Bliss for the World

by Mariah Martin Shein, a 20-year-old studying Cognitive Science and Computer Science at Mount Allison University

For the past month and a half, I have been working on the Blissymbolics Canada webpage. I admit that at first, I was a little skeptical about the usefulness of the language, since the symbols are so different from alphabetic systems, and there is currently no usable font to represent the symbols as text. In terms of building anything with the language, it’s almost like we’re doing everything in reverse. What I mean by this is that with natural languages, they became popular and widespread long before the invention of the computer, so that when the time came to program computers to use characters and fonts, the programming was driven by a need to give tools to the millions of existing users of the language. With Bliss, we are building tools for the millions of potential users, in order to allow it to spread and become a living language.

I am now thoroughly convinced of the practicality of Blissymbolics, with its logical rules and ability to convey a lot of meaning in a small amount of space. It’s also really cool. It appeals to my childhood passion for codes and secret symbols, and the mysterious beauty of heiroglyphics. You don’t need a Rosetta Stone to decode it, either, just a curious mind. I think it’s a brilliant system, with potential for international communication, scientific writings, and more.

However, the difficulty I’m having, which may be the main difficulty that stands in the way of Blissymbolics’ widespread use, is the lack of a decent font. What good is a writing system if it’s impossible to write with it? At the moment, there are a few programs that allow users to select and edit Blissymbols, but nothing that makes it possible to write in a normal word processor.

While working on the website, I have had to create many symbols not covered by the 4500+ approved by Blissymbolics Communication International (BCI). This problem is particularly obvious when I try to combine symbols, since that the approved symbol images provided by BCI are hard to work with, for three reasons:
1. They are images, and so must be combined like images, using some sort of photo editing software. This is extremely time consuming, and if a mistake is made, it is frustrating to find and fix. Adding something as simple as an indicator requires careful alignment of two images:

2. The images that are available are often too complicated for me to work with. There are sometimes too many basic symbols combined in one, and the constituent parts are not available for individual use. This is limiting, and seems to contradict Charles Bliss’ idea of ~100 basic elements that can be combined infinitely to make new meanings. For example, I had to erase the action indicator to make the noun of “teaching” from the verb “to teach”.

3. When writing a document, such as this one, symbols have to be inserted as images. Of course, that leads to alignment issues with the alphabetic text, and is no good at all when using websites like Facebook, or even emailing.

I would like to make a font that would incorporate 100 symbols plus indicators, which would solve both of these problems. Accuracy is important, but so is ease of use. Spelling mistakes and incorrect application of grammar rules are normal when someone is learning a new language. It is important for the teacher to give a good example, which is what I believe BCI is trying to do, but there comes a time when you have to let the student try to fly on his own. Using images is like providing the airplane, but a font would put the knobs, dials, and steering wheel into the cockpit.

People in my generation have short attention spans (no offense!) which may actually make Blissymbolics ideal — getting a wealth of information in a lot less time and space. They are also generally not willing to put a whole lot of time and effort into something when the benefits aren’t clear. However, once they are presented with an easy-to-learn new tool, their creativity can take it in new and unexpected directions, finding applications for it which the creators might never have guessed. I don’t know what will come of it, but my goal is to make Blissymbolics as accessible and self-evidently useful (as well as fun!) as possible, and then let other minds take off with it.

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Charles Bliss: A man with a mission

Excerpts in this article are taken from an interview with Charles Bliss on October 15, 1979 for “the newspaper,” University of Toronto

by Fraser Shein


When the time is right for some new idea, it depends upon a person in a certain environment, where the idea is needed. Otherwise, there will be no necessity…

Semantography. This is the name that Charles Bliss (1897 – ) first applied to his pictorial writing, the development of which he began in 1942. It was meant to be not only a universal writing understood in all languages, but also to contain simple symbolic logic and semantics. Today, it is known by the name Bliss symbols or simply Blissymbolics.

Where I lived … we spoke about six different languages … there was no need for a little boy like me … to realize how stupid it was to speak six different languages.

Three hundred years ago, the great mathematician, Leibnitz, wrote: “A universal Symbolism, very popular, might be introduced if small figures were employed in place of words, which would represent visible things by their lines and the invisible, by the visible which accompany them.”

They (my parents) spoke … only in German in order to enable me to speak German, because German was the language of culture, the language of the authorities, the language of the schools … I never learned to speak any of the other languages because I said, “Why should I? German is good enough for me.”

Not knowing when he first started to develop his symbols, that the idea of pictorial writing for modern man had been scoffed at since Leibnitz proposed it, Bliss set out on a task that he has devoted to the remainder of his life.

When I went to high school I learned that one and two is three; ein und zwei is drei; un et deux is trois … means the same in all languages. I said, “Now look here. We have already something which we can read in all languages and has the same meaning in all languages.”

 Difficulties arose when he noted that many words in all languages cannot be pictured and the meaning in question visualized. Languages contained many vague words that men could not come to agreement on. Words such as “freedom and liberty …”

I realized of course that different languages are one of the greatest hindrances of people to understand each other.

These vague words, Bliss felt, were devices that brought misery to man. They destroyed our lives, our peace in homes and nations and made men go to war and kill each other.

… the people responsible—the professors! The professors in Cambridge, the professors in Oxford! They speak in such different languages that a poor student can’t understand.

Bliss fashioned his symbols complying with Leibnitz’ idea of such a simple language that even children can learn to use it. He realized that a logical system without vagaries could be a tool to bring harmony and peace in human relations.

The idea itself to make a language simple is already an old idea. But nobody did it! … the symbols have to be pictorial symbols, not in high brow words … when you invent symbols that look like the real picture of things, people grasp them immediately, little children will grasp it. You will see little children one or two years of age grasp it.

Sir Richard Paget wrote in 1950: “Bliss may fairly claim to be the first to have realized Leibnitz’ idea of a Universal Symbolism.” Also at the time, Lord Bertram [sic] Russell wrote: “I think very highly of Bliss’ work. The logical analysis is good. The symbols are ingenious and easy to understand, and the whole is capable of being very useful … an important service to mankind.” Sir Julian Huxley felt the same way and wrote in 1954: “Bliss’ work provides something of real importance.”

The Latin people started to calculate on fingers, in digits. Unfortunately, they made a mistake later and they made the I mean fifty. But the beginning was correct. Make pictorial symbols! But if we could make pictorial symbols today … it would be wonderful.

Like those who tried before him, Bliss was met by skepticism and apathy. Professors of logic and language refused to examine his symbols, his logic, his semantics and his ethics.

Today we must use the Arabic symbols. For this reason I said we have already thirty symbols which are international – like the numbers one, two, three … then we have the plus, then we have the minus, we have the equal sign.

Bliss tackled symbols for road safety, for postal communication, for banking, for commerce, for travel for railways and airplanes, etc., and his greatest challenge: a universal grammar for all languages. He managed to do this by utilizing 100 symbol elements that he developed.

My colleagues in school said, “Charles, you can explain complicated things so easily, so much better than the teachers can do it.” … I was at the top of the class, because I could use simple words.

* * * * * * * *

Charles Bliss

Charles Bliss during interview

God has done everything possible to make it that I should go where it is needed and realize what has to be done. When Hitler came to Austria … they grabbed all the Jews and sent them to concentration camps. God has helped me to go there (Dachau and Buchenwald) too because I’ve learned something else. I have learned that two people speak the same language … and still understanding is completely blocked, completely blocked.

Bliss survived concentration camp but it has taken thirty years for the symbols to be accepted. On the 4th of July 1975, The Blissymbolics Communication Foundation was incorporated into law in Toronto for spreading the proper use of his work throughout the world.

I have started this work only to help mankind. I knew, I knew from the beginning, and my wife knew too, that people would laugh at us. Pictorial symbols which can be read in all languages! A silly idea! And the professors laughed about it … they all laughed at me, at the whole blasted idea! And nevertheless, I had a good wife. She said, “Charles, let us hold on, let us hold on …” I couldn’t find a publisher so … I typed every page myself and my good wife duplicated them on a duplicator.

For the past several years the Ontario Crippled Children’s Centre has made extensive use of Bliss’ symbols for communication with children with cerebral palsy. The use of symbols has been met with great enthusiasm by the teachers, the parents and most of all by the children. No longer need these children be lacking in comprehensible communication.

God has helped me so far. God has given me the possibility to work this out. God has given me a good wife. God has brought me into a country where it is necessary to have the same symbols for different languages. God has helped me to use symbols for the speech-paralyzed children who otherwise can’t speak to each other. I feel that God will help me to see to it that my work is given away to mankind as God has given it to me.

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Meeting Charles Bliss

by Fraser Shein

On a Friday afternoon in October 1979, I knocked on the door of a hotel room in downtown Toronto and Charles Bliss opened the door, wearing pyjamas and a nightgown. I had somewhat of a background to Blissymbolics through my employment as a rehabilitation engineer at what was then called the Ontario Crippled Children’s Centre (now, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital). Walking through the door, I did not know that I would have a lifetime association with Bliss. I had gone to write a story for the University of Toronto’s “the newspaper” student paper. The story will be reprinted here in another blog entry.

Not knowing me at all, I was welcomed graciously into his hotel room where I then spent several hours listening to him regale me with his life story. It was a story of hardship, joy and frustration. Hardship of suffering through Nazi imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp. Joy of release and escape to Shanghai where he joined his beloved wife and began development of the Blissymbolic communication system, which he hoped would reduce or eliminate hatred in the world due to miscommunication.[1] His frustration when his system languished, ignored by linguists and educators world-wide. Only Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley recognized what he had achieved with Blissymbolics.

In the early 70s, Bliss experienced great joy again when Shirley McNaughton and Margrit Beasley at the Ontario Crippled Children’s Centre discovered his Blissymbols. As part of a team helping non-speaking children with cerebral palsy, they were seeking a system to replace pictures used to communicate. They foresaw much greater potential in a system that was more symbolic and abstract—not tied to sounds that the children could not speak, nor limited to single-meaning or confusing pictures. They wanted a system that allowed symbols to be combined in a logical fashion and taught systematically… and Blissymbolics is what they discovered in a book found in a library. This book was first introduced in Canada several years earlier but no one understood what lay in inside.

Let’s start from some of Charles Bliss’ basic concepts. Within a language model consisting of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, Bliss claimed that his symbols were an alternative form of reading and writing for a person’s native language … nothing more. Thus, users from China and France would speak out Blissymbols in their own native language, but they would read and write using the same symbols. This is the same as individuals across China who read and write using the same characters while speaking entirely different dialects. Blissymbolics is based on simple, elegant, grammatically-based rules, that make it ideal as a non-phonetically based language.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, the use of Blissymbolics grew quickly world-wide as teachers and clinicians found it to be of tremendous benefit to children who were non-speaking. I became involved in many technological developments on the computer to make the creation and use of Blissymbols possible on the new personal computer systems that were emerging. While we had great visions for its use on emerging computer systems, the technology was not up to our dreams at the time. Further, for practical purposes, simplifications were made to his system to enable it to be taught to young children and to deal with their limited physical abilities to select symbols. This was extremely frustrating for Charles Bliss who fought to maintain his original vision.

Bliss never intended for users to select from massive displays or pages of thousands of symbols. Rather he envisaged users learning a small set of basic symbol shapes/components (less than 100 including numbers and mathematical symbols) and a basic and consistent grammar such that any combined symbol may be generated.

Beyond the 90s, the use of Blissymbolics in North America dwindled as graphic and picture-based communication systems gained wider acceptance, and manufacturers developed more powerful computer-based communication devices. However, the use of Blissymbolics in non-English countries in Europe and elsewhere continued to flourish. Perhaps it is simply a difference in culture where we in North America want quick (and easy) solutions with minimal effort spent on teaching and learning.

Certainly, it requires some effort to learn the logic of Blissymbolics and how they can be combined. Yet there is real significance in Blissymbolics as every symbol part contributes meaning to the final constructed symbol. Compare this to pages of picture-based items or words/phrases where the page marker (analogous to a symbol component) is not part of the final message. Just because a language dies says nothing about its usefulness or goodness. Rather, it says something about the environment and conditions that are not right at some point in time.

A simple, fast method for creating Blissymbols (rather than selecting from a set of thousands) is necessary for its widespread adoption. One of Charles Bliss’ earliest documents is a description of a modified standard keyboard such that one can create any Blissymbol with a typewriter. Costs prevented him from achieving this vision. Later on, he described a configuration of 60 basic symbol shapes and 10 combinations per symbol. for a total of 660 initial symbols and from these thousands more combined symbols [2]. We believe that such a system can readily be created today.

Coming out of my interview, Charles asked me to carry on his mission for mankind—perhaps it was my being an engineer helping children and of Jewish heritage, like Charles, that he saw that I may be able to help him. Somewhat prophetically, it is interesting to watch the opening scenes of Charles Bliss in a 1974 documentary by the National Film Board of Canada and compare it with my office today which is now home to Blissymbolics Communication Institute – Canada. See these pictures below.

Sadly, Charles Bliss died in 1985, brokenhearted—although his symbols made a huge difference in many children who were non-speaking—his original goal of a spreading a true international communication system, and bringing peace to the world had not been achieved. Today, we aim to turn things around and realize the potential of Blissymbolics for international communication and meeting the challenges of persons with varying levels of communication, language and learning difficulties.

[1] Bliss, Charles K. (1962). Semantography, How Semantography Came Into Being, pp. 216–222.

[2] Bliss, Charles K. (1972). BLISSLETTER No. 2 Sydney 9 September 1972.

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