The idea of a universal language is at least as old as the Biblical story of Babel and its fall — the mythical point of which is that there was once a time of a universal Adamic language (and then something happened, analogous to the Fall of Man). In the Christian tradition there are various attitudes to regaining the supposed golden age, before Babel; these include optimism, pessimism, and recourse to parody and warnings on hubris, depending on the wished interpretation of the myth.

In the 18th century, some rationalist natural philosophers sought to recover the Edenic language. There were two general approaches. In one, it was assumed that education inevitably took people away from the innate state of goodness they possessed, and therefore there was an attempt to see what language a human child brought up in utter silence would speak. This was assumed to be the Edenic tongue, or at least the lapsarian tongue. However, the more common and vigorously attempted project was to either discover the most ancient language (assuming that it would be nearest to Edenic) or to compare all languages and discover their common structures and thus to understand what language God had built into humans. There were, therefore, multiple attempts to relate esoteric languages to Hebrew (e.g. Basque, Erse, and Irish), as well as the beginnings of comparative linguistics.

In other traditions, there is less interest in or a general deflection of the question. For example in Islam the Arabic language is the language of the Qur'an, and so universal for Muslims. The written classical Chinese language was and is still read widely but pronounced somewhat differently by readers in different areas of China, in Korea and Japan for centuries; it was a de facto universal literary language for a broad-based culture. In something of the same way Sanskrit in India was a literary language for many for whom it was not a mother tongue.

Comparably, the Latin language (qua Medieval Latin) was in effect a universal language of literati in the Middle Ages, and the language of the Vulgate Bible, in the area of Catholicism which covered most of Western Europe and parts of Northern and Central Europe also.

Seventeenth Century Edit

Recognisable strands in the contemporary ideas on universal languages took form only in Early Modern Europe. A lingua franca or trade language was nothing very new; but an international auxiliary language was a natural wish in the light of the relative decline of Latin. Literature in the vernacular languages was on the rise from the early Renaissance, while learned works mostly ceased to be written in Latin during the course of the eighteenth century.

In the work of Gottfried Leibniz there are found many elements relating to the possibilities of universal languages, notably that of a constructed language, a concept that gradually replaced that of a rationalised form of Latin as the natural basis for a projected universal language. Leibniz's work is bracketed by the earlier mathematical ideas of René Descartes, and the satirical attack of Voltaire on Panglossianism. Descartes succeeded with his unifying theory, wedding algebra to geometry in the future analytic geometry. Extrapolating, Leibniz imagined subduing all conceptual thought to 'algebra', that is, some sort of symbolic logic. In his terms, a calculus ratiocinator could put reasoning onto a firmer basis, a mathesis universalis with scope all our thoughts. The universal language aspects, still elusive today despite decades of research into symbolic artificial intelligence, required a notation, the universal characteristic. This intended pasigraphy might have been a written ideographic language, rather than a spoken one; perhaps based on a rationalisation of supposed principles of Chinese characters as Europeans were familiar to them in the seventeenth century. The lower-level concepts of an alphabet of human thought (like an upgraded organisational scheme of a thesaurus or Dewey notation), and an algebra of thought which would be rule-based and for manipulation, were supposed lesser matters to slot in.

Other seventeenth-century proposals for a 'philosophical' (i.e. universal) language include those by Francis Lodwick, Thomas Urquhart (possibly parodic), George Dalgarno (Ars signorum, 1661), and John Wilkins (An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, 1668). The classification scheme in Roget's Thesaurus ultimately derives from Wilkins's Essay.

Early modern ideas about philosophical language were motivated by theological preoccupatations in various different ways, but they did not invoke the events of Pentecost in this context.

Eighteenth CenturyEdit

In the eighteenth century, Voltaire's Candide took aim at Leibniz as Dr. Pangloss, with the choice of name clearly putting universal language in his sights, but satirising mainly the optimism of the projector as much as the project. The argument takes the universal language itself no more seriously than the ideas of the speculative scientists and virtuosi of Jonathan Swift's Laputa. For the like-minded of Voltaire's generation, universal language was tarred as fool's gold with the same brush as philology with little intellectual rigour, and universal mythography, as futile and arid directions.

Nineteenth CenturyEdit

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a large expansion of constructed languages intended as genuine spoken language. See for example Volapük. The main practical consequence was the eventual growth of Esperanto.

Contemporary ideas Edit

The ideas of complete conceptual classification by categories, on the other hand, is still debated on various levels. The short story "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Recognition" by Jorge Luis Borges is satirical, but has often been quoted (for example by Michel Foucault) against the whole idea. Some careless authors have taken Borges' teasing category list as a true report, which, if nothing else, shows that prejudices against the possibility of complete, encyclopedic categorisation are well entrenched.

See also Edit


Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.