We first met the Right Reverend John Wilkins FRS, renaissance man of the Restoration, back in 2011. A founding member of the Royal Society, brother in law to Oliver Cromwell and mad scientist extraordinaire, Wilkins was one of the seventeenth century’s most ardent devotees of what are now called conlangs, or constructed languages, and he expended a considerable amount of time and effort on his magnum opus on the subject, An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language.1 His book was published to acclaim in scholarly circles though it very nearly never made it to print at all, as Wilkins himself explained in his introduction:
I have been the longer about it [the writing], partly because it required some considerable time to reduce the Collections I had by me to this purpose, into a tolerable order; and partly because when this work was done in Writing, and the Impression of it well nigh finished, it hapned (amongst many better things) to be burnt in the late dreadfull Fire; by which, all that was Printed (excepting only two Copies) and a great parts of the unprinted Original was destroyed: The repairing of which, hath taken up the greatest part of my time ever since.
The “late dreadfull Fire” was, of course, the Great Fire of London that in 1666 had destroyed some 13,000 homes in the City of London, Wilkins’ own vicarage among them.23 Having gathered his wits and his notes in the wake of the fire, Essay was finally published two years later.
His readers, by and large, found it to have been worth the wait.
The first and largest part of Wilkins’ ponderous tome was a taxonomy of, well, of everything, a kind of Dewey Decimal System for classifying “all things and notions that fall under discourse”, as Wilkins put it. Following this were the “real character” and “philosophical language” of the title — an alphabet of written symbols and a vocabulary of spoken sounds, respectively, with which readers could communicate the “things and notions” that they succeeded in categorising according to the taxonomy itself.4 The sum total of all this was a finished artificial language: rules for locating things and ideas within a taxonomical framework; a written script to set those concepts down on paper; and a spoken language to give them voice. Wilkins finally united Essay’s three components in a concrete example on the four hundred and twenty-first page of his book, in the form of the Lord’s prayer. Here it is:
If you’ve read the Shady Characters book, however, or my first post about irony marks, you’ll already know that there was more to Essay than an elaborate constructed language. Tacked onto the tail end of Wilkins’ description of his “real character” was a clutch of punctuation marks with no less than an irony mark among them, the oldest one I’ve yet found, and one that has echoed down the centuries until today. Until now, I’d only ever known about Wilkins’ mark in an abstract way, via the words or allusions of other writers, but a recent tweet by Coffee & Donatus inspired me to look again at this earliest of irony mark. And with Coffee & Donatus’s help, now, happily, I can bring you Wilkins’ irony mark in the words of the man himself.
Let’s dive right in. The following image is a detail of page 393 from Essay on which Wilkins lists all of the marks he felt were necessary to punctuate texts written using his invented script. In addition to the humdrum comma, colon and period (not shown here), he branched out with a double-decker hyphen, parentheses, “explication” brackets used to elucidate texts, a question mark, an exclamation, or “wonder” mark, and, finally, an inverted exclamation mark serving as an irony mark:
Wilkins wrote of his irony mark:
Irony is for the distinction of the meaning and intention of any words, when they are understood by way of Sarcasm or scoff, or in a contrary sense to that which they naturally signifie: And though there be not (for ought I know) any note designed for this in any of the Instituted Languages, yet that is from their deficiency and imperfection: For if the chief force of Ironies do consist in Pronunciation, it will plainly follow, that there ought to be some mark for direction, when are to be so pronounced.
Well put. The next time someone asks me to define irony, I’ll tell them that it is any use of words when they are understood by way of sarcasm or scoff, or in a contrary sense to that which they naturally signify. Here are Wilkins’ usage guidelines in situ on page 356, along with his descriptions of the other marks:
Unfortunately, despite the scholarly approval that greeted Essay on its publication, Wilkins’ masterwork followed the philosophical language movement in general on an inexorable downward slope. A century after its publication the fashion for constructing languages had largely waned, and Wilkins’ irony mark had been similarly forgotten. And yet, it was not lost. As we saw last year on Shady Characters, a 1792 book entitled A clear and practical system of punctuation by one Joseph Robertson5 recapitulated the case for an irony mark in exactly the same form, even if Robertson did not credit Wilkins for the invention. Then, scarcely more than a decade ago, Josh Greenman of Slate proposed again that ‘¡’ should be used to punctuate ironic statements.6 Wilkins and his book may be long gone, but his irony mark has usefully outlived them both.
Many thanks to Coffee & Donatus for the images in this post. If you enjoyed the images here, take a look back at Miscellany № 64: let’s gnomonise, which features more from Coffee & Donatus.
- John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language., 1668. ↢
- P Wright Henderson, The Life and Times of John Wilkins, 1910. ↢
- “Great Fire of London”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015. ↢
- R Lewis, “The Publication of John Wilkins’s Essay (1668): Some Contextual Considerations”, 2002. ↢
- J Robertson, A Clear and Practical System of Punctuation : Abridged from Robertson’s Essay on Punctuation : For the Use of Schools., 1792. ↢
- Josh Greenman, “A Giant Step Forward for Punctuation¡”, Slate, December–2004. ↢