Sorry, my title is slightly misleading; what I'm after is more like a written language that doesn't have its roots in spoken language, and has no definitive translation into speech, but is none-the-less concise and clearly understandable. Tall order, I know - perhaps something similar would be cave-paintings: they seem to have a strong meaning that one could imagine was clear to people at the time, and which may convey a narrative of some sort; but the actual recital might have many variations. Or a more modern example: when you see a red circle around a drawing of a cigarette, with a red line across, you know it means that you are not allowed to smoke (so the meaning is clear and concise) - but the equivalent wording depends on the viewer, and could include phrases like "Don't smoke", "No smoking", or many others,

It seems achievable, at least, that one could construct such a language, which might even be universally understandable; but has it already been done in the form of a full language?

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The answer is a definite Yes, there are.

The example that comes immediately to my mind is Bliss symbolics (also known as Semantography) by Charles Bliss from 1942–1949. As an additional bonus, it is still used and developped further, and may even be included into Unicode at some date.

EDIT: The term to look for is pasigraphy. There were lots of pasigraphies (Blanke, Internationale Plansprachen, gives the number 60) mainly in the 19th century, but the most successful ones were created in the 20th century. There were both philosophical pasigraphies (often using digits or abstract symbols) and naturalistic ones (starting from pictograms).

  • I've accepted your answer, but is this the only one? I have some reservations, though; Bliss still seems strongly bound to things like European concepts of grammar and the time-sequential delivery of speech, and I would like to move beyond this - the ideal (admittedly naive) would be a language or writing system that would somehow be self-explanatory, so that anybody could look at a 'text' and begin to work out what it means. As you can see, I have wild ideas, but wouldn't it be great to have such a tool? – j4nd3r53n Sep 25 at 12:48
  • Wait for other answers to come in, I am pretty sure there are others around, although I don't have information about them at hand. It is not necessary to accept an answer quickly; as a rule of thumb upvote quickly, wait with acceptance a day or two to encourage other answers. – jknappen Sep 25 at 13:38
  • Yes? I'll follow your suggestion, then, and 'un-accept' for now :-) – j4nd3r53n Sep 25 at 13:41

Most of what are generally considered languages, whether natural or constructed, are in fact two languages, one written and one spoken. We usually learn the two together, and thus learn the mapping between them. These can vary in how obvious they are. At one extreme are languages that use a very standard mapping. It is virtually impossible to be able to read the Roman alphabet - in English or French, say, and to be able to speak Portuguese, but not to be able to read Portuguese, as a friend of mine found out. She had these skills but had never learnt to read Portuguese. Her mum was shocked to find her reading a book in Portuguese and asked where she learnt to do that. She had not learnt - she could just do it.

The next step is English or Gaelic (and not many other languages) where the mapping is so poor that it is possible to be fluent in the spoken language, and not to be able to read the language, even though you can read another language in the same alphabet. 100 years ago there was a famous disaster involving a ship called the Iolaire. Virtually everyone on board, and the bereaved relatives, had Gaelic as a first language, but they could not read Gaelic and so had no idea the ship's name was Gaelic - they pronounced it as an English person would and had no idea what the name meant.

Next come languages like Chinese, which is in fact several spoken languages, with one written language. The symbol 米 means rice. How you pronounce it varies according to whether you speak Mandarin or Cantonese, or even Japanese which sometimes uses Chinese symbols (Kanji). Thus you can learn written Mandarin (you now know one word) with no clue as to how to pronounce it.

We use some logograms in English. Some, such as ☏, are pictographic in origin, and so have no inherent pronunciation - we just translate them to English as we read them. Others, such as &, are alphabetic in origin. This one is a fancy way to write et, which is Latin or French for "and". We ignore this and just pronounce it "and". Of course other people, such as the Germans, will pronounce these symbols differently.

You could always learn a natural or constructed language from a book that had no pronunciation guide, if it was written in Cyrillic, using Chinese characters, or using its own made-up logograms. But of course, you could find out how to pronounce it.

Next, a language could be constructed without a vocal form. I am not aware that this has occurred. The problem here is that there is no way stop someone inventing a vocal form for each symbol. This is a bit like learning Old English or Ancient Greek. We do not know exactly how they were pronounced, and so we use what is basically a modern guess.

The only examples I can think of where there is no vocal form is the sign languages used by deaf communities. They are genuine languages, unlike signed English, and usually have no accepted spoken or written form.

  • Hi David, and thanks for your thoughtful answer. I like the connection you make to the language users' experience. So, if one were to construct a language, for example, that was entirely pictorial and meant to be understood by anybody, it would have to have a set of easily recognisable pictograms of objects from the shared experiences of humanity at its core, and an obvious way of composing concepts - a grammar of sorts, probably based on how close and in what sequence they occur in directions away from the central object. Sorry, I'm getting carried away here :-) – j4nd3r53n Oct 9 at 7:49
  • There have been many attempts at making languages easy to learn like this. They usually start well but soon run out of symbols/sounds/gestures. And the existing words develop new meanings, form bahuvrihis (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahuvrihi) and so on and the original meaning soon becomes irrelevant. In fact, 米 represented a sheaf of rice es.dreamstime.com/… but few people know or care as they write Chinese. So in the long run I think you would be just as well off with arbitrary symbols. – David Robinson Oct 9 at 12:57

Take a look at Computer Languages

Programming Languages and any computer language made to be understandable by humans is based on an already existent language (mostly english). Just to make things easy. But computers do not understand human languages, at least not directly. Machines still "communicate" and interpret information, but they do it in a language we don't understand.

Another thing you should consider, is Braille, since it's a writing system, but not a Spoken Language, as you say.

  • OP asked for a language that "doesn't have its roots in spoken language". Computer languages are - as you say - based on a spoken language and can often be directly translated to it. Also, since Braille is just a writing system, it's neither a spoken language nor an unspoken language. – Richard Oct 5 at 16:12
  • 1
    Computer languages and braille are not conlangs in the sense that this site concerns. – curiousdannii Oct 6 at 7:16
  • Are programming languages even actual languages in the ordinary sense of the word? – elemtilas Oct 7 at 1:40

Your Answer

 

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.