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The Annex of Universal Languages

Welcome to The Palace of Typographic Masonry, somewhere between the Departments of Sign and Symbol, in ‘The Annex of Universal Languages’. Here you will find a small display of 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 has been division in the world, which led to disagreement, conflicts and war. The language barrier is a sign of human imperfection. To keep man humble, God created scattering. But man did not accept this: for almost 2,000 years, people have tried to undo this curse. If a perfect language, which everyone can understand is invented, perhaps nothing stands in the way of world peace.

Up to the 18th century people searched for a universal language primarily 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 by looking into the future. A universal language was not meant to arise from an early language form, but could be constructed as an artefact of the human genius. This motivation, for instance, led Charles K. Bliss to make it his life’s work.

Modernism created a stream of rationalized pictogram systems, designed primarily by men with an obsession with the grid. In the digital age, more playful approaches followed, like the expanding symbol language of emojis. Edgar Walthert, the curator of this ‘Annex of Universal Languages’, collected these sources, the result of a deep 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 newer forms with which the diversity and richness of the existing patchwork of imperfect languages only grows: that may not be a curse but a blessing.

Richard Niessen