[Milton-L] Word and Thing

JD Fleming jfleming at sfu.ca
Thu Oct 10 11:17:01 EDT 2013

The topic of 16th- and 17th-century language reform is complex but well-researched. On the larger European tradition, as flowing from the Lullian version of the art of memory, see Paolo Rossi, Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language, t rans. Stephen Clucas (Chicago 2000). On the English Baconian tradition specifically, see Rhodri Lewis, Language, Mind and Nature: Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to Locke ( Cambridge 2007). Several points: while the notion of recovering a non-arbitrary language of Adam, or identifying it with a surviving natural language (eg Chinese or Hebrew or a Native American tongue) was current in the period, including in England, it was not the main idea of the language reformers associated with the Royal Society, whose work culminates in John Wilkins's Essay towards a real character . Rather, working from Bacon, they assumed (actually on an Aristotelian basis) that the oral diversity of human languages expressed a commonality of human notions. If one could craft a sign system—arbitrary, but effective—to indicate these notions directly, one might thereby achieve a script that could be “read off” in any language. Arabic numerals and Chinese characters, both graphic scripts utterable in many different oral forms, suggested the plausibility of such a scheme. Insofar as human notions were about things in the world, the Baconian script of notions would constitute a “real character” (from the Latin res ): a language of things, not mere words. If based on a complete scientific taxonomy, a real character might be made “philosophical”: each of its terms constituting a scientific definition of a fact, while the structure of the language—orthography, syntax, and so on—expressed the interrelations between the facts. 

It is not accidental that some of the language reformers, notably, I believe, Dalgarno, also actively sought a theoretical semantics of minimal primitives: an account of language that is, in which only nouns (and maybe a few other elements) really count. 

There's a lot to think about here; but also a lot of books, from a lot of disciplines, to help. No need to wonder. JD Fleming 

From: "J. Michael Gillum" <mgillum at ret.unca.edu> 
To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu> 
Sent: Thursday, 10 October, 2013 07:09:34 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Word and Thing 

I had thought what Sprat and those guys wanted was only one word for each kind of thing (or matter, action, property, process)--a scientific vocabulary free of ambiguity and literary ornament. I don't think it had any connection with the idea of an Adamic language of essences--not that words can be intrinsically right, just that each word should have one clear agreed-upon meaning. 

A sidebar--does anyone know what the Confucians meant by "rectification of names"? 

On Wed, Oct 9, 2013 at 4:16 PM, Horace Jeffery Hodges < horacejeffery at gmail.com > wrote: 

Prof. Martin Kuester sent me a copy of his book Milton's Prudent Ambiguities, which I read and briefly blogged upon: 


Reading it led me to an expression of something that has puzzled me: 


I am especially interested in . . . what the seventeenth-century reformers of language meant by a direct correspondence between word and thing. (I note in passing that the Hebrew term davar means both "word" and "thing.") By "thing," did they mean something like a material object? Or rather anything at all? Whatever was meant, would the word for a thing be a name, i.e., a noun? I find this puzzling. While nouns might constitute the largest category among the parts of speech, they are a minority in most sentences. The previous sentence, for example, has only six nouns out of nineteen words -- and none of them, for that matter, naming material objects. Furthermore, words in a sentence have logical and grammatical relations to each other, a feature ignored by the reformers' emphasis upon the word-thing correspondence. 

I ask these questions in ignorance . . . 

Jeffery Hodges 

PS Prof. Kuester's book is available at Amazon: 


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James Dougal Fleming 
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Simon Fraser University 

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