global English

Something to say

© GOODSHOOTI’ve been thinking about other types of language lately, not just those from other parts of the world, but completely different systems of communication; things like semaphore, morse code and sign language.

I’ve been fascinated by this sort of thing ever since my first introduction to those pictograph puzzles when I was about seven or eight (you know, where each word is represented by a letter, so I becomes the picture of an eyeball and so on). It was like a secret code, delicious and exciting in its mystery.  My interest was piqued again when I learned about hieroglyphics and the tale of Jean François Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone that has allowed historians to ‘read’ these strange symbols. More recently, I’ve learned a smattering of sign language, and I’d love to do more.

I think what I find so fascinating is humankind’s obvious and compelling need to communicate. Whatever the obstacle, we find a way to make ourselves understood: morse code allows us to communicate across great distances, semaphore and nautical flags across shorter ones. We can use sign language to speak without words, and morse code (again – this time with light rather than sound) to break up the dark. Communicating opens up our world – think of the story of Helen Keller, trapped alone in darkness and silence until a way was found to adapt sign language so that she could feel it on her skin.

Even in these other forms of language, there are regional differences – American Sign Language isn’t the same as British Sign Language, for example – though some by their very nature have to be universal. The … – – – … for SOS in morse code is understood worldwide, though interestingly, in medical contexts, whilst English-speaking countries use SOS in written form, elsewhere the recognised symbol is of a snake entwined around a staff (representing the Asklepian or Rod of Asclepius, one of the Greek Gods). In the UK, bracelets and other jewellery carrying important medical information feature both the SOS and the Asklepian.

One use of semaphore that many of us will be familiar with, but which is sadly misleading, is the famous cover of The Beatles’ album Help!. We tend to think the four figures are spelling out ‘HELP’ – and indeed that was the original idea – but when it came to it, the shapes created by ‘help’ just didn’t look right. The cover actually says ‘NUJV’. Whatever that may mean …

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Sharon Creese

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