An Essay towards a Philosophical Language


An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) is a scientific treatise on linguistics. Its author, the theologian and natural philosopher John Wilkins (1614–1672), was commissioned by the Royal Society to create a universal language that was more accessible than Latin (the common language adopted by scholars across medieval and Renaissance Europe).

Wilkins’s method involved logically grouping words into categories and subcategories (pp. 22–23), in a similar way to the modern system of classifying the natural world according to genus and species. Wilkins used this catalogue of delineated words and notions to create a new spoken language.

Despite his best efforts, Wilkins’s universal language never caught on. It was, however, influential in the field of artificial language and a forerunner to L L Zamenhof’s Esperanto. It remains important not only for students of linguistics, but also for those interested in the history of ideas and the Enlightenment.

Engravings and diagrams

To demonstrate his methodology Wilkins published detailed engravings and diagrams for his readers. Digitised here is a table of categorised shapes (p. 186), a chart showing the alphabet against numerical categories of classification (p. 376), a table demonstrating facial movements for different phonetic vocalisations (p. 378), a translation of the Christian Apostles’ Creed (p. 404) and two large fold-out charts with categories and directions for the practical application of the language.

Jonathan Swift, science and satire

The idea of a universal language is lampooned by Jonathan Swift in Part 3 of Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver visits the Academy of Lagado and learns about a ‘Scheme for entirely abolishing all Words’ (p. 172) which requires ‘all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are going to discourse on’ (p. 173).[1] Like all of the other experiments that Gulliver is shown, this is, of course, wildly impractical and unnecessary. In this chapter Swift provides a satirical comment on the progress-obsessed endeavours of the Royal Society.

Throughout the narrative, Gulliver attempts to divine the etymology of words and languages belonging to each of the lands he encounters. For example, Gulliver struggles with the linguistic root of ‘Laputa’, the name of the floating island in Part 3 (see p. 148). In fact, ‘Laputa’ literally translates from Spanish as ‘the whore’. Gulliver misses the point entirely, and his confused forays into linguistic mapping further critique Wilkins’s efforts to categorise language.

[1] All quotations from Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, edited with an introduction by Claude Rawson and notes by Ian Higgins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Full title:
An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. By John Wilkins ...
1668, London
Book / Folio / Engraving / Illustration / Image
John Wilkins
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
W 7786

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