John Wilkins & irony

You learn something old every day. For close to 50 years I've known about John Wilkins' An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), but I didn't know about this.

Irony punctuation - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"In 1688, John Wilkins in his famous Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language proposed using an inverted exclamation mark to punctuate ironic statements."

The source cited for this tidbit is:

Houston, Keith (2013). Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., pp. 212–214.

Much more detail is provided here:

"Ironic Serif: A Brief History of Typographic Snark and the Failed Crusade for an Irony Mark" by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)
In the ancient world, however, humorists relied on their audience’s intellect to detect the irony and didn’t find it necessary to flag it as such. But by 17th-century England, writers had become increasingly restless about pointing out irony readers might miss, and so the first documented punctuation mark denoting irony was born in 1668, the brainchild of the English vicar and natural philosopher John Wilkins — brother-in-law of the royalists’ bête noire Oliver Cromwell, one-time head of Trinity College (of which pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diaries that “in the opinion of a Cambridge man, to be master of Trinity is to be master of the world”), and eventually appointed as the first secretary of the newly founded Royal Society. Wilkins was a kooky character, who believed the moon was inhabited by aliens, proposed the construction of submarine “Arks,” invented transparent beehives that allowed for the extraction of honey without killing the bees inside, and wrote the very first book on cryptography published in English. But his most memorable accomplishment was the publication of his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, in which he proposed, two centuries before the invention of Esperanto, a new universal language of letters and symbols — a sort of “steroidal, all-encompassing Dewey Decimal System where concepts were organized into a rigid hierarchy.”
Houston amplifies on the concerns of that era, characterized as "information overload". Popova continues:
What prompted Wilkins to propose this punctuational improvement remains unknown, but we do know that he was neither the only nor the first thinker who pondered the problem. Some sixty years earlier, the revered Dutch Renaissance humanist and social critic Desiderius Erasmus, after whom Rotterdam’s prestigious Erasmus University is named, lamented the lack of punctuation for irony, observing that “irony has no place, only different pronunciation.”

We do not know whether Wilkins was aware of Erasmus' comments. In any case, Wilkins' lesser-known proposal sank along with his highly touted artificial language, which Houston characterizes as the "last best hope" of the philosophical-language movement of the era. The balance of the ill-fated history of the irony mark, which continues to our day, is an equally fascinating story, and the question is addressed as to why it never caught on, even in the Internet era.

Considering that the purpose of the philosophical language movement was to create a logically tight structured means of discourse as an aid to the scientific revolution, it is all the more ironic that Wilkins would also be concerned about irony.

Further research is indicated.

Additional links:

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

An Essay Toward a Real Character and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins

Ironisigno- Vikipedio

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