Scripts and Sounds

The goals of a universal language are fairly simple to understand; for the sake of safety and social cohesion, it would often be helpful for people of diverse linguistic backgrounds to be able to understand one another. Attempts at achieving universal comprehension can be seen in international auxiliary languages, such as Esperanto and Interlingue (which are admittedly firmly rooted in the phonology and grammar of Western European languages), and the ideograms and pictograms most commonly seen scattered around areas frequented by tourists. While international auxiliary languages and picture-based communications work by drawing upon widely shared aspects of languages and cultures, the attempts made at creating universal languages within the sphere of the arts have been founded in the desire to communicate without the constraints of pre-existing natural languages.

Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh are credited with having invented the artistic language of zaum in the early 1910's. The term "zaum" has been translated a number of ways, but perhaps most apt are those of "trans-sense" and "beyonsense,"1 as they best explain its manipulation of language. To varying degrees, zaum prioritised sound over meaning, from using synaesthesia-based morphemes to create new, phonetically-fit words, to constructing intimidating consonant clusters for the purpose of defamiliarizing words and forcing readers to confront their habit of placid reading. Asemic writing plays not with sound as zaum does, but with appearance. Its defining quality is its utter, and at times, deceptive, illegibility. This meaningless writing can first be traced back to the Tang Dynasty, but experienced a strong revival under the Avant-garde Dadaists and continues to have a dedicated following today. Asemic writing frequently, but not always, imitates a known writing script, inviting the viewers to read the seemingly familiar text, only to realise that not a single letter is decipherable. For both zaum and asemic writing, their inability to be read fluently by anyone allows one to consider them to be universal languages in the inverse of the traditional sense, in that they are illegible and untranslatable to all. The innate foreignness of these writings levels the audience, returning them to a time before they learned to parse meaning from scrawls on a page or discern language from sound.

1 Janecek, "Introduction: Definitions and Background," Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism, pp. 1

Zaum was a fiercely ambitious artistic language, made possible by the advancing work in linguistics and literature in the decades prior. The mid 19th century saw a focus on the physiological details of speech, which in turn gave way to the early 20th century's study of the emotional aspects of articulation. It is from this academic culture that zaum's prioritization of sound and performance seems to come from. Its creators, Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov, came together to create a "language" that was free from the familiarity of traditional poetic language. This familiarity, they argued, dulled the senses to what the text was attempting to express. Viktor Shklovsky, a contemporary literary theorist of theirs, explained this phenomenon by describing how "we find it hard to spot a misprint in a proof, particularly in a familiar language - because we cannot make ourselves see, read a familiar word instead of 'recognising' it."2 The remedy for this that Russian authors, artists, and literary critics came up with was to 'make strange' (ostranenie) the literature in question and force the viewer to prolong their experience with the text3. Kruchenykh put this idea to practice, criticising the word 'lily' (liliya in Russian), which had become "soiled" in its constant use. Instead, he re-christened the flower as "euy," so that "the original purity is re-established."4 However, Kruchenykh did not set out to simply provide a one-to-one translation of tired, Russian words to new zaum sounds. As a wing of the Futurists, zaum also sought language that was without "any referential or symbolic function with respect to the object."5 It is this attitude that brought about Kruchenykh's "Dyr bur shchyl," the most well-known work of zaum poetry:

Dyr bul shchyl
u beshchur
vy so bu
r l ez

The "words" in "Dyr bul shchyl" do not have any known referents, instead existing only to be stumbled over by the unfamiliar mouth. And yet, Kruchenykh boasted that this poem had "more Russian spirit than all of Pushkin."6

2 Shklovsky, "Resurrecting the Word," Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader pp. 64
3 Shklovsky, "Art as Device," Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader pp. 80
4 Kruchenykh, "Declaration of the Word as Such" Russian Futurism Through its Manifestos: 1912-1928
5 Ovadija, "Zaum: From a "Beyonsense" Language to an Idiom of Theatre," Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-garde and Postdramatic Theatre, pp. 98.
6 ibid, pp. 92

Kruchenykh's works are examples of phonetic zaum, as opposed to morphological or syntactic zaum, resulting in a kind of a priori language that requires total invention of words. This "language from nothing" evokes the philosophical constructed languages of the 17th and 18th centuries7, which, in their pursuit to be logical above all else, did not build their foundations upon any pre-existing natural languages (human phonological constraints and familiar syntax aside). Kruchenykh's zaum undertook no logical endeavours, but, like these philosophical languages, did disregard pre-existing morphological bases for its words. This total language invention puts its creator in a position reminiscent of what those the early humans found themselves in as the very first languages developed. Although theories of language-emergence that are based in onomatopoeia are severely limited8, as they cannot explain the origins of words for more complex things or experiences, the pervasiveness of onomatopoeic and onomatopoeic-like words in modern languages, particularly those for animals9 and certain actions,10 suggest that they had their place in early languages too. The words that are closest, however, to onomatopoeic words are those that are "without concept and content and serve to express pure emotion,"11 but, when looking through the lens of sound symbolism, not even emotion is independent from articulation.

7 See Cave Beck's The Universal Character and John Wilkin's An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language. Later examples of a priori languages include Edward Powell Foster's Ro language and Kenneth Searight's Sona language.
8 Max Müller's (sarcastically named) bow-wow and yo-he-ho theories (among others).
9 Richard Rhodes points to English's "chickadee" and "whippoorwill" and Chiapas Zoque's "Pichu" (robin) and "pijiji" (sparrow) among others as examples in his essay, "Aural Images"
10 Such as "squelch," "plop," and "tap."
11 Shklovsky, Janecek, and Mayer, "On Poetry and Transense Language," pp. 9

Synaesthetic sound symbolism is the idea of certain sounds being present in words that semi-consistently represent properties of objects, such as "palatal consonants and high vowels12 [being] frequently used for diminutive forms and other words representing small objects."13 14 Zaum's co-creator, Khlebnikov, enthusiastically embraced synaesthetic sound symbolism where Kruchenykh only experienced it as a side effect of word-creation. Going beyond synaesthetic sound symbolism, Khlebnikov also employed "conventional sound symbolism" in his works of zaum, which is defined by "certain phonemes and clusters [being] associated with certain meanings,"15 but to a more language specific degree than synaesthetic sound symbolism. By looking at words that represented objects, experiences, or actions with somewhat similar properties, Khlebnikov argued that one could break down the phonemes of the word to find its meaning. He explains this process in his work, "Our Fundamentals:"

"If we take any given word, say chashka [cup], we have no way of knowing what each separate sound means in terms of the whole word. But if we take every word that begins with the sound ch-chasha, cherep, chan, chulok, etc. [cup, skull, vat, stocking]-then the common meaning that all these words share will also be the meaning of ch, and the remaining letters in each word will cancel each other out. If we compare these words beginning with ch, we see that they all mean "one body that encases or envelopes another"; ch therefore means case or envelope. Thus does beyonsense language enter the realm of sense."16

Khlebnikov goes as far as to say that such morphological stems can even be inflected for cases, resulting in new words. For example, Khlebnikov proposes the stem "bo," which in its accusative case (according to Khlebnikov), is used in the word "bobr" (beaver), designating an animal that is acted upon by its predators ("action towards"). In the genitive case, "bo" produces "babr" (tiger)17: a beast that acts upon others ("action whence")18. A near-comprehensive list of sounds and their meanings can be found in Khlebnikov's essay, "The Warrior of the Kingdom." While he rarely put this philosophy to practice in his poems, he wrote extensively about the historical precedent of conventional sound symbolism and how, in his view, it so deeply pervades the Russian language. Khlebnikov's writings posit that words newly created or modified within this schema of sound symbolism would be instantly understandable and, in a way, familiar, to the audience as it taps into the unwritten rules of their language and resembles the linguistic innovation of their forefathers.

12 Such as /i/, as in English's "teeny tiny," "doggy," "kitty," "eensy weensy," and "wee"
13 Hinton, Nichols, and Ohola, "Introduction: sound-symbolic processes," Sound Symbolism, pp. 4
14 As someone with a linguistics degree, I would combust (if a professor didn't kill me first) if I didn't mention how weak this argument is, especially if applied cross-linguistically. While there are certainly patterns within individual languages, within language families, and even, to some degree, spread across geographic areas that have multiple language families, the idea of universal sound symbolism is simply false. It is fun to consider from a literary-theory point of view, but no self-respecting linguist born in the last century would tout this as reputable idea.
15 Fimi, "Language as Communication vs. Language as Art: J.R.R. Tolkien and early 20th-century radical linguistic Experimentation," pp. 6
16 Khlebnikov, "Our Fundamentals," 383-384
17 The modern word for tiger is "tigr" but "babr" is an old Russian word for the heraldic tiger as well as other big cats in general.
18 Khlebnikov, "Teacher and Student: A Conversation (on Words, Cities, and Nations)," Volume 1 Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov, vol. 1: Letters and Theoretical Writings, pp. 277

Little is mentioned about the transferability of this sound poetry into other languages. While Kruchenykh's zaum should be sufficiently foreign and jarring to Russians and non-Russians alike, Khlebnikov simply extends the rules of Russian in an attempt to tap into the word-formation process undertaken by early Slavic speakers, while also creating a language of the future by creating words that more thoroughly expand upon the language concerning feelings and phenomena and could possibly gain pan-Slavic recognition due to the linguistic foundation they are built upon.

Asemic writing, unlike zaum, has no interest in sound. It does not aim to shock the audience by presenting a cacophony of consonants or a nonsensical string of vowels, nor does it try to present the secret rules of language hidden within each letter. Any attempt to pronounce asemic writing will leave one unsure how to even begin. There is no one way for writing to be asemic. It can look like like a scrawl that is too messy to decipher, or it can appear to be a familiar, but foreign, language. Alternatively, it can at first glance look like your mother tongue, and only upon closer investigation be found to be impossible to read 19. Asemic writing can also be more abstract, capable of resembling the most pared down idea of written language, or perhaps a complex alien script. The strength of asemic writing is that "any writing, legible or not, carries with it the expectation that it is intended to be read," and this, in turn, "act[s] as a lure, prolonging an initial attention to the point that it becomes a fascinated desire to elucidate a cryptic text."20 This expectation of legibility that binds literate peoples and societies is what unites the viewers into a common feeling of desperation, trying to parse any single letter or character from the page in front of them. There is also an optimism that perhaps with more time and effort, something could be deciphered, but there is no clue as to what that ever-distant "something" could even be.

19 See Xu Bing's Book from the Sky
20 Peter Schwenger, "Reading Asemic," Asemic The Art of Writing, pp. 137.

The asemic script within Mirtha Dermisache's Diario No. 1, Año 1 conforms to the standard style of a newspaper, with bold titles and narrow columns . The format invites the viewer to attempt to read the stories presumed to be recorded within the texts, teasing them with eight pages of looped, inky scrawl that changes style with every page. The newspaper page template allows one to make some assumptions about the tone and content of the illegible writing, but any further details are impossible to know. In this way, Diario No. 1, Año 11 is similar to Khlebnikov's zaum, where there are traces of a known element which carries some degree of semantic meaning, but is otherwise unfamiliar and requires one to either make unfounded assumptions, or be comfortable with the unknowable. In wholly alien looking scripts, such as the asemic writing within Michael Jacobson's work of The Giant's Fence or Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus, one can become nearly convinced that there is an underlying order or reason to the winding glyphs, that surely, there is logic to what we are seeing. The pattern-seeking brain, so accustomed to putting meaning to markings, is brought back to memories of pre-literate childhood where one opens a book and creates a story to go along with it, making meaning from dots and crosses rather than from the i's and t's.

The calligraphic asemic writing of artists such as Christian Dotremont21 can appear to be impossible to tease apart, with no identifiable pseudo-phonemes, let alone morphemes. This hyper-abstract language resembles no known order or style, much like Kruchenykh's jumbled sounds. The scrawl is likely to appear equally foreign to each viewer, not resembling their own writing, nor any other they know of. It's unlikely that anyone would mistake it for a true mode of communication; there is too little or too much uniformity in the "characters," it is unclear in which order the script is to be read, and the pseudo characters are often designed with inconsistent complexity or unrealistic simplicity. And yet, a mood or theme can still sometimes be pulled from the ink. Lines sharp or swooping, thin or thick, tight or sprawling, may faintly echo their creator's subconscious visual encyclopedia of the world.

21 Dotremont, like many asemic artists of the past and present have been guilty of at times relying on orientalism to create a "alien" feeling script. Referencing an existing script has its uses, both in terms of personal inspiration, and for inviting the audience to view something familiar looking yet still foreign in feeling, but when the goal is to create something that is supposed to be utterly unfamiliar, uniquely interesting, and un-analysable, and you consistently rely on Chinese and Arabic/Islamic calligraphy for the purpose of "making strange," you only show how you view such scripts as universally unrelatable (or that you have a very narrow view of who you believe will see your work).

Neither zaum nor asemic writing can be, nor were they intended to be, translated. Zaum, teetering between Khlebnikov's idioglossic logic and Kruchenykh's pre-linguistic instincts, circles the drain of familiarity and alienness. Asemic writing challenges the mind to read the unwritten, to force sense where there is none. Together, they betray the visual and aural senses, leading the audience to question their relationship with natural language as well. While proponents of zaum did claim that their poetry was comprehensible, only simple ideas and feelings could be made intelligible by anyone besides the author. As offshoots of experimental and artistic languages, their primary goal is to play with the relationship between language, thought, and aesthetic value. By being cross-linguistically enigmatic, zaum and asemic writing unite their audiences by forcing them to put aside the known rules and constraints of their own language and instead consult their pre-linguistic intuition22 to glean meaning from the works they view.

22 Although writing is an invention and not a natural consequence of language, those who are raised in a writing-centric society can feel that it is nearly impossible to seperate the two


Dermisache, Mirtha, Diario No. 1, Año 1, 1972, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos

Aires, Buenos Aires. Link

Fimi, Dimitra, "Language as Communication vs. Language as Art: J.R.R. Tolkien and early 20th-

century radical linguistic experimentation," Journal of Tolkien Research, vol. 5, iss. 1, pp.

1-28. Link

Hinton, Leanne, Johanna Nichols, and John Ohola, "Introduction: Sound-symbolic processes,"

Sound Symbolism, Edited by Leanne Hinton, Johanna Nichols, and John Ohola,

Cambridge UP, 1995, pp. 1-12.

Jacobson, Michael, The Giant's Fence, 2012. Link

Janecek, Gerald. "Introduction: Definitions and Background," Zaum: The Transrational Poetry

of Russian Futurism, San Diego State UP, 1996, pp. 1-48.

Ovadija, Mladen, "Zaum. From a "Beyonsense" Language to an Idiom of Theatre," Dramaturgy

of Sound in the Avant-garde and Postdramatic Theatre, McGill-Queen's UP, 2013, pp.


Rhodes, Richard, "Aural Images," Sound Symbolism, Edited by Leanne Hinton, Johanna

Nichols, and John Ohola, Cambridge UP, 1995, pp 276-292.

Russian Futurism Through its Manifestos: 1912-1928, edited and translated by Anna Lawton and

Herbert Eagle, Cornell UP, 1988.

Shklovsky, Viktor, Gerald Janecek, and Peter Mayer, "On Poetry and Transense Language,"

October, vol. 34, The MIT Press, 1985. Link

Schwenger, Peter, "Reading Asemic," Asemic: The Art of Writing, University of Minnesota

Press, 2019, pp. 137-150.

Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, edited and translated by Alexandra Berlina, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Volume 1 Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov, vol. 1: Letters and Theoretical Writings, edited

by Charlotte Douglas, translated by Paul Schmidt, Harvard UP, 1987.

Wilke, Tobias, Sound Writing: Experimental Modernism and the Poetics of Articulation, University

of Chicago Press, 2022.

sources with out links require institutional access or... other means... to read

Further Reading

Cavanagh, Clare. "Pseudo-Revolution in Poetic Language: Julia Kristeva and the Russian Avant-

Garde," Slavic Review, vol. 52, no. 2, 1993, pp. 283-97. Link

Drucker, Johanna, "1916-1920: Futurist Poetics," Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist, John

Hopkin's UP, 2020, pp. 55-89

Fenstermaker, Will. "Mirtha Dermisache and the Limits of Language." The Paris Review, 31 Jan.

2018, Link

Gasparov, Boris. "Futurism and Phonology: The Futurist Roots of Jakobson’s Approach to

Language."Ulbandus Review, vol. 16, 2014, pp. 84-112. Link

Gaze, Tim, and Michael Jacobson, "An Anthology of Asemic Handwriting," An

Anthology of Asemic Handwriting, Punctum Books, 2013, pp. 11-212. Link

Houston, Stephen. "Writing That Isn't: Pseudo-Scripts in Comparative View." L'Homme,

no. 227/228, 2018, pp. 21-48. Link

Poggioli, Renato. "Russian Futurism, Xlebnikov, Esenin." The Slavic and East European

Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, 1958, pp. 3-21. Link

Westeijn, Willem G., "Another World: The Linguist Experiments of Velimir Khlebnikov,"

Alterities in Language, vol. 38, No. 4, 1998, John Hopkins UP, pp. 27-37. Link

sources with out links require institutional access or... other means... to read