Early modern universal languages as seen through the thoughts of Kircher

I have spoken before of Kircher’s Universal Language dictionary, which aimed to reduce all words to numbers which could then be transmitted to a recipient, who would then look up those numbers in his vernacular, and so read the message.

Of course, all this translation system really does, from our modern day viewpoint, is slow translations down by introducing a dictionary reference instead of the actual word. Direct translation of words leads to interesting mixups like this one:

Anyway, in 1663 Kircher was to publish Polygraphia nova et universalis (the New and Universal Polygraphy), a grandiose tract that was to promise far more than it could deliver. It was a typical Kircher work in that it took the ideas of others, spun them around and presented in a new manner. Kircher was a master of this art, and his polygraphia is one of his masterpieces. Notwithstanding that, the polygraphia is a good example of how the intellectuals of Europe considered language and codes at this point in time, and so let’s look at the state of “universal languages” in the pre-Renaissance via this book – because the content of the book is intellectual very much on the dividing line between medieval and Renaissance thinking. (more…)

Read More