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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10 Responses to Bliss for the World

  1. Symbols, symbols. Please read the Fundamental Rules and familiarize yourself with the concepts of Bliss-words and Bliss-characters. It will help.

    • mariahmartinshein says:

      Hi Michael! I have read the Fundamental Rules; it was one of the first things I did when I began learning about Blissymbolics. I have also read much of Charles Bliss’s original writings. My aim in using ‘symbols’ in place of ‘Bliss-words’ and ‘-characters’ in this post was to express the idea of a simplified set of characters which can be combined to form more complicated characters and words. In Bliss’s Semantography, he called it “The 100 Symbol Elements”.

      • It was a long-fought battle to get BCI to recognize that the vague use of “symbol” led to conceptual problems which have ramifications for character encoding and therefore the usability and usefulness of the script. Bliss’ “100 symbol elements” have nothing to do with character set technology. They may be somewhat useful for keyboard design (for people able to use keyboards) but that is irrelevant considering that the script remains unencoded.

  2. Vivian Tsang says:

    Asking someone to read up on rules and more rules amounts to saying nothing. This is the trouble with Bliss. It requires people to read up instead of being agile and mobile with expressing oneself. If I need a bulky manual, I end up with second language acquisition scenario — no one would bother unless you are marrying into a family who speaks a totally foreign language. Think about it.

    • A font that “a font that would incorporate 100 symbols plus indicators” would be useless for Bliss as a writing system for the language of Bliss. My request that Mariah to re-famliarize herself with the character-set issues stands.

  3. Vivian Tsang says:

    @ Michael:

    There is only one and only one consideration: people using Bliss so that it is truly a living language. When you have a living language, then you can afford to be prescriptive about how well-formed and sound the different components are, linguistic or technological. By definition, Bliss is dead in that there is not a new generation of language users that we can pass it on (cf. the work by Living Tongues Institute). Worse still, the existing users are not functional even in the pidgin sense to allow it to become creole for the next generation.

    Now regarding the keyboard layout, Mariah and I propose that you need a functional input method to make sense of the character set. Knowing both Chinese and Tibetan and other input methods of Roman scripts, it is clear to us that if the input method does not allow an easy layout of individual Bliss components, people will give up and not use it.

    Btw, we do not have to resort to a qwerty type keyboard. It is just that most computer users know them, it is a convenient entry point for them. We could easily resort to an onscreen keyboard (WiVik by far makes the most sense).

  4. kosmn says:

    Hello from a recent semantography enthusiast. (Sorry, not trying to start in antagonism, but I do prefer ‘semantography’ to ‘Bliss-‘. I guess that’s another discussion.)

    (1) I daily have to annotate PDF documents, and do so with a stylus on a touchscreen. In an effort to learn by doing, I’ve been trying to use semantography characters (usually from alongside the regular English. With touchscreens proliferating, might handwriting (perhaps combined with character recognition) be an alternative to the keyboard? Of course some leniency in how symbols come out is required then. As would be the case with pen and paper.

    (2) iConji uses an interface where you type words in your known language, and it comes out as iConji characters. Those can be read directly by the addressee, or converted in /their/ language. Until such time as people think in soundless Bliss-characters (?) that seems a very reasonable alternative to inputting the characters directly. Jean-François Bouzereau’s Bliss Tool allows the same input method, plus a couple more including input via atomic ‘symbol elements’. In fact that program seems admirable (also by being substrate-neutral, e.g. not Facebook-bound). But it is in a rather clunky prototype stage.

    A little off-topic:

    (3) Regarding making the language live (cf. Vivian’s post): some Web 2.0 community website comes to mind, where people can propose or aks for new words, and discuss and up/downvote them (think Stack Exchange). Not sure how that might fit in with current Bliss politics (?), but it seems an obvious step forward generally speaking. I am starting to have a bit of a list of words I have had to invent, but it feels rather un-21st century to do that in isolation.

    (4) On from (3), I checked the Yahoo! blissymbolics group for activity, but found mostly spam. Where is the Bliss (or ‘semantography’ 🙂 village pump these days?

  5. Martin Novy says:

    Blisssymbolics (Blissymbols / Semantography) community on G+ … there is described the usage of the CCFSymbolFont for Bliss-words.

  6. Claus Martin says:

    Bliss-Symbolics has the potential to get used as a global communication tool. But there are needed several things to achieve this goal:
    1. good tutorials in all languages must be available
    2. a growing library, written in Bliss Symbolics is needed.
    3. Software, to translate text in any language into and from Bliss-Symbolics is needed. To do that, there must be defined a very basic dictionary and grammar in each language ( similar as it was developed in Basic Englisch, several decades ago, in which only 850 English words and very basic grammar was used )
    Then Bliss Symbolics could be used in every blog and an on each website.

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