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The Elephant's Memory

The Elephant's Memory

In Search of a Pictorial Language


By Timothee Ingen-Housz, Academy of Media Arts, Köln


Click thumbnails for expanded view. “The Elephant’s Memory”
(Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).


The Elephant’s Memory is a pictorial language consisting of more than a hundred combinable elements (called logograms or signs). The goal of this language is to set up an experimental research environment (the language kitchen), gathering a community of users to explore the field of invented languages and the questions orbiting around their form, structure, and development process. The language kitchens are meant to be educational environments primarily oriented towards children and teenagers, where both students and educators gather to search for new ways to envision communication. The project introduces experimental semiotics and visual grammars as mindscapes to be explored in playful ways, a new dimension where language, communication, and education can be reflected on the thinking patterns structuring our daily experience of the world.

In this article I will present some features of the logographic language I have spent two years developing. My aim here is not to write a tutorial on this language, but to provide a sufficient amount of information for readers to grasp the underlying philosophy of the project and make people aware of the environmental dimension of language, and lift up semantic research to the level of an ecology.

You might be wondering why I call this new language “The Elephant’s Memory.” The reason is that I hoped the logograms of the language, and the way in which you use them, would be unforgettable to all who had seen them, just like an elephant never forgets. In fact, in French (my native language), there is a popular saying, mémoire d’eléphant, which means the ability to remember everything.

As a child I wondered how I would feel if my name was not “Timothy”, but “Jeremy”; if a table was not a “table”, and a car not a “car”? Would my home suddenly turn into an alien world because of these new names for familiar things? Language design expands these questions to the entire universe, and takes everyone back to the time when man gave names to the animals. Why call a camel a “camel” and a parrot a “parrot”? How can one picture the world in words or images?

Every sign and symbol of The Elephant’s Memory reflects this philosophical interrogation and asks the questions of representation and interpretation in the fractal dimensions of a logographic cosmology mirroring the human need to find a semantic structure in the chaos of experience.

If I choose to picture the action “walking” with the sign inline1, does it mean that elephants cannot walk, or does it mean that elephants are men? The choice to represent states and actions commonly performed by animals and men in anthropomorphic ways is certainly questionable. What about the delicate matters of gender, age, and race? The standard figures of The Elephant’s Memory are anonymous characters with no sex, no age, and no explicit cultural origin. They show a creature performing an action, and must be associated with other signs to convey more detailed information: who? how? when? where (to...)? The issues get tricky when we approach abstract concepts and try to couple them with recognizable things. If I decide to represent a box with inline2, does it make sense to represent “to have” with inline3?

This is an introduction to the concept of metaphor in language design, and by extension, a reflection on the questions of “interface” in general. Since language is the interface to experience, and experience is the water we are swimming in, it might be worth taking a breath and diving in to search for the secret paths leading to the world and to ourselves. The Elephant’s Memory is a living discussion about the common codes chosen and built by people to deal with the universe, to deal with their machines, and to deal with themselves.

In the first part of this article, I will describe some aspects of the language “The Elephant’s Memory”, and give various examples of use, without examining or questioning many of the small design decisions that I made in this language. I will then approach the research topics linked to the development of these features to introduce the educational philosophy of the project. In the final section of this article, I will describe the next steps of the project, and my dream of a logographic software enabling people to speak in a visual tongue.

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