The Tower of Babel

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Grantville, 1635


Federico Ballarino took an appreciative sip of the Thuringian Gardens lager. It had been a long day; his train from Magdeburg to Grantville had suffered a breakdown, costing him two hours. When he finally arrived, he dropped his gear off at “Cair Paravel”—the name Princess Kristina had insisted on giving to her official Grantville lodgings. Being her dancing master did carry some perks. And then he made a beeline for the Gardens.

Having arrived later than usual, he hadn’t been able to get his regular seat. But it could have been worse. At least he had found an empty table—the last one, in fact. He pulled out some of his translation work. No rest for the wicked, he mused.

A well-dressed stranger walked up to his table and addressed him. “May I sit down?”

Federico made a welcoming hand gesture. It was de rigueur at the Gardens to fill up the tables, even if that meant seating strangers with each other. Anyway, Federico was a bit curious; the stranger’s English had a slight French accent.

“My name is Claude Hardy,” the stranger said. “I am a counselor to the Court of Justice in Paris. Are you the Federico Ballarino that acts as a translator for Words International, perchance?”

“Why, I am,” Federico said, and smiled at what he took to be a prospective customer. “Do you have something that needs translating from French? I can translate French, or for that matter English, into German, Ital—”

“No, no. Earlier today I asked an acquaintance where I might find you, as I suddenly realized that you would be just the sort of person to appreciate my invention.” He raised his chin slightly. “I have developed a universal language. Conceptually, at least.”

Federico wistfully eyed the nearest exit. “I see.”

“The languages you mention, they are all illogically constructed. What is needed is a language based on philosophical principles.”

“Uh-huh,” said Federico, trying to strike the right balance between politeness and discouragement. By now there were people standing, drinks in hand, between the tables. The crowd was thick enough that only the experienced bar maids dared plow through, like icebreakers in polar waters.

“As a mathematician of some note—you perhaps have read my commentary on Euclid?—it initially occurred to me that mathematics is itself, in a sense, a universal language and thus we could express all thought as a series of numbers.”

“Really?” asked Federico, as he contemplated whether, being a dancer, he could make a quick escape by leaping from table to table in the direction of the exit. “How would you obtain the numbers?”

“Why, if we could assign prime numbers to basic characteristics, then any concept could be expressed by the product of the numbers assigned to the basic characteristics that define that concept. And then all we need for a universal language is to agree on the pronunciation of those numbers.”

“So if being human were denoted by ‘2’, and being crazy were denoted by ‘3’, a crazy human would be a ‘6,’ ” prompted Federico. He had decided that if he could not escape, he could at least amuse himself.

Exactement!” cried Claude.

“But what if a concept were a composite of a dozen concepts? Then the number to express would be the product of a dozen prime numbers. Would you just teach the product by rote, or would you expect everyone, to be literate, to do the arithmetic in their heads?”

“I see your point.” Claude shrugged. “Anyway, I decided that it was not possible for the word for a thing to convey all characteristics of the thing. Rather, I needed to devise a hierarchy of concepts, with enough levels and branches that all things could be assigned their proper place. But I kept changing my mind as to which characteristics to give primacy to. For example, should animals first be subdivided by reference to whether they are carnivores or herbivores, or by whether they walk, swim, or fly?

“I was in a state of despair, until I happened upon a wonderful book in your Grantville library.”

“Which book was that?” asked Federico, who was in a state of despair himself by that point.

Roget’s International Thesaurus,” Claude declared. “The fifth edition, to be precise. It arranges English words, not in alphabetical order as in a dictionary, but according to the ideas that they express.”

“But isn’t it just a writer’s aid, to make sure that one has chosen the word that best matches the thought?”

“I suppose, but it is also a useful guide for constructing a useful language. For example, class one encompasses words pertaining to the body and the senses. Suppose we were to specify that all such words were to begin with the syllable “ba”. Then each of the categories within the class is identified by the second and if need be the third syllables. One combination for the category “birth,” another for “the body,” yet another for “hair,” and so on. And the final syllables would identify the particular word within the category. Thus, we have a unique word for everything on this earth. Ingenious, no?”

“Have you ever played Twenty Questions?” asked Federico abruptly.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s an American word game. One person thinks of something—an animal perhaps—and the other person may ask up to twenty questions in an attempt to guess the animal. The problem-setter must answer truthfully, to the limit of his or her knowledge. You can’t ask ‘what animal is it?’ but you can ask about its characteristics—where it lives, how it moves, what it eats, and so on, and also classification questions, such as ‘is it a kind of whale?’ Finally, you ask whether it is a specific animal, say, a blue whale.”


‘It can be amusing, but only if the poser knows enough about the mystery animal. If the answer to too many of the questions is, ‘I don’t know,’ the game becomes frustrating. And that’s the problem with your proposed universal language. To name a thing, you must know a great deal about it.”

Hardy sighed. “That is pretty much what Descartes wrote to Mersenne, and Mersenne passed on to me. If the primitive words are chosen to reflect the natural order, they may be easily learned, but finding that natural order would require perfect understanding of the things the words represent, and that true philosophy is achievable only in terrestrial paradise.

“But your Grantville’s presence in this world is the result of a miracle, none can honestly doubt that, and I hoped that here I might uncover the secret of universal language. If the answer lies not with Roget’s International Thesaurus, then surely it is somewhere else in Grantville. Could a merciful God intend us to be divided by language until Judgment Day? Is there any doubt that if men understood each other better, that war might become a thing of the past?”

Federico took a long look at Claude Hardy and felt a little ashamed of treating him as a fool. Founding a universal language on philosophical principles was surely a will o’ the wisp, but the greater objective was a noble one.

“As far as I know,” said Federico, “no ‘universal language’ in which the words were based on some sort of encoding of the properties of the things was ever devised that could be spoken fluently by someone other than its inventor—if that. But there have been artificial languages that made use of a vocabulary drawn from a variety of languages—French, German, and so on—so that all Europeans would suffer equally in learning it.

ToB-sprnt“The most successful of them was Esperanto. It had something like a hundred thousand speakers in old time line 2000, but remember, that’s out of ten billion people.”

“And where can I find out how to speak Esperanto?”

“Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the public libraries. You can find a few paragraphs in the encyclopedias about the grammar and how the words are constructed, that’s about it. It is possible that there’s an enthusiast here in Grantville, but I wouldn’t count on it. After all, the adult population of Grantville at the time of the Ring of Fire was only about 2,600. The odds are against you. . . .

“You could of course construct your own version of Esperanto. But if you must invent and promote a universal language, I would suggest an alternative. My colleague Nicole told me that around the end of the nineteenth century, some mathematician created a language called Latino sine flexione. That is, a Latin with a simplified grammar and minimal inflection of words. As I understand it, it had only the ablative case for nouns, no gender, one kind of plural, one plural form, one adjectival form, one definite article, and verbs aren’t inflected for person or number, only for tense.”

Claude pondered this. “That would certainly make it easier to learn.”

Federico added, “And Latin is already the closest that Europe has to a language that is universal in a practical sense, that is, widely known.” He paused. “I take it that you know Descartes and Mersenne because you have communicated with them on mathematical questions?”

“Yes,” said Claude, “but not just as a fellow mathematician. I understand Arabic, and I have translated selected passages from several of the great Arabic treatises for them.”

“Really? Can you also understand Turkish then? Or Persian?”

“Both, but believe me, it is not because I know Arabic. There are a few words in common, but the sound and the grammar are very different. ”

“That’s very interesting,” said Federico. “Sooner or later the eastern empires are going to sit up and take notice of what’s happening in Grantville, or vice versa, and there will be demand for translation between English and those languages. Perhaps, if you are still in town then, you might help us out at Words International.

“In fact, if you have the time, let me show you around Words International now. I don’t know whether my colleagues will be there, but it’s possible—they teach at the school during the day and translate at night.”

Claude agreed, and they called the waitress for the check. In due course they were out in the street.

They had only traveled a block when Federico held up his hand. “Do you hear that?”

“Some sort of commotion,” agreed Claude.

ToB-wgnThey reached the intersection, where a narrow side street crossed the road they were on and beheld two wagon drivers screaming at each other. The street in question wasn’t wide enough for them to both pass simultaneously, and neither seemed inclined to yield.

“‘Here lies the body of Solomon Grey, who died defending his right-of-way,'” Federico recited.

“Pardon?” said Claude.

“I am sorry, I was quoting an American limerick I thought apropos.”

As they came closer, it became apparent why they had failed to negotiate a resolution so far; one was speaking in German and the other in French.

“They appear to be at an impasse,” said Claude, “and soon it may come to blows. Shall we mediate?”

Federico nodded. “Yes, we should suggest that one with the shorter distance to backtrack should do so,” and Claude agreed. A moment later, Claude approached the French-speaking driver and Federico the German-speaking one.

After a brief exchange, Claude walked back to Federico to report. “He says that while he has the shorter distance to backtrack, he turned onto the street first.”

Federico returned to the German and passed this on. A moment later, he cursed and told Claude, “and this one insists that his load is the harder one to back up safely and so the Frenchman should yield.

“Should we let these two idiots remain where they are until Judgment Day?”

“How about a coin flip?” suggested Claude.

The two drivers grudgingly agreed, the Frenchman won the toss, and the German backed up. The Frenchman drove past and fortunately refrained from giving the German the finger as he did so.

“You see, the world needs a common language!” declared Claude triumphantly. “If they had that, they could have settled their differences without our help.”

Federico sighed. “I think what the world needs is more common sense.”



Author’s Note: This story was inspired by reading Airka Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages. Federico Ballarino, a created down-timer, appears previously in “Federico and Ginger” and “Lost in Translation.” The French mathematician, linguist and lawyer Claude Hardy (1604-OTL 1678) did propose a universal language to Mersenne (for review by Descartes) in 1629, but the letter is lost and his system is unknown. What is known is that Descartes didn’t think much of the practicality of any universal language based on philosophical principles. A math-based language in which the word for each thing was the equivalent of a mathematical product of the numbers representing the properties of the thing was proposed by Thomas Urquhart in 1652 and by Francis Lodwick in 1647. A hierarchical classification approach to a philosophical language was proposed by John Wilkins in 1668. Wilkins’ classification in turn inspired Roget’s thesaurus. While Roget composed a “catalogue of words” in 1805, he didn’t publish his classification system until 1852. Note that the arrangement in the 5th edition (1992) is very different from that of earlier editions, although it, too, is hierarchical.


About Iver P. Cooper

Iver P. Cooper, an intellectual property law attorney, lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two children. Two cats and a chinchilla rule the household with iron paws. Iver has received legal writing awards from the American Patent Law Association, the U.S. Trademark Association, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and is the sole author of Biotechnology and the Law, now in its twenty-something edition. He has frequently contributed both fiction and nonfiction to The Grantville Gazette.


When not writing (or trying to get an “orange blob” off his chair so he can start writing), he has been known to teach swing dancing and folk dancing, or to compete in local photo club competitions. Iver adds, “I can’t get my wife to read my fiction, but she has no trouble cashing the checks.”

Iver’s story “The Chase” is in Ring of Fire II

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