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

CHAP. IV. I. The Defects in the common Alphabets, as to their true Order. II. Iust Number. III. Determinate Powers. IV. Fitting Names. V. Pro∣per Figures of the Letters. VI. The Imperfections belonging to the Words of Language, as to their Equivocalness, variety of Synonymous words, uncertain Phraseologies, improper way of Writing.

ONe special Circumstance which adds to the Curse of Babel is that difficulty which there is in all Languages,* arising from the various Imperfections belonging to them, both in respect of 1. their first Elements or Alphabets, 2. their Words.

1. For Alphabets, they are all of them, in many respects, liable to just exception.

1. As to the Order of them, they are inartificial and confused, without any such methodical distribution as were requisite for their particular na∣tures and differences; the Vowels and Consonants being promiscuously huddled together, without any distinction: Whereas in a regular Alpha∣bet, the Vowels and Consonants should be reduced into Classes, according to their several kinds, with such an order of precedence and subsequence as their natures will bear; this being the proper end and design of that which we call Method, to separate the Heterogeneous, and put the Homo∣geneous together, according to some rule of precedency.

The Hebrew Alphabet, (the order of which is observed in several Scriptures, Psal. 119. and in the Book of Lamentations) from whence the others are derived, is not free from this Imperfection.

Page  152. For their Number, they are in several respects both Redundant, and Deficient.*

1. Redundant and superfluous; either 1. By allotting several Let∣ters to the same power and sound. So in the Hebrew (〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 & 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉) and so perhaps (〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 & 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉) (〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 & 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉) (〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 & 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉) (〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 & 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉.) So in the ordinary La∣tin, (C & K) (F & Ph.) Or 2. by reckoning double Letters amongst the most simple elements of Speech: as in the Hebrew〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉; in the Greek ξ and 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉; in the Latin (Q. Cu) (X. cs.) and I Consonant or Jod which is made up of (dzh) by assigning several Letters to represent one sim∣ple power, as th, sh, &c. So that none of these can regularly be rec∣koned amongst the simple elements of Speech.

2. Deficient in other respects, especially in regard of Vowels, of which there are 7 or 8 several kinds commonly used, (as I shall shew after∣wards) though the Latin Alphabet take notice but of five, whereof two, namely (i and u.) according to our English pronunciation of them, are not properly Vowels, but Diphthongs. And besides, that gradual difference amongst Vowels of long and short is not sufficiently provided for. The Ancients were wont to express a long Vowel by doubling the Character of it; as Amaabam, Naata, Ree, Seedes, Sanctissimiis, Mariinas:* though oftentimes the Vowel I, instead of being doubled, was onely pro∣longed in the figure of it; as AEDILIS, PISO, VIVUS. For the ways used by us English for lengthning and abbreviating Vowels, viz. by adding E quiescent to the end of a word for prolonging a Syllable, and doubling the following Consonant for the shortning of a Vowel, as Wane, Wann; Ware, Warr, &c. or else by inserting some other Vowel, for the lengthning of it, as Meat, Met; Read, Red, &c. both these are upon this account improper, because the sign ought to be where the sound is. Nor would it be so fit to express this by a distinct Character, because it denotes onely an accidental or gradual difference, as by an Accent; the chief use of Accents, for which they are necessary in ordinary speech, being to sig∣nifie Quantities and Elevations of voice.

3. For their Powers, they are very uncertain, not alwaies fixed and de∣termined to the same signification:* which as to our English pronunciati∣on may be made to appear by abundance of Instances both in the Vow∣els and Consonants.

1. As to thVowels: It is generally acknowledged that each of them have several sounds. Vocales omnes plurisonae, saith Lipsius. And the learn∣ed Vossius doth assure us,* that the Ancients did use their Vowels in very different wayes, aliquando tenuiùs exiliúsque, nunc crassiùs, nunc inter∣medio sono.

The power of the Vowel () treated of afterwards, is expressed in writing no less then six several waies; by

  • e. He, me, she, ye.
  • ee. Thee, free, wee.
  • ie. Field, yield, shield, chief.
  • ea. Near, dear, hear.
  • eo. People.
  • i. Privilege.

So is the Power of the Vowel (α;) as in All, aul, aw, fault, caught, Page  16 brought. These are all various waies of writing the same long Vowel; besides which there are other distinct waies of expressing the same Vowel when it is used short, as in the words of, for, &c.

And for the Power of the Vowel () that is likewise written five se∣veral waies.

  • o. To, who, move.
  • oe. Doe.
  • oo. Shoo, moon, noon.
  • ou. Could, would.
  • wo. Two.

And as for the Power of the Vowel () this also is written five seve∣ral waies; namely, by the Letters

  • i. Sir, stir, firmament, &c.
  • o. Hony, mony, come, some, love, &c.
  • oo. Blood, flood.
  • u. Turn, burn, burthen.
  • ou. Country, couple.

2. As to the Consonants, these likewise are of very uncertain Powers: witness the different pronunciation of the letter (C) in the word Circo, and (G) in the word Negligence. I know 'tis said that the letter (C) before the Vowels a, o, u, must be pronounced like (K,) as in the words cado, coram, cudo; and before the Vowels e, i, as S, as in the words cedo, cilium. But there is no reason why it should be so. Upon which account our learned Country man,* Sir Tho. Smith, doth justly censure it as mon∣strum literae, non litera; ignorantiae specimen, non artis; modò serpens, modo cornix.

*The letters C, S, T, are often used alike, to denote the same Power, and that both in English and French; and the letter (S) is most frequent∣ly used for (Z) which must needs be very improper. And, which is yet more irrational, some Letters of the same name and shape are used sometimes for Vowels, and sometimes for Consonants; as I▪ V, W, Y; which yet differ from one another sicut corpus & anima, and ought by no means to be confounded.*

To which may be added, that from this equivocal power of Letters, it so falls out, that

1. Some words are distinguished in writing, and not in pronunciation: as Sessio, Cessio; Sera, Cera; Servus, Cervus; Syrus, Cyrus; Boar, Bore; Come, Lat. Cum; Done, Dun; Dear, Deer; Hear, Here▪ Heart, Hart; Meat, Mete; Son, Sun; Some, Lat. Sum; Toes, Toze; Toe, Towe; To, Too, Two.

2. Some words are distinguished in pronunciation, but not in writing; as the words Give, i. Dare, Give, i. Vinculum; Get. i. Acquirere, Get, i. Ga∣gates; is and his in English, and is and his in Latin. So the Latin word Malè, i. evilly, is a dissyllable; whereas the English word Male, which signifies the masculine Sex, is but a monosyllable. All which are very great incongruities, and such as ought to be avoided in any regular esta∣blishment of Letters.

4. Their Names in most Alphabets, are very improperly expressed by words of several syllables;* as Aleph, Beth, Gimel, &c. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, &c. And thus it is in 15 several Alphabets mentioned by Her∣mannus Page  17 Hugo. In which respect the Roman Alphabet, and our English,* which follows it very near, are much more convenient then the rest, where each Letter is named simply by its Power. Though herein like∣wise there be some defects: for the letter C should not be named See, but Kee; and G, not, as usually we do, Iee, but 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉: and so R, to con∣form it with the rest, should be called er, not ar; and Z should be styled ez, not zad.

5. Their Figures have not that correspondency to their Natures and Powers which were desirable in an artificially-invented Alphabet,* wherein the Vowels ought to have something answerable in their Chara∣cter unto the several kinds of Apertion which they have in their sound. And so for the Consonants, they should have some such affinity in their Figures as they have in their Powers. 'Tis so in some of them, whether purposely or casually, I know not; as BP. bp. CG. SZ. and perhaps TD, td: but not in others.

To this may be added, the manner of writing as to the Oriental Tongues, from the right hand to the left, which is as unnatural and incon∣venient, as to write with the light on the wrong side. The Iews them∣selves write their particular strokes of Letters from the left to the right hand; and therefore it would be much more rational,* that their words should be written so too.

Besides these Defects in the usual Alphabets or Letters, there are seve∣ral others likewise in the Words of Language,* and their Accidents and Constructions.

1. In regard of Equivocals, which are of several significations, and therefore must needs render speech doubtful and obscure; and that ar∣gues a deficiency, or want of a sufficient number of words. These are ei∣ther absolutely so, or in their figurative construction, or by reason of Phra∣seologies.

Of the first kind there are great variety in Latin. So the word

  • LIBER apud Literatos significat Codicem.
  • LIBER apud Politicos significat Libertate fruentem.
  • LIBER apud Oratores significat Filium.
  • LIBER apud Rusticos significat Arboris corticem.

So the word Malus signifies both an Apple-tree, and Evil, and the Mast of a ship; and Populus signifies both a Poplar-tree, and the People, &c. Besides such Equivocals as are made by the inflexion of words: as Lex, legis, legi; Lego, legis, legi: Sus, suis; Suo, suis; Suus, suis: Amarè the Adverb; Amo, amas, amavi, amare; and Amor, amaris vel amare: with abundance of the like of each kind.

Nor is it better with the English Tongue in this respect, in which there is great variety of Equivocals. So the word Bill signifies both a Weapon, a Bird's Beak, and a written Scroul: The word Grave signifies both So∣ber, and Sepulcher, and to Carve, &c.

As for the ambiguity of words by reason of Metaphor and Phraseology, this is in all instituted Languages so obvious and so various, that it is need∣less to give any instances of it; every Language having some peculiar phrases belonging to it, which, if they were to be translated verbatim in∣to another Tongue, would seem wild and insignificant. In which our Page  18 English doth too much abound, witness those words of Break, Bring, Cast, Cleare, Come, Cut, Draw, Fall, Hand, Keep, Lay, make, Pass, Put, Run, Set, Stand, Take, none of which have less then thirty or forty, and some of them about a hundred several senses, according to their use in Phra∣ses, as may be seen in the Dictionary. And though the varieties of Phra∣ses in Language may seem to contribute to the elegance and ornament of Speech; yet, like other affected ornaments, they prejudice the native simplicity of it, and contribute to the disguising of it with false appearan∣ces. Besides that, like other things of fashion, they are very changeable, every generation producing new ones; witness the present Age, espe∣cially the late times, wherein this grand imposture of Phrases hath almost eaten out solid Knowledge in all professions; such men generally being of most esteem who are skilled in these Canting forms of speech, though in nothing else.

2. In respect of Synonymous words, which make Language tedious, and are generally superfluities, since the end and use of Speech is for hu∣mane utility and mutual converse;*magìs igitur refert ut brevis, & rectus, & simplex sit quàm longus & varius. And yet there is no particular Lan∣guage but what is very obnoxious in this kind. 'Tis said that the Arabic hath above a thousand several names for a Sword,* and 500 for a Lion, and 200 for a Serpent, and fourscore for Hony. And though perhaps no other Language do exceed at this rate, as to any particular; yet do they all of them abound more then enough in the general. The examples of this kind, for our English, may be seen in the following Tables. To this may be added, that there are in most Languages several words that are mere Expletives, not adding any thing to the Sense.

3. For the Anomalisms and Irregularities in Grammatical constructi∣on, which abound in every Language, and in some of them are so nu∣merous, that Learned men have scrupled whether there be any such thing as Analogy.

4. For that Difference which there is in very many words betwixt the writing and pronouncing of them, mentioned before. Scriptio est vocum pictura: And it should seem very reasonable, that men should either speak as they write, or write as they speak. And yet Custom hath so ri∣vetted this incongruity and imperfection in all Languages, that it were an hopeless attempt for any man to go about to repair and amend it. 'Tis needless to give instances of this, there being in divers Languages as ma∣ny words whose sounds do disagree with their way of writing, as those are that agree. What is said of our English Tongue is proportionably true of most other Languages, That if ten Scribes (not acquainted with the particular Speech) should set themselves to write according to pronunciation, not any two of them would agree in the same way of spelling.

'Tis an observation of a Learned man concerning the French Tongue, that it is ineptissimè confusa, aliàs ad fastidium otiosis suffarcta literis; ali∣às ad mendicitatem inops & jejuna;*nunquam sibi constans, & raro rationi consona. 'Tis said that Peter Ramus did labour much in reducing it to a new Orthography, but met with much discouragement in this attempt from Learned men; besides the invincibleness of general Custom, a∣gainst which (for the most part) men strive in vain. What better suc∣cess those Learned ingenuous persons of the French Academy may have, Page  19 who have been for several years ingaged in this Work,* I cannot conje∣cture. 'Tis related of Chilperick King of France, that he did, for the com∣pendiousness of writing, add to the French Alphabet these five Letters, θ. χ. ο. ξ. ψ. injoyning by a strict and solemn Edict the reception and use of them through his Dominions; and that in all Schools Youths should be instituted in the use of them. And yet, notwithstanding his Authority in imposing of them, they were presently after his death laid aside and disused.

As to our own Language, several persons have taken much pains a∣bout the Orthography of it. That Learned Knight Sir Thomas Smith, Se∣cretary to Queen Elizabeth, and sometime her Embassador into France, hath published an elegant Discourse in Latin, De recta & emendata Lin∣guae Anglicanae scriptione. After him, this Subject was in another Discourse prosecuted by one of the Heralds, who calls himself Chester; who was followed by one Wade, that writ to the same purpose. After these, Bul∣laker endeavoured to add to, and alter divers things in those others that preceded him; who was succeeded in the same attempt by Alexander Gill, in his English Grammar. And yet so invincible is Custom, that still we retain the same errors and incongruities in writing which our Fore∣fathers taught us.