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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

444                The Loom of Language
voyages of discovery Navigation and missionary fervour fostered new
knowledge of near and middle Eastern languages, including Coptic,
Ethiopic, and Persian It made samples of Amerindian, of Dravidian,
of Malay, and of North Indie vernaculars available to European
scholars In becoming Bible-conscious, Europe became Babel-consaous
One linguistic discovery of the seventeenth century is of special
importance, because it suggested a possible remedy for the confiision
of tongues. The labours of Jesuit missionaries diffused new knowledge
about Chinese script. To seventeenth-century Europe Chinese, a
script which substituted words for sounds, was a wholly novel way of
writing. Still more novel was one consequence of doing so To the
reader of the Loom it is now a commonplace that two people from
different parts of China can read the same texts without being able to
converse with one another To seventeenth-century Europe it was a nine
days' wonder, and the knowledge of it synchronized with a spectacular
innovation. Symbolic algebra was taking new shapes The invention of
logarithms and the calculus of Leibniz, himself in the forefront of the
linguistic movement, gave mankind an international vocabulary of
computation and motion
Without doubt, the novelty of mathematical symbolism and the
novelty of Chinese logographic writing influenced the first proposals
for a system of international communication through script Leibniz
corresponded with Jesuit missionaries to find out as much as possible
about Chinese; and Descartes, the French philosopher-mathematician,
outlined a scheme for a constructed language in 1629 Thanks to our
Hindu numerals, anyone—and by anyone Descartes meant anyone
except the common people of his time—can master the art of naming
all possible numbers which can exist in any language in less than a
days' work. If so, the ingenuity of philosophers should be up to the
job of finding equally universal symbols for things and notions set out in
a systematic way. These would be the bricks of a language more logical,
more economical, more precise, and more easy to learn than any lan-
guage which has grown out of the makeshifts of daily intercourse At
least, that is what Descartes believed He did not put his conviction to
the test by trying to construct a universal catalogue of things and notions.
Forty years later the dream materialized. In 1668 Bishop Wilkins
published the Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical
Language
Wilkins was not first in the field George Dalgarno, of Abefdeen,
also author of a language for the deaf and dumb, and inventor of a new