Recently I was sent details of a image-based communication system that is being developed by some friends of mine at KomunIKON. It’s known as IKON, and according to their website:

IKON is an easy, intuitive, international and transcultural visual language. It is a structured system of graphical communication that combines icons and linguistics.

By being fun and creative, IKON has applications in different fields, from communication technology to graphic design, education, product merchandise and humanitarian crisis support.

Here are some examples – see if you can work out what they mean:

Example sentence in IKON

Example sentence in IKON

Example sentence in IKON

All the examples on the KomunIKON website, and the ones they sent to me, include English labels under each image. The word order for each one is based on English, but apparently “the IKON language is very flexible, so the grammatical explanations that we offer here are meant to show some ideas behind our icons, but they are not rigid rules to be learnt, anyone can use the language as they prefer, as far as the receiver understands.”

So we have a visual communication system without grammatical conventions. That doesn’t sound like a language to me. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Iconic

  1. The idea that one can express a non-trivial idea without grammar is simply incorrect. In their front-page example “I send to you many kisses”: (1) sentence order SVO is not universal; (2) they mark dative (“to you”) with a preposition; (3) they mark second object (dative), but leave agent (nominative “I”) and first object (accusative “many kisses”) unmarked. The result is most definitely just a transliteration of an English phrase.

  2. Simon, I know this question has come up before, and I still feel the same way, namely, a language without grammar is not possible. A language without grammar suggests a language without word order (otherwise, a prescribed word order would itself be a grammar). Suppose a language had 1,000 “words”. A sequence of three “words” could take on one billion possible forms. How is anyone to distinguish meaningful 3-word sentences from gibberish, without a grammar? And, most real sentences are much, much longer than three words. A language without grammar? Nonsense. Balderdash. It’s never going to happen. A string of words that does not conform to some kind of grammar is merely data, not information. It goes contrary to the very reason languages exist in the first place: to convey information. IKON is not a language. It’s a stunt.

    If these icons are dependent on a reader’s prior knowledge of English, then again, it’s not a real language, as it can’t stand on its own. I constitutes a “code” for the underlying English words they represent to convey any meaning. It is also dependent on the reader’s imagination, and regrettably, most people are not all that imaginative enough to decode a “language” existing only as drawings. Not to brag, but I have three university degrees, and yet these icons meant nothing to me; I couldn’t figure them out. There is a good reason why hieroglyphics gave way to Latin letters; letters are better. The authors of IKON have computers to format their clever pictures, but what about ordinary “speakers”? How does someone compose a simple sentence like, “Honey, I will be late for dinner, start without me”? Does everyone need to be an artist or have a computer with sophisticated graphics capabilities (and, oh yes, a color printer attached) to say anything?

    The authors of IKON have created an interesting thought experiment. But as a real language used by real people, it is foolish and impractical. What educated person would want to trade in their native language to write (and, speak?) in IKON? I wouldn’t.

  3. Robert says “There is a good reason why hieroglyphics gave way to Latin letters; letters are better.” Would any speakers of Chinese or Japanese care to comment on this?

  4. I was in fact mindful of Chinese when I wrote my comments above. I fully understand that Chinese speakers are committed to their form of writing, and that they spend a great deal of time learning it. I mean no disrespect to any language or language group, but I feel writing systems like Chinese are simply too hard. I knew a few Chinese coworkers who explained how they learned Chinese, prior to coming to the US. They told me that they spent over half their day, every day of their primary education, just learning Chinese. I see all of these many, many thousands of Chinese characters as a great burden. I may be wrong about it, and I don’t know any of the Chinese language, so I probably wouldn’t be considered objective about the subject.

    My only contention is that, where language is concerned, easier is better, because the ideal goal of any language is to foster and encourage literacy, not make acquisition of that goal more difficult.

  5. Many thanks for your clarification, Robert. Like you, I can neither read nor write Chinese, and I can only imagine the huge effort in learning the three to four thousand characters needed for average literacy, although there are thousands more. I have great respect for those that undertake the task, and I am also glad that my own first language uses a relatively simple alphabetic system (although English spelling is undoubtedly in need of reform!)

  6. Lots of people have suggested, and tried, reforming English. The main drawback to doing so is that any change would invalidate the many centuries of historical English usage. Most (though not all) of what we recognize as modern English was settled upon around 500 years ago. If we changed English spelling now, we’d be giving up on all that cultural history, a thing many people would be reluctant to do. It’s true, for instance, that a King James Bible is a little hard to read, but remarkably, most of its wording is still recognizable.

    Spelling reforms could also create ambiguities in meaning. English already has to contend with alternative spellings, sound-alike words, and different words spelled the same way. But, users of the language have come to learn where those pitfalls are. Spelling reforms would create new pitfalls, which would take a long time for the world-wide English-speaking community to absorb. It would be a difficult undertaking, which is probably why reforms have never taken hold.

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