Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 6

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!


There are a number of interesting projects offering invented systems of written symbols (as opposed to invented spoken & written ‘auxiliary’ languages of the more usual kind), intended to be more systematic, more logical and more ‘in tune with reality’ than existing languages or scripts, and thus to improve thought and communication.

One such system is Charles Bliss’s ‘Bliss Symbols’, a philosophically-grounded, supposedly cross-linguistic ideographic writing system partly inspired by the Chinese logography (wrongly perceived by Bliss as itself ideographic and thus as more useful cross-linguistically than it in fact is). Bliss invented the system in the years following the Second World War; it is now controlled by Blissymbolics Communication International, based in Toronto. Bliss based his system on a supposedly universally valid philosophical analysis of human experience, rather after the manner of the inventors of a priori artificial auxiliary languages in medieval and early modern times.

For largely philosophical (ontological) reasons, the script focuses upon observables (‘photographables’), corresponding with ‘concrete’ nouns, and ‘filmables’, corresponding with actions and processes usually expressed with verbs; it avoids reference to abstract entities as far as possible. Not all critics would regard this limited ontology as adequately defended. (I will examine other aspects of this issue next time as they arise in the context of the work of other thinkers.)

Other philosophical issues also arise in the context of Bliss’s ideas. For example: in critiquing some English usage which he deems philosophically suspect, Bliss appears correct in distinguishing between two issues: that of the ‘copular’ use of the English verb be (as in be a boy), which he sees as mainly grammatical and thus as less dangerous, and the more specific and arguably more dangerous use of be with ‘evaluative’ adjectives such as bad (which remain ‘evaluative’ whatever the construction). But he goes on to contrast ‘evaluatives’ with adjectives or nouns importing objective (physical) qualities. This is not actually erroneous, but the boundary is not as obvious or as sharp as he may think. For example, whether ‘evaluatives’ do or do not themselves represent or relate to objective (non-physical) qualities depends on one’s theory of metaethics. Bliss is entitled to his own theory, but he cannot assume its truth. If he does, his formulations may exclude those who disagree. On the other side of this opposition, reference to physical characteristics, even though these are objective at a very detailed level, is subject to cross-linguistic and other variation, most obviously in terms of the classification of individuals into types and of more specific types into more general ones. Bliss makes his own assumptions here, some culture-/language-specific and some more personal. For example, he seems (though he does not make himself very clear) to exclude from his system the equivalent of Man is an animal, because he selects one sense of animal rather than others – and also focuses here on be meaning ‘be identical with’ rather than ‘be of this kind’ (which is surely the more relevant sense here in any case).

Bliss also appears rather scientistic in his apparent assumption that more scientific knowledge will provide agreed, clear definitions for all non-‘evaluative’ notions. In discussing mental events he adopts specific psychological notions (such as Id, Ego etc.) which are naturally contentious; this again seems to exclude those who have other views. It is also strange that he extends the symbol for ‘evaluative’ be to include cases where the attribute given does seem to be itself objective (such as male). It often remains unclear why Bliss believes that his particular decisions are the best or the correct ones, or, in some cases, even likely to be valid. (This is not to deny that some kinds of nonsensical or outrageous discourse – for instance, that of some dictators – can be defused by linguistic analysis. Scholars as different as Gilbert Ryle and C.S. Lewis have exemplified this, or at least have attempted it; but Bliss’ own formulations are not especially convincing.)

Bliss clearly knew more linguistics than some aspects of his approach suggest; but some of his comments on language are nevertheless linguistically naïve and/or confused. For example, he seems to assume that Subject-Verb-Object (the preferred word order in English and a common one in Chinese) is the ‘natural’ order, ignoring not only languages with other word orders (such as Welsh or indeed Latin) and ‘ergative’ languages such as Basque (where the categories Subject and Object are not really relevant) but even the commonly-used logical formulations which correspond with Verb + (Subject + Object).

More generally, in respect of inflectional morphology and basic syntax the system obviously has to select (in some respects) from among the systems found around the world). In addition, Bliss’ systematisation of derivational morphology would clearly involve major differences vis-a-vis most relevant languages, not merely in respect of the script. On the other hand, many of Bliss’ complaints about current language-specific usage do appear reasonable or at least arguable, and (if language reform on this scale were deemed genuinely desirable and feasible) a reformist might well seek to alter such things. Adjudicating on whether Bliss’ OWN solutions are the best available would require more detailed examination; but this is an especially arbitrary area of natural languages, and well-considered reform might conceivably be beneficial. More feasibly, such reforms might be introduced into novel spoken & written ‘auxiliary’ languages which might be linked with the Bliss Symbols.

Unfortunately, Bliss relies too much in places on particular, often idiosyncratic scholars, which misleads him; for instance, he accepts Otto Jespersen’s rather strange views on early language, possibly because of Jespersen’s own prominence in language reform movements.

Bliss’s intention was to develop a full international ‘auxiliary’ language, but, as noted, in the event he himself developed a script rather than a language per se. Later, his system was applied as an approach to communicating with disabled people, but he himself objected to this. Nevertheless, various groups have continued to apply the Bliss Symbols in this way. It has also been applied in the context of communication with animals.

There are many other such symbol systems, but most of them involve fewer specifically philosophical issues than the Bliss Symbols do.

On the Bliss Symbols, see the material issued by Blissymbolics Communications International, such as Blissymbol Reference Guide (Don Mills, ON, 1991); http://www. blissymbolics. us, http://www. blissymbolics. us/dictionary/ etc.; for the system, see On applications to communicating with animals, see http://www. wikihow. com/Teach-a-Dog-to-%22Read-and-Write%22-Bliss-Symbols.

More next time!


2 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 6

  1. David Gerard says:

    I used to read about this when I was 9-10! The school had a book on his system, “semantography”.

  2. Pacal says:

    Stuff like this has annoyed me for quite sometime.

    “One such system is Charles Bliss’s ‘Bliss Symbols’, a philosophically-grounded, supposedly cross-linguistic ideographic writing system partly inspired by the Chinese logography (wrongly perceived by Bliss as itself ideographic and thus as more useful cross-linguistically than it in fact is).”

    The idea that that the Chinese writing system is ideational and that it has a separate character for each word is an idea that goes back in the west for many centuries. It is also complete nonsense. One would think that when Jesuit Missionaries learned to speak and read and write Chinese in late Ming China the notion would have died the death it so richly deserved.

    But it persists to this day. Did Bliss ever read even a introductory text describing the Chinese writing system? I have my doubts.

    This myth goes back to the idea that there exists a purely ideographic writing system. Chinese was thought to be a ideographic system that communicated meaning directly not through the medium of a language. Well Chinese is logophonetic and you do need to know Chinese to read it.

    This goes back to thinker Athanasius Kircher who thought ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs didn’t do anything as mundane has record a language but imparted directly ideas. Kircher than proceeded to supply fanciful “decipherments” of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. He also though Chinese writing was ideational and communicated ideas directly without language.

    Notions of a script that communicated ideas directly have persisted well into this century. Notions like this delayed the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs and recently is has been shown that Aztec so-called picture writing seems to have imbedded in it a complete syllabary. So much for it being a system outside language.

    It’s interesting how notions of a writing system being ideational give way to the fact they almost always are conveying a language.

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