A Word for Everything

In the 17th century natural philosopher John Wilkins set out to create a universal language for scholars, to replace Latin, whose sometimes arbitrary features made it difficult to learn. His solution, laid out in the 1668 Essay Towards a Real Character, is a system of symbols that could classify every thing and idea in the world, somewhat like the Linnaean system in biology. There are 40 main genera, each of which supplies the first two letters of a word. Each genus is divided into “differences,” which supply the next letter. And a “species” gives the fourth letter. So, for example, Zi indicates the genus “beasts,” or mammals; Zit specifies the difference “rapacious beasts of the dog kind”; and Zita gives the species “dogs.” The symbols weren’t necessarily meant to be spoken, though Wilkins later assigned phonetic values to the various characters — rather they were meant to provide an unambiguous way of classifying the world so that scholars (and, perhaps, diplomats, travelers, and merchants) could communicate clearly.

Wilkins presented the system to the Royal Society, who were impressed but concluded that it was impractical — its descriptions of similar (and confusable) items might differ by a single letter, and it would be difficult to remember all the distinctions, which seemed to invite trouble. Borges later lampooned it with his (fictional) Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which divides animals into 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids (or Sirens)
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

(Thanks, Alex.)