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Alina Wang

Professor Jill de Villiers


PHI 236, 12/16/15
Wilkins Failure and Who We Are
The textbook and course materials have not mentioned any language that tries to make a
non-arbitrary vocabularyin which the words themselves, in their morphology or phonology,
meaningfully represent referents, the objects or phenomena that words describe. This fact shows
that our linguistic efforts do not naturally evolve into systematic languages, but do evolve into
languages of arbitrary lexicons. Language inventors, such as John Wilkin, tried to fight against
this arbitrariness. In An Essay towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language (1668)
Wilkin created a massive hierarchical system, similar to that of extensive taxonomies of
biological life (Okrent 39). Wilkin divided all possible referents into particular categories, and
each category contributes a phoneme to the word representing the final referent. Like building
blocks, these phonemes are added together as the categories branch down into more specific
categories, until the final referent at the bottom of the tree is reached. The resulting word for the
referent is an accumulation of phonemes from each category this referent belongs to (Okrent 51).
Therefore, the phonemes of any word in Wilkins language reveals a detailed description of its
referent; the lexicon meaningfully represents the referent. However, The Land of Invented
Languages by Okrent claims that Wilkins language was doomed from the start. In this paper I
investigate why Wilkins language failed, what this failure reveals about our nature, and finally
question Okrents claim.
Our linguistics course has analyzed natural languages, and there was no mention of any
language that is structured to morphologically or phonetically represent a referent. Personally, I
am aware of some Chinese characters that have evolved from ancient forms that pictorially
represent their referents. But the currently used form of this language, generally, has no such

meaningful connection to referents. Simply put, natural languages have a teleological end for a
non-arbitrary lexicon. This fact puzzles me because I believe it might be an innate tendency, for
at least some of us, to desire a neat, meaningful lexicon, in which each word has morphological
properties that reflects the reality of its referent. Various people described in Okrent (not only
Wilkins, but also Descartes, Lodwick, Urquhart, Dalgarno, and others) had this tendency; they
desired for a universal or objective language. There must be some other factors that prevent this
tendency from being realized, in a natural language of a non-arbitrary lexicon.
One such factor is that each individual has subjective feelings about how referents are
related to each other, and how they ought to be categorized. For example, the categorization of
the referent human depends on what we believe the defining traits of ourselves are. Plato called
us the featherless biped (Okrent 43), whereas Okrent calls humans the only creatures with the
capacity to reason (Okrent 44). We have such disagreements on what things are because we are
unable to fully comprehend the universe (Okrent 59). There simply cannot be a reductive
description of any object or phenomenon that we all agree with. So Wilkins endeavor to set up a
language system in which each word meaningfully represents a referent failed, because we see
the world differently than he did. The ways he categorizes referents are not obvious to us, and
figuring out how to use his language is a pain.
It would also be a pain to deviate from the majority. By our nature, we deeply want to
belong to a group and avoid appearing foolish; we will conform to other peoples ideas in order
to be liked. With this tendency we would not adopt an artificial language, created by one of the
exceptional language inventors like Wilkin, when everyone else speaks a natural language.
Conformity might contribute to our accepting the arbitrariness of the natural languages handed to

us, and to our refraining from both exploring our own possible lexiconic inventions or
committing to someone elses invention.
Furthermore, we might innately not be deeply logical enough to maintain a lexicon whose
every phoneme is logically linked to the description of the referent. Some extraordinary thinkers,
the language inventors Okrent describes, may conceive this vision and attempt to pursue it, but
the general population cannot maintain such a language. We might not have the mental capacity
to use such a language, or we might not have the intellectual curiosity and motivation to pursue a
non-arbitrary lexicon.
Perhaps the general population needs language only for the purpose of communication;
language simply is not supposed to be reasonableit is not supposed to have a meaningful
connection between each word and referent. Language might simply function for communication
purposes, and it is easier for our minds to memorize an arbitrary morphological form and apply
universal grammatical rules, than to process reasons for why each lexical form is what it is. From
our course material, I have the impression that there is already enough richness, complexity, and
cognitive demand in our morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantics. Perhaps our brains are
shaped for this kind of complexity, and not for the complexity of how a word meaningfully
represents a referent.
Okrent adds that Wilkins project is doomed not only because his invented language
disagrees with how we think and what we are capable of processing, but also because language is
supposed to be vague. It is this vagueness that enables language to be metaphoric, poetic, and to
give some shape to the muddle in our heads (Okrent 72). We enjoy having non-literal
associations, the metaphoric and poetic aspects of our speechall this would be sacrificed in

Wilkins language, for a level of precision that is still arbitrary to some degree and that requires
so much cognitive energy that we cannot conveniently use it.
However, I wonder what would happen if an infant were raised with Wilkins language.
Would she grow to become capable and fluent in it? Would her higher degree of lexical precision
compared to that of natural languages make this human less prone to misunderstandings and
offer protection against misunderstandings and suffering? Okrent comically describes how
Wilkins did assume there was a truth out there that his language could help us see by
unmasking many wild errors (Okrent 73). However, I think this function of the language, that it
could give us a more objective understanding of the world and thus help us avoid
misunderstandings and suffering, might be possible. Even though Okrent criticizes this
sentiment, that people find something very comforting about the notion that words are the
problems, not concepts we accuse language of being too crude and clumsy (Okrent 72), I still
believe that the vagueness of words is a legitimate problem and leads to interpersonal
manipulation, misunderstandings, and conflict. Perhaps a baby raised in a language like Wilkins
would be orientated to expect high precision in language, so when people spoke in ambiguous
words, she would question them further, until she arrived at a precise meaning. She would
become sensitive to any situation in which a misunderstanding might take place, and she could
clarify this situation and prevent possible subsequent suffering for the people involved. She
could even encourage others to do the same, to be sensitive to ambiguity and challenge it.
Okrent never mentions this possibility that Wilkins language might work if introduced at
an early age, probably due to her experiences of using Wilkins language. She tries to translate
the word shit into Wilkins language, and it takes many painstaking days to finally find the
translation (Okrent 57). Okrent concludes it would certainly do little to help you communicate

and as a language, it was simply unusable (Okrent 71). Also, Okrent tries to translate a
sentence that includes the adjective clear, and the number of possible translations for this word is
almost unbearable (Okrent 60). I agree with Okrent that my mind is not capable of holding such
detailed, specific meaning, to navigate between drastically similar words in everyday speech. But
I am not so sure that this inability is inherent. I am not experienced enough with psychology and
linguistics to know, but my guess is Wilkins language could be learned if introduced at an
appropriate age.

Sources Cited
Okrent, A. (2009). In the Land of Invented Languages. New York: Spiegel & Grau.