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The Symbols of Bliss

Michael Symmons Roberts tells the story of Charles Bliss, whose experiences in Nazi concentration camps led him to invent a new visual language he hoped would end global conflict.

Charles Bliss was a remarkable utopian visionary, whose experiences as a young witness to the pogroms and then Dachau and Buchenwald made him determined to put all his effort into finding a means of bringing about peace between nations. His big inspiration was his belief that conflict arose when people misunderstood each other, or misinterpreted the other’s language.

A new visual language based on ideograms would, he felt, prevent such misunderstanding - and he spent years both perfecting and then trying to sell his new system, which he named Semantography and which has become commonly known as Blissymbolics. 

As Michael Symmons Roberts will explain, Bliss and his wife Claire sent thousands of letters to academics and librarians across the world without success, but then decades later his language was taken up in an entirely unexpected way - as a means of communicating with children with cerebral palsy. Sadly this apparent turn of good fortune did not lead to a happy ending, and Bliss died an apparently frustrated and lonely man.

Nonetheless, as Michael will explain, he was a great utopian visionary whose determined effort to change the world single-handedly might not have finally paid off, but he left a great legacy behind in his linguistic achievement and in the thousands whom he helped to communicate with the world. Michael meets one of those people, Peter Zein, as well as Shirley McNaughton, the nurse who was one of the key figures in applying Blissymbolics to special needs education, and Brian Stride, a personal friend and admirer of Bliss. 

Presenter: Michael Symmons Roberts
Producer: Geoff Bird
Exec Producer: Jo Meek
A Sparklab production for BBC Radio 4

Available now

28 minutes

Last on

Sat 29 Dec 2018 23:00


  • Thu 20 Jul 2017 11:30
  • Sat 29 Dec 2018 23:00

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