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A: Innenstadt I, Frankfurt am Main, Hessen, Germany

Joachim Becher Provides an Early Model for Machine Translation


In 1661 physician and alchemist, Johann Joachim Becher, published Character, pro notitia linguarum universali in Frankfurt. This proposal for a universal language in numeric form may have, to some extent, anticipated the idea of machine translation.

“Becher constructed a Latin dictionary that was almost ten times more vast (10,000 items). [...] For each item in Becher’s dictionary there is an Arabic number: the city of Zurich, for example, is designated by the number 10283. A second Arabic number refers the user to grammatical tables which supply verbal endings, the endings for the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, or adverbial endings. A third number refers to case endings. The dedication 'Inventum Eminentissimo Principi' is written 4442. 2770:169:3. 6753:3, that is, '(My) Invention (to the) Eminent + superlative + dative singular, Prince + dative singular'. Unfortunately Becher was afraid that his system might prove difficult for people who did not know the Arabic numbers; he therefore thought up a system of his own for the direct visual representation of numbers. The system is atrociously complicated and almost totally illegible. However, together with Gaspar Schott’s Technica curiosa (1664), Becher’s system has been seen as a tentative model for future practices of computer translation. In fact, it is sufficient to think of Becher’s pseudo-ideograms as instructions for electronic circuits, prescribing to a machine which path to follow through the memory in order to retrieve a given linguistic term, and we have a procedure for a word-for-word translation (with all the obvious inconveniences of such a merely mechanical program)’ (Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, pp. 201–3).”  See Bernard Quaritch Ltd., Logic and Language [PDF] Autumn 2008, number 1.

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