Your "Shady Characters" book is one of the best I've read in a while.

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Pp

That use of "ought/aught" still lingers in the Yorkshire dialect of British English (usually spelled as "owt" in eye dialect – likewise "nowt" for "nought"). Together with definite article reduction, it's one of the dialect features most noted or satirised by "offcumdens" (folks from outside Yorkshire). As with many features of our regional dialects, they are becoming less common, aside from in a few fixed idioms. ]]>

"What an interesting person Wilkins was, and what an extraordinary time to have been alive and participating in the scientific revolution "

Yes the 17th century was amazing. This rang a few bells with me, thinking of Athanasius Kircher. He proposed a universal language in 1663, anticipating Wilkins by 5 years, but I don't think Kircher got far beyond suggesting the mere concept.

Wikipedia under "philosophical language" doesn't mention Kircher, but does show the idea was in the air before Wilkins got serious.

[(myl) The best known proposal from about the same time was Leibniz's Characteristica Universalis, though Leibniz never seems to have gone beyond a variety of programmatic suggestions.

My favorite fragment of his (diverse) suggestions was the idea of assigning prime numbers to primitive concepts — as I wrote in "__A smart person with a stupid idea__" (4/8/2004):

The key ideas were a *characteristica universalis* that assigns a different prime number to each primitive concept (we're guaranteed never to run out of primes), and a *calculus ratiocinator* that creates complex concepts by multiplication (since the prime factorization theorem guarantees a unique decomposition into primitives) and evaluates predication by division (are the factors of the predicate among the factors of the subject?).

Leibniz felt that this would allow legal, religious and political disagreements to be solved by calculation rather than by violence.

I've always wondered whether Leibniz had a story to tell about how to use multiplication of primes to construct a logical formula other than a single predication. Suppose that A and B are propositions — whether atomic or complex doesn't matter — and we've assigned 27 to the concept "implies" — what about "A implies B" vs. "B implies A"? And what about more elaborate formulae where order matters? I can imagine various procedures for encoding string order or formula structure as products of primes, but did Leibniz have a story to tell about this? I've never learned enough about the details of his calculus ratiocinator to determine the answer.

Then there's the problem of the algorithmic complexity of factoring products of really large primes — and there are surely enough primitive concepts and modes of combination that we'll need some big primes to encode them all. And there's the problem of relating logical formulae to the facts of the world. And then there's the question of whether human conflicts are really very often based on different (mis)understandings of propositions, as opposed to different interests and goals.

Putting it all together, I think we have a winner. Leibniz was clearly a really smart person, and the proposal to solve political and religious disagreements by translating natural language discourses into products of prime numbers was a really stupid idea. It's a good premise for historical fantasy, though — the idea of a sort of Leibnizian underground, operating through history into modern times, is one of the fun background assumptions of Neal Stephenson's currently-unfolding historical trilogy.

Of course, the idea that "ideas" can be represented as unique combinations of a standard set of primitive concepts is itself deeply problematic, as Borges explained.

And if we want to go further down this rabbit hole, there's __Goedel's attempts to defeat the conspiracy to suppress Leibniz's creations__…]

[(myl) I'm also unpersuaded by Wilkin's suggestion that irony has a characteristic "pronunciation" (" if the chief force of Ironies do consist in Pro∣nunciation, it will plainly follow, that there ought to be some mark for direction, when things are to be so pronounced"). I had the same skeptical reaction to Steve Pinker's related claim that sarcasm has a characteristic intonation, and I checked it empirically — see "__Speaking sarcastically__", 7/16/2004.

Perhaps the source of such ideas is the fact that the performance of ironic or sarcastic utterances "feels" different? ]

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