Eco: The Dictionary–Synonyms, Periphrases, Metaphors

by Esteban


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.