Blissymbols or Blissymbolics was conceived as an ideographic writing system called Semantography consisting of several hundred basic symbols, each representing a concept, which can be composed together to generate new symbols that represent new concepts. Blissymbols differ from most of the world’s major writing systems in that the characters do not correspond at all to the sounds of any spoken language.

Blissymbols were invented by Charles K. Bliss (1897–1985), born Karl Kasiel Blitz in the Austro-Hungarian city of Czernowitz (in what is now Ukraine), which had a mixture of different nationalities that ‘hated each other, mainly because they spoke and thought in different languages.’ Bliss graduated as a chemical engineer at the Vienna University of Technology, and joined an electronics company as a research chemist. When the German Army invaded Austria in 1938, he was sent to the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenbald. His German wife Claire managed to get him released, and they finally became exiles in Shanghai, where Bliss had relatives.

Bliss devised Blissymbols while a refugee at the Shanghai Ghetto and in Sydney, Australia, from 1942 to 1949. He wanted to create an easy-to-learn international auxiliary language to allow communication between different linguistic communities. He was inspired by Chinese characters, with which he became familiar in Shanghai.

Since the 1960s, Blissymbols have been popular as a method to teach disabled or handicapped people to communicate. In 1971 Shirley McNaughton started a pioneer program at the Ontario Crippled Children’s Center (OCCC), aimed at children with cerebral palsy, from the approach of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). According to linguist Arika Okrent, Bliss used to complain about the way the teachers at the OCCC were using the symbols: for example, they used ‘fancy’ terms like ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs,’ to describe what Bliss called ‘things’ and ‘actions.’ The ultimate objective of the OCCC program was to use Blissymbols as a practical way to teach the children to express themselves in their mother tongue, since the Blissymbols provided visual keys to understand the meaning of the English words, especially the abstract words.

In his book outlining his system, ‘Semantography,’ Bliss did not provide a systematic set of definitions for his symbols. Consequently, some of what he called ‘misinterpretations’ arose at the OCCC. For example, they might interpret a tomato as a vegetable – even though the ideal Blissymbol of vegetable was restricted by Bliss to just vegetables growing underground. Eventually the OCCC staff modified and adapted Bliss’s system in order to make it serve as a bridge to English. Bliss’ complaints about his symbols ‘being abused’ became so intense that the director of the OCCC told Bliss, on his 1974 visit, never to come back.

In spite of this, in 1975 Bliss granted an exclusive world license, for use with handicapped children, to the new Blissymbolics Communication Foundation directed by Shirley McNaughton (later called Blissymbolics Communication International, BCI). Nevertheless, in 1977 Bliss claimed that this agreement was violated so that he was deprived of effective control of his symbol system. Bliss finally sued the OCCC in 1982, and both parts reached a settlement: the OCCC got an exclusive, noncanceable, and perpetual license to use Blissymbolics, and he [Bliss] got $160,000. Bliss spent the money on a run of his own Blissymbols teaching manual

The Blissymbol method has been used is Canada, Sweden, and a few other countries. Practitioners of Blissymbolics (that is, speech and language therapists and users) maintain that some users who have learned to communicate with Blissymbolics find it easier to learn to read and write traditional orthography in the local spoken language than do users who did not know Blissymbolics.

Unlike similar constructed languages, Blissymbolics was conceived as a purely visual, speech-less language, on the premise that ‘interlinguistic communication is mainly carried on by reading and writing.’ Nevertheless, Bliss suggested that a set of international words could be adopted, so that ‘a kind of spoken language could be established – as a travelling aid only.’ So, whether Blissymbolics constitutes an unspoken language is a controversial question, whatever its practical utility may be. Some linguists have argued that genuine ideographic writing systems with the same capacities as natural languages do not exist.

Bliss’s deep concern about semantics finds an early referent in John Locke, whose ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ prevented people from the ‘vague and insignificant forms of speech’ that usually pass for ‘deep learning,’ yet they rather cause ignorance and keep people away from true knowledge. Another vital referent is Leibnitz’s project of an ideographic language called ‘universal character,’ based on the principles of Chinese characters. It would contain small figures representing ‘visible things by their lines, and the invisible, by the visible which accompany them,’ as well as adding ‘certain additional marks,’ suitable to make understood the flexions and the particles.’ Bliss stated that his own work was an attempt to take up the thread of Leibnitz’s project.

Finally there is a strong influence by the work ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ by Ogden and Richards, which was considered a standard work on semantics. Bliss found especially useful their ‘triangle of reference’: the physical thing or ‘referent’ that we perceive would be represented at the right angle; the meaning that we know by experience (our implicit definition of the thing), at the top angle; and the physical word that we speak or write, at the left angle. The reversed process would happen when we read or listen to words: from the words, we recall meanings, related to referents which may be real things or unreal ‘fictions.’ Bliss was particularly concerned with political propaganda, whose discourses would tend to contain words that correspond to unreal or ambiguous referents.

The grammar of Blissymbols is based on a certain interpretation of nature, dividing it into matter (material things), energy (actions), and human values (mental evaluations). In an ordinary language, these would give place respectively to substantives, verbs, and adjectives. In Blissymbols, they are marked respectively by a small square symbol, a small cone symbol, and a small V or inverted cone. These symbols may be placed above any other symbol, turning it respectively into a ‘thing,’ an ‘action,’ and an ‘evaluation’:

‘…the main manifestations of our world can be classified into matter, energy, and …mind force. Matter is symbolized by a square to indicate that the structure of matter is not chaotic. The symbol for energy indicates …the primeval [first age] action of our planet, the throwing-up of volcano cones. The symbol for human evaluation …suggests a cone standing on its point, a position which in physics is termed labile [likely to fall, unstable]. …All words relating to things and actions refer to something real, which exists outside of our brain. But human evaluations …depend upon the mind of each individual.’


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