iConjisationI don’t mind it when you flip me the bird. I know I should be offended by it — chances are you’re telling me you don’t like me or you don’t like something I’ve done — but honestly, I’m a bit tickled by the gesture. I love linguistics, and the linguist in me appreciates the universality of the gesture. There aren’t many gestures that extend across borders and indicate the same thing to so many different people. There’s the smiling face, the laughing face, the thumb up/down, and a few others, but not many others that mean the same thing to all of us. Even a simple wave of the hands is done differently throughout different cultures.

Then you take emoticons, those smiley faces and other symbols we type out on Twitter and other messaging applications. Though perhaps slightly more recognizable due to the interconnected nature of the Internet, even these symbols differ widely in their meanings. Here in the US, we type our emoticons in a way that is recognized by tilting your view 90 degrees counter-clockwise, while in Eastern countries emoticons are typically viewed head-on (that is, the symbols are not rotated).

Wouldn’t it be great if we had universal symbols — I mean truly worldwide, this-means-the-same-thing-to-me-as-it-does-to-you gestures that we could use in our communications? I don’t mean a few of them, either. I mean an entire system of symbols that mean the same thing to everyone, regardless of where you’re from or where you live. I’m talking about virtual telepathy.

Yeah, you know that would be great. Unfortunately, we’re a few years or centuries away from telepathy. But we do have the next-best thing, something called iConji, a set of graphic symbols that is being used by many to communicate across cultural divides in a potentially more efficient way than (I guess we can refer to them as traditional at this point) text messaging systems. Though iConji is currently a digital form of communication, it’s one that actually could be used in more widespread ways — such as in communicating billboard or t-shirt messages, political propaganda, or even (very) simple stories.

iConji uses a set of graphic symbols that, according to its developer, “transcends language barriers by using pictograms (pictures which have meaning) to convey simple messages or complete sentences“. Currently there are over 1200 iConji pictograms, and the system was developed so that users can create their own to share and have used by anyone else in the world. Developed by Kai Staats, known for his work on a PowerPC-based distro of Linux, iConji was originally implemented as a mobile app and is now used as a standalone Web application that can also be used from within Facebook. Depending on which flavor of iConji is used, users can have iConjisations (seriously, that’s what they’re called) on Facebook walls, through Twitter, via email, or in a messaging manner that is very similar to SMS (text messaging).

I’ve been looking for a new way to communicate, since my current methods often leave something to be desired. As I become more and more connected to people throughout the world, I often feel I’m missing out on potential relationships with people who I simply cannot understand due to the simple matter of a lack of sophisticated communication. I don’t have time to learn every language in the world I’d like to learn however, so iConji may be just the system for me. So I believe I’ll be spending some time learning at least enough of this new language to be able to communicate with a few more people. Who knows? Maybe I’ll become an iConji Guru.

One thing I have to mention, however. I lied a bit about not minding the bird. Though I do appreciate its universal meaning, I have to admit that I’d be more than a bit perturbed if a stranger sent me that particular message on the street. So if you find me at a cafe, enjoying a cup of my favorite coffee, be sure to whisper “iConji” while you’re flipping your digit so that I’ll know you’re being friendly. Then, if you’re up to it, let me know your Twitter or Facebook ID so that we can start a more meaningful iConjisation.

Come to think of it, coffee sounds good right about now. (See if you can figure out the iConjisation that’s in the image accompanying this article. Post your guess in the comments below.)