According to John Wallis (1616–1703), cryptographer and Savilian Professor of Geometry, Dalgarno’s Ars signorum gave John Wilkins the idea for his work on the real character. However, despite Dalgarno’s suggestions of plagiarism, it seems more likely that Wilkins began working on his ideas in collaboration with Seth Ward during the mid-1650s, co-opting Dalgarno later in the decade.
Wilkins differed with Dalgarno over the method for constructing the taxonomies which underlay the real character. In particular, Wilkins realized that the number of taxonomical categories would have to be greater than was proposed by Dalgarno, and that the taxonomy would have to be constructed in a hierarchical order so that its categories would eventually relate to, and name, all things. As Dalgarno himself recognized, Wilkins was able to undertake this more ambitious project because he could call on a wide range of assistance from his friends and clients. In particular, Wilkins was able to obtain information from several other Fellows of the Royal Society during the early 1660s, which allowed him to expand his coverage of the natural world and the mechanical arts.
Thus, John Ray (1627–1705) assisted Wilkins in drawing up new tables of plants and animals; Samuel Pepys communicated information on naval affairs; and Francis Lodwick helped with orthography. The alphabetical dictionary which completed Wilkins’ work, and which could be used to locate English words within its philosophical tables, was compiled by William Lloyd (1627–1717), who had been a private tutor at Wadham in the late 1650s. The resulting work was a complex analysis of language and an attempt at a real character based on an wide-ranging empirical classification of the natural world. After Wilkins’ death in 1672, efforts continued to be made to revise and extend his work, although, in time, the limitations of its approach, which assumed a direct and logical relationship between words and things, became clear.
Wilkins regarded the confusion of tongues at Babel as representing the historical point of origin of modern human languages. He was, however, sceptical of the efforts of his contemporaries to classify the resulting families of languages. He also realized that languages themselves changed over time, and felt that the original language of Adam in paradise had been completely lost (pp.2–5). This provided one of the stimuli for inventing an artificial real character, in which empirical knowledge could be used to reconstruct a version of the order of nature that had been revealed to Adam. Wilkins was concerned to produce a character which was attractive and concise, as well as having the potential for universal application. These were all factors which might recommend the real character as a tool for missionary activity. For this and other reasons, it is unsurprising that Wilkins chose the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed as sample texts for translation into his character.