What follows is not just a collection of stories about individual languages. The way people think about language is influenced by the times they live in, and it is possible to show how changing times led, in a general way, to changes in the types of languages that inventors came up with. There are trends, or eras, in language invention that reflect the preoccupations of the surrounding culture, and so, in a way, the history of invented languages is a story about the way we think about language.

It is also a story about natural language. In answering the question of why invented languages fail (and indeed, why they sometimes succeed), we will touch on topics like the relationship of concepts to words, the revival of Hebrew, Chinese writing, sign language, the role of logic in language, and the effect of language on thought. We will see what happens when you attempt to take the flaws out of language, and those “flaws” will be revealed as more important than we realize.

This is a story of why language refuses to be cured and why it succeeds, not in spite of, but because of, the very qualities that the language inventors have tried to engineer away.

John Wilkins and the Language of Truth


The Six-Hundred-Page Rewrite

Sixteen sixty-six was a hard year for John Wilkins. It was a hard year for everyone in London. The previous summer the Plague had swept through the city, killing thousands. Wilkins, like most who could afford to, had fled to the countryside. The emptying of London brought the activities of the Royal Society—the scientific academy that Wilkins had recently helped to found—to an abrupt halt. This was a minor inconvenience, of course, compared with the Black Death, but still an inconvenience, and Wilkins did what he could during that time to continue advancing the cause of science. He and a couple of fellow Society members used the various instruments they had hauled up from the city with them to carry on with their experiments. By the summer of 1666 the epidemic appeared to have run its course, and the streets of London began to fill with people again. Then a baker neglected to extinguish his oven fire one night and the city went up in flames.

The Great Fire of London burned for four days and destroyed most of the city. Wilkins lost his house. And because the church where he was vicar was also destroyed, he lost his job. A few years before, when he had been pushed out of his position as master of Trinity College for political reasons, he had bounced back relatively quickly with the help of influential friends. But the disruption to his life was more severe this time, and his friends were concerned about his low spirits.

This time he had lost something much more difficult to replace than living quarters or income. The fire had also claimed his “darling”—his universal language. He had been working on it for a decade, through the vagaries of national political upheaval and the pain of chronic kidney stones. His manuscript—hundreds of pages, finally complete, already at the printer’s shop—was now reduced to ashes.

Wilkins was at the very center of scientific life in his day, but his particular gifts were not of the type that go down in history. He was a mentor, an organizer, a promoter, a peacemaker, and a soother of egos. He befriended and encouraged the innovators who would gain more lasting fame. Robert Hooke (of Hooke’s law, the relationship of force to stretch in springs) said of him, “There is scarce any one Invention, which this Nation has produc’d in our Age, but it has some way or other been set forward by his assistance.” He collaborated with Robert Boyle (of Boyle’s law, the relation of pressure to volume) and John Ray (father of natural history in Britain). He noticed the extraordinary talent of the young Christopher Wren (mathematician, astronomer, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral) and took a special interest in promoting his career.

Wilkins’s own work was not groundbreaking (it was suggested that he got along so well with everyone because he didn’t arouse jealousy), but it did display a unique kind of creative verve. He drew up plans for land- water vehicles and flying machines. He designed an early odometer and a rainbow-producing fountain. He built a hollowed-out statue for playing practical jokes on people; he would speak through the statue’s mouth by means of a long pipe that allowed him to stand at a distance and observe the bewildered reactions of his targets. He constructed an elaborate glass beehive, outfitted like a palace with tiny decorations. Whimsical but also practical, it permitted the scientific observation of bee behavior. He presented a report on the differences between queens and drones at a meeting of the Royal Society.

Wilkins took a secondary role in the greater achievements of others both as an inspirer (his suggestions led to pioneering research on skin grafting and blood transfusion) and as a publicizer. He was perhaps the first popular science writer. Exasperated by dense, overly theoretical presentation styles, he made the promotion of plain language a lifelong cause. He wrote one book to explain Copernican astronomy to a general audience and another to explain mechanical geometry to people who might want to benefit from its practical applications. All applications of scientific theory were interesting to him; many of his own experiments veered toward the domestic (more efficient methods of embroidery, quicker ways to roast meat). He took great joy from science, and he knew how to make it accessible. Boyle may have been the true innovator when it came to the principles of air pressure, but it was Wilkins who thought to demonstrate the power of those principles in an experiment where, by blowing into a series of connected pipes, he levitated “a fat boy of sixteen or seventeen years” a clear two inches off the ground. The Society members were so entertained by his presentation that they agreed it should be performed for the king’s proposed visit.

Wilkins didn’t actively court fame for its own sake, but as generous and diplomatic as he was (one colleague said that he never met anyone else who “knew how to manage the freedom of speech so inoffensively”), he could not have been completely unconcerned with his own place in posterity. He did have one project that was exciting, important, and unquestionably his. It was a man-made language free from the ambiguity and imprecision that afflicted natural languages. It would directly represent concepts; it would reveal the truth.

Others had talked about creating such a language, or made preliminary attempts at it. Wilkins had collaborated with some of them and, in characteristic fashion, encouraged their efforts. But no one had put in the work he had. No one but Wilkins had been brave or industrious enough to take on the massive task that the creation of such a language required—a complete and ordered cataloging of all concepts, of everything in the universe. And now, after the Great Fire, the pages on which he had set down the universe were gone, along with his shot at immortal fame.

He was lower than he had ever been. But he was not one to indulge too long in self-pity. He got back to work, and within two years he had rewritten the whole thing. It came to over six hundred pages. When he presented it to the Royal Society in 1668, he acknowledged that he was “not so vain as to think that I have here completely finished this great undertaking,” and requested that a committee be appointed to “offer their thoughts concerning what they judge fit to be amended in it” so that he could continue to make improvements.

A committee was appointed. There was excitement, praise, and plans for translating the work into Latin. The king expressed an interest in learning the language. Robert Hooke suggested it should be the language of all scientific findings and published a description of the mechanics of pocket watches in it. The mathematician John Wallis wrote letters to Wilkins in the language and claimed that they “perfectly understood one another as if written in our own language.” Newton, Locke, and Leibniz read Wilkins’s book with interest.

Wilkins continued to work on perfecting his masterpiece, suffering with ever more frequent “fits of the stone.” In the summer of 1672 he sought a cure at Scarborough spa, but found no relief. In November, dying from “suppression of the Urine,” he told the friends and admirers who came to visit him for the last time that he was

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