Thursday, September 01, 2005

Universals in Writing

Wilkin's Real Character
I know there is some mail to go through and I haven't done it. However, I am simply going to indulge myself for a while and write about what pops into my head today. I have started on the trail of the 'universal' writing system and cannot change direction for a while.

First, I think it wise to say it in so many words, since I did not realize this before, that a 'universal writing system' is one of two completely different beasts. In the one case, it can be the search for a system with which to communicate meaning directly without reference to a particular sound system. This is the kind of system which European philosphers have been looking for, first, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, and second, in Chinese characters. They were disappointed each time in discovering that these writing systems were, in fact, attached to a particular representation of sound. (I know some people are having a hard time giving up this idea. The association with a Utopian state makes it a tenacious concept.)

Okay, the following is from someone's dissertation, but it is the clearest way that I can communicate the search for a universal writing system in 17th century Europe. Thanks to Jaap Maat at the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation, U. of Amsterdam, for this precis.

"The creation of a universal and philosophical language was a widely discussed topic in the seventeenth century. One of the goals to be achieved by putting such a language into practice was to overcome language barriers. Another goal was to have a language that was more efficient and easier to learn than existing ones. Furthermore, the envisaged artificial languages were meant to incorporate an accurate representation of knowledge, so that learning the language would entail acquiring knowledge of the world of nature. Some authors even believed that a philosophical language could be instrumental in the growth of knowledge in being a tool that greatly improved our thinking. Many efforts were made towards the construction of artificial symbol systems of various kinds. Among the schemes that were completed, those of two English authors stand out for presenting fully-fledged artificial languages. These were 'Ars Signorum' (1661) by George Dalgarno (c. 1620-1687), and the 'Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language' (1668) by John Wilkins (1614-1672). The present dissertation provides detailed description and discussion of both languages. In addition, the work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716) in this area is examined."

This sets the background for the Wilkins script pictured above, which I wrote about in Real Character last month. Each segment of the script represents a certain unit of meaning not a sound.

The other kind of beast that a universal writing system might be, is a system which represents sounds without reference to a particular language. This would be the International Phonetic Alphabet. More about these universal writing systems later.

Now, how is all this relevant? Am I going to wander around in the past for ever? Yes, probably. However, I will stop on the way to contemplate the role that Unicode now plays as a universal 'writing system'.


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