The Analytical Language of John Wilkins

Jorge Luis Borges, from Otras Inquisiciones

Translated by Will Fitzgerald

I have checked, and the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has dropped its article on John Wilkins. This makes sense when you think of how trivial the article is—20 lines of purely biographical facts: Wilkins was born in 1614, Wilkins died in 1672, Wilkins was chaplain for Charles Louise, Elector Palatine; Wilkins was named rector of one of the colleges at Oxford, Wilkins was the first Secretary of the Royal Society of London, etc. It is wrong, though, if we consider Wilkins's speculative work. He was abundantly curious: he was interested in theology, cryptography, music, the fabrication of transparent beehives, the orbit of an invisible planet, the possibility of traveling to the moon, the possibility of, and the principles underlying, a universal language. To this last problem he dedicated his book Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (600 pages in quarto, 1668). Our National Library does not have a copy of this book; I have consulted, to write this note, The Life and Times of John Wilkins (1910), by P.A. Wright Henderson; the Wörterbuch der Philosophie (1924), by Fritz Mauthner; Delphos (1935) by E. Sylvia Pankhurst; and Dangerous Thoughts (1939), by Lancelot Hogben.

Everyone, at some time, has had to endure one of those never-ending debates with someone, who, with copious interjections and locutions, insists that—say—the Spanish word "luna" is more (or less) expressive than the English word "moon." Apart from the obvious observation that the monosyllabic "moon" is perhaps more apt to represent such a simple object in contrast to the bisyllabic "luna," rhere is nothing one can add to these debates—discounting invented words and their derivations, all of the languages of the world (not excepting Johann Martin Schleyer's Volapük and Peano's Interlingua) are equally inexpressive. There is no edition of the Royal Academy's Gramática that does not ponder "the enviable treasure of picturesque, felicitous and expressive voice of the rhythmic Spanish language," but this is mere swagger without support. Still, this self-same Royal Academy every few years produces a dictionary that define how Spanish sounds—In the universal language that Wilkins invented at the beginning of the 17th century, every word contains its own definition. Descartes, in a letter dated November 1629, had already noted that, by means of a decimal numbering system, one could learn in a single day to name every quantity up to infinity and write them in a new language made up of figures1; he also proposed the creation of an analogous language which would be general, organizing and including every human thought. John Wilkins, about 1664, undertook to complete this enterprise.

He divided the universe into forty categories or genera, subdivided into differences, each subdivided into its own species. To every genus he assigned a monosyllable of two letters; for every difference, a consonant; for every species, a vowel. For example: de, that is, an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba a part of the element of fire, a flame. In the analogical language of Letellier (1850), a, that is, animal; ab, mammal; abo, carnivore; aboj, feline; aboje, cat; abi, herbivore; abiv, equine, etc. In the language of Bonifacio Sotos Ochando (1845) imaba means building; imaca palace; imafe, hospital; imafo, lazaretto; imela, house; imego, a post; imede, a pillar; imego, floor; imela, ceiling; imogo, window; bire, a bookbinder; birer, bookbinding (I owe this final list to a book printed in Buenos Aires in 1886; El Curso de lengua universal, by Dr. Pedro Mata).

The words in the Analytic Language of John Wilkins are not awkwardly created arbitrary symbols; every one of its letters is significant, just as the cabalists treat the letters in Holy Scripture. Mauthner observes that children could learn this language without knowing it is artificial; later, in school, they would discover that it is also a universal key and a secret encyclopaedia.

I have defined Wilkins's method without examining a problem that is impossible or at least difficult to postpone: the value in the quadragesimal table that forms the basis of the language. Let us consider the eight category, that of minerals. Wilkins divides these into common (silica, gravel, slate), useful (marble, amber, coral), precious (pearls, opals), transparent (amethyst, sapphire) and insoluble (coal, chalk and arsenic). Almost as alarming as the eight category is the ninth. This describes metals that could be imperfect (cinnabar, quicksilver), artificial (bronze, brass), recremental (lime, rust) and natural (gold, tin, copper). Beauty2The whale figures in category sixteen; it is a viviparous, oblong fish.

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies recall those that Dr. Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese dictionary entitled The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that animals can be divided into (a) those belonging to the Emperor, (b) those that are embalmed, (c) those that are tame, (d) pigs, (e) sirens, (f) imaginary animals, (g) wild dogs, (h) those included in this classification, (i) those that are crazy-acting (j), those that are uncountable (k) those painted with the finest brush made of camel hair, (l) miscellaneous, (m) those which have just broken a vase, and (n) those which, from a distance, look like flies. The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels practices this chaos: they have partitioned the universe into 1000 subdivisions, number 262 corresponds to the Pope; #282, to the Catholic Religion; #263, the day of the Lord; #268, to the dominical schools; #298, to Mormonism; and #294 to Brahmanism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. It doesn't mind heterogeneous subdivisions, for example, #179: "Cruelty to animals. Prevention of cruelty to animals. Duels and suicide from the moral point of view. Vices and various defects. Virtues and various qualities."

I have catalogued the arbitrarities of Wilkins, of the unknown (or apocryphal) Chinese encyclopaedia writer and of the Bibliographic Institute of Brussels; it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what kind of thing the universe is. "The world," writes David Hume, "is perhaps the rudimentary sketch of a childish god, who left it half done, ashamed by his deficient work; it is created by a subordinate god, at whom the superior gods laugh; it is the confused production of a decrepit and retiring divinity, who has already died (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779)." But we can go further than that, to go on to suspect that there is no universe in a unified, organic sense, denoted by this ambitious word. If this is the case, it fails to support its intention; it fails to supply the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonyms out of the secret dictionary of God.

The impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe does not, however, dissuade us from planning human schemes, even though we know they must be provisional. The Analytic Language of Wilkins is not the least admirable of these schemes. The genera and species that compose it are contradictory and vague; the artifice that the letters of the language indicate subdivisions and divisions is, without a doubt, ingenious. The word salmon tells us nothing, zana, its corresponding word, defines (for one well-versed in the forty categories and the genera of these categories) a scaled, fluvial fish of rose-colored flesh. (Theoretically, it is not inconceivable to have a language in which the name of each being indicates all of the details of its destiny, both past and future).

Dreams and utopias apart, the most lucidly anyone has written about language are in these words by Chesterton: "He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest... Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises that denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire (G.F. Watts, p. 88, 1904)."

1 Theoretically, there are an unlimited number of numeration systems. The most complete system (to be used by divine beings and angels) registers an infinite number of symbols, one for each number; the simplest only requires two. Zero is written 0; one 1, two, 10, three 11, four 100, five 101, six 110, seven 111, eight 1000, etc. This was invented by Leibniz, who was (it seems) motivated by the secret hexagrams of the I Ching.

2 It's been pointed out a couple of times to me that, in Borges' original, the word translated as "whales" here is 'bellena' (whale), not 'belleza' (beauty), and so I correct it. Thanks to Justin Bur (who first pointed it out—in 2005!—and Douglas Crockford, who prompted me to make the change (Translator's note). Will.Whim