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Blissymbolics / Semantography

3 min read

So Charles Bliss's original work Semantography is available on the Internet Archive. Its's a fascinating work; the bulk of it is a reproduction of a typewritten manuscript, corrected typoes and all. Charles and his wife Claire put it together and tried in vain to get it published, for many years.  She died before that happened.

Charles and Claire's story is kind of amazing. He was Jewish, she Christian; he was taken away to Dachau and Buchenwald, and she worked tirelessly trying to secure his release (this was in the earliest days when release from a concentration camp was even conceivable).  She succeeded somehow in getting him out and exiled to England, but the war began and she was unable to get to England to meet him (she was in Romania, and Nazi Germany lay between them).  They ended up travelling in opposite directions around the world and meeting in Shanghai, China, where they stayed through the war, eventually departing for Australia where they lived thenceforth.

She died in 1965 and his later work (the second edition of Semantography) is full of tributes to her.

Bliss believed that his system could change the world. He thought that ideographic writing, about which he'd learned in China, was the best kind of writing because it wasn't tied to just one language (that's how he understood it anyway -- that's kind of an idealized, inaccurate picture of Chinese writing).  He also had a deep distrust of ordinary language -- specifically of its misuse by ideologues and demagogues to manipulate people.  He (much like the followers of Alfred Korzybski, with whom I believe he was familiar) thought that a rigorous analysis of language would make the flaws of these kinds of mainpulation obvious.  He essentially thought that if you rewrote any vacuous or ideological or manipulative statement in Blissymbolics, its flaws would become immediately apparent and people would become immune to its power.

I've only just begun reading the book, and honestly, it's huge -- I'm not sure I'm going to get through it all.  I think that his understanding of language was naive, and his belief in the power of his system was... optimistic, to say the least. But I can't help liking him, even admiring him. I wish it *was* possible to change the world by the means he hoped to use to change it. And hats off to him for dedicating himself to it in the face of all odds.