Front Page Titles (by Subject) APPENDIX E.: IDEAS ABOUT A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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APPENDIX E.: IDEAS ABOUT A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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IDEAS ABOUT A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.
[The following memoranda were made either at the close of 1843 or at the beginning of 1844. The primary aim was that of obtaining the greatest brevity, and, consequently, a structure mainly, or almost wholly, monosyllabic was proposed. Hence the table with which the memoranda begin, is a calculation respecting the number of good monosyllables that can be formed by the exhaustive use of good consonants and good vowel sounds. I have thought it better to let these memoranda stand as they originally did; though, being set down when I was but 23, and without any extensive inquiries into the matter, they are of course very imperfectly thought out. Respecting the table I may say that, on looking now at the method of estimation, I suspect the number of monosyllables is considerably greater than that given.]
List of Single Syllables.
[The following were suggestions made respecting the constructions and uses of these syllables.]
All nouns to have the short vowel in the singular, and the plural to be denoted by changing it into the long vowel.
The compound vowels , &c., which are not capable of the short sound, to be used for adjectives; and the vowel to be in some degree indicative of the quality of the adjective. Let, for instance, all adjectives indicative of good quality be made with the and those of the bad with the .
All nouns to be perfect articulations, beginning and ending with consonants, and let them show their relationships to each other by the initial or terminal consonant. All abstract nouns might, for instance, commence with the nasals. All inanimate nouns with the mutes. All animate with the semi-vocals.
All words which are nearly related to one another in meaning to have their relationships indicated by identity of consonants—the vowel sounds being different; so that there may be no chance of mistake arising from imperfect articulation. It is necessary that words having related meanings should have marked differences of sound, because the context will not show which is intended when the articulation is indistinct.
The change of nouns into adjectives and adjectives into verbs, to be produced by the addition of consonants without in any case making an additional syllable.
[There were, I remember, sundry plans not here set down, by the aid of which the choice of words for things and actions was to be made systematic; so that there should be comparatively little arbitrary choice. A cardinal idea was that in each genus of things or actions, the generic word should always have the indefinite, or most general, vowel-sound, the e in err—the sound made without any adjustment of the vocal organs, and the sound first made by the infant. This would, as it were, express the genus in its undifferentiated state; and the specific kinds of things falling within the genus, would severally have the same consonants but would contain the various definite vowels, simple and compound. Thus, supposing an elevation of surface, small or great, to be expressed by a syllable which, between its initial and terminal consonants, had the indefinite vowel sound of e in err, then the kinds of elevation—hillock, mound, hill, mountain, great mountain, peak, &c.—would be severally indicated by words in which the same two consonants would include between them others of the various vowels. A further idea was to use what may be called analogical onomatopœia: the small and petty things being in every case indicated by thin unsonorous vowels, and great or imposing things by open and sonorous vowels: the degrees in size following the scale, e, a, ā (ah), aw, o, oo. Variations among these various sizes were to be implied by compound vowels severally formed out of these simple vowels. Thus a hillock, or very small elevation, would, using the same consonants, have the vowel e (as in see); an elevation of medium size, as a hill, would have the open a (as in ah), while the greater elevations, mountains and peaks, would have the vowel sounds aw, o, oo, to severally distinguish their respective sizes. This done systematically would, besides excluding, in large measure, arbitrary choice, give to the very sounds themselves a great suggestiveness. The mental association would be rendered irresistible, both by its naturalness and by its perpetual recurrence.
Of course the same system would be adopted in the choice of words for adjectives and verbs: the degree of a quality and the power of an action being similarly indicated by gradations from the feebly-sounding vowels to the loud-sounding vowels. The result of these selections would be that even when some sentence was very indistinctly heard, it would be known at once whether it concerned small things and feeble actions or great things and forcible ones.
Systematic choice of words was to be carried out in another way. The most euphonious consonants were to be used for things and qualities and acts of most frequent occurrence in speech, and the less and less euphonious ones for the things and qualities and acts gradually decreasing in the frequency of their use. While this would serve as one guide in the selection of consonants, another guide would be the analogical onomatopœia: the euphonious consonants being used for things which appeal agreeably to the feelings, and the less and less euphonious ones for things which are less attractive in their natures, or are repulsive. Two such words as “rough” and “smooth” exemplify the use of both consonants and vowels under guidance of analogical onomatopœia; for the vowel-sound in “smooth” is one appropriately indicating something unresisting and regular, such as a smooth surface, while the first consonantal sound in “rough” well expresses the irregular and resisting quality of a surface. Evidently selections of vowels and consonants, if habitually made in these ways, would still further limit the arbitrariness of choice, and would still further tend to make the language both euphonious and expressive.
Among further memoranda there were “Notes for a system of verbs,” which I do not reproduce, because, although I see no reason to abandon the general idea, the matter is one requiring wider inquiry than I gave to it. I may simply say that the avowed intention was that of carrying out completely the mode of organization to which our own language, in diverging from the older languages, has approached—the entire abandonment of inflections, and the development of a complete set of relational words to indicate the several conditions under which an action occurs. The implied belief was that since each kind of action remains in itself the same, whatever may be its circumstances in respect of position in time or relation to actor or actors, the sign of such action should similarly remain constant; and that all its various relations of person, tense, and mood, should be expressed entirely by appropriate relational words. Of course the same principle was to be carried out in the case of nouns.]
Memoranda concerning Advantages to be Derived from the Use of 12 as a Fundamental Number.
The fact that 12 has been so generally chosen as a convenient number for enumeration of weights and measures, is presumptive proof that it must have many advantages. We have 12 oz. = 1 pound in Troy weight and Apothecaries weight, 12 pence = one shilling, 12 months in the year, 12 signs to the Zodiac, 12 lines to the inch, 12 inches to the foot, 12 sacks one last, and 12 digits. Of multiples of 12 we have 24 grains one pennyweight, 24 sheets one quire, 24 hours one day, 60 minutes one hour, 360 degrees to the circle.
Were our number of notation altered to 12, our multiplication table, going up to 12 times 12, would then agree in its extent with the requirements of the system; it would go as far as necessary and no further.
The great advantage, however, is the easy divisibility. 10 divides completely only by 2 and 5, of which the last is of comparatively little use, as fifths are seldom required. 12 divides completely by 2, 3, 4, and 6.
To make a proper comparison of these divisibilities we may reject those in each class which are on a par.
In the two sets division by 7 is equally bad.
9 in the one and 11 in the other are equally bad and equally unimportant.
6 in the one and 10 in the other are equally bad and equally unimportant.
The 8’s in both cases are nearly equal, but in the 12 scale is rather the best.
The 2 is common to both.
Of the remainder of the 10 scale 5 is perfect; but fifths
10 divided by
12 divided by
are comparatively little wanted; while 3 is bad and 4 middling.
Of the other scale 3, 4, and 6 are perfect, 9 is middling, and 5 is bad.
Again, the attribute of dividing power is very important from several points of view. In the first place it affords facility in the practice of division. Under the present system there are only two numbers out of the 12 whose capability of dividing can be seen by inspection, and these are 2 and 5; that is, 2 out of 12, or ⅙ of the whole number.
In the other system inspection will show whether any number is divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6; that is, 4 figures out of the 12, or ⅓. Thus it is clear that less time will be lost in trial divisions.
Nor does this facility apply only to cases of short division: an increased facility is also produced in long division. Under the present arrangement, if the last digit of the quotient ends with 2 or 5, the possibility of division may be seen on inspection, that is, in 2 figures out of 10 or only ⅕ of the cases.
Under the other arrangement the same facility would be given to 2, 3, 4, and 6, or 4 out of 12, or ⅛ of the cases.
To sum up:—In respect of divisibility, if we exclude from the comparison the equally bad and the equally middling cases, it results that the 12-notation has just twice the advantages of the 10-notation. And in respect of dividing-power we see that the advantages of the first as compared with those of the second are in some cases as 2 to 1 and in other cases as 5 to 3.