] Introduction The Annex of Universal Languages by Richard Niessen
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The Annex of Universal Languages

Introduction The Annex of Universal Languages by Richard Niessen

We are somewhere in the Department of Sign, in ‘The Annex of Universal Languages’ to be precize. Here you will find a small display of human attempts to design a visual language that can be universally read, from ideographic systems to all-connecting lingua franca, from utopian alphabets to iconic sign languages.

According to the Bible, the multitude of human languages ​​is a curse. Since the Tower of Babel, there is division in the world which leads to disagreement, conflicts and war. The language barrier is a sign of human imperfection.

To keep man humble, God created scattering. But man does not accept it: for almost two thousand years, means have been sought to undo that curse. Once the perfect language that everyone can understand is found, nothing stands in the way of world peace.

In Auraicept na n-éces ("The Scholars Primer", an Irish manuscript from the 12th century) the structure of the language is compared with the construction of the tower Tower of Babel: "Others claim that the tower is made of only 9 materials existed, namely clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen and bitumen (...), or noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjections. The language as a building, the construction of sentences.

Or the other way around, you could also argue that a building speaks a language. Hein de Haan, the architect of this building, was not interested in the aesthetics of his architecture. He designed a structure after which the residents would fill it in themselves. In his view, the building was given identity by the residents, not by the architect. Nautilus does not speak one language, like the building next to us. Is our confusion of speech a curse?

Back to the designers of Universal Languages… up to the eighteenth century people searched for it mainly in the past, trying to find the language that Adam spoke, such as Francis van Helmont's ‘Alphabet of Nature’. Since the Enlightenment people searched for that language in the future. It had to be constructed as an artefact of the human genius: it was the motivation for Charles Bliss to make it his life's work.

Modernism created a stream of rationalized pictogram systems, designed primarily by men with a compulsive obsession for the grid. In the digital age, a more playful approaches followed, like the expanding symbol language of emojis. But the nice thing is that misunderstandings always persist. The cheerful turd is not just a cheerful turd. It also stands for a Japanese symbol of luck. The Japanese word for poo is unko and this is the same sound as the Japanese word for luck.

Edgar Walthert, the curator of this ‘Annex of Universal Languages’, collected these sources due to a long enthusiasm for visual languages. This personal interest became more public with the release of Logical, a font that contains a rich set of pictograms that can automatically replace words.

The unattainable ideal of the perfect universal language turns out to be primarily a catalyst for even more forms with which the diversity and richness of the existing patchwork of imperfect languages ​​only grows. For freedom, peace and humanity, that may not be a curse but a blessing, as we can experience here in our own Tower of Babel.