The (impossible?) dream of a universal language

Over the centuries, a surprising number of theologians and linguists have tried to 'reverse Babel' and create universally intelligible languages.

Ralph Orlowski/Reuters
According to scientist and clergyman John Wilkins' language scheme, his word for dog encodes its place in a complicated system of classification.

Originally, according to the story in the Bible, all people spoke one universal language. But when they built “a tower with its top in the heavens” (Genesis 11:4, New Revised Standard Version) in an attempt to rival God himself, He punished them by confounding their language and scattering them across the earth. Their city, the story concludes, “was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (11:9). “Babel” resembles the Hebrew word for confusion, balal.

Over the centuries, a surprising number of theologians and linguists have tried to “reverse Babel” and create universally intelligible languages. In the 13th century Catalan monk Ramon Llull devised a mathematical system that used charts, diagrams, letters, and the principles of logic to derive “Christian truths” from various premises that were acceptable to believers in any of the Abrahamic religions. Because of its mathematical nature, his Ars Combinatoria could be understood by anyone, he hoped, even illiterate people. 

Seventeenth-century clergyman and scientist John Wilkins reasoned that in humanity’s first language, the relationship between signifier and signified would not have been arbitrary. “Fish” and “poisson” both pick out the same animal, but these words are agreed upon by convention, with no inherent connection to the thing they represent. In Adamic language, in contrast, words were not arbitrary but revealed the essence of what they named. Wilkins thus invented a “philosophical language” that attempted to do just that – words in his language do not stand for concepts, they actually define them. 

His word for dog, Zitα, for example, encodes its place in a complicated system of classification. According to his scheme, dog belongs to the categories beast (Zi); oblong-headed dog-kind (i); and European, terrestrial, bigger kind, noted for docility (α), which equals Zitα.  

Perhaps the most famous universal language was created in 1887 by Ludwik Zamenhof: Esperanto. Zamenhof had a “dream of the unity of humankind,” believing that a single language could bring lasting peace to the world. 

To facilitate its spread, he designed Esperanto to be easy to learn – he thought the basics could be mastered in a week – with a predictable grammar and a lexicon derived from common European languages. Of all the universal languages, this one has been the most successful, boasting around 100,000 speakers and a place in Google Translate. 

None of these languages has ever truly caught on; we are still post-Babel. So, let’s enjoy all the weirdness, the rule-breaking, the glorious inconsistencies of English and the world’s other languages. 

They may not be perfect, but they are interesting.

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