Artificial Language

One of the abiding obsessions of Aubrey’s milieu was the creation of an artificial language. For many of the virtuosi, the new philosophy required a new language, this time constructed by philosophers, purged of all the ambiguities and redundancies of natural languages. The earliest proposals, such as Francis Lodwick’s A Common Writing (1647), advocated a kind of common script which would function across all languages. Proposals soon became more ambitious, envisaging a fully ‘philosophical’ language, written and spoken, in which a specially-designed script notated ideas rather than sounds. The culmination was An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, published by the architect of the Royal Society, John Wilkins, in 1668.

Wilkins’ new language enjoyed a brief vogue, and some even attempted to learn it. Below we may see Wilkins himself writing to the mathematician John Wallis in his script, who replies using Wilkins’ phonetic alphabet. But it was obvious that Wilkins needed revising, and Aubrey assembled a revision group to carry out the task. His friend the Somersetshire clergyman Andrew Paschall in particular proved adept at the character, writing letters to Aubrey in the script, and designing ‘botanick tables’, of which one is illustrated here, to enable working horticulturalists to learn the language.

The artificial linguists inevitably failed in their attempts, because it is difficult to reduce reality to a series of tables, and because even if we could, it would be very hard to persuade others to adopt such a language. But the movement exemplifies the sense of new power and optimism felt by many of the early experimentalists, who worked on the project for four decades. Aubrey was proud of his own role in keeping the movement going: he was, he said, a whetstone, made to sharpen others.

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