A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE: THE MYTH, SEARCH AND
What is language?
) language is the systematization
of expression. Symbols are islands of relative certainty in a sea of meaning
although determinate in shape and extent themselves, their coastlines
are infinite (to evoke a Chaos Theory image). They are the hard currency
Systems of symbols form codes. (
) There is good reason to distinguish
between real codes or languages systems of signs standing for conceptual
realities other than themselves, where both the signs and those realities
are experientially accessible to the user and other uses of the
word code or language where that is not the case.
Thus the genetic code (where DNA strands do not stand
for any particular external reality but issue rather very indirect
instructions for its construction) and any purportedly universal brain
code inaccessible to its users fall outside this definition.
(P. 53,54; Pattern and Process: A Whiteheadian
perspective on linguistics by Michael Fortescue; John Benjamins Publishing
Company Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2001)
The myth of the original human language
Tower of Babel (11:1-9)
1 The whole earth had one language and the same vocabulary. 2 When they
left the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, "Let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly."
So they had bricks for building blocks and tar for mortar. 4 Then they
said, "Let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens.
Let us make a name for ourselves so we will not be scattered around the
5 YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the men had built.
6 YHWH said, "If as one people with one language this is the beginning
of what they can do, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them.
7 Let us go down and confuse their language there so no one can understand
the other's language." (11:5-7)
8 And YHWH scattered them from there around the earth. They quit building
the city. 9 For that reason he called its name Babel because there YHWH
confused the language of the entire earth, and from there YHWH scattered
them around the earth. (11:8-9)
Figure 1.4 Ziggurat at Ur
The ziggurat of Ur-Nammu (Woolley 1939).
Author: Sir Leonard Woolley
Title: Ur Excavations, Volume V. The Ziggurat and its Surroundings
Publication: Publications of the Joint Expedition of the British Museum
and of the University Museum, Unitersity of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia,
(In addition to thematic and literary analysis, archaeology and cultural
analysis can further increase our understanding of the text. The "tower
with its top in the heavens," was a ziggurat, a stepped, pyramid-shaped
structure that typically had a temple at the top. Remains of ziggurats
have been found at the sites of ancient Mesopotamian cities, including
Ur and Babylon (see Figure 1.4).)
The Myth of the Confusion of language
suggests that there was once a universal language spoken by all human
beings. The biblical story reminds of the unity with nature and the carefree
innocence Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden before they were expelled.
By eating the forbidden apple they receive consciousness, but also have
to face the hard materiality of life outside the paradise.
The building of the Tower of Babel shows God how powerful his creation
is. God analyzes that humanity has this power through the unity of language,
and decides to destroy this unity. Through the Confusion of language
humans have gained cultural diversity, language individuality, multiple
dimensions of mental reality, but ever since then humanity has lost the
almost divine power it used to possess.
Many myths can be understood as a metaphorical expression of the social
subconscious (C. G. Jungs Archetypes): the Christian
myth of the Tower of Babel makes clear how much the human psyche perceives
the language differences as a curse and an unnatural state.
But one can argue that the confusion of language was in fact a benefit.
A universal language without cultural diversity would actually stunt the
evolution of unique ideas, because everyone would have a similar framework
in which they thought.
A brief history of the search for a universal
Hildegard von Bingen Litterae ignotae
(Unknown Writing) and Lingua Ignota (Unknown Language).
Often referred to as one of the most significant
women of her times, Hildegard von Bingen was a visionary, poet, composer,
naturalist, healer, and theologian. According to the legend she received
the order from God to write down everything she heard and saw.
It is dated to ~ 1150 that Hildegard wrote the lingua ignota.
Believers propagate that this mysterious language contains the divine
plan for the construction of the world, and therefore its decodation would
lead to a completely new conception of the world.
Also belonging to this period are the enigmatic
Litterae ignotae (Unknown Writing) and Lingua ignota (Unknown Language).
The latter is a glossary of
some nine hundred invented words (mostly nouns), thematically arranged.
They include the names of plants and herbs and so may have been related
to Hildegard's scientific interests. Although the invented alphabet is
used occasionally for titles in her correspondence, her only use of the
unknown language occurs in the Symphonia. (
Whether Hildegard encouraged her nuns to speak this rather limited language
with its Germanic-sounding vocabulary and Latinate syntax so as to communicate
in secret, as some have suggested, has not been determined. The passing
of secret messages might have been more feasible if they had used the
litterae ignotae, Hildegard's alternative alphabet.
(Hildegard von Bingen by Sabina Flanagan; University
of Adelaide; http://www.uni-mainz.de/~horst/hildegard/documents/flanagan.html)
Due to the fact that there exist only one complete
and two partial editions of the Lingua Ignota, of which especially
the complete one (by Roth, 1880) is difficult to get hold of, much mystery
has been created about Hildegards constructed language. Believers
propagate that this mysterious language contains the divine plan for the
construction of the world, and therefore the decoding would lead to a
completely new conception of the world.
A Philosophical Language
Some philosophers of the 17th century, among them Bishop Wilkins, George
Dalgarno, René Descartes, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, proposed
the construction of a philosophical language that would consist
of a system of communication based on classification according to logic
rather than on human speech.
To overcome the limitations of natural language,
there have been numerous attempts at designing a universal language. In
western thought, this project has a long tradition.
During the 13th18th century1 it was motivated by three(2)
1. To serve as an international auxiliary language, enabling people with
different native languages to communicate with each other,
2. as a scientific language, providing a simplified system of symbolism
for the exact expression of all actual and possible scientific knowledge,
3. as a logical calculus, providing a powerful instrument of the human
mind for the demonstration of contradictions and the discovery of new
It is especially Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who is credited with the idea
that these desiderata should be fulfilled jointly by one and the same
language. However, Leibniz never did much himself to develop this
system of symbolism though he was constantly
urging others to do so. (3)
(2) A fourth goal, popular in the Middle Ages,
was the reconstruction of The language of Adam. For an overview
see Eco 1997.
(3) J. Cohen 1954, p. 50. See also Mittelstrass 1970, pp. 43545.
According to Maat 1999, Leibnitz did something about the project, he just
did not complete it.
(Overcoming Language Barriers by means of Computers, Roland Hausser, http://www.linguistik.uni-erlangen.de/~rrh/papers/sejong.pdf)
René Descartes (15961650)
The idea of an international language was
considered by René Descartes, who developed various criteria, among
these criteria were several that would play an important role in the development
of later constructed languages, such as phonetic regularity and grammatical
rationality. In a letter to Abbé Mersenne in 1629 Descartes describes
his idea about a universal language:
That language would have only one
kind of conjugation, declension, and word structure. The changes in verb
and word construction would have to be effected by affixes added to the
beginning or end of the root word.
(p. 19; Esperanto The World Interlanguage, George Alan Connor and
others, Beechhurst Press, Inc. 1948)
Descartes's statements on literature as
such are rare and always subordinate to his philosophical concerns. His
quest for a language that would convey philosophical ideas and propositions
as unambiguously as mathematics is consistent with his distrust of literary
language and rhetoric. He saw as detrimental and ultimately debilitating
literature's capacity for creating the illusion of reality and truth.
(Essay by Gabriel Moyal, The Johns Hopkins University Press 1997;
John Wilkins (161472)
John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester was a founding
member of the Royal Society and one of the most influential thinkers of
the seventeenth century. His masterpiece, An Essay Towards a Real Character
and A Philosophical Language, is a key text in the history of language.
Ready for publication in Januar1666 but destroyed by the Great Fire, the
work finally published in 1668 is Wilkinss attempt at creating a
universal language. Wilkins maintained that because all peoples
minds functioned in the same way and had a similar apprehension
of things, it should be possible to cultivate a rational universal
language and a character that would also articulate things and notions.
Although Wilkinss universal language was never adopted for common
use (and he never regarded the work as complete), it was widely considered
to be superior to the earlier work by George Dalgarno, Ars signorum (1661).
Some of the greatest minds of the eighteenth century received Wilkinss
creation enthusiastically: John Locke recommended the Essay over Dalgarnos
work; Newton mentioned the book in his correspondence; Erasmus Darwin
admired it; and the anthropologist Lord Monboddo praised it in his Origin
and Progress of Language.
(Introductionary description of An Essay
Towards a Real Character and A Philosophical Language, Thoemmes
Press 2002 http://www.thoemmes.com/404.asp?404;http://www.thoemmes.com/language/wilkins.htm)
John Wilkins An Essay Towards a Real Character and A Philosophical
Language consists of his research and invention of a shorthand system
the real character, which is considered remarkably
advanced for its time, and his effort to create a philosophical language
that would establish a one-to-one correspondence between words and objects.
It would thus be impossible to refer to non-existent
things (since there would be no words to describe them); impossible (at
least without repeating oneself word for word) to make tautologous statements.
Language would at last resemble that clear sheet of glass between human
minds and external reality undistorting, invisible and indivisible from
(Linguistic Straightjacket by Charles Butler; http://www.uwe.ac.uk/fas/wavelength/wave14/butler.html)
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716)
Leibniz took a great interest in developing a
mathematical model of language. His dissertation The Arte Combinatoria,
written when he was 20 years old, already showed this.
Leibniz proposed a Characteristica Universalis, which, like many projects
of his day, was a proposal for the creation of a universal language. Leibniz'
Characteristica Universalis differed from the other projects, in that
it proposed representing the parts of the language as numbers, so that
one only had to add up the numbers to determine meaning. Leibniz also
did not agree with the idea that the meanings of words are completely
He felt that in older languages there was always a connection between
the word and the object it represented, and that although some changes
may occur in languages over time, the link between word and object still
(Brigham Young University Department of Linguistics.
Volapük (vol=world, pük=speech) was the first synthetic language
to reach the point of large international popularity. Its inventor, the
German Monsignor Johann Martin Schleyer, worked out a grammar, which was
absolutely regular, and a vocabulary derived from English, German and
Latin. About 30 periodicals were published in Volapük, and approx.
300 clubs in different countries were devoted to its study. In 1889 the
third and last Volapük congress took place in Paris.
A quarrel between Johann Martin Schleyer and Auguste Kerckhoffs, President
of the Valapük Academy, as well as the emergence of Esperanto led
to a quick downfall of Volapük after 1889.
Inspired by the simple English grammar, Polish Dr. Ludwik Lazar Zamenhof
invented the Interlanguage Esperanto in 1887. The name Esperanto
at first was Zamenhofs pseudonym (An Attempt at an International
Language, by Dr. Esperanto).
Esperanto is a constructed language based on the elements of several European
tongues, and has a strict, yet not primitive grammar.
The first Esperanto congress took place in Boulongne-sur-Mer in 1905.
Esperanto has been on the decline since its heyday just after World War
I when there was hope it might one day become the official world language.
English has since become the generally accepted world language, but Esperanto
has not died out.
Today, according to the World Almanac, there are over a million speakers
of this language throughout the planet. The Universal Esperanto Association,
whose office is in the Netherlands, maintains a volunteer network of Delegates
in over 70 countries with specialties in tourism, computers, jurisprudence,
educational instruction, among many others, in order to promote contact
among Esperantists with special interests. The UEA also promotes Esperanto
through its consulting relationship with UNESCO and its yearly World Congress,
held in a different country every year.
(A Brief History of The International Language Esperanto http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/9061/eo2.html)
Other constructed languages followed, which could
however not fasten to the success of Esperanto. Some examples: Ido (a
reformed Esperanto), Interlingua, Interglossa and Basic English.
The Language of Space aUI
AUi seems to be one of the most straightforward attempts to create a language
in which the words directly refer to the essence of things. This language
served the inventor Dr. John W. Weilgart as a successful tool in psychotherapy.
The therapeutic value of aUI lies within its simplicity. The user of this
language is forced to express thoughts and feelings in a direct and very
distinguished way. As an example, the English word love is
translated in aUI as brO (together- good-feeling or together-joy),
a letter is a send-thoughts and a photograph is a light-picture.
The Language of Space is the cosmic communication,
whose elements can be learned in an hour. It is the primeval language
of the Logos of pure reason that takes our human race back before the
confusion of Tongues at the Tower of Babel.
(p. VI, Language of Space by Dr. John W. Weilgart, Cosmic Communication
Company, Decorah, Iowa, 1962)In aUI, the speaker is forced to say exactly
what he means and all the circumlocutions required by our taboos and prejudices
are eliminated. To use it is to understand reality and learn to think.
(p. IV, Preface by Rev. Prof. Dr. Richard S.
Hanson in Language of Space by Dr. John W. Weilgart, Cosmic Communication
Company, Decorah, Iowa, 1962)
his [Dr. John W. Weilgart] Language of Space satisfies
for the first time the mnemotechnic principles of Learning-Psychology.
Thus e.g. the idea of inside is expressed by a dot inside
a circle and, on the acoustic level, by g a guttural
deep inside the mouth;
the modifier precedes
so it is the essence of a word that lingers on in our memory, even if
we missed the first sounds. The hearer catches the substance in a nut-shell.
Leibniz proposed a language to consist of categories. aUI
contains Ursprache categories like Jungs collective
subconscious of creativity.
As the symbols (Ur-Gebärden, arche-gestures) are based on associations
of meaning, the Language of Space is meaningful throughout, and thus quickly
learnable even for people with little mechanic word-memory.
(p. V, Preface by Prof. Dr. Friedrich Kainz
in Language of Space by Dr. John W. Weilgart, Cosmic Communication Company,
Decorah, Iowa, 1962)
A Silent World Language
There are certain signs and gestures which are quite obviously instinctive
(p. 21, The International Dictionary of SIGN
LANGUAGE A study of human behaviour by Theodore Brun, Wolfe Publishing
The idea of a World Language has occurred to many
people: linguists, statesmen, idealists and practical businessmen. It
is, however, a melancholy thought that none of our sophisticated spoken
languages seems to qualify for the promotion of mutual understanding.
]It comes therefore as no surprise
that at one time the Indian sign language caught the imagination of those
in search of a simple method of universal communication, and for a brief
period it almost looked as if their efforts had not been in vain. [
Less spectacular, but perhaps of greater significance is an observation
which has been recorded many times: that natives from the remotest parts
of the world, from Hawaii, Africa and South America, had no difficulty
in conversing with the deaf and dumb people in England.
(p. 76, The International Dictionary of SIGN
LANGUAGE A study of human behaviour by Theodore Brun, Wolfe Publishing
The study of sign language systems
and cultural meanings of body signs by T. Brun make it clear that there
are very few or maybe even no signs that transport the exact same meaning
for every person in the world. Cultural variances of even the simplest
gestures do not inhibit humans from communicating in sign language, but
make a strict classification impossible.
Musical Universal Languages
Jean-François Sudre (1787-1864) invented Solresol in 1817. His
"Langue Musicale Universelle" is considered the first music-based
[Solresol] was based on the international names of the musical
notes, all words being formed out of combinations of the syllables do,
re, mi, fa, sol, la , si. [
] Sudre further pointed out that his
syllables could be abbreviated to their initial consonant for purposes
of speedwriting, using s for si and so for sol; that the language could
be sung or played or hummed instead of spoken; that it could be written
as music; that knocks, or even colors, could be substituted for the syllables
for communication at a distance, as by flags; that it could be used by
deaf-mutes, who would tap their message. Sudres vocabulary was,
naturally enough, completely arbitrary, although a principle of classification
according to thought appeared [
]. The grammar of Solresol, as one
might expect, is quite complicated. The plan, first conceived in 1817,
was presented the Academy of Fine Arts in 1827, and gained wide acceptance,
being sponsored by such figures as Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Humboldt, and
Napoleon III. Sudre died in 1862, but his language continued to find followers,
such as Gajewski, who published a book about it as late as 1902. Even
on the eve of the First World War, despite the Volapük and Esperanto
that had had appeared in the intervening years, devotees of Solresol continued
to air their views.
(p. 143,144; One language for the world
by Mario Pei; The Devin-Adair Company, New York 1958)
One can also write in a special
Solresol stenography. This stenography, invented by Vincent Gajewski,
is composed of only seven signs, one for every syllable:
(Stephen L. Rice
by Bruce Koestner in 1990, is a similar approach to a musical language.
It is designed to allow musical instruments the opportunity to speak words
through combinations of pitches, and also to let singers speak two languages
Amongst the numerous constructed
languages fictional languages, international auxiliary languages,
logical, philosophical and personal languages
Heinzmanns phonetic picture-writing is an especially
Phonetic Picture Writing
Lautbildschrift invented by Leonhard
Heinzmann in 1998.
The combination of sound and picture: the ideograms are formed by specially
designed (few and simple) letters, so that each ideogram can be read phonetically
-it's a picture writing and also a true phonetic writing!
The failure of world languages
Artificial languages usually share the same disadvantages:
the difficulty of learning it and the lack of a core of native speakers
or of an established literature. Furthermore the issue is the method by
which the international language is to be achieved.