Isaac Newton Once Tried To Invent His Own Language 

By Jennifer Ouellette on at

The great 17th century physicist Isaac Newton is known for many things. There’s his laws of motion and theory of gravity. Plus, the dude invented calculus, wrote a lengthy treatise about optics, and dabbled in alchemy for good measure. But few people know that as a young student, Newton tried to invent his own universal language.

Apparently it bugged the young Newton that the meanings of words were determined haphazardly. He thought it would be a vast improvement if there was a more orderly formula that would let people know that a given word meant just by hearing it. As Newton put it: “[L]et the names of the same sorte of things begin with the same letter: as of Instruments with s; Beasts with t; The soules passions with b, etc.”

Linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean O’Neill give a quick overview for Mental Floss’s whiteboard video series:

When Newton was just beginning college, he drew up plans for a language based on the nature of things, rather than on mere convention. In Newton’s plan, prefixes and suffixes would indicate subtle variations in meaning. His most fully worked-out example shows how prefixes could modify the meaning of “tor,” his word for temperature, to produce more specific meanings from exceedingly hot [owtor], through pretty hot [awtor], warm [etor], indifferently cold [aytor] and extremely cold [oytor], with all gradations in between.

Newton is actually in very good company. People who create new languages as a (very serious) hobby are called “conlangers.” The most successful invented language is Esperanto, dating back to 1887. Mostly, though, you find conlangers in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, where invented languages are a critical part of world-building. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien invented an Elvish language for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. David J. Peterson invented the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones, while Mark Okrand created the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

These fictional languages usually have limited vocabularies with only a few thousand words, and other than Esperanto—two million people speak it today, mostly concentrated in Europe, East Asia, and South America—they haven’t really caught on. True, a Klingon translation of Hamlet exists, and there’s a small but passionate online community dedicated to learning the Na’Vi language invented by Caltech linguistics professor Paul Frommer for Avatar. But none have emerged (yet) as bona fide spoken languages.

Newton’s nascent effort didn’t fare any better: realising that it would take a lifetime’s effort to complete a project with little chance of success, he abandoned the attempt, and moved on to bigger things. The Principia wasn’t going to write itself. [Laughing Squid]