Friday, 17 April 2009

We do not know what thing the universe is

The Ipogo school of philosophers divide all life into the following categories:

p) those that belong to the emperor;
b) embalmed things;
k) those that are trained;
g) innumerable ones;
f) mermaids;
j) fabulous beings;
those that are drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush;
w) those that are not included in the other categories;
l) those that tremble as if they were mad;
h) those that at a distance resemble flies.

From this categorisation, they have developed an 'analytical language' which aims at creating the true name for every living thing - by dividing and subdividing each category and allocating a separate letter to each one. Thus, the true name of a kraken is formed by taking j (for a fabulous being), à (for the subdivision of fabulous being which lives in the ocean), w (for the subsubdivision of ocean-dwelling fabulous being which destroy ships), and è (for the subsubsubdivision of ocean-dwelling fabulous being which destroys ships and has a beak) - thus making jàwè. On the other hand, the carefully preserved corpse of the oligarch Suyong-bui 9's favourite midget, which sits before the stairs to the Old Temple in Silaish Vo, has the true name bàfolì. This is taken from its categorisation as an embalmed thing which was once owned as a slave, which had never known the physical act of love, which had lost a digit, which had given pleasure, and which was stunted.

True names necessarily change according to cirumstance. For example, if another item which resembles that currently known as bàfolì should be discovered, this would necessitate a further subdivision - for example, the first bàfolì might become bàfolìp, distinguished by being male, and the second bàfolìj, by being female.

The Ipogo keep a vast library in their palace in the Yellow City, containing all the true names of everything that is known to them. The philosophers spend their entire lives cataloguing the various specimens and reports that are sent to them by their field workers and underlings scattered throughout Yoon-suin. It is their belief that their analytical language will some day supplant all existing tongues, as it will communicate intrinsic meaning as well as mere signifiers - making it superior in efficiency.

However, their great terror is the universe itself, which defies all attempts at categorisation. The phrase "We do not know what thing the universe is" has become a mantra for its members and a saying in the Yellow City used to illustrate futility. Even in the crowded markets of the city you can hear it, as a man gives up his search for the latest shipment of opium and throws up his hands in frustration, or as a girl turns to her consort to explain that she no longer loves him. We do not know what thing the universe is. So that is that.

[This entry is almost entirely stolen from The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, by Borges - thankfully now out of copyright.]


  1. I had a comment I was gonna post but it was nowhere near as good as my


  2. Borges? I'd have said Stephenson's "Quicksilver" (which had nearly as much fun with the Universal Language as you did).

    wv: skieness - sucks for our purposes. And the thought of a holiday destination combining Skegness and the Isle of Skye fills me with unalloyed horror. 80

  3. Fascinating post!

    The phrase "We do not know what thing the universe is" has become a mantra for its members and a saying in the Yellow City used to illustrate futility.Maaaaan, if I didn't know better, I'd say this was REALLY FREAKIN' WELL TIMED! ;)

  4. Zak: Best v-word ever?

    Chris: Stephenson Schmephonson. I just don't understand that guy's popularity.Quicksilver is one of the very few books I've started reading and not managed to finish.

    Chgowiz: Thanks. Why well timed though?

  5. Rock.

    Also: are there a lot of different kinds of mermaids? Or are they just very important?

  6. Because of the quote that I originally put in my comment seems well applied to the discussion happening around "OSR" type definitions. I found there many layers to your post, even if it wasn't intended. Well done :)

  7. I read this beautiful blog entry and Shortpacked! just before bed last night. I ended up having a dream where some Ipogo scholars (who were wizened little Chinese elders with long mustaches and yellow robes) met UltraCar. The scholars could not decide what category UltraCar beloged to and briefly considered that he might be the universe.

  8. Jeff: Ha! Well, if I'm affecting people's dreams I must be doing something right.

    The way you imagined the Ipogo is exactly how I imagined them too, by the way.