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The Man Who Tried to Eliminate All Words, But Never Met a Smartphone

Friday, February 28, 2014 - 04:00 AM

Blissymbols

This is a story of heroic effort, decades of toil and a man obsessed with a utopian dream: to replace the written word with symbols.

Charles Bliss, a Jew living in Austria, is forced to flee Nazi occupation and ends up in Shanghai, China. There, awash in a new language, he's inspired by possibility.

Bliss dreams of a linguistic opportunity that could transform humanity: What if everyone on earth could share the same written language, no translation needed? A language so intuitive that it would be almost instantly understandable? Symbols were the key, he thought. 

"You would be able to communicate with anyone in the world. Kids wouldn't be illiterate," goes the dream, as explained by computational linguist Richard Sproat who writes about the Bliss story in his book Language, Technology and Society.

 

Sproat, a research scientist at Google, has studied what came to be known as Blisssymbols along with other efforts to communicate graphically throughout history. 

Bliss spent years creating symbols to replace words. Today though, everyone has symbols for communicating visually, to get around words, right in our pockets. Emojis and chat app imagery have a lot in common with Blissymbols.
 
Click on the audio above to hear Sproat explain how far along Bliss got with his new language, his tragic setbacks and the benefits (because there are serious benefits) of using visual symbols to communicate our thoughts and feelings instead of words.
 
This is a segment in our latest New Tech City podcast. In the full podcast, you'll also meet an emoji designer who explains how he chooses what silly characters go inside your chat apps; a guy who oversaw a translation of Moby-Dick into emojis, and the story of a couple that embraced Charles Bliss's dream so much they banished words for symbols in their own text messages. It gets kind of intimate.  

Guests:

Richard Sproat

Hosted by:

Manoush Zomorodi

Produced by:

Alex Goldmark and Daniel P. Tucker

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