Fri, 01 May 2020
More about Sir Thomas Urquhart
I don't have much to add at this point, but when I looked into Sir Thomas Urquhart a bit more, I found this amazing article by Denton Fox in London Review of Books. It's a review of a new edition of Urquhart's 1652 book The Jewel (Ekskybalauron), published in 1984. The whole article is worth reading. It begins:
and then oh boy, does it deliver. So much of this article is quotable that I'm not sure what to quote. But let's start with:
Some excerpts will follow. You may enjoy reading the whole thing.
I spent much way more time on this than I expected. Fox says:
Thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, a copy is available, and I have been able to glance at it. Urquhart has invented a microlanguage along the lines of Wilkins’ philosophical language, in which the words are constructed systematically. But the language of Trissotetras has a very limited focus: it is intended only for expressing statements of trigonometry. Urquhart says:
The sentence continues for another 118 words but I think the point is made: the idea is not obviously terrible.
Here is an example of Urquhart's trigonometric language in action:
A person skilled in the art might be able to infer the meaning of this axiom from its name:
That is, a side (of a triangle) is proportional to the sine of the opposite angle. This principle is currently known as the law of sines.
Urquhart's idea of constructing mnemonic nonsense words for basic laws was not a new one. There was a long-established tradition of referring to forms of syllogistic reasoning with constructed mnemonics. For example a syllogism in “Darii” is a deduction of this form:
The ‘A’ in “Darii” is a mnemonic for the “all” clause and the ‘I’s for the “some” clauses. By memorizing a list of 24 names, one could remember which of the 256 possible deductions were valid.
Urquhart is following this well-trodden path and borrows some of its terminology. But the way he develops it is rather daunting:
I think that ‘Pubkegdaxesh’ is compounded from the initial syllables of the seven enodandas, with p from upalem, ub from ubamen, k from ekarul, eg from egalem, and so on. I haven't been able to decipher any of these, although I didn't try very hard. There are many difficulties. Sometimes the language is obscure because it's obsolete and sometimes because Urquhart makes up his own words. (What does “enodandas” mean?)
Let's just take “Upalem”. Here are Urquhart's glosses:
I believe “a tangent complement” is exactly what we would now call a cotangent; that is, the tangent of the complementary angle. But how these six items relate to one another, I do not know.
Here's another difficulty: I'm not sure that ‘al’ is one component or two. It might be one:
Either way I'm not sure what is meant. Wait, there is a helpful diagram, and an explanation of it:
This is unclear but tantalizing. Urquhart is solving a problem of elementary plane trigonometry. Some of the sides and angles are known, and we are to find one of the unknown ones. I think if if I read the book from the beginning I think I might be able to make out better what Urquhart was getting at. Tempting as it is I am going to abandon it here.
Trissotetras is dedicated to Urquhart's mother. In the introduction, he laments that
He must have been an admirer of Alexander Rosse, because the front matter ends with a little poem attributed to Rosse.
This is Pantochronachanon, which Wikipedia says “has been the subject of ridicule since the time of its first publication, though it was likely an elaborate joke”, with no citation given.
Fox mentions that Urquhart claims Alcibiades as one of his ancestors. He also claims the Queen of Sheba.
According to Pantochronachanon the world was created in 3948 BC (Ussher puts it in 4004), and Sir Thomas belonged to the 153rd generation of mankind.
Fox claims that the title Εκσκυβαλαυρον means “from dung, gold” but I do not understand why he says this. λαύρα might be a sewer or privy, and I think the word σκυβα means garden herbs. (Addendum: the explanation.)
Fox says that in spite of the general interest in universal languages, “parts of his prospectus must have seemed absurd even then”, quoting this item:
Urquhart boasts that where other, presumably inferior languages have only five or six cases, his language has ten “besides the nominative”. I think Finnish has fourteen but I am not sure even the Finns would be so sure that more was better. Verbs in Urquhart's language have one of ten tenses, seven moods, and four voices. In addition to singular and plural, his language has dual (like Ancient Greek) and also ‘redual’ numbers. Nouns may have one of eleven genders. It's like a language designed by the Oglaf Dwarves.
A later item states:
and another item claims that a word of one syllable is capable of expressing an exact date and time down to the “half quarter of the hour”. Sir Thomas, I believe that Entropia, the goddess of Information Theory, would like a word with you about that.
One final quote from Fox:
Fox says “Nothing much came of this, either.”.
I really wish I had made a note of what I had planned to say about Urquhart in 2008.
[ Addendum 20200502: Brent Yorgey has explained Εκσκυβαλαυρον for me. Σκύβαλα (‘skubala’) is dung, garbage, or refuse; it appears in the original Greek text of Philippians 3:8:
And while the usual Greek word for gold is χρῡσός (‘chrysos’), the word αύρον (‘auron’, probably akin to Latin aurum) is also gold. The screenshot at right is from the 8th edition of Liddell and Scott. Thank you, M. Yorgey! ]
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