English clergyman and natural philosopher John Wilkins published in London An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language.
In this work Wilkins attempted to create a universal, artificial language, based upon an innovative classification of knowledge, by which scholars and philosophers as well as diplomats, scholars, and merchants, could communicate. Wilkins intended his "universal language" as a supplement to rather than a replacement for existing "natural" languages. His scheme has been called ingenious but completely unworkable.
In this book Wilkins also called for the institution of a "universal measure" or "universal metre," which would be based on a natural phenomenon rather than royal decree, and would also be decimal rather than the various systems of multipliers, often duodecimal, that coexisted at the time. The meter or metre would not gain traction until after the French Revolution.
By "real character" Wilkins meant:
"an ingeniously constructed family of symbols corresponding to an elaborate classification scheme developed at great labor by Wilkins and his colleagues, which was intended to provide elementary building blocks from which could be constructed the universe's every possible thing and notion. The Real Character is emphatically not an orthography in that it is not a written representation of oral speech. Instead, each symbol represents a concept directly, without (at least in the early parts of the Essay's presentation) there being any way of vocalizing it at all; each reader might, if he wished, give voice to the text in his or her own tongue. Inspiration for this approach came in part from (partially mistaken) accounts of the Chinese writing system.
"Later in the Essay Wilkins introduces his "Philospophical Language," which assigns phonetic values to the Real Characters, should it be desired to read text aloud without using any of the existing national languages. (The term philosophical language is an ill-defined one, used by various authors over time to mean a variety of things; most of the description found at the article on "philosophical languages" applies to Wilkins' Real Character on its own, even excluding what Wilkins called his "Philosophical Language")
"For convenience, the following discussion blurs the distinction between Wilkins' Character and his Language. Concepts are divided into forty main Genera, each of which gives the first, two-letter syllable of the word; a Genus is divided into Differences, each of which adds another letter; and Differences are divided into Species, which add a fourth letter. For instance, Zi identifies the Genus of “beasts” (mammals); Zit gives the Difference of “rapacious beasts of the dog kind”; Zitα gives the Species of dogs. (Sometimes the first letter indicates a supercategory— e.g. Z always indicates an animal— but this does not always hold.) The resulting Character, and its vocalization, for a given concept thus captures, to some extent, the concept's semantics.
"The Essay also proposed ideas on weights and measure similar to those later found in the metric system. The botanical section of the essay was contributed by John Ray; . . .
"Jorge Luis Borges wrote a critique of Wilkins' philosophical language in his essay El idioma analítico de John Wilkins (The Analytical Language of John Wilkins). He compares Wilkins’ classification to the fictitious Chinese encyclopedia Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, expressing doubts about all attempts at a universal classification. Modern information theory also suggests that it is a bad idea to have words with similar but distinct meanings also sound similar, because mishearings and the resulting confusion would be much more prominent than in real-world languages. In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco catches Wilkins himself making this kind of mistake in his text, using Gαde (barley) instead of Gαpe (tulip)" (Wikipedia article on An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, accessed 06-16-2010).