In the latest episode of their continually fascinating and informative etymological whiteboard series for Mental Floss, linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean O’Neill verbally and visually explain about the little-known language that the prolific mathematician, physicist and inventor Sir Isaac Newton attempted to create, the logic behind it and why it never became universal.
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 Newton’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 “tor,” his word for temperature, to produce more specific meanings from exceedingly hot, through pretty hot, warm, indifferently cold and extremely cold, with all gradations in between. Newton tried to cram an awful lot into this one paradigm, and probably came to understand that if he wanted this degree of precision of meaning for every concept in the world, he would have to devote his life to this task. Instead, he moved on to other things.