Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

Mr. Bliss

Back to Episode

Charles Bliss working in a factory (Coutesy of Richard Ure)

First: a perfect moment. On day 86 of a 3-month trek to and from the South Pole, adventurer Aleksander Gamme discovered something he'd stashed under the ice at the start of his trip. He wasn't expecting such a rush of happiness in that cold, hungry instant, but he hit the bliss jackpot. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page to watch the video.)

But what if you're after something a little bigger than just a moment of happiness? Producer Tim Howard brings us the incredible and tragic story of Charles Bliss -- the man that inspired this show. As Charles's friend Richard Ure and writer Arika Okrent explain, Bliss believed that war was often caused by the misuse of language, and he believed it could be overcome if we could create a way to communicate the truth without the trickery of words. Having lived through the hell of Nazi concentration camps, he set about creating the perfect language, based on symbols and logic. Not surprisingly, his language didn't catch on. But then, years later, Shirley McNaughton accidentally discovered it, and started using it to communicate with her students -- kids with cerebral palsy who quickly picked up the language and made it their own. At first, Charles was thrilled...until he started to feel his original dream of saving the world was slipping from his fingers.

Below is a piece of stained glass art by Shirley McNaughton, called "Communication." It's composed of 10 Bliss symbols:

Click to zoom.

 

Our thanks to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia for use of audio from the documentary Mr. Symbol Man, by Bob Kingsbury (1974).  For more info on NFSA's vast collection of film, television, radio, and music, visit their website.

READ MORE:

Akira Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages

Aleksander Gamme reaches Cheez Doodle Nirvana:

Guests:

Aleksander Gamme and Arika Okrent

Produced by:

Tim Howard

Comments [33]

Did McNaughton unintentionally create "Propaedeutic Blissymbolics”, as educational bricolage?

This is quite different from traditional propaedeutics. Propaedeutic language learning is an extreme strategy of first learning an over-simplified, impractical language, in order to get started on learning how to learn. Might seem like training wheels on a bicycle, more hindrance then help. But seems to work.

It’s claimed that a year of study of the conlang Esperanto (Propaedeutic Esperanto) will accelerate students’ progress in learning a second, natural human language. Is this not similar to McNaughton’s results with Blissymbolics? ...a temporary kick start to get her patients started on learning, to eventually learn to sign their native language?

Claude Piron claims that propaedeutic Esperanto's extremely simplified structure eases acquisition of necessary motor and cognitive skills, otherwise delayed by confusing complexity in natural human languages. Key point is that propaedeutic Esperanto drills these skills into procedural memory, where they hide, functioning outside of conscious awareness, of either students or teachers.

Another case: It's claimed that if a human infant learns "baby sign language", later acquisition of the first spoken language is accelerated. “Propaedeutic baby signing”?

While McNaughton struggled with Blissymbolics; other silent, symbolic languages were being developed, for non-human primates. She probably could have used those with no objections. Might have been productive to compare results: mute humans vs. non-human primates.

Yerkish is one primate conlang. Unfortunately, when non-human primates speak, it’s not clear whether the symbol strings are unstructured gibberish, or language learned from "propaedeutic Yerkish”.

Might McNaughton have learned of Yerkish, if internet had been available?

I suspect "propaedeutic Esperanto" might be adapted as a productive strategy in other fields of education, as over- or extremely-simplified propaedeutic drills. Anyone know if that's being explored? Even with the internet, it's not easy to find out.

Mar. 26 2014 04:14 PM
Eisfelder from Australia

I first met Charles Bliss and heard of his symbol language around 1944 in Shanghai, China. I subsequently met him again in the mid 1960s or early 1970s in Melbourne, Australia. He was a person very dedicated to bring better communications to all humanity. He lived in relative poverty and it would have required substantial government or private support to make his idea popular and practical. His idea was not solely inspired by Chinese symbols, but also by Chemical formulas or mathematical symbols that can be understood by anyone irrespective of language spoken

Jan. 11 2014 11:40 PM
Peter Witting from Canberra, Australia


Over the years I had a lot of involvement with Charles Bliss. Charles was a wonderful, kind and funny person but rather eccentric and could be difficult. However, he meant well and sacrificed his whole life and assets for his dream! He lived very modestly and all his efforts and the little money he had went into promoting his Bliss Symbols in order to help the disabled. The last thing he would do is rip anyone off. After all he won the court case in Canada and these were the damages that were assessed by the Court. Incidentally, his solicitors charged $22,000.00 and he had travel and accommodation expenses in Canada. The rest of the money that he received was again used to promote his system in order to help others.

Jan. 11 2014 09:30 PM
Caroline Musselwhite from Litchfield Park, AZ

This story brings back both sad and happy memories. I was working on writing a textbook for universities in the area of augmentative and alternative communication. Shirley had been quite helpful in my research. I wanted to get information directly from Charles Bliss, so sent him a detailed letter explaining my work. My elation at receiving a personal letter from him turned to horror and sadness when the letter proved to be a diatribe about 'symbol pirates and symbol perverters.' Shirley and the amazing people at (then) OCCC and at BCI had such an incredible impact on the field of communication for people who were nonspeaking. Charles Bliss was so instrumental in this work, but just wasn't able to adapt his initial vision.

Thanks for this profound, well-documented, delightfully presented broadcast!

Jan. 05 2014 06:09 PM
Christie

Something is wrong with the story. If you watch the video of Alec Gamma there is another shadow in the background. Someone filming? Is this authentic? I can't help feel like this is a publicity stunt. What is the whole story here?

Dec. 30 2013 12:33 AM
mike

Languages grow and change. That is how they work, they are living memes that are constantly changing. No language remains the same.

Dec. 29 2013 04:25 PM

I was introduced to using "Bliss symbols" in the early 1980's by a Special Education teacher, Dick Dustrude, at a school called "Sunnyside" in Decatur, IL. We used it with cerebral palsy students who primarily used "pointer sticks" on headbands to communicate. Compared to symbol systems that I've used more recently with special need students, I've always considered it superior in its universality, flexibility, and "crisp" clean look.

However, I had no idea about the history and the man behind the symbols. I find it amazing that this contagion happened BEFORE the internet was available. I'm saddened, though, that two such good-hearted and creative individuals could end up at such odds. I'm afraid that even today, in spite of current copyright laws, educators "in the trenches" with "special needs" children, will "alter" a multitude of materials in a spirit of "whatever works" creativity. Many of us use enlarging, highlighting, outlining, stick figures, texturing, and virtually any other enhancement or amendment we can think of to REACH and TEACH.

On the other end of the spectrum are expensive "professionally produced" teaching aids and complex curriculum approaches that are rigidly copyrighted, but frequently can't be afforded. Where is the "copyright line" for "creative license" determined?

Great information and food for thought in this episode...
THANK YOU, RadioLab!

Pam Tish

Dec. 28 2013 04:43 PM
D.B. Lichtstrahl from Princeton, NJ

Bliss is not the "bad guy", "robbing crippled children". Bliss, who wanted to unify all humans through a means of expression, was devastated by the use of his work as a stepping-stone leading back to separate languages; which he felt fragmented and separated - using their meaning to corrupt.

It think RadioLab's producers missed the point. The story is well written and produced, however, through words, it "corrupts" in such a way as to capture Bliss as a "bad guy". Perhaps the "bad guy(s)" arose from those who felt it "ok" to alter his form of expression for their needs and goals. Those that believed they were doing no harm in adding and changing his collection of symbols, could at least admit that the use of Bliss Symbolics helped them keep the limited expression of their separate language in process... I think they missed the point too.

Oct. 20 2013 02:31 PM
Priya

This podcast is fantastic and eye-opening. Regarding Charles Bliss' project and its goals, I have one objection. I believe Bliss' argument was that words can be twisted to mean something that was not originally intended, but symbols can't be manipulated at all. But symbols can be manipulated just as easily as words. What about his own experience with the SWASTIKA?! It used to be used all around the world as a benign, even holy symbol, but thanks to the Nazis, is now seen as evil. In Hinduism, Swastika literally means "let there be good" (i.e. absence of evil). I'm a Hindu American who is fiercely against anti-Semitism. But I am sick of being afraid to use a major symbol of my faith (which is much older than Nazism) for fear of being misunderstood.
Thank You RadioLab!

Sep. 24 2013 10:21 PM
Amanda Ching from Cloud City, Bespin

The video of Aleksander's discovery is possibly the best thing I have seen in a long time (including is awesome hair!). I have decided to treat every food discovery I make in my house this way and see how it works out.

Aug. 28 2013 09:31 AM
Dan from Denver

I wonder if they have tried to replace the symbols with some that aren't copyrighted? Chinese characters have elements that would work. The Chinese character for fire looks like fire.

Jul. 25 2013 04:36 PM
Tim from TX

Amazing to hear the inventor of a 'universal language', who had suffered through Nazi Germany and lived in the concentration camps, become so much like the evil which spurred his motivation to begin with...

I was dumbfounded when "exterminated" came out of his mouth - with no sense of irony whatsoever. Just goes to show that language is not the problem (or the cause of the problem) - it is stubborn adherence to one's own biases and letting one's emotions run wild when an opposing viewpoint or idea takes root.

Jul. 24 2013 11:07 AM
l w calhoun from Atlanta

Welcome to Transylvania, Charles Bliss. This is what happens when you create a monster: Rather than obey its creator as intended, it takes on a minds of its own.

Apr. 22 2013 05:33 PM
Susan B from North Carolina

I loved hearing about blissful experiences. You were surprised that experiences induced by psychotropic drugs often have lasting effects? I would suggest that once you know something, you can't unknow it. If a realization of the universal connection of all life and all of the universe moves into one's conscious awareness, it is so amazing that I'm not surprised that it is life-changing. I think more research should be done to understand exactly what is happening in the brain and body, even at the cellular and molecular level during these blissful peak moments, however they happen to occur (drugs, meditation, etc). Don't devalue the experience or judge it to be fake because it was drug induced. We humans are a mass of complex chemicals and energy constantly shifting and interacting.

Mar. 31 2013 03:24 PM
Justine Fine

Very intellectually intriguing story. It reminds me of some people using the same kinds of symbols for about 6000 years, Chinese. Somehow they have started writing that way indefinite times very fluently.

Mar. 30 2013 06:30 PM
Rosemary Douglas Lombard from Hillsboro, Oregon

Thanks for the fascinating segment on the symbolic system of Charles Bliss and its further development for use as a communication system for the disabled. The system could also provide a helpful approach to two-way interspecies communication. Traditionally, projects working toward communication between humans and other animals strived to prove that project animals can have language, but the bar was high: linguist Charles F. Hockett’s design features of human language. A key criterion was the use of arbitrary or noniconic symbols, i.e., abstract symbols with no relation to the object or concept. If the goal instead is simply true communication, iconic symbols make sense. For instance, a turtle symbol that resembles a turtle can be more easily learned by trainers and animals, resulting in larger vocabularies and more sophisticated understanding. Chelonian Connection cognitive laboratory

Mar. 30 2013 05:41 PM
Marilyn from Denver

* Okrent's chief target is Charles Bliss. Admittedly, Bliss said and did some very kooky things (internment at the Dachau concentration camp would tweak anyone). But Bliss also invented a system for writing concepts as simple, picture-like symbols which proved far more effective than any other system in the world in helping some handicapped kids communicate. His system is still in use today. Bliss got into a tiff with a Canadian centre for kids with cerebral palsy when he wanted dictatorial control over how his language was used, and in 1982 the centre ended up settling for $160,000. Okrent summarizes this exchange as, "There's no other way to put it: Bliss, self-proclaimed savior of humanity, stole $160,000 from crippled children." Wow! I can think of at least one other way to put it: "In 1982 the OCCC *chose* to purchase Blisssymbols, which represented more than 30 years of work, because it dramatically helped handicapped children communicate, thus dramatically improving their lives, better than any other system in the world."

Mar. 30 2013 05:12 PM
Dan Loandre from Long Island

Charles Bliss was a complete a-hole. His system was being used to HELP sick children, so what did he do? He took $160,000 away from those children. What a scumbag.

Mar. 30 2013 01:17 PM
Al Dorman from Baltimore

Way to go Mr. Bliss... really breaking down those stereotypes...

Feb. 12 2013 01:43 PM
Michaela from Montreal

It was such a pleasure to listen to this episode as I work with adults with disabilities who still use the Bliss System today. They were a part of a few children in the 70's who were taught how to use coordinated eye movements that spelled out 4 digit numbers that corresponded with a bliss word. I can't wait to share this episode with them, they would get such a kick out of it!
Thanks!

Jan. 29 2013 11:05 PM
Alex Jeffries from Mt. Vernon, IN

I loved this episode and couldn't wait to see the video. It made me think if I have ever been that happy - I thought about the birth of my kids, my husband returning healthy and whole from deployment in Iraq, all these things were overwhelmingly emotional, mostly happy but complicated with many other emotions. After lots of thought, I realized the only time I was this purely happy was when the Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship game to finally get to the Super Bowl. I literally screamed, fell to my knees, cried and ran around the house like a lunatic for about ten minutes before I was able to sit contentedly and watch the after game show. It occurred to me that this is why we watch sports. This is what fuels those crazy reactions, this is what makes those "once in a lifetime games", the fuel behind the "Hail Mary" pass. its a chance to focus all your emotional attention on a contest that (usually) has no actual consequences in our lives and when you are a fan of a team that is never a sure thing, it feels like all the disappointments concentrate into that overwhelming feeling when that big win finally comes after a close contest. It may be the nearest most of us ever come to this kind of bliss.

Jan. 20 2013 11:19 PM
BrianLandberg from Tsukuba, Japan

A further commentary to supplement Mr. Kerim Friedman's response concerning Chinese characters. It may be true that most Chinese or Japanese characters are used primarily for their phonetic representations (especially in Mainland China, where characters have been radically simplified to reduce stroke count for a push to improve literacy under the Mao TzeDeng government). However, this statement too is in need of some correction. Chinese characters are at their heart semantic in nature, and even the phonetic usages and substitutions tend to evoke categories of meaning by their phonetic clues. Most of the "90%" that Mr. Friedman mentions contain within them both semantic elements that signify a categorical meaning and phonetic/semantic elements that also carry a meaning in addition to the dominant phonetic value. Furthermore, many of the 10% of characters that are more directly ideographic are themselves the basic elements that comprise the parts of more complex characters. These are the essential building blocks from which many of the the 90% have been constructed. Therefore, I think it would be misleading to look merely at the proportion by character type in order to try to argue that Chinese is a phonetic language. It is a semantic & phonetic language, to the extent that readers of Chinese can encounter a new character and often still be able to guess something about the character's meaning. In English this would be require a deep knowledge of Latin, Greek, and German etymologies.

Jan. 13 2013 11:06 AM
Alex from Greece

The blissymbols reminded me of the semagrams used in the science fiction short story Story of your life by Ted Chiang.

Jan. 10 2013 10:23 AM

Charles Bliss. Went from a truly inspiring man to monster in 20 minutes flat. Being a holocaust doesn't excuse his actions. Wanted world unification on his CV and all he got was helping children in desperate need. Did he really believe that all problems could be solved through semantics? He had had achieved what few can claim then ground it out of existence. Not quite as bad as Nazism, but certainly taking a few helpful hints out of Mein Kampf. Do it my way or be eliminated. Soul-crushingly sad.

On bliss
Denis Leary had it right. People go looking for this ultimate happiness and find disappointment. Happiness comes in small doses. When you learn to recognize those moments for what they are, a.k.a. life, it all makes more sense. Instead of fantasizing how much better things are going to be next year, stop and really look at what and who you have around you now. That's where bliss resides.

Jan. 09 2013 07:08 AM
dz from Brisbane, Australia

Great episode, but I do feel sympathy for Bliss and I disliked how he was characterised as someone who stole money from sick kids. Clearly, the people using the thing he had invented didn't understand the reasons why he invented it, and I think I might feel the same if my own ideals became corrupted, regardless of the benefits.

Jan. 03 2013 06:50 PM
Matthew from Tulsa, Ok

In regards to the transcendental experiences which are talked about...I call that day dreaming...to a higher degree maybe? I've done it many times. At least my experiences seem to be similar to those on LSD. Never really gave it much thought until my adult life. Maybe Im being too simplistic as I've never done LSD so I cannot compare. However I will say this about people's inability to describe it: You know when you have an epiphany about something, but if you don't write down your thought you lose it? I imagine it's something like that. It's there but you can't quite explain it.
Great show guys.

Jan. 02 2013 08:54 PM
Dan Bollerud from Anchorage

I just listened to your program on Bliss. In college, back in the late 60's I took a class from W. John Weilgart on aUI or what he called the language of space. It too was based on symbols and meant to be a universal language. I don't think it went very far, but I still find myself using it as a type of shorthand language. there is a web site for it at: http://home.centurytel.net/languageofspace/#The Symbols and Sounds of the Language of Space

Jan. 02 2013 12:55 PM
Nan from California

I LOVED the story on Aleksander Gamme. I can't stop watching his video! It is wonderful.
Thanks so much for that story, as well as the others included in Bliss.

Jan. 02 2013 12:33 AM
Megan Ward from Boone, NC

Loved this episode! We were in Banff for the Film & Book Festival and saw the video of Aleksander Gamme. Thank you so much for tracking him down and talking to him! What an inspiration.

Dec. 25 2012 12:42 PM
Tony from Sydney, Australia

My grandfather Joseph bought a dry cleaning business from Charles Bliss in 1956 in Sydney's Kings Cross called Bliss Dry Cleaning. Joseph came to be known to his customers as Mr Bliss and continued under the name till the mid 90s.

Charles Bliss mentored Joseph and taught him the ropes with regards to running a dry cleaning business. He was always spoken about warmly in our house. I'd like to thank Tim Howard for his impeccably researched piece and especially for sending me an MP3 of Joseph saying some words at Mr Bliss's funeral in 1985. I'm still amazed how Tim uncovered this tiny excerpt from my grandfather's long life and I thank him for bringing Joseph back to life for those brief minutes.

Finally while Bliss's actions towards the end of his life appear to be such selfish acts, I believe they should be viewed in light of the fact that he saw his language as a means to reverse the horrors he had witnessed during the holocaust. This perhaps explains why he could not accept the changes made to the language by these wonderful teachers. To him they threatened to derail his universalist vision of a world cured of the moral failures the holocaust presented. This extreme idealism prevented him from accepting the good that his language was doing for some - in this case he couldn't see the trees for the forest...

Dec. 25 2012 03:25 AM
Kerim Friedman from Hualien, Taiwan

I loved this episode; however, there were two errors in the segment on Bliss which need to be corrected.

The first was in the discussion of the Chinese language. While it is clear that the views presented relate to Mr. Bliss' understanding of Chinese rather than being factual statements about Chinese writing, his views closely mirror common misconceptions about the Chinese language and the producers should have taken the time to correct these misperceptions. The first is the ideographic myth. Most Chinese characters (an estimated 90%) do not represent ideas but sounds. The second is the claim that one Chinese character = one word. In fact, most "words" are written with a combination of two or more characters, each character representing a syllable.

The second was a claim by the producer that no language or system he "knows of" (again bad science being reported under the cover of personal opinion) represents whether something is a fact or an opinion. I refer you to the Wikipedia page on "evidentiality."

While I understand the need to stay focused on the story (and it was a delightful story), I believe the story would have been improved if it had avoiding these obvious errors.

Dec. 22 2012 08:24 PM
Abby from NYC

So, having never heard of Charles Bliss, and now only partway though the podcast, I come across another mention of him in The New Yorker in an article by Joshua Foer (Utopian For Beginners) about John Quijada, an amateur linguist with a not dissimilar experience. Fascinating! Thanks, as always for a marvelous show.

Dec. 21 2012 08:18 AM
Jeff from Canada

Love that video of Aleksander Gamme, I can honestly say that I don't think I have ever felt that happy, and that makes me sad.

The truth is that I have it so good that I don't think anything beyond winning the lottery could make me feel like that. Don't get me wrong, my life isn't a perfect fairytale, but it lacks a certain hardship which I think if experienced every once in a while would make the good things in life that much sweeter.

Dec. 20 2012 01:59 PM

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.