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The ideographic writing system SAFO

Die Sinnschrift SAFO - The stenography of ideas

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This page is devoted to a very peculiar endeavour I discovered in Germany some years ago. Two professors invented an artificial ideographic writing system that could be written and read in any language and yet be understood by anyone, because it wrote only ideas, not sounds.

This proved a dead end, but the idea was so stimulating that I made a little research in the Deutsch Bibliothek in Frankfurt and found quite a lot of documents, including the founding pamphlet, a dictionary and a magazine. After some time trying to use this system to take notes, I devised my own version and limited it to a few dozens ideograms.

The idea of an ideographic writing

What is an ideographic system ?

The basic idea is that in most languages except chinese and japanese, when you think to elephant, the thing that you use in your mind to replace the bulky elephant is a sound [elefant]. If now you decide to get this on paper, you are faced with two choices : either you can write the letters that stand for the sounds that makes the words elephant, or you can  make a little sign that has no connection to the sounds. The latter system is an ideographic (idea-writing) system.

So what is the advantage of an ideographic system ? First, it is closer to the representation of things : after all, you go directly from the idea to the paper, whereas in alphabetical systems, you must go through the sounds (idea-sounds-letters). But this advantage is offset by the fact that you need to master thousands of little symbols to be able to write a language you already speak, whereas the alphabetical system lets you do that with less than 30. So why bother ?

The biggest interest of an (artificial) ideographical system is that it could be read in any language. Just look :  China has a huge territory, with many different cultures and many different languages. When people from different regions talk together, they don't understand each other. But because they share the same  writing system all over China, and it only writes  ideas and not the sounds used to communicate them, every Chinese can read a given text in his own language. For example, the ideogram for sun will be pronounced XXX by a cantonese but ZZZ by a mandarin speaker. Yet, both would write the same text and understand it when they read it.

SAFO as an universal ideographic writing system

Could it be possible, then, to use such a writing system in a way that would allow every person on earth to read it in his own language ? That is the basic idea behind SAFO, probably an impossible utopy but nevertheless worthy of attention because it is sooriginal. Esperanto speakers can make their language as easy as they want, people will still have to learn it and write in it if they want others to understand them. Not so with SAFO. You could think in russian but write with the little symbols devised by Prof André Eckardt and a french would be able to read it in french.

So, why did this system fail ? I think that people are better off learning a common language (english ?), because for their effort they can still speak to other people, which SAFO does not allow. (Actually they tried to make the symbols pronouncable, but this is really unpractical). And if you consider the QWERTY keyboard story, made especially to slow  typists down, you get a pretty conservative outlook of the possibility to implement such drastic changes when their benefits are clear cut, let alone when you can discuss them.

I have read somewhere that Leibniz had dreamed of such a philosophical writing, that would allow to write ideas directly. If a reader knows of a book where Leibniz may have written about it, I'd be glad to hear where.

References on this topic are all in german, and the only place I found them was in the place where they must be, Germany National Library in Frankfurt. Here are some of the papers I unearthed :

Zeitschrift für allgemeine Schriftkunde, 1960, Kiel : Germany

A little zine "communication sheet on the ideographical writing SAFO and organ of the people's friendship

I did this research in 1993 and I'm still looking in my archives to find the rest...


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