The Noun Project

Recently happened across a video promoting The Noun Project, an effort to build a global visual language. While I love linguistic innovation and would love to see either Terran Standard or a Universal Translator à la Star Trek, based on the minimal penetration of experiments like Esperanto or even the linguistic behemoth English, I’m not certain a project like this will ever have more than a niche impact.

And I’ll tell you why.

First, let me re-iterate: It’s a lovely idea. I’m not dissing it for its own sake, nor am I wishing it failure.

To illustrate what the project is up against, let’s look at an example from one of my favorite Star Trek TNG episodes, “Darmok”.

Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel

Imagine a race of people who communicates solely by metaphor. The Tamarians were just such a race; their opening dialog with the Enterprise went like this:

“Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky grey.”

A headscratcher, to be sure. As the episode progresses, the Enterprise team learns in various ways that the Tamarians communicate solely via metaphor, as though “Juliet on her balcony” were being used to express the concept of love, or beauty, or desire. They realize, however, that content is valueless without context; anyone unfamiliar with Romeo and Juliet would have no idea what the metaphor referred to.

Even though Picard was able to speak to the Tamarians and deflect hostilities between the two races with the few phrases he had learned, there are some logical gaps in the premise. In Tamarian you can say,

  • Temba, his arms open: “Here, take this.”
  • Sokath, his eyes uncovered: “Understanding! He gets it!”
  • Mirab, with sails unfurled: “Let’s get out of here.”
  • The river Temarc, in winter!: “Hold your tongue!”

But how do you say something like “Move that lever to the second position from the top, and then tighten that nut one-quarter turn”? This glaring plot hole doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the episode and the delightful linguistic idea, but it illustrates that context is everything.

Symbols like this are pretty straightforward:


But even these would have little meaning in a culture not familiar with chopsticks or the red cross. The meaning and the concept would have to be taught, and thus  would, in effect, be no more valuable as an ideograph than “อาหาร” or “食” or “manĝo”. The first thing that actually came to my mind when I saw these were a portable medkit from Duke Nukem 3D, and joss sticks. The first was close, the second, not even.

Then you get into the intricacies. What would you do with a symbol like this:

Is this a banana, or some really kinky ninja sex toy?

Presented with a bewildering array of nouns like this,

I find that my lifetime of experience in the fields of linguistics and translation give me only the barest hint of what some of these mean. Certainly, I could learn them, but each symbol would have to be learned in the same way that I am learning that “חלוץ” means “pioneer” in Hebrew or that “牛肉” means “beef” in Japanese. Both a context and a precise meaning would have to be provided.

Now, the visual hooks into things from our everyday world would indeed make the process somewhat easier.

This symbol will mean “wind farm” or “green energy” to a large part of the world’s population because they have become familiar with the idea of wind energy; in the same way, a Japanese person or advanced student of Japanese who is presented with a rare or unfamiliar character (such as 醤) will at least have a shot at guessing at the meaning because of the way Kanji are constructed – he or she will automatically recognize the bits and pieces that the character is made of, and be able to make an educated guess at its meaning. In the same way, I can read the following paragraph without much difficulty…

“Erat una fria morning de Octubre und ein low fox noyabat las benches der park. Algunos laborantes magrebinos collectabant der litter singing melanconic tunes. Aan el 200th floor des Euro Tower el Chef Inspector General del Service des Bizarre Dingen, Mr What, frapped sur the tabula y said: -Dit is kein blague. Appel rapid Cabillot!” (from Eurolingua Salad)

… but only because I have a working knowledge of Latin, English, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Dutch, and a few others spoken in and around Europe. Without that background and context, it would be as impenetrable to me as Hungarian, of whose intricacies I am blissfully ignorant.

In the final analysis, the Noun Project is constructing another artificial language, one of many that have attracted fans and adherents but made little headway in facilitating communication across linguistic boundaries. Inherent in the project are some good ideas that will have value, but if a linguist such as myself can look at the lists of icons and say “Vaff?” I suspect that most people less steeped in the intricacies of signans and signatum will approach the idea with all the enthusiasm of a high school French student confronted with the passé surcomposé for the first time. Even French people don’t go nuts over all the glorious intricacies of the Gallic tongue.

Der viejo loup has parlat.