Language of icons

Example of Xu Bing's Language of Icons

Any ideas what these symbols/icons might mean?

According to an article I came across today, this text means:

Chinese artist Xu Bing has ideas about how people communicate. Different people in different countries should speak one language. Xu Bing wrote a new language. It uses pictures not words. It looks like Egyptian script meets Madison Avenue.

This text was produced by software developed by a Chinese artist called Xu Bing, who has also produced a storybook written entirely with this script. He was inspired by the icons that appear on the safety cards you find in aeroplanes and by icons and symbols found on various products, which aim to get their message across graphically without using any particular language. He believes that, “Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life.” Would you agree?

Yesterday I tried to work out which of the symbols on my washing machine means ‘spin’, and managed to do so, though the meanings of the other symbols are not immediately obvious. I eventually tracked down a copy of the instruction manual online, so now know what they all mean.

There are been various attempts to create universal symbolic writing systems comprehensible to anybody regardless of which language(s) they speak, especially during the 19th century. The only one that is currently used, that I’m aware of, is Blissymbolics. They tend to accumulate huge numbers of symbols and have trouble representing abstract concepts, and they are often inspired by the Chinese script, based on the mistaken idea that written Chinese respresents ideas rather than sounds and is comprehensible to all literate Chinese people, no matter which variety of Chinese they speak.

3 thoughts on “Language of icons

  1. Well, I guess you answered your question already by yourself when you could comprehend only one symbol from the washing machine.
    I don’t believe this is possible. The background culture is always there. Yes, there are some sets of “international” symbols that, with help of time and education, everyone in a specific field should supposedly understand (yet, not regular people). e.g. semaphore.

    Pictography, just like any sign language I believe, it depends heavily on preconceived ideas. I mean, imagine what if the Chinese writing system is to be invented in this era and not from long time ago? Surely it will depicts elements from the environment around us now, and probably future generations would wonder why such ideas were depicted in that specific manner (because the future generations, we can argue, would have different look at things). Chinese currently depict the word “East” as a sun rising behind a tree, what made them depict it in that manner? “East” in our mentality here is always linked to the word “Right”, or simply with a sun disk rising from the “sea” and not behind a “tree”.

    I believe making a symbolical writing system with intent of making it understood by “most” is something out of hand. The best to be achieved is make a system and teach people about it regardless of what’s the culture behind these symbols; just like Morse code and semaphore.

  2. What is really weird about this, in my opinion, is that this example relies very strongly on *English*. For example, the symbol for “like” (the preposition) relies on the rebus principle and is represented by a symbol that suggests the verb “like.” Furthermore, this is part of an English idiomatic expression (“it looks like”), which definitely cannot be translated literally into Mandarin Chinese. I would think a Chinese artist named Xu Bing spoke Mandarin Chinese, in which case he really ought to know better than to imagine that *everyone* can automatically understand English-specific expressions just because they’re put into pictures!

  3. Simple individual symbols like what you see in instructions (like for your washer), no, I don’t think we could create an international language that wouldn’t have to be taught. However, I have found that if you can draw a picture and are willing to put in as much detail as is necessary, that you absolutely can convey anything you want to someone without the use of language.


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