Borges on Analytical Language

A number among you will no doubt have heard the anecdote about a supposed Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’ in whose remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

The reference is plucked out of an essay by Jorge Louis Borges entitled  ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins‘ or ‘The analytical language of John Wilkins‘, a fact which led me to search out said essay and find out more about this Mr. Wilkins and his proposed language. As it turns out, this 17th century thinker was inspired by Decartes’ writing on ciphers and the possibility of a language in which all ideas are systematically coded into each word, and thence decided to make up a this fantabulous language himself.

The idea goes something like this: you divide the universe into a given number of overall categories (in his case 40); you then subdivide these into “differences”, and the “differences” into “species”. Each of the categories is assigned a monosyllable composed of two letters, each “difference” is represented by a consonant, and each “species” by a vowel.

So, as an example,  ‘de’ means an element; ‘deb’, the first of the elements – fire; and ‘deba’, a part of the element fire, a flame. And the simple word ‘zana’ will immediately tell you a whole lot more than the inadequate English equivalent – ‘salmon‘, (that is, if you know your forty categories and the species of these categories), namely that the subject is a scaled river fish, with ruddy meat .

Of course you quickly run into considerable conundrums when attempting to categorise the world in such a way, because, as Borges points our with his Chinese Encyclopaedia example, the universe sort of defies categorisation, and each categorisation is largely a reflection of the categoriser’s culture and society.  So, as you are probably aware, Wilkins’ idea didn’t quite catch on, and four centuries later we are still left babbling in our impenetrable and meaningless tongues.

Borges leaves us, as I leave you for today, with this rather marvelous quote which I here plagiarise in full: “He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest… Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of this own inside, noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire”.   (G.F. Watts by G.K. Chesterton)