“prepared for the great Experiment” and that his only regret was that he would not live to see the completion of his language.

But he had seen it as complete as it ever would be. The king would not get around to learning it. The committee would never issue its report. Gradually, even Wilkins’s close friends and collaborators would stop talking about it. No more scientific reports would be written in it. No more letters. There is no evidence that anyone ever used it again.

What happened? Did it get lost in the shuffle of history? A case of wrong time, wrong place? Or was there a problem with the language itself? There was only one way to find out. I settled in for a long weekend with An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. I emerged blinking and staggering, unsure of whether any word in any language meant anything at all.

A Calculus of Thought

Wilkins’s project was the most fully developed of all the many linguistic schemes hatched in his day. Language invention was something of a seventeenth-century intellectual fad. Latin was losing ground as the international lingua franca, and as the pace of advancement in philosophy, science, and mathematics picked up, scholars fretted about the best way to propagate their findings. Talk of universal language was in the air. It was not the first time. The search for a cure for Babel was as old as the story of Babel, but the cure proposed before this point usually involved the discovery of the original language of Adam as crafted by God. Now, in the throes of the scientific revolution, people started to think that perhaps a solution could be crafted by man.

It seems that any self-respecting gentleman of the day could be expected to have some sort of universal language up his sleeve. Of all the works published on the idea during this time, the one with my favorite title is by Edward Somerset, the second Marquis of Worcester: A Century of the Names and Scantlings of Such Inventions as at Present I Can Call to Mind to Have Tried and Perfected, Which (My Former Notes Being Lost) I Have, at the Instance of a Powerful Friend, Endeavoured Now in the Year 1655, to Set These Down in Such a Way as May Sufficiently Instruct Me to Put Any of Them in Practice.

There among his inventions ingenious (the steam engine), overly optimistic (an unsinkable ship), and fanciful (“a floating garden of pleasure, with trees, flowers, banqueting-houses, and fountains, stews for all kinds of fishes, a reserve for snow to keep wine in, delicate bathing places, and the like”) is a mention of “an universal character methodical and easie to be written, yet intelligible in any language.” He doesn’t, however, say much more about it.

Another gentleman inventor, who never missed a chance to say more about anything, was the eccentric Scotsman Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty. He made a name for himself as the English translator of Rabelais, and not, as he had hoped, as the inventor of “a new idiome of far greater perfection than any hitherto spoken.” In a characteristic display of his excessive lack of humility, he likened his universal language to “a most exquisite jewel, more precious than diamonds inchased in gold, the like whereof was never seen in any age.”

He described his language as a sort of arithmetic of letters by which every single thing in the universe could be given a unique name that, through a simple computation, showed you its exact and true definition. What’s more, every word meant something read both backward and forward—or in any permutation of the letters. He published two works on this language: Ekskubalauron, or “Gold out of Dung,” in 1652; and Logopandecteision; or, An Introduction to the Universal Language in 1653. (He was an avid coiner of exotic Greco-Latin-based terms, often taken to—to use a phrase of his— quomodocunquizing, or “any-old-waying,” extremes.) Both of these works include an indictment of natural languages for their gross imperfections and a trumpeting of praise for the solution that he had devised. But he never gets around to the details. The remainder of the first work is taken up with an invective against greedy Presbyterians and a history of Scotland. The largest part of the second work consists of a chapter- by-chapter complaint against the “impious dealing of creditors,” “covetous preachers,” and “pitiless judges” who were compounding his money troubles.

He claimed to have completed a full description of his language, but the manuscript pages had been destroyed when they were appropriated for “posterior uses” by the opposing army after he was taken prisoner at the battle of Worcester. Seven pages from the preface, however, were rescued from under a pile of dead men in the muddy street (thus, “gold out of dung”).

Urquhart was such a shockingly self-aggrandizing hack that some scholars have concluded that he must have been joking. He had earlier published a genealogy of his family, placing himself 153rd in line from Adam, and a book on mathematics, which an “admirer” (who happens to use words like doxologetick and philomathets) said explained the subject in so clear and poetic a manner that it conferred the ability to solve any trigonometry problem, no matter how difficult, “as if it were a knowledge meerly infused from above, and revealed by the peculiar inspiration of some favourable Angel.”

The book in question begins:

Every circle is divided into three hundred and sixty parts, called degrees, whereof each one is sexagesimated, subsexagesimated, resubsexagesimated, and biresubsexagesimated.


Ah, the voices of angels. Though Urquhart did have a sense of humor (in fact, he died from laughing too hard at the news that Charles II had been restored to the throne), he was no satirist. If you take the time to beat your way through his suffocating prose, you will find quite earnest (and humorless) proposals.

It is easy to mistake his universal language proposal for satire because it appeared at a time when such proposals were the latest thing. Seventeenth-century philosophers and scientists were complaining that language obscured thinking, that words got in the way of understanding things. They believed that concepts were clear and universal, but language was ambiguous and unsystematic. A new kind of rational language was needed, one where words perfectly expressed concepts. These ideas were later satirized by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver visits the “grand academy of Lagado” and learns of its “scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever.” Since “words are only names for things,” people simply carry around all the things they might need to refer to and produce them from their pockets as necessary.

Gulliver observes especially learned men “almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us; who, when they met in the streets, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together: then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burthens, and take their leave.”

This scenario illustrates a major problem with the rational language idea. How many “things” do you need in order to communicate? The number of concepts is huge, if not infinite. If you want each word in your language to perfectly express one concept, you need so many words that it will be impossible for anyone to learn them all.

But maybe there was a way around this problem. After all, by learning a few basic numbers and a system for putting them together, we can count to infinity. Couldn’t the same be done for language? Couldn’t we derive everything through a sort of mathematics of concepts?

This was a tremendously exciting idea at the time. In the seventeenth century, mathematical notation was changing everything. Before then, through thousands of years of mathematical developments, there was no plus sign, no minus sign, no symbol for multiplication or square root, no variables, no equations. The concepts behind these notational devices were understood and used, but they were explained in text form. Here, for example, is an expression of the Pythagorean theorem from a Babylonian clay tablet (about fifteen hundred years before Pythagoras):

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