"For Sale: Sir Thomas More’s Utopian Alphabet" Discussion Thread

Welcome to the discussion thread for the story, For Sale: Sir Thomas More’s Utopian Alphabet. You can share your comments and thoughts about the story in the conversation below.

As one who has taught linguistics in collegiate contexts, I always assigned my undergrad students to invent their own languages and alphabets (as I had in childhood). To pass the course, students had to submit a full page excerpt of this construct language with unique alphabet (Orthography) and rudimentary grammar (Syntax), sound system (Phonology) and basic morphemes (MORPHOLOGY) as units of meaning that could be compounded, gendered, and an affix system (e.g., subfix, postfix, prefix, infix, superfix, etc.) with compounds that that could be negated or pluralized, etc., in the appropriate place. I had to be able to figure out these “languages” with only a nominal key. I was generally pleased with the resulting creativity. Perhaps the only surprise was how many of these students who were successful at this task went on to work professionally in cryptography and related analytical work, including for NSA and the like. While my first invitation to a Ph.D. program was in History of Science - which I still teach - the allure of forensic archaeology won out; historical linguistics, however, remain an enduring fascination. My first article was on original myth palindromes published - courtesy of Martin Gardner’s encouragement - in Word Ways in 1981; my second was in the NSTA Science Teacher in 1981 on problem solving and why learning Latin facilitated it. So, of course, I am enthralled by your article. Note the word UTOPIA has several clever layers. The way More wrote it in Latin actually embeds multiple Greek sources: TOPOS in Greek can be easily rendered “place”; OU- means “no” (OU+TOPOS) but the Greek homophone EU- generally means “good” (EU+TOPOS) or “well” or “true”. So OU- and EU- seem antithetic homophones without diacritical accents if one engages in subtle paronomasia (word play). So one could read UTOPIA as a double entendre in Latin remembering the Greek subsurface. Thus U + TOPIA = “no place is the good (or best) place” or conclude “the perfect place is nowhere”. This is not so much a philosophical paradox as a wise reflection we all learn empirically.