Cincinnatian James Ruggles Created A “Universal Language” But No One Listened

Although touted as based on a simplified system of spelling and grammar, the Universal Language was nearly impossible to read or speak.

Cincinnati in 1829 overflowed with excitement. Our little river town had grown to a total population of more than 24,000. General Andrew Jackson made a brief stop here as he journeyed up the Ohio River on his way to inauguration as President of the United States. Frances “Fanny” Trollope scribbled notes for what would become her scandalous exposé, “Domestic Manners of the Americans.” Over the course of a week, witnessed by thousands, Rev. Alexander Campbell of the Disciple Church defended Christianity from the assaults of Robert Owen, founder of New Harmony, Indiana, and fervid apostate, who argued that all religions were false.

Hardly noticed in all the hubbub was the publication of a slim volume by Cincinnati printer James Ruggles proposing the adoption of a universal language. In the intellectual ferment of the early 19th century, Ruggles’ proposal gained so little traction that he is all but forgotten today.

It is interesting that Ruggles had his book published by Cincinnati printers John McCalla and Samuel Davis, because Ruggles himself was a printer and a publisher himself. Born in New York in 1795, Ruggles married a woman named Henrietta Disher and relocated to Steubenville, Ohio and then moved to Cincinnati. While here, he published a magazine called Ladies’ Museum which, according to an advertisement [29 January 1831],

“Embraced in its general subjects, Original and Selected Poetry, Tales, Notices and Reviews of New Works, Natural History, Sketches of Biography and History, Reports of Fashions, occasional articles relating to the culture of Plants Fruits and Flowers, with such Intelligence, Anecdotes, chastened effusions of Wit, Sentiment, and Humor, as will impart variety and furnish an agreeable miscellany.”

Although not identified as such in the city directory, James Ruggles was also apparently a teacher of some sort, although whether he taught in a private capacity or in the nascent public schools of the city is unknown. In Isaac M. Martin’s 1900 history of the schools of Cincinnati, Ruggles is listed among the “Teachers Who Have Become Authors.”

Martin’s book lists only Ruggles’ “Universal Language” among his publications, but an 18 November 1829 advertisement in the Ohio Monitor revealed that Ruggles was trying to attract enough subscribers to publish a series of books titled “The American Literary Preceptor,” which he described as:

“A complete system of tuition for American youths, containing all the branches of learning necessary, in forming the education of an American citizen – commencing with the first rudiments, spelling, reading, &c. and including those proper, as the foundation of a complete scientific and ornamental education, suitable for fitting one to enter a profession, or any useful occupation; to be comprised in about 15 volumes.”

The advertisement for the textbook series—there is no evidence any of the books were ever published—boasted of Ruggles’ role as the author of the book on universal language.

James Ruggles was a Cincinnati printer, apparently well educated, who devised a Universal Language but found no one interested in speaking it.

From “A Universal Language, Formed on Philosophical and Analogical Principles” by James Ruggles, 1829 Digitized by Google Books

So, what was the “universal language” developed by James Ruggles? And why was it ignored by pretty much everybody? To begin with, Ruggles’ universal language was almost impossible to read and equally impossible to pronounce. Here is a sample:

“Kertholson sjtilmagpxl fjnhxl lokzturs, deksztxns fakhornpxs, karfzturps vovszdxrap, punkzpurapsdux kirkztur, rolsilnxmszdxrapdui.”

That tangled mess of consonantal gibberish may be translated as:

“To ascertain the relative situation and size of places, references are made on maps to direction, or the points of a compass, and to latitude and longitude.”

According to Ruggles, his universal language was superior to any previously proposed because it was:

“Founded on the clearness of its combinations – the simplicity of its construction, the uniformity and invariableness of its rules – and, especially, the facility and speed with which it can be acquired, of being universally adopted by the civilized world.”

The heart of Ruggles’ artificial language was simplicity. All plurals were formed by adding an s—none of this mouse/mice, goose/geese malarkey. Each vowel and consonant was pronounced uniquely to avoid homonymic rhymes like scoff-cough. Most root words were derived from Latin, so his word for “judge” was “prqt” from the Latin praetor, and his word for “stone” was “lap” from the Latin lapis.

Although repeatedly touted as based on a simplified system of spelling and grammar, Ruggles’ Universal Language was nearly impossible to read or speak.

From “A Universal Language, Formed on Philosophical and Analogical Principles” by James Ruggles, 1829 Digitized by Google Books

Despite his obsession with simplicity and uniformity, the end result was so alien and complicated that none of the many literary magazines at the time paid it the slightest attention. Part of Ruggles’ problem was marketing. He never named his invention, referring to it only as “The Universal Language.” Later creators of Volapuk and Esperanto had better luck. Ruggles sent advance copies to scholars and celebrities, none of whom had anything particularly favorable to say about his Universal Language—but he published their responses in the back of his book anyway! Typical was this polite dismissal from John Quincy Adams, who found time despite his duties as President of the United States to respond on July 27, 1827:

“Sir: I return herewith, conformably to your request, the Plan of a Universal Language, which was enclosed with your letter of 28th May. An opinion long since formed, unfavorable to all projects of this character, has perhaps influenced that formed with regard to yours. From the examination, necessarily superficial, which I have been able to give it, I consider it creditable to your ingenuity. Respectfully, your fellow-citizen, J.Q. Adams.”

In other words, “I am opposed to the whole idea of a universal language, but your scheme indicates some level of imagination.”

For reasons unknown but probably involving money or the lack thereof, Ruggles uprooted his wife and sons and left Cincinnati around 1831. He reappeared in Edwardsville, Illinois near the banks of the Mississippi River in 1838 as the editor of a local newspaper with a decidedly unusual mission. According to the 1882 “History of Madison County, Illinois”:

The Western Weekly Mirror was established at Edwardsville by James Ruggles in May, 1838. He was editor and proprietor. The Mirror was devoted to the introduction and propagation of a universal language by which the whole human family could hold converse with one another and be understood. It was a worthy mission, but the feeble effort of its progenitor fell stillborn. It continued until the spring of 1840, when its name was changed to the Sovereign People. It continued until the summer of 1841, when it suspended.”

James Ruggles died of congestive fever on October 17, 1844 in Edwardsville. He left no will, but his wife appealed to the local authorities to become adminstratrix of his estate, which she testified amounted to less than $300.

Facebook Comments