Visual Language : Esperanto of the 21st century ?

Posted on February 26, 2007. Filed under: English |

Have you ever read a book in esperanto ? The first time was a coincidence as I walked in London and entered by curiosity an esperanto bookshop and – as a comics fan – bought a copy of Tintin in Tibet in esperanto. This language (created in 1894) is a living proof that some utopias don't die : a constructed language that could be used as a pivot language for all people to understand so they could communicate, travel across countries and get to know each other to foster peace. Although it is mainly spoken in Europe, some estimate at approx. 1 million the number of esperanto speakers, and 25 000 the number of books in esperanto. 

ZlangoSome of you may have noticed Zlango, an Irish startup, getting $12 Million in funding from leading investors BenchMark Capital and Accel Partners (see TechCrunch's article). It offers a simple vocabulary and grammar using small icons to be used on a mobile phone. It is not the first time attempts are made at developing an international sign language :

  • Kwikpoint International Translator by Gaia Communications, double-sided picture cards with 600 illustrations designed to help monolinguists get by anywhere in the world
  • The Elephant’s Memory, pictorial language by Timothee Ingen-Housz, a vocabulary of 150 combinable logograms representing concepts such as time, existence, causality, …
  • and we could almost say the same about smileys or emoticons, invented in 1982 by Carnegie Melon University researcher Scott Fahlman

 Communicating across languages has always been difficult, and all ages had an international language such as Greek, Latin, French and now English. But it has limitations :

  • learning it is long and difficult, whereas a constructed language such as esperanto can be mastered in a matter of weeks ;
  • it remains a national language and that limits its broader adoption for sovereignty reasons (think about american imperialism 😉
  • it is too complex for major uses (some people use a vocabulary of only 300 to 400 words, where 2000 to 3000 is generally judged correct – see Le Monde article)

This is why such visual approaches are tried, often relying on visual representations of things, emotions and actions. I will come back on this subject in a future post : keep posted !

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[…] I will come back with more on such design standards in a future post. They are in essence a universal language. See my previous post on this. […]


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