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The Unsuccessful Quest For A Universal Language


Communications barriers have long vexed us, as showcased in the movie "Rush Hour."


CHRIS TUCKER: (As Carter) Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?

LYDEN: Scientists in the 17th century were working hard to understand; mainly, the secrets of the universe but also, each other. With Latin on the decline, they were seeking a whole new way of communicating that would defy barriers and borders - a universal language.

And though he's better known for discovering gravity, even Sir Isaac Newton took a stab at it. We know this because Newton left behind an outline of this new, universal language in an old notebook.

Arika Okrent is an editor-at-large at theweek.com, and she's also a linguist who explains how this language would work.

ARIKA OKRENT: What Newton tried out was, you didn't have to have different words for every degree of something. You could have one root. The example he gives is "tor," for temperature. And then to make the word "cold," you just add a prefix to it. And to make the word "hot," you add a different prefix to it. And then you have different prefixes, all the way through the whole scale of coldness to hotness.

So "utor" is hot, "owtor" is exceedingly hot, "etor" is warm, "oytor" is excessively cold - and everything in between.So you could have a degree of precision of temperature, just by adding these set prefixes to that one concept.

LYDEN: So have you tried to speak in Sir Isaac Newton's language?

OKRENT: Well, he doesn't give enough vocabulary for you to really say anything. He just gives a few examples. The rest of it is all an outline of how it could work. And I think that's where many people got tripped up on this idea. It sounds really nice. Break down the universe into concepts and make a mathematics out of that, and then you have to sit down and figure out the universe. (Laughing) And that part's a lot harder.

But a colleague of his - John Wilkins, a member of the Royal Society - actually did this, and has a 600-page breakdown of vocabulary based on everything in the universe. It was very well-known in its day, and no one ever really spoke it.

LYDEN: So why did this bid of trying to create this universal language, fail?

OKRENT: Well, it's nice to think that we could overcome misunderstandings if we could be so precise that exactly what we wanted to say would come through, and the person on the other end could decompose our meaning perfectly. There's no fuzziness in there. But that isn't the way that we use language. The fuzziness and ambiguity in language is actually very useful to us.

We go ahead; we start talking without really knowing where we're going. We work out our thoughts as we speak. And it's hard to do that in a language where you have to know your exact meaning before you can even say anything.

LYDEN: So Newtonian didn't count for, in Arabic, you say "yanni" a lot and in English, "whatevah."


OKRENT: (Laughing) Right. You need the whatever. You want to be able to say "it's hot" or "it's cold" without specifying "it's very little exceedingly hot."

LYDEN: You know, this whole attempt to create a new language - I mean, it's always a wonderful concept. I remember Esperanto was going to be the universal language in the '60s. Why don't universal languages catch on very well?

OKRENT: I mean, Esperanto is the most successful one of all time, in the sense that it's not a universal language, but people actually still speak it. But they do within their own, little community. And I think that's the real problem. We can't have a universal language because we don't have a universal community. And that's where languages live, between people.

LYDEN: That's Arika Okrent, editor-at-large for theweek.com and the author of "In the Land of Invented Languages." Thank you very much for being with us.

OKRENT: Thank you so much. This was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.