Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words

In 1987, Chinese artist Xu Bing began hand-carving woodblocks which he used to print scrolls and books using traditional Chinese methods. The four thousand blocks took four years to make. The printed material formed an installation known as A Book From the Sky. The characters, although they appear to be Chinese, are in fact meaningless.

Along similar lines, the 1981 book Codex Seraphinianus, by Italian artisit Luigi Serafini, appears to describe an imaginary world using a familiar yet unintelligible script. Despite Serafini’s claim that the script is entirely invented and meaningless, numerous attempts have been made to decipher it.

Both of these are examples of asemic writing. Asemia is a neurological disorder, similar to aphasia, the inability to understand language which may affect speech, reading or writing (see also Alexia sine agraphia). But asemia is more extreme, affecting the understanding of signs and symbols. Asemic writing is ‘writing’ devoid of meaning, similar perhaps to calligraphy but using invented symbols.

At the other end of the scale is solresol, a language invented by Jean-François Sudre in 1827 based on the seven notes of the musical scale. The syllables of solresol can be represented in written form, speech, music, numbers, colours or hand gestures. Its popularity peaked in the early twentieth century when it was thought of as a potential universal language, but then faded from public consciousness. The worldwide adoption of solresol would transform human culture, applying an extra layer of meaning to music, visual arts, mathematics, just about anything with colour, sound or numbers.

A more successful attempt at a universal writing system are Blissymbols devised in the 1940s by the remarkable Charles Bliss, a survivor of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps and the Shanghai ghetto, who worked on his system in virtual obscurity alongside his day job as a labourer.

The elements of Blissymbols are ideograms, designed to be understood independently of the reader’s spoken language. They have been used extensively with handicapped children.

Nsibidi and iConji are ideographic scripts with very different origins. iConji is a computer-based system of 1,200 emoticon-like symbols. Nsibidi originated in southeastern Nigeria and may be as much as 1,500 years old. One story claims that baboons first taught the writing system to humans. Despite their vastly different forms, both systems have the same aim – to convey information between people without a common language.

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One Response to Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    I got a newsflash for you…all three of your “universal” writing systems mean nothing to me.

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