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Re: Comparison of philosophical languages

From:Tim May <butsuri@...>
Date:Saturday, January 18, 2003, 19:58
Padraic Brown writes:
 > --- Jan van Steenbergen <ijzeren_jan@...>
 > wrote:
 > > What Andrew (probably) meant by saying that a philosophical
 > > language subdivides words into categories, is that different word
 > > types can be recognized as such by their very shape.
 > Ah, he should have said. But what makes that
 > "philosophical"?

In my experience, the term "philosophical language" is generally
applied to those efforts to create a perfect universal language which
dominated language construction* from the 17th century until
the international language movement of the late 18th.  Possibly the
first of these was that described in Bishop John Wilkins' _An Essay
Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language_ of 1688.  Ro is
a late example of the type.

The defining quality of the philosophical languages, as I understand
the term, was their analytic and taxonomic nature. A word would
typically consist of a string of letters or syllables, each denoting
some class of phenomenon, and each defining the meaning of the word
more narrowly.  A word is thus its own definition, and resembles an
index in a classificational system such as Dewey decimal.  Borges
gives the following examples in his essay _The Analytical Language of
John Wilkins_.

 | He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being
 | further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into
 | species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters;
 | to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For
 | example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the
 | elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame. In a
 | similar language invented by Letellier (1850) a means animal; ab,
 | mammal; abo, carnivore; aboj, feline; aboje, cat; abi, herbivore;
 | abiv, horse; etc. In the language of Bonifacio Sotos Ochando (1845)
 | imaba means building; imaca, harem; imafe, hospital; imafo,
 | pesthouse; imari, house; imaru, country house; imedo, coloumn;
 | imede, pillar; imego, floor; imela, ceiling; imogo, window; bire,
 | bookbinder; birer, bookbinding. (This last list belongs to a book
 | printed in Buenos Aires in 1886, the 'Curso de Lengua Universal',
 | by Dr. Pedro Mata.)

There has been little interest in such languages in recent years.
They suffer from two major flaws.  Firstly, it is unlikely that any
such classificational system could cover all the things about which
one might want to talk completely and unambiguously.  Even if it did,
it could not generate new vocabulary to deal with unfamiliar paradigms
(new scientific theories, etc).  Secondly, all the redundancy is in
the wrong place - if you're trying to buy vegetables the first n
syllables of each word are going to be the same, and in context can be
ignored, while the component which distinguishes spinach from lettuce
is very short and easily lost in speech.

I guess they're called philosophical because a) trying to categorize
existence is a somewhat philosophical pursuit and b) Wilkins used the

I have not made any study of Ygyde, but it does not appear to be a
true philosophical language in this sense.

* That we know of, at least.