Human Sequel

Aug 1, 2012

sitelen sitelen: acknowledgments and etymology

Language is the Legacy of Humanity

When trying to determine just what it is that makes humanity unique, the topic of language never fails to come up. It is the bond that holds societies together, the skill that allows us to share ideas; it is even the code on which our technologies run. When looking to understand the past, language is the remainder that brings the most reward, for nothing can bring the past back to life as vividly as language.


Although spoken language is in our nature, it is written language that acts as its best preservative. I have always been particularly drawn to written languages where visual symbols represent morphemes, or concrete units of meaning.

I had long wanted to work out a system of drawing that lent itself to language, where composition was determined not by visual principals, but by literary content. The problem that I ran into was always the immense amount of work that would be required in translating an entire language into visual components.

toki pona

The solution to this problem came through toki pona, a language invented by Sonja Lang. As she describes it, “Toki Pona is a simple language designed to express the most, using the least. The entire language has only 123 words and 14 sounds. The grammar, although different from English, is very regular and easy to learn.”

toki pona offered me the opportunity to work out a language based drawing for several reasons:

  1. Because toki pona has a very limited vocabulary, creating a glyph for each word was now possible. This allowed me to concentrate on unique ways to work on the grammar of the drawing.

  2. toki pona is also a language that is quick to learn (although tricky to master), so with a week or two of practice, anyone with the interest can also learn to write and speak in toki pona.

  3. There is already an international community of people who understand toki pona, and the syntax and grammar that these drawings follow.

Non-linear writing

In designing a visual writing system, it was important that the structure that held the individual glyphs together was not simply a linear string of drawings. For instance, while the individual glyphs in Egyptian hieroglyphics are interesting, the over-all composition is very similar to our modern linear alphabetic systems. One exception is the cartouche, where a royal name was encapsulated inside of a glyph.

sitelen sitelen, which ambiguously translates as “drawn writing” or “written drawing” incorporates the cartouche, as well as many other non-linear principals from real-world logographic systems, such as Mayan, Chinese, and Micmac. It then pushes these principals further, until each sentence or paragraph can stand on its own as a discreet composed drawing. Want to see just how this works? Take a look at the lessons!