Is this language without letters the future of global communication?
Though you’ve never met Yukio Ota, you are almost certainly acquainted with his most famous creation. Professor Ota is the designer of the International Emergency Exit Symbol:
Yukio Ota is captivated by symbols. He has dedicated his life to them, and he becomes energised when he talks about them. Professor Ota’s emergency exit symbol is recognised around the world. But his life’s work is something much more ambitious: an entire language of symbols which he dreams could be the lingua franca of the 21st Century.
The name of this language is LoCoS —“Lovers’ Communication System”. The name reflects his hope that readers and writers will communicate ‘as effortlessly as lovers’. LoCoS is a visual Esperanto. Designed to be intuitive and effortless to pick up, it is intended to be a language owned by the whole world.
Professor Ota began designing LoCoS in 1964. I get the sense that his devotion to the project comes from the joy of creating. LoCoS is an inviting world to inhabit: one of smiling hearts, delightful symbols and elegant simplicity.
Unlike most written languages, LoCoS represents concepts rather than sounds. The basic building blocks are simple shapes that each represent an idea:
These symbols can also be combined to create new symbols that express more complex ideas. For example, different types of people:
Or different types of places:
The meaning of symbols for things like ‘book’ or ‘library’ can usually be guessed. But it’s impossible to design obvious and universal symbols for abstract concepts like ‘thing’ or ‘thought’ or ‘time’. Nevertheless, LoCoS has a simple and logical system for representing abstract ideas. Once you know a base symbol, related symbols are easy to understand and remember:
LoCoS uses a horizontal line to represent the concept ‘do’. When it is crossed out, it becomes ‘don’t’. A dot before or after the line indicates past and future (‘did’ and ‘will do’):
Combining ‘do’ with another symbol makes a verb:
Making a sentence is straightforward. LoCoS is written from left to right, so this message says ‘This is a house’:
LoCoS can be written across three rows. The centre row is for the main message. Symbols in the top row describe the verb below them, and symbols in the bottom row describe the noun above them. So the following sentence says ‘That climber will come back from the mountain today’:
Professor Ota says he prefers this three-line arrangement because it allows readers to make up their own minds about the best order to interpret the symbols. But, for the sake of saving space and faster reading, it is also possible to reduce the same message to a single line and preserve the essential meaning:
And there you have it: you’re reading LoCoS.
Yukio Ota’s quest raises some interesting questions. Is the experience of reading visual symbols inherently different to reading spelled words? Can visual symbols be as nuanced and expressive as text? Is there a place for a universal language in the age of machine translation? And is a truly universal visual language even possible—or desirable?
Millions of us already carry a key in our pocket that can unlock most of the world’s major languages. We can speak into our smartphone and hear our words translated into Japanese, French or Arabic; or use its camera to unscramble text written in Greek, Hindi or Chinese. So why bother with a new language?
First off, it’s worth pointing out that only English speakers could feel they speak a universal language. For the rest of the world, navigating multiple languages is a fact of life. English grammar and spelling are caked in layers of complexity and riddled with exceptions. And translation software typically translates from one language to another via English. For example: from Spanish to English to Chinese:
This translation triple-step poses no problem for simple messages. But as you add complexity, you also add opportunities for missteps, as proven by the bizarre outcomes that machine translation often generates. A shared language closes the gap between people and eliminates the need for a translator:
There is one recent linguistic phenomenon that is notably more universal than English. In a few short years, emoji have become a global obsession that has transcended language and culture. We use them to both simplify our communication and to enrich it with humour, nuance and even poetry. Though there are already over three thousand emoji in the Unicode standard, emoji are still far from a fully-formed language. LoCoS, on the other hand, has the immediacy and playfulness of emoji, with the clarity and depth of a functional language. And designers could create different styles of LoCoS fonts to suit different moods. Even though it was created decades before the smartphone, LoCoS is perfectly suited to instant messaging.
But the potential of LoCoS extends far beyond digital messaging. It could be effective anywhere readability and internationalisation are valuable: highway signs, aircraft safety cards, danger warnings. We already have symbols to communicate basic messages: ‘no smoking’; ‘fragile’; ‘low battery.’ Imagine an intuitive, international language that could clearly communicate more complex messages. The grammar of LoCoS could even unify our many symbol sets. The visual language of maps, science, medicine, mathematics, digital media, laundry, recycling, weather forecasting, sports, music and more could become one coherent language with the shared grammar of LoCoS.
LoCoS could be an accessible first written language for people learning to read and write. It could be useful in countries where people have limited access to education or where many languages are spoken, such as India or Papua New Guinea. And I wonder if LoCoS might have advantages for readers who experience certain forms of dyslexia.
Because it is new, and because is promoted as being easy to learn and use, most of the messages written in LoCoS are basic. But there’s no reason it couldn’t become as sophisticated as any language, given enough time and use. Some critics have suggested that a language made up of conceptual symbols is only good for rudimentary communication. Unlike natural languages, which have developed a patina of culture over centuries of use, LoCoS is at a disadvantage because it is fresh out of the box. But readers and writers of Chinese characters will attest that conceptual symbols can be just as profound or nuanced as any form of phonetic writing. (It’s no coincidence that LoCoS comes from a designer who reads and writes kanji.)
So, if LoCoS has so much potential, why are there no LoCoS lessons, or LoCoS keyboards on our smartphones? Ultimately, the fortunes of a language don’t hinge on design, but on marketing. There is no great empire, no army of missionaries, no revolutionary government or multinational corporation behind LoCoS. Only one eccentric retired Professor. And though you might think this is a weakness, it is the charm of LoCoS. It is not an agent of theology, politics, commerce or power. It has no agenda. It is simply a lovers’ communication system, designed with joy, and eager to bring the world closer together. And who knows? With enough lovers of LoCoS, maybe it will.
You can see many more examples of LoCoS symbols and grammar structures in the book ‘LoCoS Visual Language for Global Communication’, available in print and as an eBook.
Ota, Yukio 1993 Pictogram Design, Kashiwashobo Publishing, Tokyo
Vanhauer, Marleen; Oertel, Karina; Voskamp, Jörg 2007 Overcoming the Language Barrier: The Potential of the Visual Language LoCoS in International Human-Computer Communication
Marcus, Aaron m-LoCoS UI: A Universal Visible Language for Global Mobile Communication
Ota, Yukio; Macaulay, Cecilia; Marcus, Aaron 2012 LoCoS Visual Language for Global Communication
LoCos draws much inspiration from the work of Charles K. Bliss. While seeking refuge from Nazi Germany in Shanghai, Bliss became familiar with Chinese characters and was inspired to create Blissymbols — his own visual language. Charles Bliss and Yukio Ota shared a great appreciation for each other’s work. LoCoS is also inspired by the celebrated Isotype visual system. Designed by Otto Neurath and Gerd Anrtz, Isotype laid much of the groundwork for modern pictographic symbols and data visualisation.