An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language by John Wilkins ...
Wilkins, John, 1614-1672., Wilkins, John, 1614-1672. Alphabetical dictionary.

CHAP. III. I. The Original of Letters and Writing. II. That all Letters were de∣rived from the Hebrew. III. The use of Letters is less ancient, and the kinds of them less numerous, then of the Languages themselves. IV. Of Notes for Secrecy or Brevity. V. Of real Characters. VI. Of Alphabets in general.

HAving laid down this brief and general View of Languages, 'tis re∣quisite that something should be also premised concerning Letters,* the Invention of which was a thing of so great Art and exquisiteness, that Tully doth from hence inferr the divinity and spirituality of the hu∣mane soul,* and that it must needs be of a farr more excellent and abstract∣ed Essence then mere Matter or Body, in that it was able to reduce all articulate sounds to 24 Letters.

Page  11Though the Scripture doth not mention any thing concerning the in∣vention of these; yet 'tis most generally agreed, that Adam, (though not immediately after his Creation, yet) in process of time, upon his ex∣perience of their great necessity and usefulness, did first invent the anci∣ent Hebrew Character: whether that which we now call the Hebrew, or else the Samaritan, is a question much debated by several Learned men, which I shall not now inquire into, or offer to determine.

As for those particular Alphabets which are by some ascribed to Adam, Enoch and Noah, mentioned by several Authors,* and in a late Discourse by Thomas Bangius, they have so little foundation in any probable reason or story, that I shall not so much as make any farther mention of them.

It hath been abundantly cleared up by many Learned men, that the ancient Hebrew Character hath the priority before any other now known;* which is confirmed by the concurrent testimony of the best and most an∣cient Heathen Writers. And 'tis amongst rational arguments none of the least, for the Truth and Divine Authority of Scripture,* to consider the general concurrence of all manner of evidence for the Antiquity of the Hebrew, and the derivation of all other Letters from it.

Pliny affirms in one place,* that the first invention of Letters ought to be ascribed unto the Assyrians; and in another place he saith, that under the name of Syria he understands the Regions which were styled Pale∣stine, Iudaea and Phoenicia; and in the same Chapter he ascribes the inven∣tion of Letters to the Phoenicians. So doth Lucan likewise;*

Phoenices primi (famae si credimus) ausi
Mansuram rudibus vocem signare figuris.

With these agree aHerodotus, Strabo,bPlutarch,cCurtius, Mela, &c. who all consent, that the Grecians did first receive their Letters from the Phoenicians by Cadmus, who lived about the time of Ioshua. And that the Punic or Phoenician Tongue was the Canaanitish or the Hebrew, though somewhat altered from its original pronunciation,* (as is wont in tract of time to befall Colonies planted far from home, amongst stran∣gers,) is sufficiently manifested from the remainders of it that are ex∣tant in Plautus and other prophane Authors, as they are cited by the learned Bochart. And that the Phoenicians were Canaanites hath proof also in Scripture, because the same woman who in Mark 7.26. is styled a Syrophoenician, is said Matth. 15.22. to be a Canaanite.

That the ancient Greek Character was of very near affinity to the Samaritan, and that the Latin Letters were of such an affinity to the Greek, and derived from them, being in a manner the same with the an∣cient Ionic Letters, is made very plain by Scaliger,* and owned by Pliny and Dionysius Halicarnassensis. And Tacitus doth acknowledge that the ancient Latin Characters were in their shape and figure almost the same with the Greek. And as for the other Letters that are known, namely, the Syriac, Arabic, Aethiopic, Armenian, Coptic, Illyric, Georgian, Gothic, there is this cogent Argument to prove them to be of the same Origi∣nal, because their Alphabets do generally observe the same order of Let∣ters, which, being in it self exceedingly irrational, cannot probably have any other reason but imitation. Except onely that of the Arabs,* saith Her∣mannus Hugo, who, that they might not seem to have borrowed Letters Page  12 from others, did purposely disturb the order of the Alphabet; to which he might have added the Aethiopic and Armenian.

*There are two general things to be observed concerning these deri∣ved Letters. 1. That they are not of so great Antiquity. 2. That they are not so numerous as Languages are.

1. They are not so ancient, many Nations remaining a long while be∣fore they grew so far civilized as to understand the use of Letters, which to this day are not known amongst many of the American Nations, nor the Inhabitants of Lapland: and after they have been known, and of some public use, it hath been yet a considerable space, before persons have written any Discourse in their own Language. 'Tis observed by Tschudas of the German,* and by Genebrard of the French Tongue, (saith Mr. Brerewood) that 'tis not much above 400 years, since Books began to be written in those Languages.

2. And because the use of Letters in particular Countries is not so an∣cient as Language, therefore are they not of so numerous kinds; several Nations taking up the use of Letters from their neighbours, and adapting them to their own Tongue. Thus the Spanish, French, Italian, German, British, English, Irish, &c. do all of them use the same Latine Character, it being probable that they had none of their own, before they learnt this of the Romans. The Coptic or Egyptian Character, ever since Egypt came under the Dominion of Macedon, hath been the Greek, excepting only seven Letters proper to their Tongue, which the Greek Alphabet did not sufficiently express; The Muscovites likewise and the Russians, the Georgians and Iacobins, do use the Greek Character; the Persians and Turks use the Arabick: though the Letters of any Tongue do not al∣waies remain the same, but are subject to the like fate and mutability, to which Languages are exposed.

Besides this common way of Writing by the ordinary Letters, the An∣cients have sometimes used to communicate by other Notes,* which were either for Secrecy, or Brevity.

1. For Secrecy: such were the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks, (as they are commonly esteemed) being the representation of certain living Crea∣tures, and other Bodies, whereby they were wont to conceal from the vulgar the Mysteries of their Religion. But there is reason to doubt whether there be any thing in these worth the enquiry, the discoveries that have been hitherto made out of them being but very few and in∣significant. They seem to be but a slight, imperfect invention, sutable to those first and ruder Ages;* much of the same nature with that Mexi∣can way of writing by Picture, which was a mere shift they were put to for want of the knowledge of Letters. And it seems to me questionable, whether the Egyptians did not at first use their Hieroglyphicks upon the same account, namely, for the want of Letters.

Those waies of writing treated of by the Abbot Trithemius, were likewise for occult or secret communication: And though some Learn∣ed men have suspected and accused him to have thereby delivered the Art of Magic, or Conjuring; yet he is sufficiently cleared and vindicated from any such prejudice in that very learned and ingenious Discourse de Cryptographia, under the feigned name of Gustavus Selenus,Page  13 by which the noble Author, the Duke of Lunenburg, did disguise his true name of Augustus Lunaeburgicus.

2. For Brevity: There were single Letters or marks, whereby the Ro∣mans were wont to express whole words. Ennius is said to have inven∣ted 1100 of these; to which number Tullius Tyro, Cicero's Libertus, (o∣thers say Cicero himself,) added divers others,* to signifie the particles of speech; after whom Philargyrus the Samian and Macaenas, added yet more. After these Annaeus Seneca is said to have laboured in the regu∣lating and digesting of those former notes; to which adding many of his own, he augmented the whole number to 5000, published by Ianus Gruterus; though amongst his there are divers of a later invention, re∣lating to Christian institutions, which have been added since (as 'tis said) by S. Cyprian the Martyr. The way of writing by these did require a vast memory and labour; yet it was far short of expressing all things and Notions, and besides, had no provision for Grammatical varia∣tions.

Of this nature is that Short-hand-writing by Characters so fre∣quent with us in England, and much wondered at by Foreiners; which hath a great advantage for speed and swiftness in writing; those who are expert in it being able this way to take any ordinary discourse verbatim.

Besides these, there have been some other proposals and attempts a∣bout a Real universal Character, that should not signifie words,* but things and notions, and consequently might be legible by any Nation in their own Tongue; which is the principal design of this Treatise. That such a Real Character is possible, and hath been reckoned by Learned men amongst the Desiderata, were easie to make out by abundance of Testi∣monies. To this purpose is that which Piso mentions to be somewhere the wish of Galen,* That some way might be found out to represent things by such peculiar signs and names as should express their natures; ut Sophistis eriperetur decertandi & calumniandi occasio. There are se∣veral other passages to this purpose in the Learned Verulam, in Vossius,* in Hermannus Hugo, &c. besides what is commonly reported of the men of China, who do now, and have for many Ages used such a general Chara∣cter, by which the Inhabitants of that large Kingdom, many of them of different Tongues, do communicate with one another, every one understanding this common Character, and reading it in his own Lan∣guage.

It cannot be denied, but that the variety of Letters is an appendix to the Curse of Babel, namely, the multitude and variety of Languages. And therefore, for any man to go about to add to their number, will be but like the inventing of a Disease, for which he can expect but little thanks from the world. But this Consideration ought to be no discourage∣ment: For supposing such a thing as is here proposed, could be well established, it would be the surest remedy that could be against the Curse of the Confusion, by rendring all other Languages and Characters useless.

It doth not appear that any Alphabet now in being, was invented at once or by the rules of Art; but rather that all, except the Hebrew,* were Page  14 taken up by Imitation, and past by degrees through several Changes; which is the reason that they are less complete, and liable to several ex∣ceptions. The Hebrew Character, as to the shape of it, though it appear solemn and grave, yet hath it not its Letters sufficiently distinguished from one another, and withall it appears somewhat harsh and rugged. The Arabic Character, though it shew beautiful, yet is it too elaborate, and takes up too much room, and cannot well be written small. The Greek and the Latin are both of them graceful and indifferent easie, though not without their several imperfections.

As for the Aethiopic, it hath no less then 202 Letters in its Alphabet; namely, 7 Vowels, which they apply to every one of their 26 Conso∣nants, to which they add 20 other aspirated Syllables. All their Cha∣racters are exceedingly complicated and perplexed, and much more dif∣ficult then those proposed in this following Discourse for the expressing of things and notions.

*This is said likewise of the Tartarian, that every Character with them is a Syllable, having each of the Vowels joyned to its Consonant, as La, Le, Li, &c. which must needs make a long and troublesome Alphabet.

But it is not my purpose to animadvert upon these Tongues that are less known, so much as those with which these parts of the world are bet∣ter acquainted.