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.