Issue 1
Issue 1

In the Beginning,
There was Word

If you were using a mobile phone back in 2008 in Hong Kong or Switzerland — or if you were using the messaging application ICQ — a friend might have sent you a message containing icons. The image of a baby bird in a nest or a dinosaur skeleton might have appeared on your screen.

Today, we call theseicons “emojis”, and their use is commonplace. An Israeli company Zlango (later known as Lango) created these icons — they weren’t designed to be fun inserts to supplement a comment, they were meant to replace text altogether.

Abbreviations for words madeit easier to fit more text into one message— but only by so much. Yoav Lorch, who founded Zlango in 2004, discoveredthat abbreviations could shorten message length by only 20%. He came up with an alternative solution: icons that could shrink longmessages. Zlango was able to demonstrate this by translating fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood into Zlango icons. While Charles Perrault’sversion is 743 words in English, Zlango managed to fit the story into only ninety icons.

Aside from their ability to shorten text messages, Zlango’s icons were envisioned as a universal “visual language” that anyone could read regardless of language. This wasn’t the first time iconswere used to replace text. Years before Zlango’s fairy tales, Chinese artist Xu Bing started writing a book called Book from the Ground. Set in 2003, the book traces 24 hours in the life of a Mr. Black using nothing but images and icons. Xu describes it as “a book that anyone can read.” Lorch sawZlango’s icons in much the same way, as “the language of the people.”

Lorch and Xu’s claims of universality are not entirely accurate. Pictorial languages are still prone to misinterpretation, especially without context. If I told you that theicon of the dinosaur fossil means “old,” you might hazard to guess that the icon of the baby bird in the nest means “young.” But it’s really supposed to mean “want.” Even Xu’s publisher cautions that his book is readable only to people who have “experience in contemporary life” and who understand the “icons and logos of modernity.” You would have to be familiarwithsymbols referring to airports, stoplights, coffee machines and taxis to understand the context to Mr. Black’s city life.

A universally comprehensible written language basedon images seems like a self-evidently good idea, and a fascination with pictorial languages gripped European thinkers during the 17th century in particular. Francis Bacon, Gottfried Leibniz and John Locke were just a few of the prominent philosophers of the time who were dazzled by the idea of a language that could be read by everyone. Many of them were inspired by the Chinese writing system,mistakenly believing that each character corresponded solely to one object or onecompact idea, much like a mathematical or scientific symbol.

A universal written language wouldn’t just have practical applications, like in international trade. Many of these men believed that a universal written language would help foster world peace by eliminating misunderstandings between different cultures. This may seem idealistic or even naïve, but the ideaof one language uniting the world inharmony was the same conviction that drove L. L. Zamenhof to create Esperanto. More recently, Charles K. Bliss created Blissymbolics, an invented language without a spoken component that is close to whatsomeone like Liebniz or Bacon might have envisioned.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, like the 17th century thinkers, Bliss wasinspired by both scientific symbols and written Chinese. A Jewish chemical engineer from the former Austro-HungarianEmpire, Bliss fled to Shanghai during World War II to escape the encroaching Nazis. After he and his wife were forced into the Hongkew ghetto during the Japanese occupation, Bliss took interest in the signs and notices written in Chinese characters around him. After learning to recognize a few simple characters like “man,” he found to his surprise that he was reading the characters in German. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t speak or write Chinese, he believed hecould understand the meaning of the characters just by reading them. As Arika Okrent explains in In the Land of Invented Languages, Bliss was entranced by thepossibility of bypassing language through pictographic symbols to get straight to the meaning.

But Blissymbolics predictably falls prey to the same problems that Zlango and Book from the Ground face: even symbols can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Okrent recalls how Bliss became frustrated when the symbols for “food” and “out” together were misinterpreted as “picnic” when hereally meant “eating out at a restaurant.” But how could anyone have guessed the precise meaning?

Bliss never studied Chinese in depth. If he had, perhaps Blissymbolics would have benefited from his discovery that around only 1% of written Chinese has a pictographic source, as William G. Boltz notes in an article for World Archeology. People literate in Chinese will be the first to say that reading Chinese is more complicated than just intuitively recognizing characters because they resemble what they’re supposed to represent. Unfortunately, the myth persists that reading Chinese is somehow different from reading an alphabetic language like English, with the assumption that a non-alphabetic language like Chinese must be processed by the right hemisphere of the brain instead of the left.

Research on dyslexics has often been cited to support this belief. For example, studies have found that dyslexics who use alphabetic writing systems have reduced activity in their left temporal lobe, while dyslexics who use Chinese have decreased activity in their left middle frontal region. It seems reasonable to conclude that this proves brain networks for reading arenot the same for differentlanguage users.

However, cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, author of Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read, argues thatresearchers are looking at the results the wrong way.

He notes that the same research also shows decreased brain activity in Chinese dyslexics at a region of the brain located lessthan the width of a fingertip away from the spot where Western-languagedyslexics experience an anomaly — the same region normally associated with reading.

Looking at the results from this perspective, it is clear that there is a universal reading mechanism in the brain. Furthermore, Dehaene has a fascinating suggestion regarding the different brain anomaly locations: perhaps it’s a clue that we should be looking closer at the type of dyslexia that is being measured. “Phonological impairments are predominantin dyslexics who are taughtan alphabetic writing system, while a form of ‘graphomotor’ dyslexia may prevail in Asian writing systems — even if the two subtypes exist in all countries,” he said.

Further dispelling the right versus left hemispheres myth, a study publishedby the Haskins laboratory at Yale University early this year concludes that the same brain areas are activated during reading and speech, regardless of language.

The reading process may be complicated, but it is the samefor everyone. Dehaene succinctly describes it thusly: “Upon entering the retina, a word is split up into a myriad of fragments, as each part of the visual image is recognized by a distinct photoreceptor. Starting from this input, the real challenge consists in putting the pieces back together in order to decode what letters are present, to figure out the order in which they appear, and finally to identifythe word.”

With written Chinese, characters and compound words are not split into individual letters — they are broken downinto their individual morphemes — the smallest unit of meaning — and syllables. Unfortunately for all those 17th century philosophers and Charles Bliss, there is no direct “image to meaning” when you read Chinese.

We just can’t seem to bypass language when we read, even if we are reading icons and symbols. Languagehas to exist for us to be able to read them in the first place because we have no other way to capture meaning. You may be thinking, well of course, for those of us who have grown up speaking before learning to read and write, it’s impossible to readsymbols — or anything — without resorting to words.

But what if you’ve never been exposed to spoken language? What if you learned language solely through reading, likeTarzan does in Tarzan of the Apes? In the novel, the jungle-dwelling Tarzan, who is raised by apes, discovers a children’s book in an abandoned cabin and flips through it to look at the pictures, eventually realizing that the “little bugs” under each picture are words:

“And so he progressed very, very slowly, for it was a hard and laborioustask which he had set himself without knowing it — a task which might seemto you or me impossible — learning to read without having the slightest knowledge of letters or written language, or the faintest idea that such things existed.” 

Is it possible for a reader like Tarzan to exist? Our closest examples would have to be deaf children, most of whomlearn to read without the help of a spoken language. However, it’s not encouraging to take in the research showing that deaf children who use English tend to have poorer reading abilities than their hearing counterparts.

Some researchers have speculated that to become readers, children must learn the mapping between the spoken language they already know and printed words on a page. For an alphabetic language like English, that mapping is based on sound, which automaticallycreates a big barrier for deafchildren’s literacy.

Since Chinese’s logographic features mean that it relies less on phonological encoding and more on visual encoding, should we assume that the same problem wouldn’t exist among deaf Chinese children? Without spoken language and with the unique natureof Chinese characters, couldn’t deaf Chinese children go directly to the meaning of the words they read without being mediatedby language? Wouldn’t they be fluent readers?

Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. Dr. Jun Hui Yang, who studies deafness in China, has found that that deaf children who read in Chinese also lag behind hearingchildren in terms of reading ability. They are more or less on the samelevel as their English-reading deaf peers.

For deaf children to read fluently, they must first be exposed to a language; it isnot possible to learn a first language solely through print. Susan Goldin-Meadow and Rachel I. Mayberry write in their paper “How Do Profoundly Deaf Children Learn to Read?” that “knowing a language — even a manual language [like sign language] with a different structure from the language captured in print — is better for learning to read than not knowing any language.”

The real problem for Tarzan isn’t ignorance of awritten language; it is ignorance of how the sounds of the words create meaning, in short, of language itself.

City dwellers read visual language every day. No parking. Stop. Loadingzone. Children crossing. When you see these symbols, their meanings are so readily apparent that you might not even bother toconvert them into a word as you walk or drive past.

This practical literacy was something our ancestors shared with us. Even though many of them could barely write their own names, they knew how to read symbols: a lord’s sigil, a traitor’s mark, an inn’s sign. Readingsymbols allows you to go about your daily business without any need to second-guess meaning. However, complex ideas invariably need words, even as they may be imprecise and unreliable, as Locke bemoans in An Essay on Human Understanding.

He condemns them as barriers to truth, but perhaps this very unreliability is the best part of reading in the firstplace. If Locke and his peers had succeeded in creating a universal language, we might have had direct access to their ideas, but would we have enjoyed Bacon’s sharp aphorisms and the earnest thoughtfulnessof Locke’s writings? Our brain breaks down and creates meaning as we read words, and this process is also what allows us to smile at a clever turn of phrase or weep at amoving description of someone’ssuffering.

Zlango’s Little Red Riding Hood managed to tell us the story of a young girl’s encounter with a wolf, it’s true, but is it the same without the quietly building menace behind the singsong charm of Perrault’s call-and-answer dialogue between Little Red Riding Hood and theWolf?

“Grandmother, what big arms you have!”
“All the better to hug you with, my dear.”
“Grandmother, whatbig legs you have!”
“All the better to run with, my child.”
“Grandmother, what big ears you have!”
“All the better to hear with, my child.”
“Grandmother, what big eyes you have!”
“All the better to see with, my child.”
“Grandmother, what big teeth you have got!”
“All the better to eat you up with.”

We do not read simply to receive ideas dictated by a writer. We readto interact with them, to work at understanding them, to takepleasure from them. The visual languages of Charles Bliss and Zlango don’t offer these to us the same way words do, which is perhaps why Zlango closed shop in 2014 and Blissymbolics is mostly used by aCanadian rehabilitation center for disabled children to facilitate their English-language learning.

Bliss died in 1985, disappointed and hurt that Blissymbolics never achieved the recognition and widespread usethat he believed it deserved. As for Lorch, since leaving Zlango, he has founded a new venture called Total Boox. It’s a “pay as you go” e-book app that this author of six German-language books says gives everyone the freedom to just “go ahead and read.”

Text by Maloy Luakian, Writer
Chapter 11 – 12