A universal language

I loved the way Alain de Botton wonders about a having a unique language akin to that used by engineers, ‘with which to convey even the most labyrinthine electrical scenarios, so that from Iran to Chile,  \ \mu \ referred to permeability’ and so on.


I was struck by how impoverished ordinary language can be by contrast, requiring its user to arrange inordinate numbers of words in tottering and unstable piles in order to communicate meanings infinitely more basic than anything related to an electrical network. I found myself wishing that the rest of mankind would follow the engineers’ example and agree on a series of symbols which could point incontrovertibly to a certain elusive, vaporous and often painful psychological states – a code which might help us to feel less tongue-ties and less lonely, and enable us to resolve arguments with swift and silent exchanges of equations.

There seemed to be no shortage of feelings to which the engineers’ brevity might be profitably applied. If only a letter could have been identified, for example, with which elegantly to allude to the strange desire one occasionally has to elicit love from people one does not even particularly like (ß, say); or the irritation evoked when acquaintances seem to be more worried about one’s illnesses than one is in oneself (\ \omega \ ); or the still vaguer sense one can sometimes have that different periods of one’s life are in coexistence, so that one would have only to return to one’s childhood home to find everything the same as it once was, with no one having died and nothing having changed ( \ \varepsilon \ ) . Possessed of such a notational system, one would be able to compress the free-floating nostalgia and anxiety typical of a Sunday afternoon into a single pellucid and unambiguous sequence (ß + \ \omega \  \ \varepsilon \ x 2) and attract sympathy and compassion from the friends around whom one might otherwise have grunted unhelpfully.

– From The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

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