There are a lot of different kinds of books about language. Dictionaries record and define a word’s meanings; thesauri lay out its synonyms; and books on modern usage tell you how to string the word together with others to form sentences. There’s something culturally remarkable about language reference books: From etymology to slang to avoidable errors, we like to consult alphabetized guides to the language we already speak. But these books have a history, and they started out as strange things.
Philosophers working on language in the seventeenth century were terrifically ambitious and worked on an amazing array of projects, like attempting to construct new and universal languages that would allow people from diverse linguistic backgrounds to communicate with each other. German polymathic intellectual colossus Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz tried to create a lingua generalis that allowed the user to generate true propositions. In this philosophical language, Leibniz reduced all human knowledge into simple chunks, then matched each basic idea with a prime number. Mathematical calculations could thus work out difficult conceptual problems via multiplication and division and so on. His idea was to take the ambiguity out of language once and for all. As a result, Leibniz inadvertently developed binary calculus. Less well known, however, is an English clergyman and intellectual named John Wilkins, whose language reference book was just as weird as Leibniz’s, but a lot more pointless and delightful.
In 1668, Wilkins published a book called An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. Containing sections like “Concerning Natural Grammar” and long sequences of words listed in alphabetical order, you’d be forgiven for mistaking his book for an early kind of dictionary. In his project, Wilkins wondered: “If to every thing and notion there were assigned a distinct Mark, together with some provision to express Grammatical derivations and Inflexions; this might suffice as to one great end of a Real Character, namely, the expression of our Conceptions by Marks which should signifie things, and not words.”
In other words, Wilkins proposed to designate a unique symbol for each “thing” to replace the usual intermediary, a word. By “Mark,” he means symbol. By “Real Character,” he means a system of symbols. This is essentially a logographic writing system. Logographic writing systems — Sumerian Cuneiform, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and, all the Han character languages — use logographs, which are graphemes representing a word or morpheme — the smallest possible unit of language — according to its meaning, rather than its sound.
Read more: The Awl