Ars signorum

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Ars signorum
Spoken in: --
Timeline/Universe: international auxiliary language
Total speakers: probably, none
Genealogical classification: a priori
philosophical language
Basic word order: SVO
Morphological type: agglutinating
Morphosyntactic alignment: accusative
Created by:
George Dalgarno 1661

Ars signorum (Latin: The Art of Signs) is a philosophical language published by George Dalgarno, a Scottish-born Oxford schoolmaster, in 1661. It is one of the first known languages of this kind. Dalgarno initially cooperated with John Wilkins, but the two could not agree on a taxonomy, as Wilkins aimed at an encyclopedic taxonomy covering every species of animals, plants, minerals and artifcats, while Dalgarno opted for a taxonomy covering only generic notions, from which more specific words could be formed by compounding. Hence, they parted company and Dalgarno pursued his own ideas. Wilkins would go on to design An Essay towards a Real Character, which he published in 1668.

Ars signorum is also the title of the book in which Dalgarno lays out the language. The book is written in Latin and focuses on the philosophical considerations behind the design of his language, to the point that it fails to give a coherent description of the language's grammar. But at least, it contains some sample texts (translations from the Bible and Æesop's fables), a fold-out chart of the taxonomy and the word roots derived from it, and a Latin dictionary of the language. This almost complete absence of the kind of information that a language learner would want certainly was part of the reason why the language apparently was not learned by anyone and thus was a dead language from the start.


Dalgarno devotes nine pages of his book to the phonology of his language, discussing phonetic features and the reasoning behind his choices of phonemes.


  Labial Coronal Dorsal
Stops voiceless p t k
voiced b d g
Fricatives voiceless f s  
voiced v    
Nasals m n  
Liquids   l r  

An uncertain matter is the combination sh, which Dalgarno uses as a "euphonious" substitute for sr. The letter h is not used otherwise in the language, and it is uncertain whether the combination is pronounced as [s]+[h], or, as in English, as [ʃ].


  "Guttural" "Labial"
Close i u
Close-mid e o <υ>
Open-mid ɛ <η> ɔ <o>
Open a  

In addition, the language uses the diphthongs ai, ei and oi.


Word formation

Words in Ars signorum are formed by derivation and compounding from a set of 1068 monosyllabic roots ("Radicals"). These roots denote generic concepts and are derived from a taxonomy of ideas. The classes indicated by the initial phoneme are:

  • A being.
  • Η substance.
  • E accident.
  • I complete (concrete) being.
  • O body.
  • Υ spirit.
  • U composite of body and spirit: person.
  • M mathematical concrete.
  • N physical concrete.
  • F artificial concrete.
  • Ai spiritual concrete.
  • EI soul.
  • Oi angel.
  • S common accident.
  • B mathematical accident.
  • D physical accident.
  • G sensitive quality.
  • P sensitive accident.
  • T rational accident.
  • K political accident.

The vowel-initial categories contain just one word each, formed from the vowel and the consonant v, e.g. uv 'human being'. The others combine with a vowel and a consonant to form roots. Herein, the diphthong ei functions as placeholder for a vowel and the consonant s as placeholder for a consonant, such that, for instance, the word neis refers to a generic "physical concrete".

In the "Table of Substances" (roots beginning with m, n, f), the final consonant indicates the first-level subdivision and the vowel the second-level subdivision. In the "Table of Accidents" (roots beginning with s or a stop), the vowel indicates the first-level subdivision and the final consonant the second-level subdivision. The opposite of an accident is formed by infixing r after the first consonant (e.g., gom 'light'; grom 'darkness'); the middle element between the opposites by infixing l (glom 'twilight'). (After s, h is used instead of r). A prefixed s is sometimes used to create more roots in a particular class.

Example of root formation:

neik terrestrial animal
nak oviparous (e.g., lizard)
nηk whole-footed (e.g., horse, elephant)
nek split-footed (e.g., cattle, pig)
nik multiple-toed, large (e.g., dog)
nok multiple-toed, small (e.g., mouse)
nυk burrowing (e.g., mole)
nuk serpent

There are several derivational suffixes, e.g. -el for an agent noun: kan 'to rule'; kanel 'king'; -or for an object noun: pon 'love'; ponor 'something or somebody being loved'.

Many more words can be formed by compounding. Compounds are head-initial, and can consist of two or more roots. Example:

nafgrofnηm 'coal' ('mineral'+'black'+'fire'; i.e. 'black mineral that burns')


Nouns are not inflected for case. The plural is formed by doubling the final consonant and adding i: kanel 'king'; kanelli 'kings'.


There are many suffixes for the degree of quality of an adjective.

simam very good
siman moderately good
simaf not very good
simab better
simad as good
simag less good
simap best
simat moderately good
simak least good


  Singular Plural
1st person lal lalli
2nd person lηl lηlli
3rd person lel lelli
Proximal lol lolli
Distal lυl lυlli
Interrogative lul lulli


Numerals begin with v followed by a string of vowels and consonants functioning as digits.

Digit Vowel Consonant
0 i l
1 a m
2 η n
3 e f
4 o b
5 υ d
6 u g
7 ai p
8 ei t
9 oi k

Examples: vado '154'; ventum '32861'.


Verbs have five tenses, an imperative and an infinitive.

Example: ponesυ 'to love'

Present ponesi
Imperfect ponese
Perfect ponesa
Pluperfect ponesη
Future ponesu
Imperative poneso
Infinitive ponesυ


The basic word order is SVO; attributes follow the noun they modify.

Sample text

Dan semu, Sava samesa Nam tηn Nom. Tηn nom avesa sof-shana tηn draga, tηn gromu avesa ben mem sηf bafu: tηn υv sηf Sava damesa ben mem sηf nimmi.

'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.' (Genesis 1:1-2)


  • Cram, D.; Maat, J. 2001. George Dalgarno on Universal Language. Oxford University Press. Contains a complete edition and translation of Ars signorum and other works by George Dalgarno.