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The great 17th century physicist Isaac Newton is known for many things. Thereā€™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 college 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 what a given word meant just by hearing it. As Newton put it: ā€œ[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.ā€

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Linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean Oā€™Neill give a quick overview for Mental Flossā€™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 Newtonā€™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 ā€œtor,ā€ 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 ā€œconlangers.ā€ 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 HBOā€™s Game of Thrones, while Mark Okrand created the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

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These fictional languages usually have limited vocabularies with only a few thousand words, and other than Esperantoā€”two million people speak it today, mostly concentrated in Europe, East Asia, and South Americaā€”they havenā€™t really caught on. True, a Klingon translation of Hamlet exists, and thereā€™s a small but passionate online community dedicated to learning the Naā€™Vi language invented by Caltech linguistics professor Paul Frommer for Avatar. But none have emerged (yet) as bona fide spoken languages.

Newtonā€™s nascent effort didnā€™t fare any better: realizing that it would take a lifetimeā€™s effort to complete a project with little chance of success, he abandoned the attempt, and moved on to bigger things. The Principia wasnā€™t going to write itself.

[Laughing Squid]

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