Advanced Grammar

The Thing Pictured

A visual language is based on tangible, visible things. We use tools like a knife and fork to indicate eating, a hammer to indicate work, scales to indicate law. It would seem obvious to start by declaring that every glyph standing by itself is a thing and should be read as a noun.

helm scissors boat eye love thought bad odor death drink

To use the glyph as a verb, we would have to add grammatical glyphs specific to a verb.

I steer I cut I sail you see you love she thinks you stink he dies to drink

To a large extent, it's purely idiomatic as to how each verb relates to its corresponding noun. It's a matter of first impression. He did something that looks like a sailboat; he sailed. He did something scissor-related; he cut.

We might, however, be able to apply some loose rules. Verbs associated with tangible nouns -- objects that can be touched, handled and manipulated -- can often be understood as using the object -- I use scissors; I use a sailboat. On the other hand, verbs associated with intangible nouns are almost the opposite. You don't really use death or love. If anything, they use you; however, it's probably more accurate to say that they affect you. Thus, he is beset by death; he is beset by thought.

(It's not entirely unprecedented to have no clear distinction between nouns and verbs other than usage. In English, there are a ton of words that double as both nouns and verbs -- attack, call, doubt, escape, fear, fill, light, love, praise, promise, push, smell, work and taste to name a few, plus the more controversial and trendy impact and access -- as opposed to non-nounverbs, such as open, sit or recline, where the noun and verbs describing the action take different forms. Also, nounverbs would not include words like plant, set, ship or fly, where there is a noun that sounds the same, but it's something entirely different, and not the action described by the verb.)

Of course, not every picture of a thing indicates the actual thing pictured, so we'll need some way to differentiate the metaphor from the actual object. I've been using the perpendicular symbol in this context to mean straight, square, that is, real.

light bulb
paper clip

On the other hand, there will be times that the glyph will mean exactly what it shows, and we'll need to add an indicator when it should be read as a metaphor or a generic. I've been using double circles because (1) it can be seen as wheels, and metaphor is from the Greek for vehicle, and (2) it's the infinity symbol and infinitus is Latin for not limited.

spinning wheel

I suppose a logical language would have a rule declaring that any picture of a thing indicates the actual thing (scales = scales, not scales = justice), and then we would add a little marker that makes it metaphorical if necessary; however, my primary rule in this language is that logic always takes a back seat to prior usage. When you see scales on a corporate web site, your first thought is "lawyers", not "they weigh things".

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Last updated October 2004

Copyright © 2004 Matthew White