For one reason or another, we’ve had a bit of a fantasy writing systems theme lately in our blogging. Not so long ago I wrote something about the various invented writing systems of the Legend of Zelda games, and Pippa has told us about Aurebesh, from the Star Wars series. Just one more for now. Since there’s a new Alien movie out, we thought it’d be nice to take a look at the influential ‘Semiotic Standard’ pictographic system developed for use in spaceship signage in Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film.
Pictograms aren’t really writing per se – the symbols don’t necessarily correspond to the sounds of spoken language at all; rather they attempt to draw what they represent. But it’s a blurry line, as we’ll see, and these ones from Alien have some interesting features that I’ll come to later.
An advantage of pictograms is that they’re independent of language, so a well-designed one can be understood by speakers of any language, or by illiterate people. This is why they’re so often used in signage.
They’ve also become increasingly common as the internet has globalised technology. We all know what this means, even though the technology it depicts is now obsolete and will never even have been seen by many younger users:
And emojis are effectively pictograms that can be used within conventional written language as both logograms standing for words and determinatives modifying words or specifying the general mood, just like in ancient Egyptian or Akkadian! 😀
There were, of course, already pictographic signs back in the 70s when graphic artist Ron Cobb designed the Alien pictographs, but the ubiquity of icons, emojis and other forms of pictograms was still well in the future, so this was a rather prescient aspect of the film’s visual design (perhaps ironically, given that in other areas the film deliberately avoided looking too futuristic in order give everything a lived-in, broken-down feel).
What’s nice about these pictograms is that they’re not purely illustrative, but do follow a well thought-out internal logic mirroring that of real-world signage. The different colours are significant to the meaning and allow the signs to be grouped and interpreted once the viewer is familiar with the system. According to the Wikipedia entry:
Red: Viable, Sound, Alive, Alertness
White/Grey: Life-supporting condition, pressure, temperature
Black: Vacuum, Death, Hazard
Yellow: Harmful, Active process, Molecular, Heat, Radioactive, Chemical
Blue: Lowered thermal condition
Green: Non-human organic substance
If you like, this logic is a proto-grammar or morphology of this system of notation. It’s not writing, but it’s in that blurry intersection where symbols are more than just illustrations, but an actual system.
This systematisation of pictograms is common and is one of the ways it can develop into writing proper. What starts out as simple pictograms can start to attach itself to language and transform into logographic writing, where a drawing represents not so much a thing as a word. A lot of early writing systems got started this way, with signs beginning life as drawings and gaining sound values later, usually in one of two ways: acrophony and the rebus principle.
Acrophony is where a sign comes to represent the first sound of the word it represents. So, for example, the origin of our letter B is an Egyptian pictographic logogram representing a house. When Semitic speakers were inspired to create their own writing system, this was one of the symbols they borrowed. In Semitic language the word for house begins with B, so that pictogram began to evolve into a consonantal sign with that sound value.
Rebus is where a pictogram can be used for words that sound similar to the word it originally represented, even if they have different meanings. So if I broke out the emojis and wrote:
you could probably decipher this as ‘I love you’ even though the first sign is actually ‘eye’ rather than ‘I’ and the last uses a simple letter that has the same English name as the word ‘you’. This allows logograms to stand for a wider range of words and sounds and helps limit sign repertoires. This happens in Akkadian cuneiform: the sign
can be read as mātu, meaning ‘land’ or šadû – ‘mountain’. These don’t sound at all alike in Akkadian, but a lot of Akkadian cuneiform signs get their sound values from Sumerian, where both words can be written ‘Kur’. In origin, the sign is a drawing of a set of mountains.
Pictograms aren’t just confined to early languages, of course. Many East Asian writing systems include logograms which remain to a greater or lesser degree pictographic even after millennia of evolution and conventionalisation.
So, if you’re going to see the new Alien movie, keep an eye out for Ron Cobb’s Standard Semiotic pictograms and their place between ancient tradition and modern multimedia communication.
~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS Project)