iConji is a free pictographic communication system based on an open, visual vocabulary of characters with built-in translations for most major languages.
In December 2010, iConji Social was released as a web application only, with support for Facebook and Twitter as a broadcast medium. iConji Social also supports delivery of iConji-enhanced messages via email.
iConji debuted with 1183 unique characters, known as the lexiConji (vocabulary), culled from base words used in common daily communications, word frequency lists, often-used mathematical and logical symbols, punctuation symbols, and the flags of all nations. The process of assembling a message from iConji characters is called iConjisation (see screenshot below at right).
Since most characters represent an entire word or concept, rather than a single letter or character, iConji has the potential to be a more efficient communication system than SMS. The usual jumble of text and confusing abbreviations can often be replaced by a short string of colorful icons that convey the identical meaning.
With the iConji Messenger and iConji Social apps, characters are displayed at a resolution of 32 x 32 pixels, using color PNGs with transparency to round the corners. As all iConji characters are developed first as vector graphics, this allows essentially infinite scalability, whether for producing new online or smartphone apps, or full-size posters for printed graphic applications such as signs or electronic displays.
Thus, future iConji applications, from in-house or outside developers, may incorporate larger or smaller versions of the characters using the freely available iConji API.
Kai Staats, founder and former CEO of Terra Soft Solutions, original developer of Yellow Dog Linux (YDL), was motivated to create a new communications system that combined the speed of SMS with the richness and linguistic depth of a global art project. His intent was to provide a means for communication that could bridge cultural divides. Thus, iConji is a pictographic communication system, not a spoken language.
The characters themselves are evocative of their meanings, and designed to be as cross-cultural as possible. Of course, pictographic symbols can never be truly universal. For example, extensive research went into the design of warning signs for the nuclear waste repository planned at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, focusing on what would be comprehensible and unambiguous “danger” symbols to all readers 10,000 years hence.
Further, not all cultures read symbols or text from left to right, which is the standard for iConji. In addition, some linguistic concepts are too abstract to represent graphically. The first row in the image at right (The iConji user interface on an iPod.) shows characters for the pronouns (I, you, we, he, she, it, them), and the "tilde" which is defined as "to be" and its numerous conjugations (is, are, was, will be, and so on). These abstract concepts represent a significant barrier to universal pictographic representation, but the ability to read a translation in one's native language (if needed) can help bridge that gap. The character at far right is the "null" and can be used as a space, a placeholder, or a container for metadata.
Unique to iConji is its inclusion of both an inferred meaning, suggested by the pictographs themselves, and the translations that accompany each character. At the close of 2010, these translations included Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish, and Swahili. Esperanto and Thai are works in progress. There is no practical limit to the number of languages that could be translated and included.
Likewise, there is no limit to the number of individual characters that could be incorporated. The iConji vocabulary is open to revision - anyone in the world may design and contribute new characters for use in global communications. Through the Artist Community, users are able to add their own characters to the lexiConji (with approval), or revise existing character icons they feel could be better represented graphically.
The screenshot above shows most features and functionality of the iConji application. Starting at top right, the search icon (magnifying glass) opens a text field in the dark blue window that allows a text search for specific characters. Below that is the "To:" field, where the recipient can be inserted from a built-in address book. Below that is another field where selected iConji characters can be assembled into a string to compose the message (iConjisation).
The next section down is a 6x9 matrix of characters from which the user can select specific characters. In the iOS applications this is accomplished by a finger-tap; in the browser application by a point-and-click. In both cases, a hover pops up a small box displaying the definition of the character in the user's declared language.
The bottom-most line consists of what are called buckets. Each user-customizable bucket contains another 54 characters that can be grouped by type or frequency of use. The seventh bucket contains 54 commonly used mathematical and logical symbols. The eighth bucket is "bottomless" and serves as a repository for all other characters, with no limit to the number contained. Selecting that bucket generates a scrollable list of those characters. "It is the user's customization of these buckets that enables iConji to rival or exceed SMS in terms of efficiency and speed."
A few other modern pictographic systems use inflection symbols to expand meanings, for example, Blissymbolics, but none have the full range of character inflections allowed in iConji. Those include inflections for present, past, or future tense verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and possessives. The user can also add metadata, if desired, to clarify the meaning or include additional text content. All inflections are indicated as glyphs at standardized positions around the base and top of the iConji character. In most cases the inflection should be apparent from context, but for messages where ambiguity could arise, inflections provide a means to remove that ambiguity.
For example, the gallery below shows four inflected variations of the character defined as "start, to start."
Many iConji characters follow this noun + infinitive verb format to enable unambiguous translation from its base English into other languages. Given the widely varying conventions for verb conjugation found in other languages, this is arguably the most flexible way to present a base definition.
The sample iConjisation shown on the screenshot translates as follows:
This demonstrates clearly how meaning can be conveyed using a minimal number of characters. The fourth character is formally defined as "clock, time" but would be interpreted as "o'clock" when used in this context. If the sender and receiver usually meet for coffee at the same location, no other information is needed. If the intended location is different from the usual, the iConjisation could be changed to:
Here, the triangular inflection mark on the second character (at) indicates the presence of metadata in that character. Metadata can be added or accessed via a text box pop-up by clicking on the character, and could include a business name, address, GPS coordinates, or other information. Alternatively, the sender can convey more specific location instructions using the characters themselves, for example:
In this example, the third character (I, me) has been inflected with the possessive modifier, changing the meaning to "my." The two instances of the "@" character are included for grammatical clarity, but could likely be excluded without changing the interpreted meaning. In all of these examples, the recipient's response could be similarly concise, as the following three examples show:
In the first response, we see the flexibility of the iConji system, as well as some word-play. The first character is formally defined as "sound, audio" and can thus be used in many contexts. The second character is formally defined as "angelic, saintly, good" implying the overall meaning "sounds good."
In the second response, additional information is returned by the recipient requesting the sender to "arrive early" using the adverb modifier on "early." Whether the adverb modifier is really needed is a matter of question since, between frequent users, certain conventions will become established by previous usage.
In the final and most concise response, only a single character (yes) is returned by the recipient.
In February 2011 iConji launched its Artist Community. Anyone who sees the need for a new character, or a better version of an existing character, can create and submit their own design. There are several criteria for acceptance of a submitted character, but the process is made simple using freely available online graphic templates, instructions, and examples.
Character icons must be created as vector graphics in tools such as Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW, or the free online application SVG-edit. Alternatively, the proposed character icon can be hand-drawn, scanned as a 300 dpi bitmap, and converted to vector graphics format before being submitted as a potential addition to the iConji vocabulary.
Definitions for the characters also follow a strict format and, where ambiguities could exist, need to follow a format that utilizes extended definitions to remove those ambiguities, both for users and translators. For example:
- miss [the salutation for an unmarried female]
- miss [the feeling of sorrow resulting from someone or something lost]
- miss, to miss [the act of not connecting with a target or goal]
Note how the last example again defaults to the “noun + infinitive verb” format mentioned above.
The artist also has the opportunity, if desired, to include metadata with their character explaining the story behind the design, who they are, and their country of residence.
Once accepted, the character is made available for use globally, by all iConji users. The artist has the ability to track the use (and virality) of their character using the iConji Explorer application on the iConji website.
The first iConji Communications workshop was held at Colorado State University on April 7, 2011. 40 participants representing a dozen countries convened to discuss the cross-cultural potential of this pictographic system. Over 100 new pictographs were designed and entered into the iConji vocabulary.
There has been no shortage of attempts to create a new and “better” universal language. An exhaustive account of these efforts can be found in the book “In the Land of Invented Languages” by Arika Okrent. According to Okrent, in the last thousand years, more than 900 languages have been invented, often by individuals who believed they had a universal solution for global, cross-cultural communication. About a dozen of these are based on pictographs. Most attempts at creating a new language failed due to overly-ambitious goals, or eccentricities of their inventor.
Of all the recently invented pictographic systems, Blissymbolics is the most successful to date. It is used to assist communications-challenged individuals, providing them a structured means by which they may convey concepts, and more recently, providing a “point and click” software interface.
The Noun Project is another effort to establish cross-cultural communication. It purports to be a repository of universal icons, but suffers the same ambiguities as previous "universal language" attempts. The icons therein are primarily from public-domain icon databases, for example, restroom, traffic, mall, and airport icons, not all of which translate across cultures. The collection does include icons designed by individuals, but currently lacks guidelines for design beyond their stated desire for "scale, proportion, and shape."
Also of note is Emoji, based on a vocabulary of 722 emoticons, and popular in electronic communications throughout Japan. Emoji icons are heavily slanted toward conveying emotional "punctuation," and more useful in augmenting SMS than in communicating complete stand-alone messages.
Other pictographic systems have been less successful, as described here: List of writing systems. There have also been many attempts to create universal spoken languages, the most notable of which is Esperanto. For more examples, see Universal language.
- Tatti, Kristen (2010) New iConji language for the symbol-minded, Northern Colorado Business Review
- Tagg, Caroline (2009) A corpus linguistics study of SMS text messaging, Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham
- Pakalski, Ingo (2010) Icons for barrier-free communication, IT News for Professionals (in German)
- Kaplan, Jeremy A. (2010) Inventor Proposes New Language for Cell Phone Messaging - Using Hieroglyphics, Fox News
- Kramer, Melody Joy (2006) A Canticle for Yucca Mountain, NPR.org
- Staats, Kai. Personal interview by phone. 4 March 2011.
- Staats, Kai (2010) Create Your Own Character (website)
- Staats, Kai (2010) Explore iConji (website)
- eSchool News (2011) Colorado State University Hosts iConji Language, Art Workshop
- Okrent, Arika (2009). In the Land of Invented Languages. Spiegel & Grau. ISBN 0-385-52788-8.
- Skyler, John (2011) The Noun Project (website)
- Skyler, John (2011) Mission of the Noun Project (website)