Poets, historians, scientists, philosophers – we all seek to capture the world in a net of language. Yet it is the nature of nets to capture some things while letting others slip away. Our words turn experiences into objects, qualities and actions, and we can build these into a kind of structure, a tower reaching into the sky – but towers can go only so far, and there are always the negative spaces surrounding the structure and its beams. What is left unsaid speaks volumes.
We might resign ourselves to this fact – the inescapable limits of what’s sayable – but in fact a great many minds have sought to construct a perfect language, one that carves reality at its joints, and captures the whole shebang of human experience. Presumably God was speaking such a language when he spoke the world into being – a common tongue that was lost at Babel. Or perhaps a perfect language can be built from atomic elements that reflect the most basic concepts a mind can have, with rules that keep it clean from all the clutter that the accidents of history place on our tongues.
This was a hope that inspired the young Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. As a teenager, he hit upon the remarkable idea that ‘[A] kind of alphabet of human thoughts can be worked out, and that everything can be discovered and judged by the comparison of the letters of this alphabet and an analysis of the words made from them.’ He later hit upon the notion of marrying key concepts with prime numbers.
Read more: The Wire