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Blissymbols (wikipedia.org)
81 points by polm23 on Aug 6, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

I think it was In the Land of Invented Languages that had a great discussion of Blissymbols and how it failed.

In short, these systems work fine for concrete vocabulary but completely fail for complex language, because language is too abstract. The Blissymbols for abstract words are somewhat suggestive but still must be learned individually, which is the whole thing he was trying to avoid.


Can confirm. In Arika Okrent's excellent book that also covers Klingon, Esperanto, and Lojbahn among others.

My favorite part is that the inventor was supposedly a total jerk to the nurse that was in charge of the program using the symbols, but she still took care of him later in life.

The problem with ideograms is what happens when things go wrong.

There are a lot of people out there who are barely literate; although for obvious reasons probably not so many of them make it to HN. If someone don't know how to spell and needs to communicate in a latin script they have a couple of chances. Sounding things out, guessing at spellings for words that have only been heard, etc.

The idea is interesting and worth exploring; but ultimately I'd worry that it will be exclusionary and hard to work with for people who don't do much written communicating.

It seems like everything you said is true of current written languages. If you don’t know how to read/write it, you won’t understand it. I feel that this writing system is best used to facilitate inter-cultural communication, as opposed to making it easier for people to read/write.

Humans are quite good at optimizing language without even thinking about it. This is a fact that almost all conlangs ignore. They are a fun mental exercise for linguists, but will ultimately never see any serious usage.

> I feel that this writing system is best used to facilitate inter-cultural communication

This happens in China

When I used to spend time with a Mandarin speaker, he explained to me that written Chinese is the same throughout the country, but the dialects are often so different that they can't understand each other.

It would be as if all romance languages were written the same way, so that written Italian, Spanish, French, ect, were the same.

I'm a native Spanish speaker. I can understand written French, Portuguese and Italian with a little effort. Speech is a different story. Italian is the closest phonetically.

This is exactly how Arabic works today. It's a huge impediment, not a benefit.

Can you please elaborate on why it’s an impediment?

Because this way no-one has written forms of their mother tongue. They have to learn a second language and its written form. As others are pointing out, the situation is pretty much equivalent to Europe 1000 years ago when Latin had evolved into separate languages but all writing was still done in Latin. What would you prefer: being able to speak and write in French or speak in French but have to learn Latin to be able to write?

For much of European history, Latin acted as a common written language, and Italian, Spanish, French were vulgar Latin with different influences (this is probably a simplification)

How do conlangs ignore that, and what's the outcome then?

I presume conlangs ignore this by design as fixed language. They are formed and mostly governed by rules, but the anthropological component of language never makes it into the design because there is no timeline of evolving usage.

And again, presuming here, but the outcome is a language that fails to adapt to the culture(s) that depends on it, and thereby becomes useless. Language, as we know it, evolved over an expansive period of time, from the first association of sounds to objects, now all the way to complex written grammar that includes some half-dozen tenses, some gendered, singulars/plurals, etc. We can describe things with written language that are otherwise indescribable with physical or spoken language, like the Portuguese saudade (a physical and emotional state of intense, fixated longing for someone or something that is absent, or which existed previously in a different state).

> but the anthropological component of language never makes it into the design because there is no timeline of evolving usage.

Not true. A lot of folk in the conlanging community, perhaps inspired by the world-building of Tolkien, very deliberately set their languages in a physical world, and a historical continuum.

As a concrete example, have a look at Biblaridion's video about Ilothwi here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpXsrBd2xn8

Languages in the Loglan family, notably Lojban, have an explicit audio-visual isomorphism which maps phonemes to/from letters. In theory, this should allow people to learn to read and write long after they have learned how to listen and speak; in practice, it seems to lead to many alternative orthographies and a fragmentation of readability.

Most conlangs aren't like Blisssymbols -- they have normal words that are made out of roots that can be understood either within the context of the language, or as in the case of languages like Esperanto and Interlingua, use roots from other languages so that word meanings can be guessed from knowledge of other languages.

The Radio Lab episode about Charles Bliss is very good and explains a lot about the history and life of the man who created Blissymbols:


For those into this kind of thing, Arika Okrent's "In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language" has a chapter on Blissymbols and is just about the best non-fiction book I've ever read.

We both commented about the same book within a minute of each other. I second this, it’s an amazing read.

This make me think of an alphabetic form of Chinese characters: semantic symbols, but decomposable (which I suppose those characters are in a sense).

Charles Bliss was directly inspired by Chinese characters. (He didn't understand exactly how they worked but he was greatly impressed by them. In https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19092643 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23411941, I mentioned that Bliss, in an unusual case, learned to read Chinese without speaking it.)

> He didn't understand exactly how they worked but he was greatly impressed by them.

This tends to be the case for ppl impressed by Chinese characters from the outside. When you do have some understanding you realise that it is a very cumbersome writing system and one that places an unnecessary learning burden on its users.

> Bliss, in an unusual case, learned to read Chinese without speaking it.

If this is unusual, it's unusual by coincidence. It happens to me all the time that I'll hear something in Chinese, or see pinyin, and completely fail to understand it, even though it's easy for me to read the same phrase in characters and I know their pronunciation.

Arthur Waley was one of the greatest translators of classical Chinese and Japanese poems. Supposedly he never learned to speak modern Mandarin or Japanese.

That's not unusual by any standard at all. No one is surprised if you can read Latin but can't read Portuguese.

(Though I should note that Arthur Waley also translated vernacular Chinese works.)

Now I'm wondering: how often can japanese read chinese without speaking it?

You are not the first one who has asked that question. In case you can't watch videos right now, the short answer is "you can guess, but don't expect it to be exactly correct".



I am not Japanese but have spent enough years studying the Japanese language to develop some amount of literacy, so I can give some insight (but take this with a grain of salt, it's not my native language). I can read enough Chinese to understand the basic topic of some sentences, but Chinese grammar is completely unrelated to Japanese grammar and Chinese characters used for grammatical constructs (e.g. Chinese particles, aspect, etc.) are not really used in Japanese (or are used in totally different ways). Nouns are easiest, adjectives and verbs are sometimes sensible, but beyond that it is hard.

My Chinese and Japanese friends tell me that when they have traveled to Japan or China they have used a pen and paper to communicate basic things.

One challenge is that character simplification is somewhat out of sync between communist China (Taiwan and Hong Kong rejected simplification) and Japan, so sometimes a character will be hard to understand even though I know its original or differently simplified form.

A final point: I can read enough Chinese characters to be amused when I see a Chinese takeout restaurant with an English name that has no relationship to its Chinese name.

This sort of thing happens in a lot of languages though. Your average Italian can comprehend a decent amount of French text without being able to keep up in conversation, or even speak the language. Same with Dutch and German.

True, but what is unusual about the Chinese/Japanese connection is that these languages aren't related linguistically -- they just share (partly) a writing system. The Romance languages all descend from Latin, and the Germanic languages likewise have a common ancestor. So it's not surprising to find similarities there.

Actually the majority of Chinese characters are compounds where one "piece" is a semantic marker and the other is a phonetic marker. So for example, here are characters referring to various metals:

金 - gold

銀 - silver

鉄 - iron

鉛 - lead

Note that the first one appears as the left side of the others as a semantic marker.

The concept is taken to extremes in types of fish in Japan, where there are a huge number of characters with the "fish" character (魚) in the left side of the letter, and some element that relates to the characteristic of the fish on the right, eg 鱈鰯鰊鮭鮪鰹鯖鯛鮫鰈鱒鰤鯰鰊鯉鱚... So much that a cup adorned with a list of the various fish-related characters is often seen in sushi bars. https://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/B01MRHI9ML/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_x_G...

(No, I don't have it all memorized, and I doubt many do.)

Aren't modern emojis more interpretable than these blissymbols? Sure they are harder to create on pen and paper but on a digital platform, an illiterate person can still use them easily. Although the modern emojis are limited to "reactions" and not "intended actions" (unlike blissymbols) but this might change in the next years.

Emoji might have a decently-sized (though still incredibly limited) vocabulary, but there is no widely-agreed-upon grammar. You could say "man" with the man emoji or "book" with the book emoji, but how do you say "the man's book"? Just the man emoji followed by the book emoji? Wouldn't that be something like "the man reads"?

It could be interesting to create relational symbols to connect emoji

A good place to start could be Japanese grammar which relies heavily on relational markers (so-called "particles"). It would also be appropriate since Emoji originate in Japan.

For example, to express something like "I went to the grocery store yesterday", the corresponding Japanese sentence would be structured like this: "I <topic-marker> grocery store <destination-marker> yesterday <time-marker> go-<past-tense-suffix>".

I think there are limits to what you can express through pictographs, while this ideographic way of writing might be more versatile.

Though, the article states that there are about 2300 symbols. That seems very excessive, and if there's no way of interpreting without memorizing (would it then still be ideographic though?), it doesn't seem very useful to me.

You can easily use emoji for more than reactions:


When I see a line of emojis, I just skip them. One or two I can handle.

A concept in some ways similar (in not being phonetic, for example), but arguably more interesting due to its non-linearity, is Unker writing system: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23412776

> on the premise that “interlinguistic communication is mainly carried on by reading and writing”.

I'm betting this person vastly underestimated the number of pidgins and creoles that have popped up ad-hoc in random places in the world.

>this person vastly underestimated the number of pidgins and creoles that have popped up ad-hoc

The key adjective that you quoted is "interlinguistic" which is a planned language for international communication. From the wikipedia page[1]:

>Interlinguistics, as the science of planned languages, has existed for more than a century as a specific branch of linguistics[1] for the study of various aspects of linguistic communication. Interlinguistics is a discipline formalized by Otto Jespersen in 1931 as the science of interlanguages, i.e. contact languages tailored for international communication.

As you said, pidgins & creoles are unplanned/organic/adhoc -- so they're not deliberately interlinguistic.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interlinguistics

There was a nice Radiolab podcast about this: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/25719...

And also another podcast from NPR: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/notetoself/articles/cha...

I found the Radiolab one entertaining.

this is fan fiction

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