The Universal Character

Cave Beck (1623 to ~1700) was born the son of a baker in London, educated in Cambridge and Oxford, and spent much of his adult life working as a schoolteacher in Ipswich, England. In 1657 he produced his Universal Character, one of the very first attempts to formulate and publicise a universal language. It was published simultaneously with a French version, but neither seems to have sold readily, and there is no record of Beck ever publishing anything else.

Andy Drummond is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has published four novels. The study of foreign languages at university enticed him in later life to investigate past attempts at creating universal languages, one of which he explored more thoroughly in his novel A Handbook of Volapük (2006). His interest in Cave Beck stems from a paper on 17th Century universal languages, which he delivered at a 2011 conference to mark the 400th anniversary of Sir Thomas Urquhart.

Abstract

The Universal Language of Cave Beck is primarily an a priori language based around a lengthy (but restrictive) list of core vocabulary and a set of simple grammatical rules. The vocabulary comprises some four thousand “primitives”, root-words which were deemed to cover all essential usage, and from which all other possible words might be derived by the application of prefixes and suffixes. These (English) words are simply arranged in alphabetical order and assigned a number from 1 to 3996. In addition to this long list, Cave proposed the continued use of around 60 Latin prepositions (sub-, super-, pro-, etc.), and of around 180 simple invented monosyllables (e.g. sef, taf, tem, sorc) for “commonly used” words (such as because, good, art, water).

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