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30 October 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 6:52am

The lessons of the epic quest for Blissymbolics: a universal written language

Though injustice relies on language, it does not simply exist in language, and language alone won’t be able to undo it.

By Eleanor Penny

If anyone was intimately familiar with the startling power of language, it was Charles K Bliss – the inventor of Blissymbolics – a “universal writing system” with no less a goal than to forge world peace. He was born Karl Kasiel Blitz in 1897 into a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire where, he would later recount, “twenty different nationalities hated each other because they thought and spoke in different languages”. 

In 1938, Bliss was rounded up and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where Nazi propaganda speeches were pumped out of the camp speakers to remind the prisoners that they were filth being swept from the streets of the motherland. His stay in Buchenwald was a daily exposure to the slippery, treacherous qualities of language – which transformed extermination into a “solution” and disguised doctrines of mechanised genocide as passionate patriotism. Which persuaded his neighbours that millions like him should be carted off to their deaths. It lent urgency to Bliss’s lifelong interest in linguistics, and set him on a mission to create a language that could not be so easily bent to the will of evil men. 

Thanks to some clever legal dealings by his wife, he was freed from Buchenwald, arriving in London as a refugee in the middle of the Blitz. He quickly changed his name to the “more peaceful” Charles Bliss, to evade British suspicion against Jews and German-speakers alike. 

As the war intensified, Bliss and his wife were denied permanent residence in Allied countries, eventually finding themselves in a refugee ghetto in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. There, Bliss was struck by how Chinese writing seemed intuitive, even to his unfamiliar eyes. He thought it vaulted over the regional specificities of language to strike directly at the meaning behind the word. Here was the key to a writing system that would allow humanity to outmanoeuvre all those facets of languages that had made them such powerful tools in the hands of charlatans and despots; the cultural and ethnic divides they reinforce; their ambiguity; their tangled mess of fact and opinion. Here was a way to blunt the teeth of the mad dogs of language that were tearing humanity limb from limb.  

He spent the next seven years working on an ideographic system of symbols that, when jigsawed together, could represent the entirety of human thought. He was determined they be simple, intuitive, perfectly logical. There would be symbols to distinguish opinion and metaphor from fact. There would be no regional or cultural differences along which battle lines could be drawn. His goal was no more or less than that of world peace; to “end the disasters caused by language”. It could even be beautiful. A wavy horizontal line means water. The symbol for water, plus an arrow pointing down, plus the symbol for star means snow. In Blissymbolics, snow is falling stars of water.

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In the Old Testament, the story of the Tower of Babel depicts our different languages as a punishment meted out by God. The people of the Earth, once united, were splintered into different groups unable to understand each other. Some modern linguists also posit united root languages from which our modern tongues are descended, such as “Proto-Indo-European”. Noam Chomsky contended that there was a “universal grammar” underlying the structure of human thought. .

Ever since the tower fell, people have been trying to crawl their way back into an Eden of languages, to restore a prelapsarian unity of man by designing a perfectly universal language in which we can speak and live as one global community. Gottfried Leibniz’ Universal Symbolism attempted to express all possible philosophical thought. 

Perhaps the most successful attempt was LL Zamenhof’s international auxiliary language Esperanto, a blend of European languages whose utopianism has attracted devoted scholars – and a handful of native speakers. Incidentally, Zamenhof was also a Jewish man who lived through pogroms and devastation, all the while dreaming of peace.

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Underlying these projects is the utopian and radically humanist claim that to end conflict we must first end misunderstanding and shake off the shallow trickeries which persuade us of our differences. They invite us to look at others – even those complicit in our persecution – and think that, but for the funhouse mirrors of propaganda, they would recognise themselves in us. 

The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that fascist propaganda relies on a rank disregard for the boundaries of truth and lies – creating a climate of suspicion and confusion in which simple solutions appear alluring, opponents are untrustworthy and targets are disposable. Bliss’s system claims to protect us from its myriad hoaxes. 

But there is a deeper urgency to his work: the assertion that any progressive project has to assume that we have something unalterably in common. If all people are created equal, there must be something in which that equality is rooted. 

The problem is how we assemble a universal from the shattered pieces of our islandised lives. Who determines what counts as obvious and natural and what is dismissed as idiosyncrasy and lies? 

In Blissymbolics, a roof-like, upside-down V means protection or shelter. The roof combined with the symbol for man is a father; man who protects. Man plus woman plus protection equals family. If you’re used to the structures of everyday family life in our society, it’s understandable to assume those concepts are intuitive, uncontestable. Step back a bit, and we can see that across the world, across history, those concepts are alien to how many people live their lives and organise their societies. How we carve up the world through language is always loaded with culturally specific or arbitrary assumptions about what is normal, natural, universal. We try and climb up out of a slippery pit of our own partiality, and keep falling back in. Clinging to what we assume is universal doesn’t always help.

Critiques of humanism echo this concern: that universals are all well and good, but often the people deciding what counts take their own experiences as the template – sometimes with fatal results. Enlightenment definitions of humanity from such vaunted names as Immanuel Kant, John Locke and David Hume reliably excluded women and black people. Colonial administrators routinely stamped out local languages in favour of their own – justified as more “rational” ways to capture human thought. 

Liberal philosopher John Rawls wanted to strive for a politics of compassion stripped of the perils of self-interest. His famous thought experiment invited people to imagine themselves behind a “veil of ignorance”, where their gender, race, family background, wealth, location, etc were unknown to them – and from this position, design laws in their collective self-interest. 

Many have argued that we simply take our prejudices behind the veil with us. Moreover, that if we’re designing a perfect society, we need the kind of knowledge that gets junked when we trying to expunge all the distinct cul-de-sacs of human experience. What it feels like to live as (say) a trans woman or a black Latinx person are relevant political facts – but many liberal thinkers claim you have to leave them at the door when talking politics, which must be directed towards a neutral, universal idea of the human experience. What this means is being equal, being neutral and being universal are not the same things – and they don’t need to be.  

The book Blisssymbolics was published in 1949 – to a rousing chorus of total indifference. So after years in the wilderness, Bliss was thrilled to discover that his work was being used by hospitals to teach communication to children with disabilities. This glee soon turned to rancour when he realised that the language was being adapted – for the specific needs of the children, to account for regional differences. This, he raged, was a “perversion”. He launched a decade-long campaign and lawsuit against a children’s hospital in Canada which pioneered the technique – eventually settling for $160,000. 

His campaign for world peace had been diverted down a somewhat petty side road – accidentally revealing that a neutral, universal public sphere is not something which must be set free from the effects of law, ideology and power. It is something which must be enforced – by law, ideology and power, if necessary. That language is not so easily separable from the power of the world in which it exists. 

These days it’s easy to diagnose our political problems as a collapse of civil discourse; if only we could wipe the public sphere clean of the messiness of human difference, conflict, and anger, then our stickier political problems would also be swept away. But though Bliss’s constructed universal language was flawed, he was prescient enough to know he wouldn’t find it in the staid lingua francas of the existing global powers which had twice plunged the world into war. 

And a broader look at Bliss’s life provides a stark challenge to those tempted to repurpose his utopianism into liberal nostalgia for a never-existing neutrality built on the exclusion of difference and dissent. A change of name helped Bliss – but his passport and Jewish background still left him stateless and penniless. 

Though injustice relies on language, it does not simply exist in language, and language alone won’t be able to undo it. Talking the language of equality doesn’t always translate to real liberation. Words matter – but we still need to pay attention to the sticks and stones.