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Monday, June 3, 2013

The Unsuccessful Quest For A Universal Language

From: National Public Radio (click here for link and audio).

Within science circles, trying to come up with a new universal language was a trendy past-time in the 17th Century. Even the man who discovered gravity, Sir Isaac Newton, took a stab at it. Arika Okrent, editor-at-large at, talks about its failure to catch on with Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden.

Communications barriers have long vexed us, as showcased in the movie "Rush Hour."


CHRIS TUCKER: (As Carter) Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?

LYDEN: Scientists in the 17th century were working hard to understand; mainly, the secrets of the universe but also, each other. With Latin on the decline, they were seeking a whole new way of communicating that would defy barriers and borders - a universal language.

And though he's better known for discovering gravity, even Sir Isaac Newton took a stab at it. We know this because Newton left behind an outline of this new, universal language in an old notebook.

Arika Okrent is an editor-at-large at, and she's also a linguist who explains how this language would work.

ARIKA OKRENT: What Newton tried out was, you didn't have to have different words for every degree of something. You could have one root. The example he gives is "tor," for temperature. And then to make the word "cold," you just add a prefix to it. And to make the word "hot," you add a different prefix to it. And then you have different prefixes, all the way through the whole scale of coldness to hotness.

So "utor" is hot, "owtor" is exceedingly hot, "etor" is warm, "oytor" is excessively cold - and everything in between.So you could have a degree of precision of temperature, just by adding these set prefixes to that one concept.

LYDEN: So have you tried to speak in Sir Isaac Newton's language?

OKRENT: Well, he doesn't give enough vocabulary for you to really say anything. He just gives a few examples. The rest of it is all an outline of how it could work. And I think that's where many people got tripped up on this idea. It sounds really nice. Break down the universe into concepts and make a mathematics out of that, and then you have to sit down and figure out the universe. (Laughing) And that part's a lot harder.

But a colleague of his - John Wilkins, a member of the Royal Society - actually did this, and has a 600-page breakdown of vocabulary based on everything in the universe. It was very well-known in its day, and no one ever really spoke it.

LYDEN: So why did this bid of trying to create this universal language, fail?
OKRENT: Well, it's nice to think that we could overcome misunderstandings if we could be so precise that exactly what we wanted to say would come through, and the person on the other end could decompose our meaning perfectly. There's no fuzziness in there. But that isn't the way that we use language. The fuzziness and ambiguity in language is actually very useful to us.

We go ahead; we start talking without really knowing where we're going. We work out our thoughts as we speak. And it's hard to do that in a language where you have to know your exact meaning before you can even say anything.

LYDEN: So Newtonian didn't count for, in Arabic, you say "yanni" a lot and in English, "whatevah."


OKRENT: (Laughing) Right. You need the whatever. You want to be able to say "it's hot" or "it's cold" without specifying "it's very little exceedingly hot."

LYDEN: You know, this whole attempt to create a new language - I mean, it's always a wonderful concept. I remember Esperanto was going to be the universal language in the '60s. Why don't universal languages catch on very well?

OKRENT: I mean, Esperanto is the most successful one of all time, in the sense that it's not a universal language, but people actually still speak it. But they do within their own, little community. And I think that's the real problem. We can't have a universal language because we don't have a universal community. And that's where languages live, between people.

LYDEN: That's Arika Okrent, editor-at-large for and the author of "In the Land of Invented Languages." Thank you very much for being with us.

OKRENT: Thank you so much. This was fun.

Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking is the ability to listen, analyze, store and use information taking into account bias, prejudice and preexisting conclusions. Be open minded and ask questions. We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based.

What is Critical Thinking?

In your college studies you will often be told to “think critically” about a topic or questions.

But what is critical thinking?

Simply the ability to reason through things from differing perspectives, research when needed and cope to some form of consensus or belief.

In the late 1980s, the American Philosophical Association commissioned a study to better define the concept of critical thinking and how it can be recognized, taught, and assessed. Forty-six internationally recognized thinkers participated in the study through a two-year, qualitative research process known as the “Delphi method.” The panel, led by Dr. Peter Facione, published a report called “Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction;” this is often referred to as “The Delphi Report.”

The following definition of critical thinking is quoted from the Executive Summary of that report (Facione, 1990):


We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.

Facione, P. A. (1990). Executive summary: Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction. Millbrae, CA: The California Academic Press. Electronic version retrieved May 1, 2009 from

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