A mad experiment

Today, most of the world uses alphabetic scripts, or something fairly close to them. With the major exception of Chinese (and the writing systems derived from it, such as those in Japan and Korea), alphabets, consonantal scripts, and the like reign supreme. They’re easier to learn, obviously, and far more suited to computers, so it’s only natural. Simple scripts, in the vast majority of cases, work just fine, so that’s what we use.

But it wasn’t always this way.

If you look back at the history of writing, you see that alphabets were not the original form of script. Indeed, assuming current theories are correct, writing developed first as pictorial representations of people, animals, etc. Abstractions came in later, as did the practice of using glyphs to represent spoken language, rather than as something closer to an aide mémoire.

The oldest evidence of writing we have all points in the same direction. Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform, and ancient Chinese symbols share the common feature of being, at least in some part, logographic scripts. The same may be true of other, mostly undeciphered writing, such as the Proto-Elamite script of that of the Indus Valley—given their age, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. While China kept its style of writing through the millennia, occasionally simplifying but never throwing away, the rest have mostly died out, replaced by Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, the various scripts of India and Southeast Asia, and so on.

Enter madness

But wait. Anyone with a cellphone (which is to say, well, anybody) has at their disposal a vast and growing collection of bona fide ideograms: emoji. Can we use those as the basis for a modern-day hieroglyphic script?

I know what you’re thinking. “Michael, you’ve gone completely crazy!” you probably shouted at your computer screen.

You’d be right, but hear me out. I am being totally serious. Think about it. As of 2018, there are over 1000 emoji symbols in the Unicode standard, and they’re adding more with every update. Granted, most of the new ones are gender-specific versions of older ones, but you still see a genuine emoji every now and then. (“Lobster” was in the newest batch, I think.)

Most emoji fall into one of two categories. One is clearly nominal in nature: animals, vehicles, people, and so on. The other is the emotional set: grinning faces, smilies, and the like. Those can be considered adjectives, if you look at it the right way. Verbs, now, those are harder, but not impossible.

So here’s what I propose. Take the emoji, minus a few that aren’t really all that useful to English speakers (think the “cat faces”, or the numerous symbols containing Japanese writing), and construct a script. Or, if you will, a written-only conlang. Technically speaking, it would be something more akin to a pidgin. It would have no vocabulary of its own, and the grammar would necessarily be very stripped-down.

The limitations are severe, but operating under limiting conditions is the time-honored path of the hacker (in the original sense of the word). Here, we have no control over the inventory of symbols, no convenient way of even typing them, much less pronouncing them. And there’s no real payoff, either. If I did this, it would be for fun, not for glory.

Yet none of that ever stopped me before, so why should it now?

If you’re interested, stick around. I’ll post something more about this mad scheme in the coming weeks.

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