Instantly Recognizable Iconic Language

by Translation Guy on April 27, 2012

“Chinese artist Xu Bing has ideas about how people communicate. Different people in different countries should speak one language. Xu Bing wrote a new language. It uses pictures not words. It looks like Egyptian script meets Madison Avenue.”

That’s the English translation of the script pictured above, the output of Xu’s software that  translates words into icons meant to be instantly recognizable to anyone.

Art critic Leslie von Holten writes  “Xu, the son of a librarian, had an intimate relationship with words while growing up, a privilege not common during China’s Cultural Revolution. At the time, Mao’s government was wrestling with words: characters were simplified, discarded, revived, revised, then discarded again. People were not allowed to read what they wanted. This cultural affront, Xu has noted, combined with his voracious appetite for reading led to confusion over the meaning of language.”  “Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life,”  writes Xu in his  notes for accompanying show in Shanghai.

Xu, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant,’ has just published  a book  without a single word. Point to Point  is an iconographic tale of eating, travel, romance and television channel surfing involving a yuppie known as Mr. Black.

“Still, anyone savvy enough to use the Internet is likely to breeze through his writing like a native speaker of the language, which doesn’t have an official name,” reports James T. Areddy in the WSJ.

Despite Xu’s promise, I have not had much luck in figuring out what  he is writing.  And I believe I am thoroughly entangled in modern life, at least since I sold the butter churn on eBay. But I can’t make hear or tail of Xu’s story.  And I tried —actually  puzzled through the first few lines, and I was able to match each ideographs to some of the text, but no way could I make it out on its own without some serious study.

What these characters really symbolize is the central problem with languages invented by your average genius. Which is that the rest of us have no idea what you’re talking about.

So, no ideo-grams please. I need idiot-grams. Made-up languages are a waste of time, like  learning Latin.

“Icon as Language” has been a theme for Xu throughout his career.

This page provides an overlay of text translations for icon’s for a related project, Book from the Ground Up. Again, the icons make sense once you see the accompanying text.

My favorite part of the book, and the most iconic and understandable images contained are  not those designed by the artist, but the Chinese underlined with an English translation that aid navigation on the site.  Eventually every sign on the planet will read that way, either with digital augmentation or in actual print.

Language is a numbers game, a shared experience, best shared with as many people as possible. These one-man language shows. Already the infrastructure of bilingual Chinese and English messages shrinks Xu’s installed base to nothing.  Which I suppose isn’t really the issue. It’s the concept, stupid, I have to keep telling myself.


  1. Bilko Tyrpak says:

    Just doesn’t seem feasable on a computer to be able to write with this idea. Seems much easier to spell than remember where pictures are.

  2. Mira says:

    I guess if you started at an early age, and learned the idiograms along with the word explanations, you could learn two languages (or two versions of the same) at the same time. Speak in one and read the pics anywhere.

    • Ken says:

      Too late for me, thank God.

  3. Kasia Dupler says:

    You say every sign will be that way, but I would like to see it sooner rather than later. As a frequent traveler, I would love to see more visitor friendly signs.

    • Ken says:

      Kasia, I know that feeling every time I miss the exit. But in my case its usually because I’m trying to read Google Maps on my iPhone with bifocals. I probably should stop doing that.

  4. I totally agree that when a few small diagrams are used to get the meaning across, globally it can be great. You know, recycle, don’t litter, don’t feed the animals, stuff like that. But a whole book?

  5. I get nothing from that picture.

    • Ken says:

      Hint: Look at Xu’s strange eyeglasses, and look for the strange eyeglasses in the text.

  6. Ihe only idio”t” grams I need are the ones on the public washrooms.

    • Ken says: We’ll make a mint off of GoogleAds.

  7. I am far from genius level and if this was written by one, I am sure it is not something I need to figure out. Keep it simple with letter and numbers. If I misspell a few things, I can live with that.

  8. Princess says:

    I’m with you Ken, no more made up languages. We have enough trouble with the ones we have let alone having to learn a bunch of pictures.

  9. alewis says:

    I see the idea behind this, because we all have similar things in life no matter the culture or language. I just don’t think it will catch on.

  10. Lenni Falker says:

    Ken, I am still waiting for my butter churn. I noticed that the Paypal transfer went through.

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