Competing models for a 17th century universal language: A study of the dispute between George Dalgarno and John Wilkins

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Many 17th-century philosophers, theologians, and educators were engaged in developing a universal language to remedy the confusion caused by the multiplicity of languages. George Dalgarno (c.1619-1687), who published <i>Ars Signorum</i>(The Art of Signs) in 1661, and John Wilkins (1614-1672), who published <i>An Essay Toward a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language</i>in 1668 emerged as the two leading theorists and practitioners of the universal language movement in England. Early on in their work, Dalgarno and Wilkins collaborated; but soon after, they parted ways and worked separately. In Dalgarno’s “Treatise”, evidence emerges that educational reform may well have been the critical issue which eventually divided Dalgarno and Wilkins. While the scholarly debate about who was the more original language designer is interesting, the most relevant point about the Dalgarno and Wilkins dispute for the history of the 17th-century universal language movement is that it sheds light on the failure of the movement. In Dalgarno’s and Wilkins’ unresolved struggle as reflected in their critiques of each other, an explanation emerges why a movement that drew significant scholarly attention, even a sense of urgency, in the early to mid 17th century had dissolved, for the most part, by the end of that century.


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