George Dalgarno.

In the words of the pathetically brief Wikipedia article, “George Dalgarno (c. 1616 – 1687) was a Scottish intellectual interested in linguistic problems.” You can get more information at the charmingly defensive Dictionary of National Biography entry by George Goodwin (1888):

Among other eminent men he knew Ward, bishop of Sarum, Wilkins, bishop of Chester, and Wallis, Savilian professor. Yet not the slightest notice of him is taken in the works either of Wilkins or of Wallis, both of whom must have derived some very important aids from his speculations. To Dalgarno has been erroneously ascribed the merit of having anticipated some of the most refined conclusions of the present age respecting the education of the deaf and dumb. […] Dalgarno may also claim the distinction of having first exhibited, and that in its most perfect form, a finger alphabet. He makes no pretensions, however, to the original conception of such a medium of communication. […] Nearly twenty years before the appearance of his ‘Didascalocophus’ Dalgarno had published another curious treatise entitled ‘Ars Signorum, vulgo Character Universalis et Lingua Philosophica,’ &c., 8vo, London, 1661, from which it appears that he was the precursor of Bishop Wilkins in his speculations concerning ‘A Real Character and a Philosophical Language’ (1668). Dalgarno’s treatise exhibits a methodical classification of all possible ideas, and a selection of characters adapted to this arrangement, so as to represent each idea by a specific character, without reference to the words of any language. He admits only seventeen classes of ideas, and uses the letters of the Latin alphabet, with two Greek characters, to denote them.

But really, the place to read about him is Arika Okrent’s magnificent In the Land of Invented Languages, which I reviewed back in 2009; she discusses him on pp. 45-50:

After attending a demonstration of a new type of shorthand that could express phrases in “a more compendious way than any I had seen,” he was inspired to “advance it a step further.” In the process of working out how to stuff the most meaning into the fewest possible symbols, he realized that such a system could be used not just as a shorthand for English but as a universal writing that could be read off into any language. He was “struck with such a complicated passion of admiration, fear, hope and joy” at this idea that he “had not one houres natural rest for the 3 following nights together.” […]

Dalgarno was a nobody in Oxford, but it so happened that the only person he knew there, an old school friend, was in good with the vice-chancellor of the university. Dalgarno’s work was read and passed around, and soon he found himself in the company of the most eminent scholars in town, a stroke of luck at which he was “overjoyed.” One of these scholars was Wilkins, who had not yet begun to work on his own universal character.

Dalgarno’s system provided a list of 935 “radicals”—the primitive concepts he judged necessary for effective communication— and a method for writing them. They were not, however, organized into a hierarchical tree. They were not grouped by shared properties, or by any logical or philosophical system. Instead, they were placed into a verse composed of stanzas of seven lines each, so that they could be easily memorized. For example, if you memorize the first stanza, you know the placement of forty-two of his radical words (italicized) […]

He developed a written character where the placement and direction of little lines and hooks referred to a specific place in a line of a stanza […]. To write “light,” for example, you draw the character representing the first stanza modified by a small mark indicating first line, fifth word. The pattern is repeated for the fourth through sixth lines, but with little hooks added to the marks, and for the seventh line the mark is drawn through the character […]. Additionally, the opposite of a word was represented by reversing the orientation of the stanza symbol. […] He also provided for a way for the system to be spoken by assigning consonants and vowels to the numbered stanzas, lines, and words. So if B = stanza 1, A = line 1, and G = word 5, then the word for “light” would be BAG.

Wilkins admired Dalgarno’s system, but he thought it needed to include more concepts, and took it upon himself to draw up an ordered table of plants, animals, and minerals. Dalgarno respectfully declined to use those tables, arguing that the longer the list of concepts got, the harder they would be to memorize. He thought that specific species, like elephant, didn’t need their own, separate radical words, but that they could be referred to by writing out compound phrases, such as “largest whole-footed beast.”

Okrent has illustrations of how all this works; again I am bowled over by the effort she put in to not only understanding the ideas of all these inventors but presenting them in an intelligible way.

Incidentally, I was reminded of Dalgarno by a mention in Irina Polyanskaya’s wonderfully allusive 2002 novel Горизонт событий [Event horizon], which I will be enthusiastically reviewing at some point (I’m currently reading her earlier novel Прохождение тени [The passing of the shadow]). She has a whole section about Agnès Varda’s movie Cléo de 5 à 7. Varda is one of my favorite directors, but I never expected to see her show up in a Russian novel!


  1. Stu Clayton says

    The entire right-hand column of your site has gone into italics. That may be due to the way this Dalgarno post ends – with a malformed “end emphasis”.

    Edit: now the entire site is in italics, except for button texts and the Dalgarno post itself up to the end.

    Something like this happened about 10 years ago here. I’m amazed that a simple HTML formatting error in one post can create such havoc everywhere. On the other hand, what you see is always one “page”, and the renderer does what it is told to do.

  2. Wow. Yeah, that is amazing; I fixed it, but I wish the software would at least alert you to such problems. Thanks for the heads-up!

  3. Look up “cow, n.1” in the current OED and scroll down to the bottom. Probably something was screwed up the last time they modified that page (December 2021, the addition of “cow chip”, which was part of the full revision of “chip”.)

  4. Impressive!

  5. Also, note that the problem got fixed instantly here, while lingering for almost a year (and counting) at that august site.

  6. He admits only seventeen classes of ideas

    As the late and much lamented AJP might have remarked: (1) ideas concerning goats; (2) ideas not concerning goats… And then what?

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Seems to cover the universe of discourse perfectly adequately.
    Scots are prone to overelaboration.

  8. The OED’s quarterly revisions are up, and the italics overrun in “cow, n.1” is fixed. I’m counting that in my score of 4 corrections this quarter — but there was also one miscorrection, which I beg the forum’s indulgence to let me vent about, in the hope that a professional editor may sympathize. Until December 2022, the Origin line for heuristic read:

    Origin: A borrowing from Latin; originally partly modelled on a French lexical tem, and partly modelled on a German lexical item.

    I e-mailed them pointing out that “tem” was a typo — it didn’t occur to me that I’d need to tell them what it was a typo for — and now it reads “a French lexical term”. Arrgh, and “German lexical item” is right there! Not to mention “lexical item” in 13,664 other OED entries and as a sub-entry itself, under lexical. Picky, picky. Well, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

  9. If you can’t vent about such things here, where can you vent? I deeply sympathize, and I hope they fix their particularly stupid error.

  10. ktschwarz says

    Yes, it was fixed in the March 2023 update!

    Another successful fix in December 2022: under text-writer, they removed the mistaken attribution to James Joyce of a 1902 quotation from Law Times Reports (attributed in previous print editions simply to “Joyce”, in the original to “Mr. Justice Joyce”). No, James Joyce was not writing legal opinions at age 20.

    And one in March 2023: the title for a quotation under reglow, n. was corrected from Finnegan’s Wake to Finnegans Wake.

    No luck yet with the weird citation under chip, n.2 of a book review quoting Ulysses, instead of Ulysses itself; nor with a citation under homelet, n. of James Joyce Quarterly, instead of Finnegans Wake itself.

    Because of shenanigans like this (and worse), it’s often impossible to get exactly accurate answers to “How many times is this author/this book quoted in the OED?”

  11. To be fair, I don’t think it’s the OED’s job when ingesting a review or similar work into its capacious maw to determine if the review is quoting the reviewee (correctly or incorrectly). If homelet appears in JJQ, then it appears there, period.

    (On first reading, I thought this word was h- + omelet rather than home + -let.)

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