The Vagueries of categories

Borges’ well known essay ‘John Wilkins’ Analytical Language’, first published in 1942, describes several attempts to construct a universal language, that is, a language in which each word defines itself.8 Such a language would, as Borges put it, speculate on ‘the words, definitions, etymologies, and synonymies of God’s secret dictionary’. Borges mentions the system proposed in 1850 by one C. L. A. Letellier, in which ‘a means animal; ab, mammalian; abo, carnivorous; aboj, feline; aboje, cat; abi, herbivorous; abiv, equine’, and so on. He recounts a similar example from Wilkins’ own ‘undoubtedly ingenious’ system: although the English word salmon tells us nothing, ‘zana, the corresponding word, defines (for the person versed in the forty categories and the classes of those categories) a scaly river fish with reddish flesh’. Borges is alarmed by some of Wilkins’ categories and divisions, however: the whale becomes, for instance, ‘a viviparous, oblong fish’. The ‘ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies’ of Wilkins’ system recall, he suggests, a certain Chinese Encyclopaedia:

In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel%u2019s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

From Tom Tyler’s delightful essay Four Hands Good, Two Hands Bad

About caspar

Caspar is just one monkey among billions. Battering his keyboard without expectations even of peanuts, let alone of aping the Immortal Bard. By day he is an infantologist at Birkbeck Babylab, by night he runs
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