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Essay: Would We Be Able to Design a Universal Pictorial Language?

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  • Would We Be Able to Design a Universal Pictorial Language?
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An investigation into a universal pictorial language must begin with history and how symbols became common use in our lives and the world we live in. This is an extended essay that presents and explains how pictorial signs developed according to language, and illustrates key elements that are important to consider when or if attempting to design such a language. But why would a universal pictorial language be needed?

There have been many attempts to create a universal language, both pictorially and textually. The language Esperanto, developed by L.L Zamenhoff in 1887, came closest to achieving it’s goal. Zamenhoff created Esperanto as an easy to learn, simplistic language based off of the Romantic language family. With it, he intended on helping efforts for a universal peace between people, a way of bringing us together under one language that would supposedly make us live harmoniously. Esperanto didn’t succeed in it’s task, as having the same language does not create peace. However, the pursuit for equality would benefit from the use of a shared language.

The ideas of the Modernist movement were dedicated in developing equality in every aspect. Within the first chapter of this essay, the Isotype institute is discussed in relation to Modernism and how they intended on creating equality through knowledge and understanding. This is the foundation of this essay, to aid in the pursuit of a universal pictorial language. On one side there is information equality and education, and on the other for safety and guidance.

Within the third chapter it is discussed whether a pictorial language could extend to other planets with hypothetical intelligent life. As humans, we have always presented ourselves through imagery and art, a need to let others know that we exist. This chapter analyses the Voyager Golden Record and it’s attempt in explaining human life to the universe. An extension of humanity and the hope that something understands it.

There is only an infinitesimal chance that the plaque will ever be seen by a single extraterrestrial, but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand the human spirit,and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind. (Sagan.C, 1978).

The research conducted in this essay stems from a gradual search for evidence that a universal pictorial language could work, and possible ways that could help develop one. This includes research into historical design movements, existing signs and symbols, and colour association. With examples, chapter two explores the arguments around interpretation and applied meaning with references to Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. This is in reference to culture and how differences between societies change meanings and associations. The final part of the research grew into an expanded view, incorporating scientific theories in relation to the way humans read and share information, with examples of cave paintings, evolution and image in nature.

Chapter 1: Transforming Information for Everyone. Representation, Interpretation and Association.

The use of pictograms began with the development of the Isotype institute and the Gesellschaft und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Social and Economics Museum) in 1920s Vienna. The movement developed cultural, traditional, historical and environmental information into pictographic representations. (Neurath.O, 2010). The pictograms were intended to be viewed literally, a silhouette of a man means a man (fig.1).

fig 1. Neurath.O, “From Vienna Method to ISOTYPE.” 224.

At the time, Vienna was a communist city state developing a modernistic approach to society and design. Otto Neurath, the founder of Isotype, wanted to communicate information quickly and accurately for the general public in replacement of text heavy charts and confusing diagrams in museums (Neurath, Kinross, 2009). Marie Reidemeister, later Marie Neurath, was the ‘transformer’ in the institute, and figured out the most effective ways of transforming information into an accessible format for the masses. […] ‘perhaps, this idea, of the decompartmentalisation of human experience, was the single most important ideals.’ (Greenhalgh. P, 1990. pg92) Is the idea of set ideals where everyone operates the same way counterproductive to the idea of a universal pictographic language? For the socialist culture, with everyone operating the same, raised and educated the same, then a universal language developed within this society would function well. However, Isotype had few opportunities for testing their design effectiveness outside the western world.

During the 1950s Marie Neurath was invited to Nigeria to help educate the public on healthcare, schooling and to understand the infrastructure of the country. (fig.2). Throughout her time there, Marie slowly accustomed the Nigerian people to use pictograms as a form of education, and to help illustrate important information about many things, for example how education can improve your life. ‘I was astonished by the kind of questions that they put to me: what appeared fundamental to them was also what is fundamental to me.’ (Neurath. M, 2009. pg 75-76). Marie found that by Nigerian and European people seeking for the same things in life, a certain continuity was found amongst people that could help in the development of more universal pictograms.

fig.2 Neurath.M, Isotype Booklet Nigeria, 1955

This was the only time the Isotype principles were tested outside of Europe. It presented evidence that a pictographic approach to communication improved understanding, although the pictographic depictions needed to be adapted to the culture and society of Nigeria. In order for a language to be universal it needs to be adapted through interpretation and understanding of the image by the reader, rather than dictated by the author. (QUOTE) If the style of an image is adapted to a new reader then the new version wouldn’t hold the same associations and representations of something such as a home, to the original reader.

Isotype showed that image combined with text broadens understanding within a society with information sharing and understanding. One of the key principles within the movement was designed by Neurath and his lead graphic designer, Gerd Arntz, who is responsible for the majority of Isotype’s famous work. The principle explained that the best way to visualise comparison data, such as the amount of marriages on two respective years (fig.3), was to have a long row of repeated pictograms rather than an enlarged one to show that there were many marriages that year. These principles still work today within information design, and helped develop a symbolic language of communication. Would these principles help the development of an exclusively pictographic language?

fig.3 Illustrations from Otto Neurath, International Picture Language, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1936

Neurath never intended on making Isotype a language, rather to develop a way of simplifying information to allow everyone an equal system of learning (Neurath.O, 2010). Isotype helped kickstart the use of pictograms in everyday life, however, it did not develop a language that could be shared across the world. Many symbols created by Arntz act universally, and his visual style helped develope many pictograms we use today. However, the majority of Isotype infographics share the common need for text and are designed to be read at face value.

Instead of linearly putting a symbol after another, Arntz combined symbols to change their meaning. This meant that a pictogram could be adaptable with added features. (fig 4.) An icon of a man with an icon of a cog equals a factory worker. However this leaves little for interpretation, as the combined symbols still hold their original meaning, just in an altered context. If the reader subsequently knows the symbols, interpretation is needed as to not read the information literally. If the symbols for male and female had an electric fuse symbol between them, it would not mean an actual fuse but imply that a relationship is on edge at the point of breaking (Munari.B, 1966). The idea that a symbol holds the meaning of what it represents devoutly limits the development of a language and it’s comprehension. Many Isotype graphics rely on some need of prior learning. Would this make a language non-universal or is there always the need of some environmental learning as a child within a particular culture for things to make sense?

fig.4 Isotype ‘Picture dictionary’ leaf from binder, Gerd Arntz, 1929-33, 300 x 225 mm, (I.C. 4/2)

In many instances Gerd Arntz implemented colour in a calculated way allowing an implication of something rather than a clean cut representation. Colour could be used to indicate a use or attribute of an object. By being coloured green, a pictogram of wheat suggests natural, fresh, healthy implications because of association (fig.5). However, how far does colour affect understanding and do all people interpret colours with the same associations? In the case of the wheat, green is a global indicator of an organic object because of most plants being that colour. But where does the idea of green equals good come from, and why do people perceive it as good?

fig.5 Wheat (Arntz. G, 1928-1965)

In 1979 the green fire exit sign (fig.6) now used all across the world, was designed by Yukio Ota. However, it’s introduction to the US proved difficult (Turner.J, 2010), as the American’s already had their own established exit sign (fig.7). By association green is seen as a more welcoming colour. As animals, green is an association to healthy, alive plants, which means for us food, safety, cleanliness and so reassurance and comfort. This lead to the success of Yukio’s design as it appeared comforting in the way that it felt like safety and a reassurance that this is where you should go. In nature red is most commonly an indicator of blood, and also many poisonous plants within Europe. When facing the red exit sign, if a person didn’t understand english, ‘exit’ means nothing. This leaves only the colour red to be interpreted, which would result in the person not following the sign and so endangering themselves.

fig.7 American Exit Sign fig.6 Exit Sign (Yukio.O, 1979)

In the West the colour black suggests death and mourning, especially as we associate black with what we wear when we attend funerals. However in China, which has one-seventh of the world’s population, wear white at funerals, which would suggest a wedding to a westerner, whom has a completely different association to the colour white. (Crow. D, 2016. pg38) It appears that what a colour represents differs depending on cultural upbringing and associations. Some colour associations, like green, work very well internationally, but if a culture developed with green associated with poison or money, it would have a negative representation. Would a universal language function more effectively without colour? Colour definitely aids in the process of understanding, but the variations of association and interpretation could lead a pictogram to be completely misunderstood.

The successful elements of Isotype in relation to a pictographic language, were of the work of Marie Neurath and Gerd Arntz. Together they developed Otto’s movement into an expanded practice which generated a great amount of pictograms that represented everyday life, objects, nature, almost everything at the time that could be visually represented (Neurath. M, 2009). Shown without context, the pictograms worked universally within western nations that shared similar technical development, history, environment and cultural associations; as the majority of complex symbols needed some prior experience or knowledge from seeing things in the real world. […] ‘the symbols had to ‘speak’ to the Nigerians, just as they had to the Viennese; men, women, children had to look as they did there; houses could not have chimneys; but in the essential rules of transformation, nothing needed to be changed.’ (Neurath. M, 2009. p. 75)

Bruno Munari argued that symbols work like poetry when constructed linearly. That for a symbol to be understandable there needs to be an element of interpretation. A pictogram of a bicycle, for example, could have many different meanings and uses, similar to a word. […] ’use the symbols as the words are used in a poem: they will have more than one meaning, and the meanings will change accordingly to where they are put.’ (Munari. B, 1966). It seems that for a pictographic language to function in consideration of a persons or peoples interpretation, it needs to act in a similar way to text.

Chapter 2: Developing A Language and Interpreting Meaning.

Xu Bing tells the story of a day in his life with pictograms in his project, Book From the Ground Up (fig.8). He uses the pictograms similarly to how we use words, allowing for interpretation of a symbol when paired with another. Depending on the pairing and placement of the symbols the meaning changes. Xu’s work establishes a framework for how a pictographic language could be written, and includes a variety of pictographic styles: a mixture of emojis, emoticons and symbols. The pictograms come from mostly digital culture, and so for a computer literate reader, are understood. Xu’s work also followed the ideas of semiosis and how it […] ‘is not a one-way process with a fixed meaning. It is part of an active process between the sign and the reader of the sign.’ (Crow.D, 2016. p.38). If interpretation is an active part of language, how does it develop within a culture? Book From the Ground Up communicates using digital language, for a book to function universally would it need to start from scratch or piece together symbols from different cultures and societies?

fig.8 Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point (Xu.B, 2014)

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really – or, really means – A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C? (Sontag.S, 1966. pg.3).

Sontag argues that ‘plucking’ parts from an artwork prevents the viewer from considering the piece as a whole. In the sense of a pictogram, would reading certain marks and shapes separately obstruct understanding? Meteorologists communicate things like weather patterns through symbols (fig.11). Like Xu Bing, they combine symbols to develop or change the meaning; an asterisk means snow and an upside down triangle means storm, so together a snowstorm (Nigel Holmes, 2017). If interpreted in parts it means two different things. Does this hinder a universal visual language, or create a flexibility to understand the same symbol in alternative ways?

During the 60s and 70s Charles K. Bliss developed a communication system called Blissymbolics. It is a language formed through pictograms and ideograms, a mixture of both literal and abstract characters (Blissymbolics, 2017). Many of the symbols are interchangeable and can mean many different things. An arrow pointing away from a door means exit, but when pointed inwards means entrance (fig.12). Pictorial symbols can be used in associative ways according to the writer, but how transferable is a pictogram or ideogram to the reader? A wavy line (fig.13) could mean smoke when positioned vertically above an image of a house, or water if placed horizontally. (Holmes.N, 2016). As with Isotype in Nigeria, society, culture and infrastructure looked different, so a representational pictogram would need to be changed, but when all cultures have water, would a wavy line allow people to associate or interpret this to be water? In Ancient cultures, pictorial symbols representing simple, everyday things but varied greatly between nations (Citation) (fig.14). Even today we associate things differently to other societies. If we found commonality between how we understand shapes and signs, it would be integral to designing a universal language.

fig.10 Blissymbolic Symbols (Bliss.C, 1949). fig.11 Wavy Line uses (Holmes.N, 2017).

fig.12 Author, date, titel, pg54. Pictorial signs from four ancient cultures compared.

The biohazard symbol (fig.11) that we use today was developed in 1966. Although designed to be memorable, Charles Baldwin, who helped develop the symbol, said that “We wanted something that was memorable but meaningless, so we could educate people as to what it means.” (Baldwin. C, 1967). The biohazard symbol needs to be understood thousands of years from now to protect future humans from danger. If Baldwin knew when working on the symbol that it needed to be learned by the reader from the author, then if society changed and the record of the symbol was lost, would we understand it? The biohazard symbol is unique in it’s design compared to other cautionary symbols, (fig.16) but with no prior learning it would not be understood or communicate enough information effectively.

fig.11 Biohazard Symbol (Baldwin.C, 1967). fig.12 GHS (Global Harmonised Symbols)

Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. (Sontag.S, 1966. pg.3)

If a pictorial language demands it’s reader to understand only the true meaning of something, then it does not behave like a language and it’s reader. A reader only perceives through their own interpretation and relating their human experience and associations to that material. (Barthes.R). In the instance of water represented as a wavy line, communication by the author may be clear but not the understanding of the reader. However, by association the reader can apply the wavy line to what they interpret it as, either ideographically or pictographically. In this way the information will sometimes be perceived differently. In comparison, the biohazard symbol wouldn’t be understood without learning from the author, the true meaning would be hidden.

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. (Barthes.R)

The reader knows a sentence does not have one meaning, that it has many angles of input from different sources (Barthes.R). Culture is the major influence of visual language, an author combines what they know to write, both consciously and subconsciously, from their experience.

Esperanto was an attempt at a universal language based in writing. The creator, Zamenhof, developed the language with the influence of the Romantic languages. (Citation) Esperanto still needed to be learned and so wasn’t universal, but considered the relationship and variations between existing languages to make it easier to learn and understand. Would designing a language from existing languages work better than designing one through commonality found within all humans? The differences could be too great between languages, and a textual language can be spoken and needs the knowledge of the sounds. A pictorial language is relying on how it is read, symbols representing things both literally and abstractly.

Symbols can be understood more effectively with cultural associations, but in order for a universal language to function, these associations need to be everyones. However, the reader cannot rely on set information by the author, symbols need to be interpretative to allow for different cultures and change in society. For a symbol to be understood universally, it would need to hold associations for everyone through interpretation but allow for a cultural influence to change or alter the meaning and for it to still function. In the case of Isotype in Nigeria (Neurath.M, 2009), a house looks different to how Western Europeans would represent one. A symbol would be needed that is more ideographic than pictographic, to suggest a house rather than to represent a cultural style of a house. ‘Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy.’ (Sontag.S, 1966. pg.3).

Chapter 3: Designing for the World. Commonality through Evolution.

The 1964 Japan Olympics were the first to implement pictograms for information communication and the visual identity of the event (fig.13). Katsumi Masaru created the icons for each event, designing them as neutral as possible so that every culture and gender felt represented. Within a visual language representation of the audience is integral to communication and understanding; in the case of universality we would need to represent everyone with symbols that represent things or elements that we all share or can understand with our individual associations.

fig.13 1964 Japan Olympic Games pictograms (Katsumi.M, 1964)

Otl Aicher designed the identity for the 1972 Munich Olympics with a developed approach to using pictograms and ideograms to communicate efficiently and effectively to the world (fig.14). Aicher’s pictograms were isometric and minimalistic, stripping away the things that make us different. They focus not only on representation, but are open to the readers identity and associations. Could there be a commonality between all humans and the way we see? Could this be used to design a pictorial language that would be correctly interpretative to all people?

fig.14 1972 Munich Olympic Games pictograms (Aicher.O, 1972)

In 1980, both Japan and the Soviet Union proposed a fire exit sign to ISO (the International Organisation for Standardisation). The signs were close to the same design (fig.15), and were developed with limited communication between the designers of each respective nation (Turner.J, 2010). In 1985 the Japanese sign was chosen for international use. This phenomenon suggests that a symbol that represents an escape route for us could be what everyone best associates with and possibly a universal understanding. […] ‘a fundamentally human exit sign, one that speaks to some primal cognitive notion of escape.’ (Yukio.O). Yukio suggests that perhaps there are visual triggers ingrained in us from thousands of years ago that have made humans share a common way of visualising something. However, how far does this go in relation to an entire language? Do we share a common way of seeing and reading, with similar ideas of representation?

fig.15 Soviet and Japanese Exit Sign Comparison (1980)

Tristan Gooley – reading tracks and signs in nature

Italian Archaeologist Emmanuel Anati theorised that we learned to read before we could write by looking at animal tracks and changes in the natural world (Nigel Holmes, 2017). This is shown in Isotype’s way of visualisation. Neurath wanted to show an image of a cow, for example, as a flat silhouette image that almost acts like a track or mark left by the animal (Nigel Holmes, 2017). Through our evolution and development as a species we may have a way of reading built into us, a commonality between all people and the way we understand information. By learning to read animal tracks, primitive people then learned to draw in this way and develop visual languages communicating what and who they were, what they did, showing to whoever reads it an exhibition of their way of life. […] ‘the most likely outcome is a method in which you can read the rock art like you can read a foreign language. There is a big difference in favour of rock art that this writing can be read in any language.’ (Anati.E, 2008). Ancient indigenous populations around the world share similar traits in the way they recorded information with icon-like silhouetted shapes and simple marks (fig.16). If all humans do have a common evolutionary trait when it comes to visual information, would this help in developing a pictorial language? How far would this go? Could this common trait extend to all potential intelligent life, from anywhere in the universe?

fig.16 Prehistoric rock painting, Catalan Pyrenees, Spain.

Many biological scientists today theorise that evolution is predictable, and that there is a convergency between species (Yong, 2013). Throughout Central America there is a type of lizard called an anole that is heavily researched by evolutionary biologists. A Puerto Rican tree-crown anole (Anolis Cuiveri), having evolved entirely on the island, is almost identical to a Jamaican tree-crown anole (Anolis Garmani) (fig.17). Both anole species evolved in similar environments with similar foods and so became almost the same. This type of lizard is a great example of convergent evolution, as there are many instances of similar anoles throughout the Caribbean, and therefore is evidence that if the same environment is created, living things evolve predictably (Losos, 2001). On another planet similar to Earth for example, a very much human-like species could emerge. It is also an indicator that living things evolve for the foods available and the general climate, so if there is prey there are predators, if it’s cold there are animals with fur (Dawkins, 2009). Humans around the world recognise what a predator is through it’s characteristics, for example a footprint would show a paw with claws (fig.22). Could convergent evolution transcend the Earth and apply to all nature within the universe? This would mean that predators are a class of living things that could be found on other planets, and have a transferable recognisability between humans and extraterrestrials. How would this benefit the progression of a universal pictorial language? By uncovering a universality of intelligent life, then perhaps this would help us develop a universality between humanity.

fig.17 Anole Photograph (D.L. Mahler).

The Voyager Golden Record (fig.18) was sent into space in 1977, and was developed under the supervision of Carl Sagan with the intention of it’s reader being an intelligent extraterrestrial species (NASA, 2012). The Record contains information about humanity, such as our music, lifestyle, the way we eat, and about our planet. To communicate our history and biology, the Record contains a collection of silhouetted images, for instance: humans hunting a deer-like animal and a pregnant woman (fig.19). It acts as a time capsule as well as an informational guide on humanity. The Record is made from copper and is gold plated, which reduces radiation decay, which should result in it being the longest lasting object ever created by humans. (NASA). ‘Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand the human spirit,and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind.’ (Sagan.C, 1978).

fig.18 Voyager Golden Record (1977). fig.19 Voyager Golden Record (1977).

On one side of the Voyager Golden Record there are instructions on how to use it (fig.18) which also includes an illustration of our solar system engraved in lines of binary code. The diagrams are pictographic, but rely on binary for full understanding, especially when someone or something has never used a record player before. If evolution is predictable within the universe then perhaps the Record would be found and understood by a human-like species that had developed enough to understand mathematics and physics. These things have to be learned, but they are part of the natural world and there is no author. Is a language universal even if it has to be learned through thousands of years of development? There is universality in nature as it has scientific and mathematical laws, and so is everywhere. However, how long does a pictorial language take to understand for it to not function effectively? With the biohazard symbol (fig.), it needs to be understood very quickly but when time isn’t an issue, a reader could spend more time deciphering a symbol. If we began the design starting with the raw symbols that everyone could understand or interpret to understand, then perhaps we could build more complicated phrases and a more complete language. Simple symbols based off of basic shapes that the average human would recognise could be considered universal. However, to fully communicate we would need to express the meanings of complicated things, which are unlikely to be universal especially with extraterrestrials. It appears that there is a universality within the natural world and symbols influenced by it, but it would be close to impossible to communicate the complexities of human emotion and our modern lives quickly to someone without prior context; as where we are now as developed societies is very different to the lifestyles of our primal ancestors.


Pictograms, ideograms and icons all contribute to the understanding of information, whether that be navigation, education or signage. The Isotype Institute brought about the common use of pictograms within information design, which allowed everyone an equal way to learn and understand information. This is the main reason for designing a universal language, for equality and understanding (Neurath, 2010). However, Isotype’s design is based around Western culture, especially Europe, and was found difficult to transfer to another culture, such as with Nigeria (Neurath.M, 2009 p.g 75-76). Marie Neurath needed to change the way things looked to represent things for the Nigerian people. It suggests that constructing a pictorial language within a culture makes it difficult to understand, and even non-transferable between very different cultures. This also applies to using colour, as explained with David Crow’s example of white symbolising death and mourning to the Chinese (Crow.D, 2006 pg.36). Things have different meanings to different cultures, not everything, but enough to complicate a pictorial language’s comprehension internationally.

The colour green is found to represent organic material, living organisms and healthiness. In the instance of the green fire exit sign (fig.7), the colour is used to associate with safety and reassurance, similarly used with traffic lights. However, green is seen as good to a certain extent, an individual can still associate it to something negative. Although, when the colour is paired with the fire exit symbol then it is mostly understood, the majority of the world use and understand this sign. It appears that colour affects understanding, but for us to see the benefits it would need extensive research and real world trials. An in development feedback driven pictorial language could help produce more universal symbols.

In reference to Bruno Munari, symbols act like words within poetry and need interpretation to be read together in sequence (Munari.B, 1966). In the argument for and against interpretation, applied meaning by an author limits understanding as it would always need to be learned. The problems found with symbols with applied meaning is that of universality, and also that the same society in the future may not understand. How can a symbol be universal if nobody can understand it but those who have learned? With the biohazard symbol (fig.), it is abstract, not built upon to represent anything pictographically or suggest anything ideographically. This is why the reader cannot rely on set information by the author, symbols need to be interpretive to allow for different cultures and changes in society.

Commonality can be found through shared origins. We may share ideal ways of representation through our ancient ancestors and the way in which they recorded and read signs and symbols in the natural world. Also because of convergent evolution, similar species predictably evolve in certain environments and with certain food sources, and so people around the world potentially recognise the same signs. Research into our primal selves and the way we read could help us develop more universal symbols. This also suggests that it could contribute to communicating with other intelligent life in the universe.

Within this extended essay the research concludes directions and considerations that contribute in helping to develop a universal pictorial language. From not applying meaning but using it and relying on people’s interpretation to understand a symbol. Using mathematics and code with image can communicate universally to a point, but the reader needs to know these things beforehand. There are many things that could help develop such a language, but it is difficult to resolve as symbols would need to be tried and tested. A psychologist like Otto Neurath would contribute greatly to the way people understand signs and symbols, but for a universal language for all, it would need more. If humanity managed to create a simple universal pictorial language, it would most likely behave like a language: to develop, change and evolve within our society and cultures overtime, just as it always has.

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