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The 17th-Century Language that Divided Everything in the Universe into 40 Categories

So much effort. Such little payoff.

John Wilkins. (Photo: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

In the mid-17th century Anglican bishop John Wilkins set out on a not-so-small quest: to refine human communication with a language that would classify every concept, thing, and idea within the universe into just 40 categories. 

Wilkins’ goal was to propose a system that would eliminate the confusion—the sense of lawlessness—that characterized human language, which was rife with synonyms, idioms, and other elements that didn’t strike at the heart of what the speaker really meant to say.

“It [would be] a man-made language free from the ambiguity and imprecision that afflicted natural languages,” writes Arika Okrent, an American linguist, in her book In the Land of Invented Languages. “It would directly represent concepts; it would reveal the truth.”

Today, Wilkins’ language resonates all around us—library classification systems, Linnaeus’ taxonomy of living things, and Roget’s thesaurus all borrow ideas from his work. But the language itself, published in Wilkins’ 1668 Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, was, and is, a fascinating failure.

Works like Isaac Newton’s Principia were made possible with new developments in mathematical notation. (Photo: Andrew Dunn/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wilkins’ goal wasn’t necessarily to completely revolutionize the way mankind communicated, to replace an existing system with a radically different one. He hoped to suggest a way to impose order on language, a human phenomenon that seemed unpredictable and often downright clunky, just as scholars during the Scientific Revolution—scholars whose work he took great joy in promoting and making accessible—had found systematic ways to describe the universe around them. As as he explains in his manuscript,“by its facility and usefulness, (without the imposition of Authority) [the language] might invite and ingage men to the learning of it; which is the thing here attempted.”

His 600-plus-page Essay contained an extensive explanation of some features and history of language itself, a nearly completed classification of everything he could think of in the universe—fellow scholars Francis Willoughby and John Ray consulted him on the classification of plants and animals—and a roughly 160-page dictionary to top it all off.

The title page of Wilkins’ masterwork. (Photo: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

The structure of the categories resembles the taxonomic classification we see today in the way we sort all living things. Each of the biggest of the groups, the 40 all-encompassing umbrella categories, he called a genus. These were further divided into differences

The list of Wilkins’ 40 genuses. (Photo: Internet Archive/Public Domain)

Under the genus Discourse, one could find the differences Elements, Words, Grammar, Logic, Common to Both,—propositions, adages, orations, and epistles, to name a few—and Modes of it, which included the species Question, Answer, Affirmation, Negation, Confession, and Recantation, for example.

In the genus Space, he included three differences—Time, Place, and Situation. Some of the species under Time included Newness, Soonness, Perpetuity, and Everness.

One question remained, though—how would this wealth of categories translate into usable speech or writing?

Wilkins had it covered, or so he thought. Each genus, or largest category, he contended, could and would be assigned an arbitrary and easily pronounced syllable. Do signified a metal, Ca a corporeal action. Te was reserved for manners, and any word beginning with To was classified under the genus Disease, for example.

Next came the differences, which Wilkins wanted to assign one of any nine consonants depending on their order. B would follow the genus sound for the first difference, D for the second difference under the same category, G for the third, and P, T, Z, C, S, and N would follow for the remaining nine in that order.

To identify the species under the differences, a speaker would attach one of nine vowels or diphthongs to these nine consonants.

Part of a diagram Wilkins included to illustrate how to pronounce sounds he included in his language. (Photo: Courtesy of King’s College London, Foyle Special Collections Library)

Sounds difficult? You’re not wrong. Even Wilkins’ own description of this sound-combination process leaves the reader bamboozled.

“If (Ti) signifie the Genus of Sensible Quality, then (Tid) must denote the second difference, which comprehends Colours,” he writes. “And (Tida) must signifie the second Species under that difference, viz. Redness: (Tide) the third Species, which is Greenness, [et cetera].”

Expressing the idea of greenness—or anything, for that matter—now became a lengthy cognitive process. That meant, too, that if one speaker said, “Teb,” his or her interlocutor would have to identify the genus assigned the syllable Te—the genus Manners—then the first difference, Virtue, identified by the consonant b. It may not be a mouthful, but it’s a brainful.

Wilkins also devoted several pages to laying out which consonants and vowels could be inserted where to indicate adjectives, adverbs, the active and passive voice, opposites—among countless other grammatical elements. Hardly any grammatical feature escaped his rigid classification system.

That took care of the “Philosophical Language” part of Wilkins’ essay. What about the “Real Character”?

To make international communication a reality, the devoted clergyman created what he thought could be a universal system of writing, using a collection of short lines and shapes that combined in reference to each word’s place in the hierarchy. He even translated the Lord’s Prayer to show how easily the character could relay information across once-impassable linguistic boundaries. Gone were the days of not being able to understand one another in speech or writing, he thought.

Wilkins’ translation of the Lord’s Prayer into his universal character. (Photo: John Wilkins/Public Domain)

With the years of work that went into the language, it’s no wonder Wilkins referred to his Essay as his “darling.” In 1666, when The Great Fire of London destroyed his original manuscripts, Wilkins, having already tasted the sweet fruit of his efforts, wasn’t shaken and started again. By 1668, he was ready to present his work to the Royal Society, which embraced him warmly.  

According to Barbara Shapiro in her book John Wilkins, 1614-1672: An Intellectual Biography, natural philosopher Robert Hooke called the language “so truly Philosophical, and so perfectly and thoroughly Methodical, that there seemeth to be nothing wanting to make it have the utmost perfection, and highest Idea for any Character of Language imaginable, as well as for Philosophical as for Common and Constant use.”

But as time has revealed, the project was never meant to be.

“It’s impossible to use,” says Okrent of Wilkins’ language in an interview. “Every word is a formula in itself, like a mathematical formula of meaning. When you choose a word to use or to speak, you first have to know exactly what you want to mean, and we don’t do that at all while we’re speaking … It’s not suited for our spontaneous communication.”

Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets is the president of the Language Creation Society, an international community of constructed language enthusiasts, or “conlangers.” He calls Wilkins’ language a “tremendous effort” that was “doomed from the beginning.” The hierarchical systems Wilkins proposed to classify everything in the universe, he says, were “too rigid to be able to describe a constantly changing world” and provided no grammatical infrastructure for how words should combine to make sentences.

“It’s basically a bag of construction materials when what we need is a finished house.”

And Wilkins’ flawed vocabulary system meant that words from similar groups were pronounced similarly and made the “usable” more specific words the longest in length, leading to confusion in learning.  

So the 600-page work faded into the background of the perception of the scientific community. The fizzling out of enthusiasm for Wilkins’ “darling,” though, didn’t discourage language constructors that followed.

Today the concept of language construction might seem like a failed experiment doomed to the annals of history, some sort of spectacle lost forever in time. But in many communities, creating a language is hardly a foreign concept. In fact, language enthusiasts everywhere have been seeking supplements to natural communication long before Wilkins and his contemporaries, and they still are.

Their efforts have led to some of the most successful constructed languages, like Esperanto, which is spoken by between one and two million people worldwide and natively by a few thousand. Then there are the obscure conlangs, like Solresol, a language that can be communicated on a musical instrument or through colored flags.

The flag of Esperanto, one of the most successful constructed languages. (Photo: Gabriel Ehrnst GRUNDIN/Public Domain)

And then there are those created for fictional universes, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish or Star Trek’s Klingon, in which Okrent and many other constructed language learners have earned a first-level certification.

But many that seek to address an existing “problem” with language, Okrent says, haven’t learned from the failures of the past.

“I don’t think people realized that there was this history of failure, and if they did know about it, they thought it had to do with some surface feature that—if they tweaked it or changed it—that things might turn out differently,” she says. “No one really looked at the main problem, which is that no one is out looking for this kind of thing.”

Wilkins might have been one of history’s most dedicated “conlangers,” but by trapping the universe into 40 boxes, he essentially trapped himself. The world just wasn’t ready to think so hard before it spoke.