A Great Australian     The Inventor of Semantography (Blissymbolics)

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Charles K. Bliss - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

B.Sc., A.M.
1897 - 1985

CHARLES was born Karl Kasiel Blitz in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, a mixture of peoples where, as he wrote in 1965, “20 different nationalities hated each other, mainly because they spoke and thought in different languages.” In the year of Charles’ birth, the Emperor, Franz Joseph I, was in his 49th year on the throne, Johannes Brahms died, and Gustav Mahler became director of the Vienna Opera. Anton Bruckner had died the year before, and the year after saw the pointless fatal stabbing by an Italian anarchist of the Empress Elisabeth while she was sightseeing in Geneva, Switzerland, on 10th September, 1898. These events, however, were occurring far from Charles’ birthplace, and his family were concerned more with matters of survival.

He was the first-born of the four children of Jeanette and Michel Anchel Blitz, and the family lived in that part of the Habsburg territories which bordered on Russia. Charles tells us that his father was an optician, a mechanic, an electrician and a wood turner, and sometimes there was not enough money to feed them all.

Jeanette and Michel Anchel worked hard to bring up their four children, and Charles has acknowledged that it was they who initially sowed the seeds of his idealism. His mother taught him to love poetry and literature, and his father taught him to love the laws of nature. As a small child he played in his father’s workshop, and sometimes accompanied his father on journeys to make electrical installations. Looking at his father’s blueprints, he saw symbols that he could read instantly. The symbols were the outlines of the pictures of an electric cell, a lamp, a switch, a telephone and the lines of wire connecting them all. To Charles it was a logical writing in a logical language.

The languages Charles heard all around him were not logical at all, and by the time he was in high school, he says, he refused to learn the unruly rules of languages, and he refused to differentiate between the relative, indefinite, intensive, reflective or reciprocal pronoun. He would not believe that children must be tortured with such illogical matters. By this time Charles had been impressed by two wonderful logical languages expressed in the symbols of mathematics and chemistry which could be read by anyone no matter what their mother-tongue might be.

Early life was hard for Charles. In winter, from the steppes of Russia, blizzards would blow, covering the town waist-deep in snow, and with poor clothing he would wade to school shivering and freezing. Poverty, hunger and cold were not the only hardships. He says that words were hurled at him for no other reason than to hurt. Children cried after him ‘Hep, hep!’ Hep are the first letters in the Latin words ‘Hierosolima est perdita’ – Jerusalem is perished. For nearly 2000 years, since Titus destroyed Jerusalem, the cry of ‘Hep, hep’ was accompanied by bloodshed and murder.

Two events of these early years made an impression on him. In 1905, after Russia had lost her war against Japan, pogroms were started in Russian towns and villages, and refugees from the nearby town of Kishenev crowded over the border into Austro-Hungary with tales of bloodshed and murder. The other event was more pleasant: In 1908, the Austrian North-pole Expedition of Wayprecht and Payer returned after spending time in the newly discovered Franz Joseph Land. When Payer visited the town where Charles and his family were living, his father took Charles to hear the lecture and see the lantern slides. Writing in 1975, Charles says that he was thunderstruck! He saw men who gave up their warm homes and good life to go out into almost certain death – in the quest of knowledge, and then he realised that life had been given to him to conquer hardship in the quest for knowledge. He decided to become an engineer. He wanted to invent things for a better life.

The year 1922 saw the graduation of Charles from the Vienna University of Technology as a chemical engineer. He joined an electronics company as a research chemist where he progressed to become chief of the patent department. Here he realised that the babel of scientific publications was one of the greatest handicaps to scientific research – for Charles it was another fight with languages – patent specifications in the vague and ambiguous words of different languages.

Soon came the turmoil of the late 1930s and the 1939-45 War. On 12th March 1938, the German Army invaded Austria, and the next day, Adolf Hitler entered Vienna, accompanied by the Gestapo, naturally. Thousands of Austrians perished and thousands more were arrested as the Gestapo set to work. Charles was sent at first to the concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich in Germany, and then to Buchenwald. Through the fearless efforts of Charles’ wife, Claire, who fought the Gestapo on his behalf, he was released, but he had to leave for England immediately.

Charles made frantic efforts to get Claire to England, but the outbreak of war in September 1939 prevented that. In order to get her away from Nazi Germany, he arranged for her to go to his family in Czernowitz in Romania. She was, however, unable to stay there indefinitely, and eventually Charles’ friends in Greece invited her to stay with them. Then on 28th October, 1940, the Italians invaded Greece.

Realizing that the only way for he and Claire to be reunited was for both of them to make their separate ways to his cousin Paula and her husband in Shanghai, Charles managed to go west by way of the Atlantic, Canada, the Pacific and Japan, while at the age of 58, Claire made her way alone from Greece to Turkey, across the Black Sea to Russia, and then through Siberia and Manchuria, and across the Yellow Sea sitting on the open deck of a tramp steamer among Japanese soldiers. On Christmas Eve, 1940, they were together again, after three terrible years of separation.

Shanghai was not to be the haven they expected. Life was again hard. Claire contracted typhoid fever, and rather than put her in hospital, Charles himself nursed her until she was out of danger. Later, Claire broke her arm, and was forced to lie in a heavy plaster cast during the oppressive heat of a Shanghai summer. After Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese, Charles and Claire were forced into the Hongkew ghetto.

Following their rapid success in the Pacific area, the Japanese military at last found time to deal with the Jews in Shanghai, as a gesture to Hitler and their Nazi allies. It was announced in the Shanghai newspapers that all stateless refugees from the conquered territory of Europe would be concentrated in the Hongkew sector of Shanghai. Some Christian wives, refusing to go into the squalor of Hongkew and certain death, applied to the German consulate for their German citizenship and divorce, but Claire refused although she was not Austrian, but a German Roman Catholic. She accompanied Charles into Hongkew.

While in Shanghai, Charles became entranced by the ideographs of written Chinese. He hired a teacher so that he could learn more about them, and then realised that a Chinese newspaper can be read by the Chinese no matter what their native language might be. Soon, he was able to read the headlines in Chinese newspapers, but he read them in English or German!

In 1942, he came across the books of Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain of Tokyo University who had written: “Ideographic writing will surely achieve the final victory over phonetic writing.” Remembering his boyhood and his desire to invent something which would better the life of mankind, in his 45th year, in the blacked-out nights of war-time Shanghai he set out to develop a system of pictorial symbol writing.

At that time Charles was not aware of the ideas of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, the mathematician and philosopher, who in 1679 had written: “A Universal Characteristic, very popular ... might be introduced if small figures were employed in the place of words, which would represent visible things by their lines and the invisible, by the visible, which accompany them.” And: “This true method of a Universal Symbolism would ... guide the mind as do the lines drawn in geometry, and the formulas in arithmetic ...” He was not aware that for 300 years the scholars of mathematics, logic and language had scoffed at Leibnitz’ idea of a pictorial symbol writing for modern man. Encouraged by men and women from the Chinese and foreign communities of Shanghai who were familiar with a system of ‘symbol writing’ which worked well in the countries of East Asia, Charles set to work.

After the war, Charles’ cousin Karl sent Charles and Claire and Paula and her husband Kurt Beck entry permits for Australia. In 1946 Charles and Claire migrated to Australia, arriving on the 14th July, 1946. Charles and Claire had sailed for Australia with high hopes.

On arrival in Sydney in 1946, their hopes were soon to be dashed. Expecting some scholarly interest in Charles’ work and the possibility that the University of Sydney might offer him a place to prepare the primers and textbooks for his symbol writing, Charles found that wherever he turned, he met ridicule and rejection. No professor and no publisher was interested ...

Australia in the late 1940s and the 1950s was no place for a refugee with overseas qualifications. Like many other qualified persons, Charles found that he had to take on a manual labouring job to survive. In those years the term ‘reffo’ was a pejorative, so much so, that the Commonwealth Government of the day, in order to ‘sell’ its immigration programme to the Australian people, coined the euphemism ‘New Australian’ to replace ‘reffo’ or ‘refugee’ as a descriptive name for newly arrived migrants.

Charles and Claire
Charles and Claire in Sydney, N.S.W., 1950

After labouring all day, Charles spent nights and weekends working on his symbol system aided by Claire. Innumerable hours were spent in Sydney libraries and at home as the work developed. Charles never lost sight of his vision of ‘One Writing for One World and Under standing across All Languages’, and in spite of the hours devoted to Charles’ ‘magnificent obsession,’ he and Claire found the time to become Australian citizens.

Gradually Charles came to understand what Leibnitz had in mind, and he began to create his symbols to conform to Leibnitz’ concept of a simple symbolic logic. In Charles’ view it would be a logic which even children could learn to use.

Having been in Austria at the time of the Nazi takeover, and having been a victim of the Nazis, Charles had seen at first hand how Hitler and his minions had fooled Germany, an intelligent and literate nation, with words that cannot be pictured, words that are human evaluations, dangerous words: pure race, German superiority, inferior subhumans, living space, blood and honour, and so on.

The scholars wrote their books on semantics, the science of meaning, but these could not help ordinary people and children to recognize dangerous words, and so Charles was impelled to work out a semantics which little children could understand and use.

Initially, Charles had used English words ‘World Writing’ as the name of his symbol system, but in Sydney he realised that it was necessary to give it a more ‘international’ name, and he coined the name Semantography from the Greek words ‘semanticos’ which means ‘significant meaning’ and ‘graphein’ which means ‘to write’. In Sydney in 1949 he published his work: International Semantography: A non-alphabetical Symbol Writing readable in all languages in three large typed and mimeographed volumes. These explained Charles’ symbolic logic and semantics based on 100 symbol elements.

Although his system of Semantography was examined and received favourable comments from such eminent people of the time as Bertrand Russell, philosopher and mathematician, Lancelot Hogben, biologist, Professor of Medical Statistics at the University of Birmingham, and the author of ‘Interglossa: a draft of an auxiliary for a democratic world order, being an attempt to apply semantic principles to language design’, Carleton Washburne, Professor of Education, Brooklyn College, N.Y., Henry L. Brose, former Professor of Physics, University of Nottingham, B. Burgoyne Chapman, former Principal of the Central China Teacher’s College, and Professor Oliver L. Reiser of the University of Pittsburg, it was generally met by apathy.

Opposition came from one quarter: in April, 1952, predictably, in view of Charles’ opinions regarding totalitarian dictatorships, the Communist Review, Sydney, described Charles’ work as “the invention of an obscurantist ... the latest charlatanry of philosophical idealism.”

Between 1949 and 1953, Claire sent out over 6000 letters with informative papers to universities, educators, and others throughout the world, once again to be met with apathy and rejection. Charles says that he was told by academics that “you ought to be dead first, Mr. Bliss. Only then will we exhume you, extol you and exploit you.” For Charles and Claire these were years of despair and desolation, and on the 2nd of October, 1953, Claire's heart broke.

Claire lived on in precarious health for another eight years. She died on 14th August 1961. With the loss of his beloved Claire, Charles broke down completely and did not want to go on living. The next three years were years of dejection until, regaining his fighting spirit, Charles put together a second edition of his work: Semantography (Blissymbolics), published in Sydney in 1965.

Explaining the addition of the term ‘Blissymbolics’ Charles wrote “Then something happened: the tourist explosion. Suddenly everyone realised that only pictorial symbols could bridge all languages. And equally suddenly, academic busy-bodies run (sic) to scientific foundations and asked for millions of dollars for research into ‘The Feasibility of designing a complete symbol language’. They knew of my work. Either they did not mention my name and the title of my work in their papers, or they changed my term into a general term, speaking of the better semantographies they will invent, given the millions for research. In anger and unhappiness I added the term Blissymbolics to my work which these would-be plagiarists could not take over.”

Another six years were to pass and then Charles discovered that having started in 1971 disabled or handicapped children, mainly with cerebral palsy, were being taught to communicate using his symbols at a crippled children’s centre in Canada. Charles was delighted. It seemed some sort of vindication, and Charles saw it as the beginning of something that he had always hoped for – the teaching of his system with its symbolic logic and semantics to children in schools all around the world.

The use of Charles’ symbols to facilitate communication with non-verbal children was successful in Canada and in a number of other countries. Charles’ system, of course, is not the only one to have been used successfully in this area of education. There have been other symbol systems based on different principles from that of Charles, and no doubt other symbol systems will be found useful in the future.

Charles was always fearful that a new babel of symbols would develop and he defended the copyright to his symbols staunchly. In 1975 he granted an exclusive world license for the use of his symbols with handicapped children to the Blissymbolics Communication Foundation in Canada. All other rights were reserved to himself.

He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel stated in his testament that it should be given for creative ideas that can “foster the Fraternity of Nations”, but when Le Duc Tho of Hanoi received the Nobel Peace Prize, Charles decided to stop his nomination. However, the Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday, June 12th., 1976, in its Honours List records that Charles Kasiel Bliss of Coogee, N.S.W., was made a Member of the Order of Australia (A.M.) for services to the community, particularly handicapped children. Was the honour given grudgingly in this manner? No mention was made of the true purpose of Charles' invention of Blissymbols, perhaps it really is a case of “No prophet goes unhonoured except in his own country.” Australia, by and large, ignored Charles’ work while he was alive and continues to ignore his work since his death.

His association with the people in Canada was not an entirely happy one. In 1977 Charles claimed that the persons responsible for the Blissymbol classes displayed a catastrophic ignorance of his logical symbol system. He claimed that they ruined his work and they ruined the logical sense of the children, and he also claimed that they ruined his health and they ruined him financially.

He went on to claim that the Bliss Foundation Agreement was flagrantly violated and negated and that he was deprived of effective control of his symbol system and the old falsehoods were perpetuated. On 25th November, 1977, Charles’ lawyer declared the Blissymbolics License Agreement null and void.

Some years later, there was a reconciliation. Blissymbolic Communication International now claims a perpetual, worldwide, exclusive license, from C.K. Bliss, granted in 1982, for the use and publication of Blissymbols for persons with communication, language and learning difficulties.

Charles died in 1985.

A personal note:
The present writer, as a young man, first discovered Charles’ three-volume work International Semantography in the Sydney Public Library in 1953. Being more interested in such topics as Esperanto and Basic English, he did not immediately grasp the significance of Charles’ work. With maturity, however, he developed a greater appreciation of Charles’ genius, and as a teacher of intellectually handicapped children, and with Charles’ support, he successfully used Blissymbols with non-verbal children between the years 1974 and 1978.

In personal conversations with Charles Bliss before his death, the present writer became aware of how deeply wounded Charles had been by the events which took place in Canada, and he has no doubt that the stress which Charles underwent during those years hastened his death.

Nevertheless, Blissymbolics will always remain as a memorial to the intellect and idealism of Charles Kasiel Bliss, and his great vision of ‘One Writing for One World and Understanding across All Languages’ must not perish. Worthy though their cause may be, Blissymbolics is too important to remain solely the preserve of the handicapped.
© copyright 1997 - Grant Stott, C.P.T.Intel.Hcpd, C.Soc.Stud.(Univ.Auck.), Anzac Fellow

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