Cave Beck

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Frontispiece of Cave Beck’s Universal Character.

Cave Beck (1623 – c. 1706) was an English schoolmaster and clergyman, the author of The Universal Character (published in London, 1657) in which he proposed a universal language based on a numerical system.


Beck was born in London in 1623, the son of John Beck, a baker of the parish of St. John, Clerkenwell. He was educated in a private school in London run by a Mr. Brathwayte, and on 13 June 1638 was admitted as a pensioner of St. John's College, Cambridge. He took the degree of B.A. in 1641, and subsequently that of M.A., being incorporated in the latter at Oxford on 17 October 1643.[1]

Beck was headmaster of Ipswich School, Ipswich in Suffolk from 1650 to 1657 - Beck Street in that same town is named after him.[2] In 1657, he resigned and was replaced by former usher Robert Woodside; he was subsequently instituted to St. Helen's, Ipswich or Monksoham (in Suffolk) of which he was also rector. In 1662 he became curate of St. Margaret, Ipswich, and in the same year, by lapse, rector of St. Helen's, Ipswich, with St. Clement's annexed.[1]

Beck's date of death is uncertain - however he was certainly alive in 1697, and William Ray, who was instituted to Monksoham in 1706, was probably his immediate successor.[1]


Beck is remembered for his book, "The Universal Character", published in London in 1657; it was also published the same year in French. The books's full title was "The Universal Character, by which all Nations in the World may understand one another's Conceptions, Reading out of one Common Writing their own Mother Tongues. An Invention of General Use, the Practise whereof may be Attained in two Hours' space, Observing the Grammatical Directions. Which Character is so contrived, that it may be Spoken as well as Written".[1][3]

In his book Beck sought to invent a universal language that could be understood and used by anyone in the world, no matter what their mother tongue. It was based on the ten Arabic numerals, 0-9, which he proposed the following pronunciations:

1. Aun, 2. Too, 3. Tray, 4. For orfo, 5. Fai, 6. Sic, 7. Sen, 8. At, 9. Nin, 0. o.

The combinations of these characters, intended to express all the main words in any language, were to be arranged in numerical order, from zero to 10,000, which he considered sufficient to cover all words in general use.[1]

Every word was assigned a unique number and this number was the same whatever the native language of the user. Each language would have its own alphabetically ordered list of words for reference. Letters were also used in his system, either before or after the number, to indicate concepts like nouns, cases, verbal tenses etc.[4]

The system, though arousing interest, was not well received by those who studied it.[5] The words were in most instances extended to an unmanageable length, and the difficulty of discovering the meaning of the numerical group which represented the desired "radical" was increased by the still greater difficulty of disconnecting the number from the modifying appendage, and of analysing the component parts of the latter.[1]

On the frontispiece of Beck's "The Universal Character" is an engraving by William Faithorne, and the figure of the European is supposed, with great probability, to be the portrait of the author.[1]

See also[edit]

  • Pasigraphy
  • George Dalgarno (1635–1682) and John Wilkins (1614–72) collaborated in an attempt to devise a universal character.
  • Joachim Becher proposed a numerically based universal language scheme in his book "Character pro notitia linguarum universali" in 1661.
  • Athanasius Kircher (1601/2 – 1680) proposed a universal language in "Polygraphia nova et universalis" in 1663.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Cooper, Thompson (1885). "Beck, Cave". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 04. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 76–7. 
  2. ^ Ipswich Street names (Ipswich Society).
  3. ^ Beck, Cave. The Universal Character (London, 1657).
  4. ^ Achim Eschbach. Foundations of Semiotics (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1984) Introduction.
  5. ^ Lewis, Rhodri.Language, mind and nature: artificial languages in England from Bacon to Locke (Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp. 82-3.
  • V. Salmon, 'Cave Beck: a seventeenth century Ipswich schoolmaster and his "universal character",' Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History XXXIII Part 3 (1975), pp. 285–98. Read here: Beck