Idea and experiment – Wilkins’ ‘invented script’.

A recent post from the CREWS project mentions John Wilkins book,  An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language Written in 1641, a later copy (1668) of Wilkins’ book is at the internet archive (see link above).


Mention of Wilkins’ book will resonate with some readers, for  as d’Imperio reports, Friedman had been struck by a new idea at  some time between September and December 1944 and then :

A new enthusiasm was communicated to the attendees … by William Friedman’s presentation of his findings concerning a synthetic language invented by Wilkins.

(d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma pp. 40-41)

d’Imperio has phrased it very nicely; it was plainly William Friedman’s own ‘enthusiasm’  –  and like a number of others d’Imperio realised the idea was dubious, requiring the group to shift their attention now to a period more than two centuries later than the manuscript was made – and three centuries and more beyond when most of Friedmans’ contemporaries believed it had been made.

Friedman addressed the time-gap by piling speculation on speculation (as Voynich theorists have so often done),  first imagining contrary to the physical evidence that the manuscript had been written so late, and later that  Wilkins’ work was “based on an earlier invention” – though Wilkins and the historical record say otherwise.  Tiltman did find another effort at ‘synthetic language’-   published just five years before Wilkins’ (delayed) book had appeared in print.

Not only is there no precedent known today, but the conditions which made the concept of a universal ‘shorthand’ communication of ideas attractive had not existed in fifteenth century Europe, when the ruler decided what language and script (and not rarely what system of religious belief) would be employed throughout his dominions.

Members of Friedman’s second group dutifully followed up his idea and while many others must have wondered about its relevance, few seem to have tried to dissuade him.

One outsider did.   Responding to a direct question, Erwin Panofsky did try to introduce without giving offence the difference between Friedman’s latest vision for the manuscript and the historical reality.    He wrote:

… I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century … As I mentioned in conversation, the Italian humanist, Leone Battista Alberti, welcomed the newly discovered “hieroglyphs” as a kind of writing that was independent of language differences and was therefore understandable to all initiated; but this would seem a rather different proposition because the hieroglyphs were not an artificial language developed, on systematic grounds, by a contemporary author but were reputed to be a sign language actually used by the Egyptians and therefore particularly attractive to the humanists who credited the Egyptians with a wisdom even more profound than that of the Greeks and Romans.

As it happens, we know that some of the Renaissance literati and artists  treated an  invention of pictorial ‘hieroglyphs’ as a  form of artistic-literary conceit for which their model was chiefly the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo or other publications of the sort, which explained various symbols in terms of  moral (or ‘philosophical’) interpretations.  It connected easily with the earlier customs of creating visual ‘cues’ for memorising a text and with the (originally Egyptian) system of emblemata employed in imagery of Christ and the saints.

An example from Horapollo’s book:

When they [i.e. the Egyptians -D] want to write “cosmos,” they draw a serpent devouring its own tail and covered with many-colored scales. By the scales they allude to the stars of the cosmos. This animal is very heavy, like the earth; but it is also very smooth, like the water. Every year, it strips off its old age with its skin, as the course of a year in the cosmos changes and becomes young again. [The fact of ] using its own body as nourishment signifies that all the great things divine providence engenders in the cosmos are taken back again into it by [a process of ] diminution.]

For an overview of the Hieroglyphica’s history and the debate over its  value see:

  • Pedro Germano Leal, ‘ Reassessing Horapollon: A Contemporary View on
    Hieroglyphica’, Emblematica: an interdisciplinary journal for emblem studies, Volume 21 (2014) pp.37-76.
  • Mark Wildish, The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo Nilous: Hieroglyphic Semantics in Late Antiquity (2018).

for those interested in how such associations evolved  with the transmission of Egyptian hieroglyphic forms from Egyptian to Ptolemaic Greek, and then to Coptic Christian and finally Latin Christian thought, I warmly recommend:

  • Renata Landgrafova , ‘Ars Memoriae Aegyptiaca? Some Preliminary Remarks on the Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the Classical Art of Memory’, Berliner Beiträge zum vorderen Orient [BBVO], Band 23 (2014) pp.133-153. (pdf presently available through

Wilkins produced something rather different from those invented emblems, a written script in which each element is shorthand for a sub-category of ideas.   Wilkins’ script itself appears oddly like a cross between Pitman’s shorthand and Syriac estrangela script. (see picture at the top of this post).

Wilkins explained why he supposed this ‘synthetic language’ would have  value.  It was not for secrecy but…

… a remedy .. against the Curse of the Confusion, considering the vast multitude of Languages that are in the World. Besides that most obvious advantage which would ensue, of facilitating mutual Commerce amongst the several Nations of the World , and the improving of all Natural knowledge ; It would likewise very much conduce to the spreading of the knowledge of Religion.

Though clearly supposing these to be high-minded aims, from our distance it is clear that they are designed to serve the growing ambitions of European nations –  to facilitate Europeans‘ acquisition of more intellectual and material goods  and a more efficient introduction (or imposition) of Christianity.  There’s nothing reciprocal implied here: not that his script will help foreigners travel in Europe, nor assist Christians to have better opportunities to convert to the Buddhist way or adopt the Hindu  faith.  What is being envisaged as ‘universality’ is – as so often – masking a wish for homogeneity as prelude to political and/or religious conformity.

Fifteenth century Europe’s missionary orders might have appreciated the idea in general but – as Panofsky indicated – the educated in fifteenth century Europe had supposed all ‘natural knowledge’ lay perfected in  writings of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.  Commerce brought exotic goods efficiently enough through Europe’s trader-cities – notably Genoa and Venice – and these managed with interpreters in the trading hubs which mostly lay  on, or adjacent to the greater Mediterranean.

During the century of the ‘Pax Mongolica’, Pegolotti had explained that traders who preferred to pass overland from the Black Sea to the borders of China and buy silk could do so by hiring a Cuman-speaking dragoman in Serai – a town on the Black Sea.

Wilkins’ approach is obviously from a much later period than that in which the Voynich manuscript was made; his ideas reflect some knowledge of  Chinese idiograms – as they were perceived in seventeenth-century Europe.  Thus, in 1605, Francis Bacon asserted that Chinese characters represented  neither letters nor words but “things or notions” – much as Egyptian hieroglyphics were then believed to do.

Wilkins’ idea was to classify and represent all ‘things or notions’ by a kind of keyed shorthand, but where is is natural for an idiographic system to produce  lists of related ideas by reason of related key elements, Wilkins had to go to enormous lengths to create his ‘philosophical’ divisions and then cope, too, with issues of grammatical structure.

To illustrate that natural ordering of ideas, a section from an old Chinese-English dictionary. The characters include a radical which refers to sense and the rest convey the specific sound of a word. A radical may be abbreviated,as illustrated below in the left-hand column.


In such an endeavour as Wilkins’ there is something characteristically seventeenth-century European, and that alone might have deterred a person less fixated on the sole subject of ciphers from attempting to compare it with the Voynich text.  But such peripheral matters as codicology, history or iconographic style seem not to have influenced Friedman, and his group would only reject Wilkins’ text as possible model after much wasted time and effort.


1.. Wilkins in Elegant Enigma.  The references are complete but also reveal d’Imperio’s skepticism – and possibly most of the group’s.



2. Hartrampf’s Vocabularies:

Augustus Hartrampf would later made his fortune by producing a work clearly derived from part of Wilkins’.  First published in 1929, Hartrampf’s Vocabularies – which Friedman may have known   – went through twelve editions in its first decade.  Hartrampf omitted Wilkins’ symbols and his struggles with grammatical order, instead producing a form of thesaurus in which terms, synonyms and antonyms are disposed by conceptual classes.


  • Gustavus A. Hartrampf, Hartrampf’s Vocabularies (various editions).



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