The Story Of Blissymbolics: An Attempt At Universal Symbol Language

Could a well-designed written language be the key to uniting the world?
Blissymbolics represented by a yound woman writing in her journal outside in front of a tree

What would happen if everyone in the world could communicate with anyone else? In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, a common language allowed the human race to build a structure that got so close to God that the only solution was for God to smite them by making them all speak in different tongues. In Star Trek, the invention of a universal translation device leads to world peace. With such astounding possibilities imagined in our cultural stories, it’s not surprising that people throughout history have tried to devise a way for everyone to send messages to each other in a comprehensible way. One such attempt was Blissymbolics.

Blissymbolics, or Blissymbols, is a constructed writing system; there’s no spoken component. It uses symbols that are meant to be so intuitive that anyone, anywhere in the world should be able to easily figure out and use them. Despite the creator’s hopes, Blissymbolics did not achieve its loftiest ambitions. Even so, the story of these symbols is fascinating, and they have played an interesting role in the history of communication.

The Origins Of Blissymbolics

While the name Blissymbolics may sound like it was chosen for its peaceful connotations, the system was named after its creator Charles K. Bliss. Born Karl Blitz in 1897, Bliss studied chemical engineering in Vienna until the Nazis invaded Austria. As a Jew, Bliss was sent to a concentration camp in 1938, but was able to obtain a release the following year. After moving around several times over the next few years, Bliss landed in Shanghai. It was there that he officially changed his name from Blitz to Bliss (removing the German connection). It was also there that he began working on what he then called New World Writing.

Bliss’ project had two main inspirations. First, he had lived through stark violence and division in his lifetime, and he saw the lack of a common language as one of the factors that needlessly divides humans. A new way of communication might not immediately lead to world peace, but it could lead to greater understanding of our shared humanity. Second, his time in Shanghai got him interested in Chinese characters. These characters inspired him to believe that a language made of symbols could be more intuitive than one made of letters.

His work on New World Writing started officially in 1942. Bliss spent years honing his creation, even hiring a journalist who would criticize the system so that he could more easily find and fix flaws. Not only did he need symbols that would make sense to a reader, he also needed to cut down on the number of possible words as much as possible to keep the system from becoming too complicated. He was in part influenced by Basic English, a simplified version of the English language designed by Charles Ogden, which reduced “redundancies” in the language and created a core list of 850 words people absolutely need to communicate. By matching symbols to Basic English, Bliss could keep his system down to less than a thousand (compared to the tens of thousands in most other symbol-based languages).

In 1949, Bliss published his first guide to his symbol system, which he called Semantography (abandoning the name New World Writing). Despite his best attempts and support from people like philosopher Bertrand Russell, the system wasn’t widely embraced. That isn’t the end of the story, but Blissymbolics was off to a rough start.

How The Symbols Work

While learning Blissymbolics is simpler to learn than other languages in many ways, it’s still a complicated system that can’t be summarized in a few paragraphs. Here’s a brief overview of the current system — as defined by Blissymbolics Communication International — that should give you an idea of how it works.

First, there are 900 characters that make up Blissymbolics. These are the building blocks of the language, and they can either stand alone as a word or combine together to create new words. For example, this character means “building”:

How to say "building"

If you want to specify a more specific type of building, you just need to add the appropriate Bliss-characters to make a new Bliss-word. To form “hospital,” you would add the Blissymbolics character that means “medical.”

How to say "hospital"

Thus, from just 850 characters, you can create thousands and thousands of words by combining ideas. While this system alone is fun and can create a lot of words, it only covers nouns. If you want to expand the language into the other parts of speech, you need to use indicators, which are kind of like accent marks. Putting a ^ on top of a character tells you that it’s an action (a verb), and a ’ over an accent mark means it’s a past action. There are indicators for every tense to let you know when the action occurred. If you take the symbol for “legs” and add the ^ on top, for example, that means “to go,” and if you add the ’ for past action on top, it means “went.”

Conjugations in Blissymbolics

Adjectives and adverbs also have their own indicators. A v over a Bliss-character lets you know that the Bliss-word is describing something.

In addition to indicators are modifiers, which are also symbols that change the meaning of a Bliss-word. A common modifier is numbers, which appear at half their usual size in Blissymbolics. The symbol for “week,” for example, is the Bliss-character for “day” preceded by a small number 7. Rather than have a separate word, “week” is literally “7 days.” Pronouns also use the numerical system. If you want to say “I,” you use the symbol for “person” and follow it with a small 1, so that the Bliss-word means “first person.”

How to say "I"

The word for “you” is the symbol for “person” followed by a small 2, and so on. There are also modifiers that indicate when something happened, how intense something was, when something is a subset of something else, when something possesses something else and so on. There are even modifiers that specify when something is a metaphor or when “coarse language” is being used.

While all these symbols, modifiers and indicators are a lot to learn up front, Blissymbolics is easier in other ways. You don’t have to worry about conjugation at all because every verb is conjugated the same way using the same modifiers. And while there is a core set of symbols, Blissymbolics does leave itself open to innovation and expansion. While simple at heart, the system is capable of capturing a wide range of human communication.

Is The System In Use Anywhere Today?

As mentioned, Charles Bliss kept working on Blissymbolics even after the first edition of Semantography failed to make more than a ripple in the world. He released its second edition in 1965, and it was shortly after then that people considered the language for a slightly different purpose than it was originally intended. Doctors thought it might help children with certain disabilities. They thought that the consistency and the logic of the language might be easier than learning a language with an alphabet or anything else.

In 1971, the Ontario Crippled Children’s Center worked with Bliss and an organization called the Blissymbolics Communication Foundation (the precursor to Blissymbolics Communication International) to develop a program with the language. They worked with children who had cerebral palsy, and used the symbols to provide them with an alternative to other forms of communication. The program was led by Shirley McNaughton, who enjoyed working with the children and teaching them using the symbols. It did seem like the kids took to the language, and found it easier to understand than an alphabet.

Then came a roadblock from a somewhat unlikely source: Charles Bliss himself. Bliss visited the OCCC often to check up on how his Blissymbolics were being used, and he was unhappy. Once McNaughton and the children were using Blissymbolics for actual conversation, they deviated from Bliss’ original plan. They added new symbols and “misinterpreted” existing ones, according to him. He even complained that they used the terms “nouns,” “adjectives” and “verbs,” preferring his own terminology which was “things,” “evaluations” and “actions.” Bliss was worried that the changes were moving them further away from his initial goal: to make a language that everyone, everywhere could agree on using.

It’s likely that Bliss’ desire for control over his language prevented it from spreading further. He reached agreements with Blissymbolics Communication International that gave the group the final say on proper Blissymbolics, but even that move might have hurt the language in the long run. As of today, there are still a few places around the world that use Blissymbolics for people with disabilities. BCI estimates that in 1982, the number of Blissymbolics instructors was around 8,000, but that was close to the peak in the system’s popularity. Today, there are scattered users — mostly in Scandinavia and a few other European countries — but it’s not a significant number, whatever it is.

The internet has helped breathe a little more life into Blissymbolics over the past couple decades. People have been able to discover the language and learn more about the way it works, but it hasn’t yet gained much mainstream success. One big problem is that most Blissymbols are not part of the Universal Character Set, so there’s no way to easily type and transmit them to other people in the world.

Admittedly, the future of Blissymbolics doesn’t look particularly bright. With that said, it’s still a fun language to explore because of how different it is from most of the languages humans really use. It’s hard to measure how intuitive a language is, but the way Blissymbolics combines characters is certainly less arbitrary than the way the Latin alphabet combines letters. World peace is still a ways away, but the system does provide at least a moment of bliss.

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