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. 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 . 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.