A universal language: From Isotypes to the Internet

Pictographs were invented as a basic writing and reading tools that anyone could understand and use as a replacement to memory. The images were based off of everyday objects and animals. Of course, over time languages and writing has developed and evolved over time and across communities.

Being that there are roughly 7000 languages out there, we would need to be multilingual to understand other people or get translators, but how about a universal language?

In the 1960’s a universal language was attempted. Isotypes(International System Of TYpographic Picture Education) are made up of pictographs of everyday objects, to create a language that everyone worldwide could read: “Another outspoken goal of this method of visual statistics was to overcome barriers of language and culture, and to be universally understood.”( http://www.gerdarntz.org/)but, of course, most objects and animals that are common in one lifestyle might not be recognisable in another part of the world and vice versa.  Thus the “language” would still need to have to be described and taught. Over 4000 images were designed by Gerd Arntz (1900-1988).

The Isotypes would therefore have to be used as a visual guidance alongside written words: “Due to this visual summary, less text is needed” ( http://www.gerdarntz.org/), but the fact that text is still required made the use of a fully universal pictographic language void. However, I discovered in the book “The Transformer” (by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross), Isotype charts  created for pictorial statistics, were useful for creating charts, graphs and visuals to compare or go alongside information: “that was an instance of the charts meaning something for everyone, that they excluded nobody”(“The Transformer”), they discovered children viewed the graphs with some ease, however if people struggled to comprehend they had to start re-thinking the design all over again.

Symbols to represent words are more commonly seen today in maps or road signs, so everyone can easily “read” what they mean.


Photographs I have taken of real life examples in and around Dundee.

Isotype are useful for displaying information visually to keep interest to the viewer. http://datavis.ca/milestones//admin/uploads/images/dan/neurath_symbols3.jpg

Thanks to the advancement of technology and the rise of the internet, people have been able to communicate to more and more people with ease than ever before, almost as a universal “language” with others across the globe. It’s a fantastic learning tool, as information can be spread across the world quickly and effectively.

However, this has created a lazy environment where we do not need to use our memories for storing information and to create strong inter-personal relationships with those we come in contact with. Contacting strangers is easier online than out in the street in public, as we are safe knowing we cannot be seen or heard. Do you feel like you’re a different person online? Like you put on a mask to hide behind your true “self”?  What about a fear of revealing too much about your true self?

‘Cyber balkanization’ is the term used to describe groups of people on the internet who just stick to others with the same interests, creating a narrow-minded approach to other people with different views, no longer a worry with having actual discussion with others with conflicting views, unlike face-to-face contact in the real world.


A quick sketch I made of people “hiding behind a mask” when dealing with online conversations.

Personally, I find texting friends (whether it be online or by phone)to be a hassle as my recipient may not always reply straight away, especially if I need to contact them. Phoning is much more reliable for a quick response, but then that costs more money, so I must settle with texting. For long-distance (especially over the summer when everyone was away from university), speaking over Skype was a great way to keep in touch (despite the flaws of disconnecting and the microphone not always working), but most people are quite content with simply texting. I suppose texting other people could be seen as just more socially acceptable now and also most expensive smartphones are under contract, so you’re forced to text others as so then you’re not wasting any money.

Technology has made it convenient to keep in touch with people and information out of your reach, but the role of the voice is useful for communicating moods, emotions and our attitudes whether we speak in a whisper or a tense voice, also facial and hand gestures. These are the tools, as it were, that we have used to communicate to one another for millions of years, before writing was even invented.

Even books describe emotion (sarcasm for example) and in text most people will use “emoticons”, which is used as a substitute to an absent physical body/face, made up of icons.  : – )

Texting ’emoticons’ can help express facial expressions from an otherwise absent face http://elijahhardin.com/images/iPhone/TextEmoticonHowTo/TextEmoticons.jpg

But has a world driven by technology, made people drift apart?  More likely than ever before, people find standing to an audience very daunting and much prefer to stay alone: “we may be free to work from everywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere”(Alone Together). The electronic age has led to an anxiety to communicate properly to others: “you don’t see their reaction or anything, and it’s like you’re talking to a computer screen so you don’t see how you’re hurting them”(Alone Together) people have a bigger sense of freedom over the internet in speech and creating a fake persona. Social networking has desensitised the word “friend” because instead of building on inter-personal relationships, we’re more focused on just ourselves(using facebook or twitter status updates) instead of actual conversing.

Ultimately, people today shy away from the hassle of having conversation and hide behind a screen, alone.



Neurath, Marie  and Kinross, Robin  (2009)- The Transformer. Princeton Architectural Press (p26)

Turkle, Sherry  (2011)- Alone Together. Basic Books (front flap and p241)





(“The science of the friendzone” – talks about how people in the last century have fewer friends, and mentions the book “Bowling Alone” by Robert D. Putnam, where technology has contributed to a decline in social behaviour)

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