In search for universal language

By: Jan Bajec
On: October 5, 2009
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About Jan Bajec
Visual thinking has always been the way I responded to my environment. It engaged my interest in arts and eventually led to my enrollment in Visual Arts and Graphic Design studies. From 2001-2002, I had an unique opportunity to be a part of a creative team at S Team Advertising in Belgrade associated with SAATCHI&SAATCHI. From 2002-2003, I worked as a Graphic Designer at Ovation – BBDO. In 2003, wanting to pursue my studies further and get away from advertising I enrolled in Design Art program at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduation I decided to stay in Montreal and work as a full-time freelance graphic designer and web design consultant. I favor an exploratory, investigative approach to design. As I have been in the situation to design for specific cultural environments, I have felt how much of a social construction design really is and how cultural values, tools and technologies specific to each social milieu are reflected in it. This kind of experience demanded broader research ‘routine’ and triggered my interest in many other subjects: sociology, psychology, pop-culture, television, politics, new media. As I was switching my area of interest from print to web design I became more involved in this new platform for visual communication…


Umberto Eco, a cultural critic, semiotician, and a writer said that we live in an age where the “diminutive, the brief and the simple are highly prized in communication” (Thurlow & Brown). New communication technologies can empower young people to explore and develop imaginative ways of making the technology work best for them. If we put Twitter in the broader context of computer-mediated communication, we need to see what the technology itself allows and what the communicator brings to the technology. Whether or not an aspect of the technology is a constraint or an opportunity depends on the user. Due to the limitation of 140 characters users have to formulate their thoughts very briefly and use language in a different and creative way.

People now write in a way that establishes a more informal connection which helps them to engage in a casual conversation and community bonding. This form of communication offers more ‘authentic’ representations of speech. In the Non-standard orthography and non-standard speech Alexandra Jaffe points out that ”the use of non-standard orthography is a powerful expressive resource, that can graphically capture some immediacy, ‘authenticity’ and ‘flavour’ of the spoken word in all its diversity.“ Some people sometimes use internet acronyms in spoken and written communication. A linguist David Crystal, a proponent of a new field of study internet linguistics, says that the linking of written slang to speech is “a brand new variety of language evolving, invented really by young people, within five years”. In his book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Texting: The Great Debate ), he examines the use of text messaging and its effect on language and literacy. Crystal believes that globally English will split and combine with local variants becoming less mutually understandable and demanding the rise of what he calls World Standard Spoken English.

“Linguistic reductionism is the idea that everything can be described in a language with a limited number of core concepts, and combinations of those concepts.” The most known form of reductionist constructed language is Esperanto, and then also Basic English and Toki Pona (Constructed language is a language whose grammar and vocabulary have been consciously devised by an individual or group, instead of naturally evolving). Basic English or BASIC (British American Scientific International Commercial) is a language created by Charles Kay Ogden as a means of communication between people from different nations who do not share a common native language, and as an aid for teaching ESL courses. It is a simplified version of English and it has influenced the creation of Voice of America’s Special English for news broadcasting, and Simplified English used in technical manuals. George Orwell was a proponent of Basic English at first, but later he became critical of universal language. This language later inspired him to create “Newspeak” in 1984. Newspeak is a fictional language and in the novel it is described as being “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year”. It has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar. The basic idea behind Newspeak is to remove all shades of meaning from language in order to reinforce the total dominance of the State by eliminating alternative thinking. The underlying theory of Newspeak is that if something can’t be said, then it can’t be thought. Similar is with Toki Pona, a minimal language designed to shape the thought processes of its users in Zen-like fashion. This is the linguistic relativity principle (also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), the idea that the spoken language influences the way of thinking. This means that a “better” – clearer language will allow the speaker to think more clearly or intelligently. Most of human thought is actually a dialogue with oneself.

In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard analyses the end of metanarratives in the postmodern culture. “The narrative function is losing its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, and its great goal”. According to Lyotard, they were stopped, by technological progress in communication, mass media and computer science. Lyotard argues that we have stopped believing that these kinds of narratives are able to represent and contain all of us. In a way they became obsolete as a way for describing and organizing reality. We have become aware of the difference of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of micronarratives. This concept has a root in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his notion of ‘language-games‘. Wittgenstein’s argument in his book Philosophical Investigations was that meaning is created by the use of words in effective, ordinary communication, and not by a reference to objects or things which they specify or by the thoughts that we associate with them.

Communication is developing into new forms every day and Twitter is just one of them. The purpose of information exchange, the established networks, the form of communication and its content is connected with the necessary change of language. Twitter community use special language and symbols in their updates that makes it hard to understand for outsiders. In any case, jargon and abbreviations are developed to include some and exclude others. In the case of Twitter we just have to be creative all the time.

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