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Language, Universal

The invention of a universal language, which men of all nations could understand and through which they could communicate their thoughts, has always been one of the dreams of certain philologists. In the seventeenth century, Dalgarno had written his Ars Signorum to prove the possibility of a universal character and a philosophical language. About the same time Bishop Wilkins published his Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language; and even the mathematical Leibnitz entertained the project of a universal language for all the world. It is not, therefore, surprising, that when the so-called Leland Manuscript stated that the Freemasons concealed a "Universal Language," John Locke, or whoever was the commentator on that document, should have been attracted by the statement. He says:

A universal language has been much desired by the learned of many ages. It is a thing rather to be wished than hoped for. But it seems the Masons pretend to have such a thing among them. If it be true, I guess it must be something like the language of the Pantomimes among the ancient Romans, who are said to be able, by signs only, to express and deliver any oration Intelligibly to men of all nations and languages.

The guess of the commentator was near the truth. A universal language founded on words is utterly impracticable. Even if once inaugurated by common consent, a thing itself impossible, the lapse of but a few years, and the continual innovation of new phrases would soon destroy its universality. But there are signs and symbols which, by tacit consent, have always been recognized as the exponents of certain ideas, and these are everywhere understood. It is well known that such a system exists over the vast territory occupied by the North American savages, and that the Indians of two tribes, which totally differ in language, meeting on the prairie or in the forest, are enabled, by conventual signs of universal agreement, to hold long and intelligible intercourse.

On such a basis the Universal Language of Freemasonry is founded. It is not universal to the world, but it is to the Craft; and a Freemason of one country and language meeting a Freemason of another can make himself understood for all practical purposes of the Craft, simply because the system of signs and symbols has been so perfected that in every language they convey the same meaning and make the same impression. This, and this only, is the extent to which the universal language of Freemasonry reaches. It would be an error to suppose that it meets the expectations of Dalgarno or Wilkins, or any other dreamer, and that it is so perfect as to supersede the necessity of any other method of intercommunication.

Thus far Brother Mackey whose comments on Masonic universality are as applicable today as when his words were written, though his criticisms of the possibilities in universal languages are less successful in view of the work accomplished in that direction since his day and generation. However, we must admit that the same prejudice exists and is likely to persist and long continue. Part of this objection is due to misunderstanding, a belief that the projected language is intended to take the place of some national tongue. But this is an error; at best the attempts have been directed at an easily acquired auxiliary means of spoken and written communication, an agency especially promising of purpose in a world that is so readily misled by lack of correct knowledge concerning the peoples of the earth. Surely this is a task of importance to all Brethren of the Craft.

As to the earlier attempts to which Brother Mackey alludes, they were failures, it is true. Dalgamo's Ars Szgnorum of 1661 and Wilkins' Real Character of 1668 failed because of insufficient foundation, the preliminary scientific labor had not then been done. But what was attempted was deserving of admiration and Wilkins in particular made a contribution to phonetics that is valuable among experts of modern times while his classification of ideas was the acknowledged forerunner of later efforts by Roget and Linnaeus. More recently we have had Volapuk of 1880, Esperanto, 1887, and Idiom Neutral, 1902. Of these the second is admittedly the most reasonable and practical artificial language. Born as it was among the feuds of four races using different languages, its inventor, Dr. L. Zamenhof, believed that the evil could be remedied by a neutral speech. A Masonic Lodge using Esperanto was established at Paris, one has been planned for London, and an international group of Freemasons using Esperanto has also functioned (see Universals Framasona Ligo).

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