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An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language

An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language London, 1668 is the best-remembered of the numerous works of John Wilkins, in which he expounds a new universal language, meant primarily to facilitate international communication among scholars, but envisioned for use by diplomats, travelers, and merchants as well Unlike many universal language schemes of the period, it was meant merely as an auxiliary to—not a replacement of—existing natural languages

The first edition cover page


  • 1 Background
  • 2 Composition and influences
  • 3 Structure
  • 4 Wilkins' scheme
  • 5 Related efforts, discussions, and literary references
  • 6 See also
  • 7 Notes
  • 8 Further reading
  • 9 External links


One of the aims of the Essay was to provide a replacement for the Latin language, which had been the international language of scholars in Western Europe by then for 1000 years Comenius and others interested in international languages had criticisms of the arbitrary features of Latin that made it harder to learn, and Wilkins also made such points A scheme for a lingua franca based on numerical values had been published by John Pell 1630; and in his 1640 work Mercury or the Secret Messenger 1640 Wilkins had mentioned the possibility of developing a trade language

Seth Ward was author with Wilkins of Vindiciae academiarum 1654, a defence of the Commonwealth period of the Oxbridge university system against outsider reformers In it Ward put forward a related language scheme, though differing from the Essay of Wilkins in some significant ways Ward's ideas derived from a number of sources, such as Cyprian Kinner who was a follower of Comenius, Ramon Lull, and Georg Ritschel They went on to influence George Dalgarno as well as Wilkins

There was immediate interest in the Essay; Wilkins is said to have regarded his work only in terms of a proof of concept But in the medium term enthusiasm for this kind of constructed language declined The problem of a universal language remained as a topic of debate

Composition and influences

The stimulus for Wilkins to write the Essay came from the Council of the Royal Society, in 1662 The work was delayed by the Great Fire of London of 1666, which destroyed some of it in draft

The book was written by Wilkins, assisted by John Ray, Francis Willughby, and others An influence was the Ars Signorum of George Dalgarno Also influential, as Wilkins acknowledged, was The Ground-Work or Foundation Laid for the Framing of a New Perfect Language 1652 by Francis Lodwick


The work is in five parts, of which the fourth contains the discussion of the "real character" and "philosophical language" The third deals with "philosophical grammar" universal grammar The last part is the "alphabetical dictionary" It was compiled by William Lloyd

Wilkins' scheme

Sample of the "real character" from the Essay Joseph Moxon created the symbols for the printing of the book

Wilkin's "Real Character" is a constructed family of symbols, corresponding to a classification scheme developed by Wilkins and his colleagues It was intended as a pasigraphy, in other words, to provide elementary building blocks from which could be constructed the universe's every possible thing and notion The Real Character is not an orthography: ie it is not a written representation of spoken language Instead, each symbol represents a concept directly, without at least in the early parts of the Essay's presentation there being any way of vocalizing it Inspiration for this approach came in part from contemporary European accounts of the Chinese writing system, which were somewhat mistaken

Later in the Essay Wilkins introduces his "Philosophical Language," which assigns phonetic values to the Real Characters For convenience, the following discussion blurs the distinction between Wilkins' Character and his Language

Concepts are divided into forty main Genera, each of which gives the first, two-letter syllable of the word; a Genus is divided into Differences, each of which adds another letter; and Differences are divided into Species, which add a fourth letter For instance, Zi identifies the Genus of “beasts” mammals; Zit gives the Difference of “rapacious beasts of the dog kind”; Zitα gives the Species of dogs Sometimes the first letter indicates a supercategory— eg Z always indicates an animal— but this does not always hold The resulting Character, and its vocalization, for a given concept thus captures, to some extent, the concept's semantics

The Essay also proposed ideas on weights and measure similar to those later found in the metric system The botanical section of the essay was contributed by John Ray; Robert Morison's criticism of Ray's work began a prolonged dispute between the two men

Related efforts, discussions, and literary references

The Essay has received a certain amount of academic and literary attention, usually casting it as brilliant but hopeless

One criticism among many is that "words expressing closely related ideas have almost the same form, differing perhaps by their last letter onlyt would be exceedingly difficult to remember all these minute distinctions, and confusion would arise, in rapid reading and particularly in conversation" Umberto Eco notes that Wilkins himself made such a mistake in the Essay, using Gαde barley where apparently Gαpe tulip was meant

George Edmonds sought to improve Wilkins' Philosophical Language by reorganizing its grammar and orthography while keeping its taxonomy More recent a priori languages among many others are Solresol and Ro

Jorge Luis Borges discusses Wilkins' philosophical language in his essay El idioma analítico de John Wilkins The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, comparing Wilkins’ classification to the fictitious Chinese encyclopedia Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge and expressing doubts about any attempt at a universal classification

In Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, character Daniel Waterhouse spends considerable time supporting the development of Wilkins' classification system

See also

  • Philosophical language
  • Semantic primitives
  • Oligosynthesis


  1. ^ Dons, Ute 2004 Descriptive adequacy of early modern English grammars Walter de Gruyter p 21 ISBN 978-3-11-018193-7 Retrieved 28 March 2012 
  2. ^ Waquet, Françoise 2001 Latin, or the Empire of a Sign Translated by Howe, John Verso p 238 ISBN 1859846157 
  3. ^ Murphy, Daniel 1995 Comenius: a critical reassessment of his life and work Irish Academic Press p 209–10 ISBN 0716525372 
  4. ^ a b Wilkins, John 1984 Mercury, or, The secret and swift messenger: shewing how a man may with privacy and speed communicate his thoughts to a friend at any distance ; together with an abstract of Dr Wilkins's Essays towards a real character and a philosophical language John Benjamins Publishing Company p 29 ISBN 978-90-272-3276-2 Retrieved 28 March 2012 
  5. ^ Henry, John "Ward, Seth" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online ed Oxford University Press doi:101093/ref:odnb/28706  Subscription or UK public library membership required
  6. ^ Van Leeuwen, Henry G 1970 The problem of certainty in English thought, 1630–1690 Springer p 56 ISBN 978-90-247-0179-7 Retrieved 28 March 2012 
  7. ^ Subbiondo, Joseph L 1992 John Wilkins and 17th-century British linguistics John Benjamins Publishing Company p 144 note 34 ISBN 978-90-272-4554-0 Retrieved 28 March 2012 
  8. ^  "Wilkins, John" Dictionary of National Biography London: Smith, Elder & Co 1885–1900 
  9. ^ Salmon, Vivian "Lodwick, Francis" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online ed Oxford University Press doi:101093/ref:odnb/37684  Subscription or UK public library membership required
  10. ^ Considine, John P 27 March 2008 Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe: Lexicography and the Making of Heritage Cambridge University Press p 298 ISBN 978-0-521-88674-1 Retrieved 28 March 2012 
  11. ^  "Lloyd, William 1627–1717" Dictionary of National Biography London: Smith, Elder & Co 1885–1900 
  12. ^ Bryden, D J "Moxon, Joseph" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online ed Oxford University Press doi:101093/ref:odnb/19466  Subscription or UK public library membership required
  13. ^ Wilkins, John "An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language" PDF extract Retrieved 10 November 2016 
  14. ^ Dominus, Mark 3 March 2006 "John Wilkins invents the meter" The Universe of Discourse Retrieved 10 November 2016 
  15. ^ Vines, Sydney Howard 1913 "Robert Morison 1620–1683 and John Ray 1627–1705" In Oliver, Francis Wall Makers of British Botany Cambridge University Press p 21 
  16. ^ Guérard, Albert Léon 1921 A Short History of the International Language Movement pp 90–92 
  17. ^ Eco, Umberto 1995 The Search for the Perfect Language Oxford: Blackwell ISBN 0-631-17465-6 
  18. ^ Edmonds, George 1856 A Universal Alphabet, Grammar, and Language, Comprising a Scientific Classification of the Radical Elements of Discourse: and Illustrative Translations from the Holy Scriptures and the Principal British Classics: to which is Added, A Dictionary of the Language Retrieved 10 November 2016 

Further reading

  • Andrade, Edward Neville da Costa 1936 "The real character of bishop Wilkins" Annals of Science 1 1: 4–12 doi:101080/00033793600200021 subscription required help 
  • Steven Pinker, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, 2000
  • Rhodri Lewis, Language, Mind and Nature Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to Locke, 2012 CUP, Cambridge ISBN 9780521294133

External links

  • The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, by Jorge Luis Borges

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