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"The Invention of some easie Character ...

Cave Beck: The Universal Character - the cover - click to view full-size ...hath been judged necessary, which might be a Clew to direct us out of a Laborinth of Languages."

Cave Beck was a 17th century schoolmaster and cleric from Ipswich. In 1657, he published one of the very earliest attempts at a 'universal language' "by which all the Nations in the World may understand one another". Beck's book, snappily named 'The Universal Character', contained two parts: a grammar, based around a clearly-defined series of prefixes and suffixes to a central 'radical' word; and a list of around 4,000 of these 'radicals', complete with a similar number of synonyms. The 'radicals' themselves were simply sequential numbers, from 1 to 3996.
This new language was simple in design, but more than a little odd in execution. But, despite its quirkiness - and the utterly slapdash efforts of the printer - Beck's Universal Character is still considered important as one of the first of its kind in Europe.
My new edition of Beck's work is primarily a transcription from the original text - a labour of love! I have added a short foreword which deals with the history of its printing, its relationship to other 17th-century universal language schemes, and some of its inherent weaknesses.
Everyone should read it.
A very rough outline of the grammar and the vocabulary is given below, together with some critical words about the printer.


Vivian Salmon, a highly-respected historian of language, considered that:
"though Beck's originality as a linguist cannot be rated highly, he should certainly be remembered as the creator of the first complete 'Universal Character' to be printed, not only in Britain but, in all likelihood, in the whole of Europe."

The Grammar

Rather than explain it all to you, I will just let Beck have his say on the construction of the grammar:

"Nouns are known by the Letters p,q,r,x, set before the Arithmetical figures (i.e. those sequential numbers, 1 to 3996). Instead of Cases, the Vowels a,e,i,o,u are set after the Nouns and Participles, Consonants. The Feminine are known by the letter f, added to the Syllabical Cases. The Vowels a, e, i beginning a Syllable and having the Consonants b,c,d,f,g,l set after them, expresse the three Persons of the Pronounes, and the six Tenses of the Verbs. The Consonants l & m, prefixed to those Syllables, make the Imperative, and Potential Moods. The Infinitive present being writ with plain figures, without any letter or mark before them, is made the Theme, or Root of all. The Passive Voice is distinguished from the Active, by a line drawn over the head of one of the figures. The Plural Number is known by an [s] set after the figures. Derivative Adverbs, have the letter t, set before their figures."

And so on. It is both simple and complex. Let us just say that, for the Fifth Commandment in the Mosaic Decalogue, honour they father and thy mother is rendered as leb 2314 p 2477 and pf 2477. If you need to know more than that, then consult the book!

The Dictionary

Every page of his 8,000-word dictionary holds little gems of long-forgotten English – 'gogle-eyed', 'an ouche collar' ,'a gammot or incision knife', 'the brayne tunnel'; not forgetting, of course, 'the night mare – a disease'. To dip into this list of words is to lose oneself in a foreign land altogether - the past. There are words you recognise, if not necessarily in the spelling given. There are words you recognise but which describe things you can barely imagine. And there are long lists of words which make you wonder just what Mr Beck's priorities actually were. Do we really need an entry for "gogle-eyed" ? For "the longing of a woman with child" ? And "saffocation of the mother, a disease" ?
And there are, for example, around 120 entries for trees, 180 for "herbs" (or plants), 90 for fish, 80 for birds, 20 for "worms", and 40-odd for animals and beasts, 25 of 'stuffe' (materials). Not to mention at least 16 'diseases'. And a whole page dedicated to all the possible varieties of family relationships - from 'a husbands father' to 'a mothers cosen german'...
Words are simply allocated a number in the English alphabetical order in which they appear, rather than in terms of frequency of use, or usefulness. The entry first numbered in this way becomes the "Primitive". Thus, 'amity' gets a primary number (166), but 'friend' does not. Similarly, 'made' gets the first entry (2675) while 'to make' has to cross-refer back to 'made'. And "more" gets a number (2829), while "much" does not. There is a Primitive entry for 'cold', but not for hot, or warm: 'warm' cross-refers to the entry for 'lukewarm'. No. 18 is "abroad" but it is first mentioned with a "u" prefix ('from' ) – which is why the same Primitive is referred to for words relating to home or house ! Perhaps most illogically of all: "canibal" gets the Primitive number 873; and subsequent entries for human(e), man, woman, President etc all reference 873 – all because 'C' comes earlier in the alphabet.
And...there was a French edition, also published in 1657. Obviously, it uses the same numbering system for the vocabulary. 'Dog' = 'r 550' = 'chien'. Brilliant in its simplicity! (Well, not a great example: the French edition prefers the feminine version - 'rf 550' = 'chienne'. Ain't life a bitch?)

The Printer

Cave Beck's book was printed in London by Thomas Maxey. Maxey himself died in January 1657, so this must have been the last book he had through his hands. His widow Anne printed the French edition mentioned above.
While it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, it has to be said that rarely does one come across a printed book with so many mistakes in it. The dictionary section, in particular, contains on average one priner's error per page - ranging from wrong nunmbers, to mis-spellings. But, on the plus side, it adds a great deal of charm to the book. Especially, I would argue, entry 3373 - 'a robin red beast'. It brings a whole new dimension to Xmas cards.