individual speaker (p. 318). Once set the speaker free to invent, and it is hard to avoid the risk of ambiguity.

Still, it is important to observe that–if the presence of a particle can produce ambiguity–its absence proves without any shade of doubt that a given term must be taken literally. This represents an advance of Dalgarno, in whose system there was nothing to indicate when terms should be understood literally or figuratively.

The fact is that Wilkins the author of a philosophical grammar seems to be working against Wilkins the inventor of a philosophic a priori language in real characters. Wilkins‘ attempt to take into account the figurative side of language also is certainly an interesting effort; however, it affects the precision of his language and its original claim to reduce the ambiguities present in ordinary language.

Note that, in order to render his language as univocal as possible, Wilkins had even decided to eliminate from the tables names of mythological (therefore non-existent) beings such as Sirens, Griffins, Harpies and Phoenixes, which could be at most written in natural language as proper names of individuals (for an analogy with Russell’s preoccupations, see Frank 1979: 160).

Wilkins also admitted that his language was unsuited to capturing the minutiae of food and drink, like different types of grape, jam, coffee, tea and chocolate. The problem could naturally be solved, he claimed, through periphrasis; yet it is easy to foresee that to do so the language would have been overloaded with a lot of new, awkward syntagms, as happens today with papal encyclicals, where video-cassettes become sonorarum visualiumque taeniarum cistellulae, and advertising men turn into laudativis nuntiis vulgatores.

Besides, in Latin it would have been possible to avoid such monstrosities by coining new words such as videocapsulae or publicitarii (see Bettini 1992), while Wilkins‘ language seems to have closed the door to neologisms. The only way to escape this difficulty would be to assume that the list of primitives was open.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 245-8.

Eco: The real Characters

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.3, p. 243

John Wilkins (1614-1672), Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668, p. 387. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. From Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 243. 

“Figure 12.3 gives Wilkins‘ own illustration of the signs characterizing the 40 major genera as well as the signs used to indicate differences and species.

The fundamental sign is a simple dash with a modification at its center to indicate genus. Differences and species are indicated by little hooks and bars attached to the two extremities of the dash: those attached to the left extremity signify differences; those to the right signify species.

A different series of signs, extremely difficult to read, is provided to indicate opposition, grammatical forms, copula, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc., as we have already seen for analogous writing systems.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.4, p. 244

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.4, p. 244.

As I have said, the system also specifies the way in which the characters are to be pronounced. In figure 12.4 we see that each of the genera is assigned its own two-letter symbol, while the differences are expressed by the consonants B, D, G, P, T, C, Z, S, N and the species by the addition of seven vowels and two diphthongs. Here is one of Wilkins‘ own examples:

For instance if (De) signifie Element, then (Deb) must signifie the first difference; which (according to the Tables) is Fire: and (Debα) will denote the first Species, which is Flame. (Det) will be the fifth difference under that Genus, which is, Appearing meteor; (Detα) the first Species, viz. Rainbow; (Deta) the second, viz. Halo. (p. 415).

Figure 12.5 gives the first line of the Lord’s Prayer in characters.

The first sign indicates the first person plural of the possessive pronoun; the second is the sign of Economic Relations modified by a hook on the left, which indicates the first difference (relations of consanguinity), and another on the right which indicates the second species, Direct Ascendent.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.5, p. 245

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.5, p. 245. 

The first two signs therefore mean “Our Father” and are pronounced Hai coba. As a matter of fact, the phonetic language is clearer also as a form of writing, and our following examples will mainly rely on it.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 242-5.

Eco: John Wilkins


John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Already in Mercury, a book principally devoted to secret writing, published in 1641, Wilkins had begun to design a project for universal language. It was not until 1668, however, that he was ready to unveil his Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language–the most complete project for a universal and artificial philosophical language that the seventeenth century was ever to produce.

Since “the variety of Letters is an appendix to the Curse of Babel” (p. 13), after a dutiful bow in the direction of the Hebrew language and a sketch of the evolution of languages from Babel onwards (including an examination of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis that we considered in ch. 5), and after an acknowledgment of his precursors and his collaborators in the compilation of classifications and of the final dictionary, Wilkins turned to his major task–the construction of a language founded on real characters “legible by any Nation in their own Tongue” (p. 13).

Wilkins observed that most earlier projects derived their list of characters from the dictionary of one particular language rather than drawing directly on the nature of things, and from that stock of notions held in common by all humanity.

Wilkins‘ approach required, as a preliminary step, a vast review of all knowledge to establish what these notions held in common by all rational beings really were.

Wilkins never considered that these fundamental notions might be Platonic ideas like Lull’s dignities. His list was rather based upon empirical criteria and he sought those notions to which all rational beings might either attest or, reasonably, be expected to attest: thus, if everybody agrees on the idea of a God, everybody would likewise agree on the botanical classification supplied to him by his colleague John Ray.

In reality, the image of the universe that Wilkins proposed was the one designed by the Oxonian culture of his time. Wilkins never seriously wondered whether other cultures might have organized the world after a different fashion, even though his universal language was designed for the whole of humanity.

The Tables and the Grammar

In appearance the classification procedure chosen by Wilkins was akin to the method of the Porphyrian Tree of Aristotelian tradition. Wilkins constructed a table of 40 major genera (see figure 12.1) subdivided into 251 characteristic differences.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240. 

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241.

From these he derived 2,030 species, which appear in pairs. Figure 12.2 provides a simplified example of the procedure: starting from the major genus of Beasts, after having divided them into viviparous and oviparous, and after having subdivided the viviparous ones into whole footed, cloven footed and clawed, Wilkins arrives at the species Dog / Wolf.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242.

I might add parenthetically that Wilkins‘ tables occupy a full 270 pages of his ponderous folio, and hope that the reader will excuse the summary nature of the examples which follow.

After presenting the tables, which supposedly design the whole knowable universe, Wilkins turned his attention to his natural (or philosophical) grammar in order to establish morphemes and the markers for derived terms, which can permit the generation, from the primitives, of declensions, conjugations, suffixes and so on.

Such a simplified grammatical machinery should thus allow the speaker to articulate discourses, as well as to produce the periphrases through which terms from a natural language might be defined entirely through the primitives of the artificial one.

Having reached this stage, Wilkins was able to present his language of real characters. In fact, it splits into two different languages: (1) the first is an ideogrammatic form of writing, vaguely Chinese in aspect, destined to appear in print but never to be pronounced; (2) the second is expressed by alphabetic characters and is intended to be pronounced.

It is possible to speak properly of two separate languages because, even though the pronounceable characters were constructed according to the same compositional principle as the ideograms, and obey the same syntax, they are so different that they need to be learned apart.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 238-42.

Eco: George Delgarno, 2

George Delgarno, Didascalocophus, Theater in Oxford, 1680

George Dalgarno (1626-1687), Didascalocophus, or the Deaf and Dumb mans Tutor, Theater in Oxford, 1680. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Figure 11.1 presents an extremely simplified, partial reconstruction of the tables, which limits itself to following only two of the subdivisions–animals with uncleft hooves and the principle passions.

The 17 fundamental genera are printed in bold capitals, and are marked with 17 capital letters. Intermediate genera and species are represented in lower case. Dalgarno also employs three “servile” letters: R signifies a reversal in meaning (if pon means love, pron means hate); V indicates that the letters that precede it are to be read as numbers; L signifies a medium between two extremes.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 11.1, p. 231

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 11.1, p. 232.

See for instance how from concrete, corporeal, physical entities, signified by an N, animals are deduced. See also how, in order to reach the subdivision animal, Dalgarno introduces an intermediate division (animal/inanimate) which is neither a genus nor a species, and is not marked by any letter.

The animals are subdivided into three classes–aquatic, aerial and terrestrial. Among the terrestrial animals (k) appear those with uncleft hooves [η], or perissodactyls. Thus the character Nηk stands for the class of perissodactyls. At this point, however, Dalgarno adds several sub-species–viz. the horse, elephant, mule and donkey.

As far as the accidents (E) are concerned, see for instance how the principal passions (o) are classified as species of the sensitive (P). After this, we are presented with a list that is not dichotomized: admiration takes pom as its character, because P is the fundamental genus and o is the intermediate genus.  The m, however, is just the “number” that the species admiration is assigned in the list’s order.

It is curious that, for animals, the intermediate genus is given by the third letter in the character and the species by the second vowel, while for the accidents the opposite happens.

Dalgarno acknowledges the existence of such an irregularity, without offering any explanation (p. 52). The motive is doubtless euphony; still, there seems to have been nothing to prevent Dalgarno from assigning to the intermediate genera of concrete beings vowels instead of consonants and to the species consonants instead of vowels. In this way, he could have used the same criterion throughout the table.

The problem, however, is more complex than it seems. The expression Nηk applied to the perissodactyls is motived by the divisions; only an arbitrary decision, on the contrary, motivates the decision to specify elephant with the addition of an a.

But it is not the arbitrariness of the choice itself which creates problems; it is rather that while k means “those terrestrials which are animal because they are animated and therefore physically concrete” (so that the division explains or reflects in some way the nature of the thing itself), the a at the end of Nηka (sic) only means “that thing which is numbered a on the list of perissodactyls and is called elephant.”

The same observation applies to the m in pom. All it really signifies is “position number m on the list of those sensitive accidents which are principal passions, i.e. admiration.” Since the dichotomic division does not reach the lower species, Dalgarno is forced to tack on lists in an alphabetical or almost alphabetical order.

Dalgarno (p. 42) noted, however, that this procedure was simply a mnemonic artifice for those who did not wish to learn the defining name. At the end of the book there is indeed a philosophical lexicon giving the characters for many terms in Latin.

In particular, there exists at the end of this list a special section devoted to concrete physical objects. Thus is seems that a philosophical definition of final species is possible; the only difficulty is that, given the purely exemplary nature of the lexicon, Dalgarno has left the naming of a large number of species up to the speaker, who can infer it from the tables.

Sometimes, however, Dalgarno gives taxonomically accurate examples: for instance the name for garlic, nebghn agbana (but for Dalgarno it is nebgηn agbana) is decoded by Slaughter (1982: 152) as follows: n=concretum physicum, ein radice, b vesca, g = qualitas sensibilis, h = sabor, n = pingue, a = partes annuae, gfoliumbaccidens mathematicuma = affectprimalongum. 

But even in this instance, “the tables only classify and name up to a point; the lexicon provides the rest of the definition but not the classification” (Slaughter 1982: 152).

Dalgarno may not have considered it indispensable to arrive at a classification of complex entities in all their particularities, yet making definitions requires classification. As a result the decision on how to classify complex entities, and, consequently, what name to give them, seems left as it were to the discretion of the user of the language.

Thus, ironically, a system that was intended to provide a single set of objective and univocal definitions ends up by lending itself to the creative fancies of its users. Here are some of Dalgarno’s own suggestions (I have separated the radicals with a slash to make them more decipherable):

horse = Nηk/pot = animal with uncleft hoof/courageous [why could we not say the same of the elephant?]

mule = Nηk/sof/pad = animal with uncleft hoof / deprived / sex

camel = nek/braf/pfar = quadruped with cloven hoof/humped/back

palace = fan/kan = house / king

abstemious = sof / praf / emp = deprived / drink / adjectival

stammering = grug / shaf / tin = illness [the opposite of gug, health] / impediment / speaking

gospel = tib / sηb = teach / way of being

Dalgarno also admitted that the same object regarded from a different perspective might take different names. The elephant can be called Nηksyf (uncleft hoof / superlative) or Nηkbeisap (uncleft hoof / mathematical accident / architectural metaphor for the proboscis).

It is not a system that is at all easy to memorize. The difference between Nηke, donkey, and Nηko, mule, is minimal and easy to muddle. Dalgarno advised the reader to use old mnemonic tricks.

The name for table was fran; the name for plough was flan; Dalgarno suggested associating the first with FRANce and the second with FLANders. In this way the speaker needed to learn both a philosophical language and a mnemonic code.

Dalgarno somewhat compensates the reader for the transcendental difficulties in the lexicon and the rules of composition by providing a grammar and syntax of great simplicity.

All that remains of the categories of classical grammar is the noun along with several pronouns (I = lal, you = lêl, he = lel . . . ). Adverbs, adjectives, comparatives and even verbal forms are derived by adding suffixes to nouns.

Thus from sim (good) one can generate simam (very good) and sinab (better). From pon (love) we can get pone (lover), pono (loved) and ponomp (lovable). To translate verbs, Dalgarno thought all that was necessary was the copula: “we love” becomes “we” + present tense + copula + “lovers” (that is, “we are lovers;” see p. 65).

The notion that verbs could all be reduced to the copula plus an adjective already circulated among the Modists in the thirteenth century; it was taken up by Campanella in the Philosophia rationalis (1638) and accepted by both Wilkins and Leibniz.

Dalgarno’s treatment of syntax was no less radical (see Pellerey 1992c). Although other projects for philosophic languages preserved the Latin model, Dalgarno eliminated the declensions for nouns.

All that counted was word order: the subject preceded the verb and the verb preceded the object. The ablative absolute was rendered by temporal particles which stood for terms like cum, post or dum.

The genitive was rendered either by an adjectival suffix or by a formula of possession (shf = to belong). Shumaker has commented (1982: 155) that forms of the latter type are adopted by pidgin English, in which the phrase “master’s hand” is rendered “hand-belong-master.”

Simplified to this degree, the language seems syntactically crude. Yet Dalgarno, deeply suspicious of rhetorical embellishments, was convinced that only an essential logical structure gave a language an austere elegance.

Besides, grace, elegance and transparent clarity were given full play in the composition of the names, and for this reason, Dalgarno compared his language to the philosophical language par excellence, ancient Greek.

One final aspect of Dalgarno’s system that he shared with both Wilkins and Lodwick has been underlined by Frank (1979: 65ff). By using particles, prefixed and suffixed to names, to transform nouns into other grammatical categories, changing their meanings thereby, and inserting prepositions, such as per, trans, praeter, supra, in and a, among the mathematical accidents–and thus as equivalent to nouns–Dalgarno tended “to postulate an all-comprehending semantics which took over all, or almost all of the functions traditionally assigned to grammar.”

Dalgarno, in other words, abolished the classical distinction between categorematic terms, or terms that have independent meanings, and syncategorematic terms, or terms which acquire a meaning only within a context.

This, in logic, is equivalent to the distinction between logical variables that can be bound to specific meanings and logical connectives. This is a tendency that is contrary to the tenets of modern logic; yet it is consistent with some trends in contemporary semantics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 231-7.

Eco: George Dalgarno


George Dalgarno (1626-1687), title page of Ars Signorum, printed by J. Hayes, London, 1661. Published 20 years before Didascalocophus, Ars signorum preceded Bishop Wilkin‘s speculations on a “real character and a philosophical language.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“It is difficult to make a precise evaluation of George Dalgarno’s Ars signorum, published in 1661. In contrast to Wilkin’s Essay, Dalgarno’s tables are summary and the text, in its expository sections, is written in a language that is extremely cryptic, sometimes contradictory, and almost always strikingly allusive.

The book is filled with printer’s errors, especially where Dalgarno provides examples of real characters–not an inconsiderable problem in reading a language where the misprint of one letter changes the whole sense of the character.

We might note that the difficulty in printing a text free of errors shows how cumbersome the philosophic languages were, even for their own creators.

Dalgarno was a Scottish schoolmaster who passed most of his life at Oxford, where he taught grammar at a private school. He was in touch with all the contemporary scholars at the university, and in the list of acknowledgements at the beginning of his book he mentions men such as Ward, Lodwick, Boyle and even Wilkins.

It is certain that, as he was preparing his Essay (published seven years later), Wilkins contacted Dalgarno and showed him his own tables. Dalgarno regarded them as too detailed, and chose to follow what seemed to him an easier path.

When Wilkins finally made his project public, however, Dalgarno felt himself to be the victim of plagiarism. The suspicion was unjust: Wilkins had accomplished what Dalgarno had only promised to do.

Besides, various other authors had already anticipated many of the elements appearing in the project of Dalgarno. Still, Wilkins resented the insinuation of wrong-doing. In the acknowledgements that prefaced his Essay, Wilkins was prodigal with his thanks to inspirers and collaborators alike, but the name of Dalgarno does not appear–except in an oblique reference to “another person.” (b2r).

In any case, it was the project of Wilkins that Oxford took seriously. In 1668 the Royal Society instituted a commission to study the possible applications of the project; its members included Robert Hook, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and John Wallis.

Although we are not informed of the conclusions that they finally reached, subsequent tradition, from Locke to the Encyclopédie, invariably treated Wilkins as the author of the most important project.

Perhaps the only scholar who considered Dalgarno respectfully was Leibniz, who, in a rough draft for his own encyclopedia, reproduced Dalgarno’s list of entities almost literally (see Rossi 1960: 272).

Wilkins, of course, was perfectly at home at the Royal Society. He served as its secretary, and could freely avail himself of the help, advice, patronage and attention of his fellow members. Dalgarno, by contrast, was not even a member of the university.

Dalgarno saw that a universal language needed to comprehend two distinct aspects: first, a content-plane, that is, a classification of all knowledge, and that was a task for a philosopher; second, an expression-level, that is, a grammar that organized the characters so that they can properly denote the content elements–and this was a task for a grammarian.

Dalgarno regarded himself as a grammarian rather than a philosopher; hence he merely outlined the principles of classification upon which his language would be based, hoping that others might carry this task to fruition.

As a grammarian, Dalgarno was sensitive to the problem that his language would need to be spoken and not just written. He was aware of the reserves Descartes had expressed about the difficulty of devising a philosophic language that might be pronounced by speakers of differing tongues; thus he introduced his project with a phonetic analysis which sought to identify those sounds which were most easily compatible with the human organs of speech.

The letters from which he later composed his character were not, as they might seem, chosen arbitrarily; he chose instead those which he considered most easy to utter. Even when he came to elaborate the syntagmatic order of his character, he remained concerned with ease of pronunciation.

To this end, he made sure that consonants were always followed by vowels, inserting in his character a number of diphthongs whose function is purely euphonious. This concern certainly ensured ease of pronunciation; unfortunately, it also rendered his character increasingly difficult to identify.

After phonetics, Dalgarno passed to the problem, of the semantic primitives. He believed that these could all be derived solely in terms of genus, species and difference, arguing that such a system of embedded dichotomies was the easiest to remember (p. 29).

For a series of logico-philosophical reasons (explained pp. 30ff), he excluded negative differences from his system, retaining only those which were positive.

The most ambitious feature of Dalgarno’s project (and Wilkin’s as well) was that his classification was to include not only natural genera and species (comprehending the most precise variations in animals and plants) but also artifacts and accidents–a task never attempted by the Aristotelian tradition (see Shumaker 1982: 149).

In fact, Dalgarno based his system of classification on the rather bold assumption that all individual substances could be reduced to an aggregate of accidents (p. 44). This is an assumption which, as I have tried to show elsewhere (Eco 1984: 2.4.3), arises as an almost mechanical consequence of using Porphyry’s Tree as a basis for classification; it is a consequence, moreover, that the entire Aristotelian tradition has desperately tried to ignore.

Dalgarno confronted the problem, even though recognizing that the number of accidents was probably infinite. He was also aware that the number of species at the lowest order was unmanageably large–he calculated that they would number between 4,000 and 10,000.

This is probably one of the reasons why he rejected the help of Wilkins, who was to persevere until he had classified 2,030 species. Dalgarno feared that such a detailed classification ran the risk of a surgeon who, having dissected his cadavers into minute pieces, could no longer tell which piece belonged to Peter and which to John (p. 33).

In his endeavor to contain the number of primitives, Dalgarno decided to introduce tables in which he took into consideration only fundamental genera (which he numbered at 17), together with the intermediary genera and the species.

Yet, in order to gather up all the species in this tripartite division, Dalgarno was forced to introduce into his tables a number of intermediate disjunctions. These even received names in the language: warm-blooded animals, for example, are called NeiPTeik; quadrupeds are named Neik.

Yet in the names only the letters for genera, intermediary genera, and species are taken into account. (Mathematical entities are considered as concrete bodies on the assumption that entities like points and lines are really forms).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 228-31.

Eco: Primitives and Organization of Content, 2

Ramon Llull, Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, Alonso de Proaza, 1512

Ramon Llull (1232-1315), Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, 1512. A Porphyrian Tree of logical relations, original c. 1305, logica nova edition 1512. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Nevertheless, such a dictionary-like structure would not allow us to define the difference between a cat and a tiger, or even between a canine and a feline animal. To do this, it is necessary to insert differences into the classification.

Aristotle, in his studies of definition, said that, in order to define the essence of a thing, we should select such attributes which “although each of them has a wider extension than the subject, all together they have not” (Posterior Analytics II, 96a, 35).

Such a structured representation was known in the Middle Ages as Porphyry’s Tree (because it was derived from the Isagoge of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry, living in the second-third century AD), and was still taken as a definitional model by the English searchers for a real character.

In a Porphyrian Tree each genus is divided by two differences which constitute a pair of opposites. Each genus, with the addition of one of its divisive differences, produces an underlying species, which is so defined by its genus and its constitutive difference.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225. 

In figure 10.2, there is an example of how a Porphyrian Tree establishes the difference between human beings and gods (understood as natural forces) and between human beings and beasts.

The terms in upper-case refer to genera and species while those in lower-case refer to differences, that is, to particular accidents which occur only in a given species. We see that the diagram defines a human being as a “rational and mortal animal,” which, in classical terms, is considered a satisfactory definition because there cannot be a rational and mortal animal which is not a human being, and only human beings are so.

Unfortunately this diagram does not tell us anything about the differences between dogs and cats, or horses and wolves, or cats and tigers. In order to obtain new definitions, new differences need to be inserted into the diagram.

Besides this, we can see that, although differences occur in one species, in this tree there are differences, such as “mortal/immortal,” which occur in two different species.

This makes it difficult to know whether or not the same differences will be reproduced at some further point in the tree when it becomes necessary to specify the difference not just between dogs and cats, but also between violets and roses, diamonds and sapphires, and angels and demons.

Even taxonomy as practiced by modern zoology defines through dichotomies. Dogs are distinguished from wolves, and cats from tigers, on the basis of a dichotomy by taxonomic entities known as taxa (figure 10.3).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226. 

Yet modern zoologists are well aware that a system of classification is not the same as a system of definitions.

Classification does not capture the essence of the thing itself; it simply embeds things in a system of increasingly inclusive classes, where the lower nodes are linked by entailment to the upper ones: if something is a Canis familiaris, it cannot but be, by entailment, a Canis, a canid and a fissiped.

But Canidae and Fissipeda are taken as primitives only in the framework of the classification and are not considered as semantic primitives.

Zoologists know that, within their classification, at the node Canidae they must presuppose a set of properties common to the whole family, and that at the node Carnivora there is a set of properties common to the whole order: in the same vein, “mammal” is not a semantic primitive but a technical name which stands for (more or less) “viviparous animal which nourishes its young by the secretion of milk through its mammary glands.”

The name of a substance can be either designative (thus indicating the genus to which that substance belongs) or diagnostic, that is, transparent and self-definatory.

In Species plantarum by Linnaeus (1753), given the two species, Arundo calamogrostis and Arundo arenaria, their designative names show that they belong to the same genus and establish their difference; however, their properties are then made clearer by a diagnostic description which specifies that the Arundo calamogrostis is “calycibus unifloris, cumulo ramoso,” while the Arundo arenaria is “calycibus unifloris, foliis involutiis, mucronato pungentibus” (see Slaughter 1982: 80).

However, the terms used for this description are no longer pseudo-primitives–like those of the metalanguage of taxas; they are terms of the common natural language used for diagnostic purposes.

By contrast, for the authors of a priori languages, each expression had to express all the properties of the designated thing. We shall see how such a difficulty will affect all the projects discussed in the following chapters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 225-7.

Eco: Primitives and Organization of Content


William Blake (1757-1827), The Tyger, 1794. Scan of a plate printed by the author collected in Songs of Experience, designed after 1789 and printed in 1794. Copies A and B are both held by the British Museum. This work is in the public domain in its country or origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In order to design characters that directly denote notions (if not the things themselves that these notions reflect), two conditions must be fulfilled: (1) the identification of primitive notions; (2) the organization of these primitives into a system which represents the model of the organization of content.

It is for this reason that these languages qualify as philosophical and a priori. Their formulation required individuating and organizing a sort of philosophical “grammar of ideas” that was independent from any natural language, and would therefore need to be postulated a priori.

Only when the content-plane had been organized would it be possible to design the characters that would express the semantic primitives. As Dalgarno was later to put it, the work of the philosopher had to precede that of the linguist.

For the polygraphers, invention was simply the job of assigning numbers to a collection of words from a given natural language. The inventors of philosophic a priori languages needed to invent characters that referred to things or notions: this meant that their first step was to draw up a list of notions and things.

This was not an easy task. Since the lexicon of any natural language is always finite in number, while the number of things, including physically existing objects, rational entities, accidents of all types, is potentially infinite, in order to outline a list of real characters it is necessary to design an inventory which is not only universal: it must also be in some way limited.

It is mandatory to establish which notions are the most universally common, and then to go on by analyzing the derivative notions according to a principle of compositionality by primitive features.

In this way, the entire set of possible contents that the language is able to express has to be articulated as a set of “molecular aggregates” that can be reduced to atomic features.

Suppose we had three semantic atoms such as ANIMAL, CANINE and FELINE. Using them, we might analyze the following four expressions:

Umberto Eco The Search for the Perfect Language p. 222.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 222. 

Yet the features that analyze the content of the above expressions ought to be entities totally extraneous to the object language.

The semantic feature CANINE, for example, must not be identifiable with the word canine. The semantic features ought to be extra-linguistic and possibly innate entities. At least they should be postulated as such, as when one provides a computer with a dictionary in which every term of a given language can be split into minor features posited by the program.

In any case, the initial problem is how to identify these primitive and atomic features and set a limit on their number.

If one means by “primitive” a simple concept, it is very difficult to decide whether and when one concept is simpler than another. For the normal speaker, the concept of “man” is simpler–that is, easier to understand–than the one of “mammal.”

By contrast, according to every sort of semantic analysis, “mammal” is a component of (therefore simpler than) “man.” It has been remarked that for a common dictionary it is easier to define terms like infarct than terms like to do (Rey-Debone 1971: 194ff).

We might decide that the primitives depend on our world experience; they would correspond to those that Russell (1940) called “object-words,” whose meanings we learn by ostension, in the same way as a child learns the meaning of the word red by finding it associated with different occurrences of the same chromatic experience.

By contrast, according to Russell, there are “dictionary-words” that can be defined through other words, such as pentagram. Yet Russell remarks, for a child who had grown up in a room decorated with motifs in the form of a pentagram, this word would be an object one.

Another alternative would be to regard primitives as innate Platonic ideas. This solution would be philosophically impeccable; yet not even Plato himself was able to establish what and how many these innate ideas were.

Either there is an idea for every natural kind (for horses, platypuses, fleas, elms and so on–which means an atomic feature for every element of the furnishing of the world), or there are a few abstract ideas (the One, the Many, the Good and mathematical concepts), but through them it would be difficult to define compositionally a horse or a platypus.

Suppose instead we decided to order the system of primitives by dichotomic disjunctions so that, by virtue of the systematic relations obtaining between the terms, they must remain finite in number.

With such a structure we would be able to define by a finite number of atomic primitives a great number of molecular entities. A good example of this alternative is the reciprocally embedded system of hyponyms and hyperonyms used by lexicographers.

It is organized hierarchically in the form of a tree of binary disjunctions: to each opposed pair of hyponyms there corresponds a single hyperonym, which, in its turn, is opposed to another hyperonym to form the next level of hyponyms, to which a further hyperonym will correspond, and so on.

In the end, regardless of how many terms are embedded in the system, the whole structure must finish at its apex in a single patriarch-hyperonym.

Thus the example of the table on p. 222 above would take the following format:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.1, p. 224

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.1, p. 224.

According to many contemporary authors, this kind of semantic structure would analyze the content in the format of a dictionary (as opposed to an encyclopedia).

In an encyclopedia-like representation one introduces elements of world knowledge (for example that a tiger is a yellow cat with stripes on its fur), and these elements are potentially infinite in number.

In a dictionary-like representation the features are, on the contrary, analytic, in the sense that they are the only and necessary conditions for the definition of a given content: a cat is necessarily a feline and an animal and it would be contradictory to assert that a cat is not an animal, since the feature “animal” is analytically a part of the definition of cat.

In this sense it would be easy to distinguish analytical from synthetical judgments. “A tiger is a feline animal” would be analytical, so uniquely depending on our rigorously organized dictionary competence (which is exclusively linguistic), while “tigers are man-eaters” would depend on our extra-linguistical world knowledge.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 221-5.

Eco: The English Debate on Character and Traits


Anonymous, Gerardus Johannes Vossius (1577-1649), 1636, inscribed (verso): GERH.JOH. VOSSIUS CANONICUS CANTUARIENSIS PROFESSOR HISTORIARII AMSTELO…AET LX Ao 1636. Held at the Universiteitsmuseum Amsterdam. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In 1654 John Webster wrote his Academiarum examen, an attack on the academic world, which had allegedly given an insufficient amount of attention to the problem of universal language.

Like many of this English contemporaries, Webster was influenced by Comenius‘ propaganda for a universal language. He foresaw the birth of a “Hieroglyphical, Emblematical, Symbolical, and Cryptographical learning.”

Describing the general utility of algebraic and mathematical signs, he went on to note that “the numerical notes, which we call figures and ciphers, the Planetary Characters, the marks for minerals, and many other things in Chymistry, though they be alwaies the same and vary not, yet are understood by all nations in Europe, and when they are read, every one pronounces them in their own Countrey’s language and dialect.” (pp. 24-5).

Webster was not alone; other authors were taking up and elaborating ideas which had first originated with Bacon. Another writer championing universal characters was Gerhard Vossius in De arte grammatica, 1635 (1.41).

Nevertheless, for the men from whose ranks the Royal Society would later be formed, Webster’s demand for research in hieroglyphic and emblematic characters sounded too much like Father Kircher’s Egyptian linguistics.

In effect, Webster was indeed thinking of a language of nature in opposition to the institutionalized language of men (see Formigari 1970: 37).

Responding to Webster, in another pamphlet, also published in 1654 (Vindiciae academiarum, to which Wilkins himself added an introduction), Seth Ward denounced the mystic propensities of his opponent (see Slaughter 1982: 138ff).

Ward made no objection to the idea of the real character as such, provided that it was constructed upon the algebraic model invented by Viète in the sixteenth century and elaborated by Descartes, where letters of the alphabet stand for mathematical quantities.

It is, however, evident that what Ward thought of was not what Webster had in mind.

Ward argued that only the real character of which he spoke could be termed as “a naturall Language and would afford that which the Cabalists and Rosycrucians have vainely sought for in the Hebrew” (p. 22).

In his introduction Wilkins went even further: Webster, he wrote, was nothing but a credulous fanatic. Even in his Essay, which we will soon discuss, Wilkins could not resist shooting, in his introduction, indignant darts in Webster’s direction without naming him directly.

In spite of all this, however, the projects of the religious mystics did have something in common with those of the “scientists.” In that century the play of reciprocal influence was very complex and many have detected relationships between Lullists or Rosicrucians and the inventors of philosophical languages (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988; Knowlson 1975; and, of course, Yates and Rossi).

Nevertheless, in contrast to the long tradition of the search for the lost language of Adam, the position of Ward, with the aid of Wilkins, was entirely secular.

This is worth emphasizing: there was no longer any question of discovering the lost language of humanity; the new language was to be a new and totally artificial language, founded upon philosophic principles, and capable of realizing, by rational means, that which the various purported holy languages (always dreamt of, never really rediscovered) had sought but failed to find.

In every one of the holy and primordial languages we have so far considered, at least in the way they were presented, there was an excess of content, never completely circumscribable, in respect of expression.

By contrast, the search was now for a scientific or philosophical language, in which, by an unprecedented act of impositio nominum, expression and content would be locked in permanent accord.

Men such as Ward and Wilkins thus aimed at being the new Adam; it was this that turned their projects into a direct challenge to the older tradition of mystic speculation. In the letter to the reader that introduced the Essay, Wilkins writes:

“This design would likewise contribute much to the clearing of some of our modern differences in Religion, by unmasking many wild errors, that shelter themselves under the disguise of affected phrases; which being Philosophically unfolded, and rendered according to the genuine and natural importance of Words, will appear to be inconsistencies and contradictions. (B1r).”

This was nothing less than a declaration of war on tradition, a promise of a different species of therapy that would finally massage out the cramps in language; it is the first manifestation of that skeptical-analytic current of thought, exquisitely British, that, in the twentieth century, would use linguistic analysis as an instrument for the confutation of metaphysics.

Despite the persistence of the Lullian influences, there can be no doubt that, in order to realize their project, British philosophers paid close attention to Aristotle’s system of classification.

The project of Ward is an example. It was not enough simply to invent real characters for the new language; it was necessary also to develop a criterion that would govern the primitive features that would compose these characters:

“All Discourses being resolved in sentences, these into words, words signifying either simple notions or being resolvable into simple notions, it is manifest, that if all the sorts of simple notions be found out, and have Symboles assigned to them, those will be extremely few in respect of the other [ . . . ] the reason of their composition easily known, and the most compounded ones at once will be comprehended [ . . . ] so to deliver the nature of things. (Vindiciae, 21).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 218-21.

Eco: Descartes and Mersenne


René Descartes (1596-1650), Principia philosophiae, Amsterdam: Apud Ludovicum Elzevirium, 1644. Held by the Chemical Heritage Foundation as accession number Q155.D473.1644, Othmer Library of Chemical History. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“More or less at the same period, the problem of a real character was discussed in France, with a more skeptical attitude. In 1629, Father Marin Mersenne sent Descartes news of a project for a nouvelle langue invented by a certain des Vallées.

We are told by Tallemant des Réau that this des Vallées was a lawyer who had an immense talent for languages and who claimed to have discovered “a matrix language through which he could understand all others.”

Cardinal Richelieu asked him to publish his project, but des Vallées replied he was only willing to divulge such a great secret against the promise of a state pension.

“This the Cardinal denied him, and so the secret ended up buried with des Vallées” (Les historiettes, 1657: 2, “Le Cardinal de Richelieu“).

On 20 November 1629, Descartes wrote back to Mersenne giving his thoughts about the story. Learning a language, Descartes noted, involved learning both the meaning of words and a grammar.

All that was required to learn new meanings was a good dictionary, but learning a foreign grammar was more difficult. It might be possible, however, to obviate this difficulty by inventing a grammar that was free from the irregularities of natural languages, all of which had been corrupted through usage.

The resulting language would be a simplified one and might seem, in comparison to natural languages, the basic one, of which all the other natural languages would then appear as so many complex dialects.

It was sufficient to establish a set of primitive names for actions (having synonyms in every language, in the sense in which the French aimer has its synonym in the Greek philein), and the corresponding substantive might next be derived from such a name by adding to it an affix.

From here, a universal writing system might be derived in which each primitive name was assigned a number with which the corresponding terms in natural languages might be recovered.

However, Descartes remarked, there would remain the problem of sounds, since there are ones which are easy and pleasant for speakers of one nation and difficult and unpleasant for those of another.

On the one hand, a system of new sounds might also prove difficult to learn; on the other hand, if one named the primitive terms from one’s own language, then the new language would not be understood by foreigners, unless it was written down by numbers.

But even in this case, learning an entire new numerical lexicon seemed to Descartes a tremendous expense of energy: why not, then, continue with an international language like Latin whose usage was already well established?

At this point, Descartes saw that the real problem lay elsewhere. In order not only to learn but to remember the primitive names, it would be necessary for these to correspond to an order of ideas or thoughts having a logic akin to that of the numbers.

We can general an infinite series of numbers, he noted, without needing to commit the whole set to memory. But this problem coincided with that of discovering the true philosophy capable of defining a system of clear and distinct ideas.

If it were possible to enumerate the entire set of simple ideas from which we generate all the complex ones that the human mind can entertain, and if it were possible to assign to each a character–as we do with numbers–we could then articulate them by a sort of mathematics of thought–while the words of natural languages evoke only confused ideas.

“Now I believe that such a language is possible and that it is possible to discover the science upon which it must depend, a science through which peasants might judge the truth better than philosophers do today.

Yet I do not expect ever to see it in use, for that would presuppose great changes in the present order of things; this world would have to become an earthly paradise, and that is something that only happens in the Pays des Romans.”

Descartes thus saw the problem in the same light as Bacon did. Yet this was a project that he never confronted. The observations in his letter to Mersenne were no more than commonsensical.

It is true that, at the moment he wrote this letter, Descartes had not yet started his own research into clear and distinct ideas, as would happen later with his Discours de la methode;  however, even later he never tried to outline a complete system of simple and clear ideas as the grounds on which to build a perfect language.

He provided a short list of primitive notions in the Principia philosophiae (I, XLVIII), yet these notions were conceived as permanent substances (order, number, time, etc.) and there is no indication that from this list a system of ideas could be derived (see Pellerey 1992a: 25-41; Marconi 1992).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 216-8.

Eco: Comenius


Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart, the initial version was completed in 1623, while the first edition was published in 1631. The entire work is posted in an electronic edition. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The British quest was also influenced by the presence of Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky). In fact Comenius was a member of the Bohemian Brotherhood, a mystic branch of Hussite reformers, and he played a role–albeit a polemical one–in the Rosicrucian story (cf. his Labyrinth of the World, 1623, in Czech).

Thus he was inspired by religious ideals which were alien to the scientific purposes of the English milieu. On this complex cultural geography see Yates (1972, 1979): one is really facing a web of different projects, at once similar and antithetical, in which the search for a perfect language was but a single aspect (see Rossi 1960; Bonerba 1992; Pellerey 1992a: 41-9).

Comenius‘ aspirations must be seen in the framework of the tradition of pansophia, yet his pansophic aims were influenced by educational preoccupations. In his Didactica magna of 1657, he proposed a scheme for reforming teaching methods; for, as he observed, a reform in the education of the young formed the basis upon which any subsequent political, social and religious reform must be built.

It was essential that the teacher furnish the learners with a set of images that would stamp themselves indelibly on their imaginations. This meant placing what is visible before the eyes, what is audible before the ears, what is olfactory before the nose, gustatory before the tongue, and tactical before the touch.

In an earlier manual for the teaching of Latin, Janua linguarum, written in 1631, Comenius was first of all concerned that the learner should have an immediate visual apprehension of what was being spoken of.

Equally he was concerned that the images and notions that the learner was studying in the Latin lexicon be arranged in a certain logical order.

Thus lessons progressed from the creation of the world to the elements, to the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, etc.

By the time of the Didactica magna Comenius had begun to rearrange his notions according to the suggestions of Bacon. In 1658 there appeared the Orbis sensualium pictus quadrilinguis, which represented his attempt to present a figured nomenclature which would include the fundamental things of the world together with human actions.

So important were the images that Comenius delayed publication until he was able to obtain satisfactory engravings that were not mere ornaments, but bore an iconic relation with the things represented, for which the verbal names appeared as nothing but titles, explanations and complements.

This manual was prefaced by an alphabet in which every letter was associated with the image of a particular animal whose voice recalled the sound of the letter–so that the result resembles Harsdörffer’s onomatopoetic fantasies concerning the sounds of German.

Therefore the image of a crow is commented by “Die Krähe krächzet, cornix cornicatur, la cornacchia gracchia, la corneille gazoüille,” or, for a snake, “Die Schlange zischtet, Serpens sibilat, il Serpe fsschia [sic], le Serpent siffle.”

Comenius was a severe critic of the defects of natural languages. In his Pansophiae Christianae liber III (1639-40), he advocated a reform that would eliminate the rhetorical and figurative use of words, which he regarded as a source of ambiguity.

The meaning of words should be fixed, he demanded, with one name for each thing, thus restoring words to their original meanings.

In 1668, in the Via lucis, Comenius offered prescriptions for the creation of an artificial universal language. By now, pansophy was more than an educational method; it was a utopian vision in which a world council was supposed to create the perfect state along with its perfect philosophical language, the Panglossia.

It is interesting to consider that Comenius had in fact written this work before 1641, when, after wandering through the whole of Europe in the course of the Thirty Years War, he had taken refuge in London.

Via lucis certainly circulated, in manuscript form, in the English milieu at that time (see, for example, Cram 1989).

Although Comenius was never to construct his new language in extenso, he had broached the idea of a universal tongue which had to overcome the political and structural limitations of Latin.

The lexicon of the new language would reflect the composition of reality and in it every word should have a definite and univocal meaning, every content should be represented by one and only one expression, and the contents were not supposed to be products of fancy, but should represent only every really existing thing, no more and no less (see Pellerey 1992a: 48).

Thus, on one side we have a utopian thinker, inspired by Rosicrucian ideals, whose goal was to discover a pansophy which aimed at picturing the unmoving and harmonical connection of every element of the creation, so as to lead the human mind to an unceasing quest for God; on the other side, rejecting the possibility of rediscovering the original perfect language, and looking, for educational purposes, for an easy artificial method, Comenius became the forerunner of that search for an a priori philosophical language that would later be implemented by English utopian thinkers whose inspiration was more scientific than theological or mystical.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 214-6.

Eco: Bacon


Paul van Somer (1576-1622), Portrait of Francis Bacon, 1617. Held at the Palace on the Water (Royal Baths Museum) and inscribed “Sr. Francis Bacon Lord Keeper, and afterwards Lord Chancellor of England, 1617.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“As the renovator of scientific inquiry, Francis Bacon was only marginally interested in perfect languages. Yet, marginal though they may have been, his remarks on the subject have a notable philosophic interest.

A central theme in Bacon’s works was the destruction of idola, that is, false ideas arising either from human nature, collective or individual, or from philosophical dogmas handed down by tradition, or else–and this is what interests us the most–from the way we use language itself (idola fori).

Such linguistic usages have been determined by the needs of common people, so disturbing our way of reasoning (Novum organum, I, 43), and the idola that common speech imposes are either names for non-existent things, or confused, ill-defined and partial names for existing things (Novum organum, I, 60).

An example of a confused notion is that of the moist: this may signify a great variety of things; it can mean that which spreads rapidly around another body, that which is devoid of cohesion and consistence, that which is easily moved in whatever direction, that which can be divided and dispersed, that which can easily be reunited and gathered up, that which attaches itself easily to another body and moistens it, that which easily passes into a liquid state and dissolves.

To speak scientifically means thus to implement a speech therapy.

The idea of a linguistic therapy was a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. In the Leviathan (1651: IV), Hobbes noted that there are four main uses of speech,

“…First, to register, what by cogitation, wee find to be the cause of any thing [ . . . ] Secondly, to shew to others that knowledge which we have attained [ . . . ] Thirdly, to make known to others our wills, and purposes [ . . . ] Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, or others, by playing with our words, for pleasure and ornament, innocently.

To these uses, there are also foure correspondent Abuses. First, when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words [ . . . ] Secondly, when they use words metaphorically [ . . . ] Thirdly, when by words they declare that to be their will, which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another.”

In the third book of the Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke observed that:

“For since Sounds are voluntary and indifferent signs of any Ideas, a Man may use what Words he pleases, to signify his own Ideas to himself: and there will be no imperfection in them, if he constantly uses the same Word for the same Idea [ . . . ] The chief End of Language in Communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end [ . . . ] when any Word does not excite in the Hearer, the same Idea which it stands for in the Mind of the Speaker.” (III, IX, 2, 4).

For Bacon, signs might be of two types. Signs ex congruo (we would say iconic, motivated)–like hieroglyphs, gestures or emblems–reproduce in some way the properties of the things they signify; signs ad placitum are arbitrary and conventional.

Yet even a conventional sign can be defined as a “real character” when it refers not to a sound, but directly a corresponding thing or concept.

Bacon thus speaks of “Characteres quidam Reales, non Nominales; qui scilicet nec literas, nec verba, sed res et notiones exprimunt” (De Augmentis Scientiarum, VI, 1). In this sense, the signs used by the Chinese are real characters; they represent concepts without, however, bearing any similarity to the signified objects.

We see here that, unlike Kircher, Bacon was unaware of the vague iconism of Chinese ideograms; this, however, was a misapprehension that Bacon shared with a number of other contemporary authors.

Even Wilkins commented that, beyond the difficulties and perplexities that these characters generated, there seemed to be no analogies between their forms and the forms of the things that they represented (Essay, 451).

Probably Kircher had the advantage of knowing the direct reports on Chinese culture of his fellow Jesuits, and was thus able to form a clearer picture of Chinese ideograms than English scholars forced to rely on indirect accounts.

For Bacon, then, Chinese ideograms were examples of signs which, though arbitrary and conventional, stand directly for a signified notion without the mediation of a verbal language. He remarked that, even though the Chinese and the Japanese spoke different languages and thus called things by different names, both recognized them by the same ideograms, and, therefore, could understand each other by writing.

According to an example by Lodwick, if we propose to denote the sky with a 0, such a real character would be distinct from a vocal character…

“…in that it signifieth not the sound or word “heaven” but what we call heaven, the Latin coelum etc., so that the carracter being accepted will by the English be read heaven without respect to what the Latin would name the same thing [ . . . ] A frequent instance hereof we have in the numerical carracters (sic) 1.2.3., which signify not the severall sounds by which the severall (sic) nations in their severall languages expresse (sic) them but that common notion wherein those severall nations agree as to them (MS Sloane 897 f32r; in Salmon 1972: 223).”

Bacon did not think that a character supplied the image of the thing or revealed its intrinsic nature; his characters were nothing other than a conventional sign which, however, referred to a clear and precise notion.

His problem, then, became that of formulating an alphabet of fundamental notions; his Abecedarium novum naturae, composed in 1622, which was to appear as the appendix of the Historia naturalis et experimentalis, represented an attempt to make an index of knowledge, and was not connected to any project for a perfect language (see Blasi 1992: Pellerey 1992a).

Later attempts were none the less inspired by the fact that Bacon decided to associate Greek letters with every item of his index, so that, for example, α meant “dense and rare,” ε “volatile and fixed,” εεεε “natural and monstruous (sic),” οοοοο “hearing and sound.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 211-3.

Eco: A Priori Philosophical Languages

“The advent of a priori philosophical languages entails a change in paradigm. For the authors we have considered up to now, the search for a perfect language arose from profound tensions of a religious nature; the authors we are about to consider imagined on the contrary a philosophical language which could eliminate the idola responsible for clouding the minds of men and for keeping them afar from the progress of science.

Not by chance, most of the agitation for a new and universal language arose from Britain. There is more to this than a reflection of the English expansion during this period; there was a specifically religious aspect as well.

Although Latin was still the common language of scholars, to the English mind, it was associated with the Catholic church. Besides, it was also too difficult for English speakers. Charles Hooke complained of “the frequent Sarcasmes of the Foreiners, who deride to see such a disability in Englishmen (otherwise Scholars good enough) to speak in Latine” (cf. Salmon 1972: 56).

In the endeavor for a common speech the English had commercial reasons (they thought indeed that a universal language would facilitate the exchange of goods at the Frankfurt fair) as well as educational reasons, since English spelling in the seventeenth century was more irregular than it is today (see Salmon 1972: 51-69).

This was also a period which witnessed the first experiences in teaching language to deaf-mutes, and Dalgarno conducted a number of experiments in this field. Cave Beck (The Universal Character, 1657) wrote that the invention of a universal language would be of advantage to mankind as it would encourage commerce as well as saving the expense of hiring interpreters.

It is true that he added that it would serve to propagate the Gospel as well, but it seems evident that for him evangelization was really just another aspect of European expansion in the new lands of conquest.

He was obsessed, like other linguistic theorists of the epoch, by the accounts of the gestural languages through which the explorers conducted their first exchanges with the inhabitants of those distant shores.

In his account of his exploits in the New World in 1527, Alvaro Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca had complained of the difficulty involved in dealing with native populations which spoke thousands of different dialects, describing how much recourse to the language of gesture had helped the explorers.

Beck’s work contained a frontispiece which showed a European consigning Beck’s project to a Hindu, an African, and to an American Indian who expresses himself with a gesture of his hand.

There was finally the problem of scientific language itself. New discoveries being made in the physical and natural sciences made the problem of finding an adequate nomenclature more urgent, in order to counteract the symbolic and allegorical vagueness of alchemical terms.

Dalgarno confronted this problem in the section entitled “To the reader” of his 1661 Ars signorum: it was necessary to find a language which reduced redundancies, anomalies, equivocations and ambiguities. He specified that such a language could not fail to encourage contact between peoples as well as help to cure philosophy of sophisms and logomachy.

What had long been considered one of the sacred writ’s greatest strengths–its vagueness and symbolic density–was now viewed as a limitation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 209-10.

Eco: First Attempts at a Content Organization


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Frontispiece of Obeliscus Pamphilius, Obeliscus Pamphilius: Hoc est Interpretatio nova & hucusque intenta obelisci Hieroglyphici, eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, published by Lud. Grignani 1650, held by Ghent University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Probably in 1660, three years before the publication of the Polygraphia, Kircher wrote a manuscript bearing the title Novum hoc inventum quo omnia mundi idiomata ad unum reducuntur (Mss. Chigiani I, vi, 225, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Marrone 1986).

Schott says that Kircher kept his system a secret at the express wish of the emperor, who had requested that his polygraphy be reserved for his exclusive use alone.

The Novum inventum was still tentative and incomplete; it contained an extremely elementary grammar plus a lexicon of 1,620 words. However, the project looks more interesting that the later one because it provides a list of 54 fundamental categories, each represented by an icon.

These icons are reminiscent of those that one might find today in airports and railway stations: some were schematically representative (like a small chalice for drinking); others were strictly geometrical (rectangles, triangles, circles).

Some were furthermore superficially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. They were functionally equivalent to the Roman numbers in the Polygraphia (in both texts, Arabic numbers referred to particular items).

Thus, for example, the square representing the four elements plus the numeral 4 meant water as an element; water as something to drink was instead expressed by a chalice (meaning the class of drinkable things) followed by the numeral 3.

There are two interesting features in this project. The first is that Kircher tried to merge a polygraphy with a sort of hieroglyphical lexicon, so that his language could be used (at least in the author’s intention) without translating it into a natural language.

Seeing a “square + 4,” the readers should immediately understand that the named thing is an element, and seeing “chalice + 3” they should understand that one is referring to something to drink.

The difficulty was due to the fact that, while both Kircher’s Polygraphia and Becher’s Character allow a translating operator (be it a human being or a machine) to work independently of any knowledge of the meaning of the linguistic items, the Novum inventum requires a non-mechanical and quasi-philosophical knowledge: in order to encode the word aqua as “square + 4,” one should previously know that it is the name of an element–information that the term of a natural language does not provide.

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who published two volumes describing a sort of polygraphy (Ekskubalauron, 1652, and Logopandecteision, 1653), noted that, arbitrary as the order of the alphabet might be, it was still easier to look things up in alphabetical order than in a categorical order.

The second interesting feature of Kircher’s initial project is certainly given by the effort to make the fundamental concepts independent of any existing natural language.

Its weakness is due to the fact that the list of the 54 categories was notably incongruous: it included divine entities, angelic and heavenly, elements, human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals, the dignities and other abstract concepts deriving from the Lullian Ars, things to drink, clothes, weights, numbers, hours, cities, food, family, actions such as seeing or giving, adjectives, adverbs, months of the year.

It was perhaps the lack of internal coherency in this system of concepts that induced Kircher to abandon this line of research, and devote himself to the more modest and mechanical method used in the Polygraphia.

Kircher’s incongruous classification had a precedent. Although he regarded Kircher as the pioneer in the art of polygraphy, in his Technica curiosa (as well as in his Jocoseriorum naturae et artiis sive magiae naturalis centuriae tres) Gaspar Schott gave an extended description of a 1653 project that was certainly earlier than Kircher’s (the Novum inventum is dedicated to Pope Alexander VII, who ascended the pontifical throne only in 1655).

The project was due to another Jesuit, a Spaniard (“whose name I have forgotten,” as Schott says on p. 483), who had presented in Rome (on a single folio) an Artificium, or an Arithmeticus nomenclator, mundi omnes nationes ad linguarum et sermonis unitatem invitans (“Artificial Glossary, inviting all the nations of the world to unity of languages and speech”).

Schott says that the anonymous author wrote a pasigraphy because he was a mute. As a matter of fact the subtitle of the Artificium also reads Authore linguae (quod mirere) Hispano quodam, vere, ut dicitur, muto (“The author of this language–a marvelous thing–being a Spaniard, truly, it is said, dumb”).

According to Ceñal (1946) the author was a certain Pedro Bermudo, and the subtitle of the manuscript would represent a word play since, in Castilian, “Bermudo” must be pronounced almost as Ver-mudo.

It is difficult to judge how reliable the accounts of Schott are; when he described Becher’s system, he improved it, adding details that he derived from the works of Kircher. Be that as it may, Schott described the Artificium as having divided the lexicon of the various languages into 44 fundamental classes, each of which contained between 20 and 30 numbered items.

Here too a Roman number referred to the class and an Arabic number referred to the item itself. Schott noted that the system provided for the use of signs other than numbers, but gave his opinion that numbers comprised the most convenient method of reference since anyone from any nation could easily learn their use.

The Artificium envisioned a system of designating endings, (marking number, tense or case) as complex as that of Becher. An Arabic number followed by an acute accent was the sign of the plural; followed by a grave accent, it became the nota possessionis.

Numbers with a dot above signified verbs in the present; numbers followed by a dot signified the genitive. In order to distinguish between vocative and dative, it was necessary to count, in one case, five, and, in the other, six, dots trailing after the number.

Crocodile was written “XVI.2” (class of animals + crocodile), but should one have occasion to address an assembly of crocodiles (“O Crocodiles!”), it would be necessary to write (and then read) “XVI.2′ . . . . . ‘.

It was almost impossible not to muddle the points behind one word with the points in front of another, or with full stops, or with the various other orthographic conventions that the system established.

In short, it was just as impracticable as all of the others. Still, what is interesting about it is the list of 44 classes. It is worth listing them all, giving, in parenthesis, only some examples of the elements each contained.

  1. Elements (fire, wind, smoke, ashes, Hell, Purgatory, centre of the earth).
  2. Celestial entities (stars, lightning, bolts, rainbows . . .).
  3. Intellectual entities (God, jesus, discourse, opinion, suspicion, soul, stratagems, or ghosts).
  4. Secular statuses (emperor, barons, plebs).
  5. Ecclesiastical states.
  6. Artificers (painters, sailors).
  7. Instruments.
  8. Affections (love, justice, lechery).
  9. Religion.
  10. Sacramental confession.
  11. Tribunal.
  12. Army.
  13. Medicine (doctor, hunger, enema).
  14. Brute animals.
  15. Birds.
  16. Fish and reptiles.
  17. Parts of animals.
  18. Furnishings.
  19. Foodstuffs.
  20. Beverages and liquids (wine, beer, water, butter, wax, and resin).
  21. Clothes.
  22. Silken fabrics.
  23. Wool.
  24. Homespun and other spun goods.
  25. Nautical and aromas (ship, cinnamon, anchor, chocolate).
  26. Metal and coin.
  27. Various artifacts.
  28. Stone.
  29. Jewels.
  30. Trees and fruits.
  31. Public places.
  32. Weights and measures.
  33. Numerals.
  34. Time.
  35. Nouns.
  36. Adjectives.
  37. Verbs.
  38. Undesignated grammatical category.
  39. Undesignated grammatical category.
  40. Undesignated grammatical category.
  41. Undesignated grammatical category.
  42. Undesignated grammatical category.
  43. Persons (pronouns and appellations such as Most Eminent Cardinal).
  44. Vehicular (hay, road, footpad).

The young Leibniz would criticize the absurdity of arrangements such as this in his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria, 1666.

This sort of incongruity will affect as a secret flaw even the projects of a philosophically more sophisticated nature–such as the a priori philosophic languages we will look at in the next chapter.

This did not escape Jorge Luis Borges. Reading Wilkins, at second hand as he admits (in Other Inquisitions, “The analytical idiom of John Wilkins“), he was instantly struck by the lack of a logical order in the categorical divisions (he discusses explicitly the subdivisions of stones), and this inspired his invention of the Chinese classification which Foucault posed at the head of his The Order of Things.

In this imaginary Chinese encyclopedia bearing the title Celestial Emporium of Benevolent  Recognition, “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs. (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”).

Borge’s conclusion was that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. At the end of our panorama of philosophical languages, we shall see that, in the end, even Leibniz was forced to acknowledge this bitter conclusion.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 203-8.

Eco: Beck and Becher

Cave Beck, The Universal Character, London, 1657

Cave Beck (1623-1702), The Universal Character, London, 1657. An eBook available on GoogleBooks, The Universal Character proposes a universal language based on a numerical system consisting of the ten Arabic numerals up to 10,000 combinations long, which was considered sufficient to include all words in common usage. As each word was assigned a unique number and the number was the same regardless of language, words ended up unmanageably long. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In 1657 Cave Beck had published The Universal Character, by which All the Nations of the World may Understand One Another’s Conceptions, Reading out of one Common Writing their Own Mother Tongues, presenting a project which was not so different from Kircher’s. Here is an example from his system:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 201.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, p. 201. 

The numbers specified nouns and verbs, p stood for the personal pronoun, second person, with pf as the feminine form (which permits one to use the same term, 2477 = “parent,” in both cases); leb indicated imperative plural.

Beck tried to turn his pasigraphy into a pasilaly as well, that is a system of universal pronunciation. Thus the above sentence was to be pronounced leb totreónfo pee tofosénsen and pif tofosénsen.

The only difficulty was that, in order to pronounce the sentence, one had to memorize the whole dictionary, remembering the right number for every word.

In 1661, two years before Kircher’s Polygraphia (but some of Kircher’s ideas had circulated in manuscript form since 1660), Joachim Becher published his Character pro notitia linguarum universalis (sometimes known under its frontispiece title of Clavis convenientiae linguarum).

Becher’s project was not unlike Kircher’s; the major difference was that Becher constructed a Latin dictionary that was almost ten times more vast (10,000 items). Yet he did not include synonyms from other languages, expecting the accommodating reader to make them up for him.

As in Kircher, nouns, verbs and adjectives composed the main list, with a supplementary list of proper names of people and places making up an appendix.

For each item in Becher’s dictionary there is an Arabic number: the city of Zürich, for example, is designated by the number 10283. A second Arabic number refers the user to grammatical tables which supply verbal endings, the endings for the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, or adverbial endings.

A third number refers to case endings. The dedication “Inventum Eminentissimo Principi” is written 4442. 2770:169:3. 6753:3, that is, “(My) Invention (to the) Eminent + superlative + dative singular, Prince + dative singular.”

Unfortunately Becher was afraid that his system might prove difficult for peoples who did not know the Arabic numbers; he therefore thought up a system of his own for the direct visual representation of numbers.

The system is atrociously complicated and almost totally illegible. Some authors have imagined that it is somehow akin to Chinese. This is hardly true. What we have, in fact, is a basic graphical structure where little lines and dots at various points on the figure represent different numbers.

Lines and points affixed to the right and center of the figure refer to grammatical categories. Figure 9.1 provides only an excerpt of a list that keeps going for four tables.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 9.1, p. 202

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 9.1, p. 202.

In the chapter “Mirabilia graphica” in his Technica curiosa (1664), Gaspar Schott tried to improve on Becher’s project.

He simplified the system for the representation of numbers and added partial lexicons for other languages. Schott proposed using small grids of eight cases each, where the lower horizontal line represents units, the next one up tens, the next hundreds, and the top thousands.

Units were represented by dots; fives were represented by strokes. Numbers on the left referred to lexical units, while those on the right to grammatical morphemes. Thus figure 9.2 must be read as 23:1, 15:15, 35:4, and can be translated as “The horse eats the fodder.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 9.2, p. 203

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 9.2, p. 203. 

Becher’s and Schott’s systems appear totally impracticable for normal human use, but have been seen as tentative models for future practices of computer translation (cf. Heilman 1963; De Mauro 1963).

In fact, it is sufficient to think of Becher’s pseudo-ideograms as instructions for electronic circuits, prescribing to a machine which path to follow through the memory in order to retrieve a given linguistic term, and we have a procedure for a word-for-word translation (with all the obvious inconveniences of such a merely mechanical program).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 201-3.

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