Here's my idea.

(... and I'll be the first to admit, it's a stupid idea, but those are what I'm best at ...)

MY IDEA: If we took all the common graphic symbols floating around nowadays, would we have enough to make a viable hieroglyphic language? Would it be possible to translate Finnegan's Wake or Moby Dick entirely into dingbats, whim-whams and clip art?

We'll go at it in two steps. First, let's harvest all the signs, symbols, icons, etc. in common use. For example, as I write this, I see dozens of standardized symbols at the top of this screen indicating copy, cut, paste, save, undo, print, etc. On the way to work this morning, I noticed 10 distinct graphic symbols on the elevator control panel -- up, down, open, close, stop, phone, alarm, fireman, handicapped and exit. In fact, now that I've spent a few months poking around and noticing these things, I've compiled a vocabulary of some 500 pre-existing symbols that some -- maybe most -- of you will recognize immediately.

Second step, we fill the gaps. Rather than trying to draw a specific picture for every object and concept in human experience, let's instead use various combinations of our five hundred or so root glyphs to create compound words.

For example, let's start with a set of scales:

To illustrate the concept of law, let's combine the scales with a sword:

The constellation of Libra would combine scales and a star:

Put the scales with a compass for measuring, and we'll get weight:

An eye and a compass would symbolize the Masons:

And although there's not much call for this nowadays, the compass and hammer were the symbols of East Germany:

A more traditional sickle with the hammer symbolizes Communism:

Putting the sickle with an hourglass would indicate time:

If we're stumped for an obvious combination of concepts to illustrate a word, we might dig into its English (or Latin, French, German, etc.) etymology to see how earlier generations created compounds from simple roots. If we look up the origins of the English words daisy, window and bull's-eye, we'll find that these originated as composites formed from day's eye, wind eye and (of course) bull's eye. Therefore, even if we have no recognizable glyphs for these specific words, we can create them from various combinations of bull, day, eye and wind:

If we remember that each glyph carries a meaning all by itself (eye, wind, star, etc.) that's twenty-one words we've created from eleven symbols.

However, an important rule to establish right from the start is "no puns".

Do you hear me?


Puns, none. Puns are bad. Evil. The scourge of humankind.

No puns, no rebuses, no sentences like

We're allowed to use compounds like [bull's][eye] because that reflects that actual combination of concepts that created the word. On the other hand, a compound like [bee][leaf] merely reflects an accidental similarity of sounds.

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Last updated May 2003

Copyright © 2003 Matthew White