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.
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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.