It can take years for a person to learn a language to a high enough standard that they can go on to train as a translator or interpreter. So, it’s hardly surprising that many people are content just to learn enough to help them get around whatever country they are visiting for their next holiday.

However, it’s unlikely that they will even need to speak it if they’re after basic and essential information, such as where the lavatory is, how far away they are from the nearest hotel or where they can find a petrol station. That’s because facilities like this are frequently highlighted with picture signs – or pictographs.

If you’re on holiday in Sardinia and desperate to visit the loo, you don’t have to worry about phrasing your question correctly in Italian or muddling up some Italian words with Sardinian ones. Instead, simply look for the nearest signs to feature a silhouette of a man or a woman.

Of course, as the Telegraph points out, the use of pictographs is nothing new. The earliest writing systems were formed of simplified drawings of different items, which eventually led to Egyptian Hieroglyphics. However, this form of writing was neither fast nor efficient and so it evolved into symbols based on phonetics.

Yet while pictographs might not be fast to create, they are arguably the most effective system of communication if you want to knock down language barriers. In fact, the newspaper reports that there are linguists who believe this type of writing will form the basis of the future of language.

Ever-changing language

Perhaps written language will need to evolve sooner than previously thought, as more people move overseas, or use digital communication to chat to people of a different mother tongue. Already at certain fast food restaurants, the tills feature pictures of each meal for the cashier to select when they are putting an order through, rather than words.

Anyone arriving at an airport or train station who is able to use pictographs in order to find where the next leg of their journey departs from will certainly appreciate the use of these images. It saves them the time of tracking down someone working there and asking for assistance. However, it may not be long before this form of signage spreads out of the transport hubs and through the major tourist attractions and cities as well.

This all sounds like good news, but as Telegraph writer Anne Merritt asks; could a reliance on pictographs eradicate people’s need and desire to learn a foreign language? No, because while pictographs are certainly effective at communicating simple information, they are not a replacement for human conversation, whether spoken or written.

Indeed, language professionals will always be in demand, by global corporations, the tourist industry and in international politics. Specialists who can communicate in more than one language will always find work, particularly in a world that is being made ever-smaller by digital communication. “[Pictographs] may simplify the use of automated machines like cashpoints and parking metres. When it comes to communicating with other people though, for work or pleasure, it can’t replace the old fashioned skill of knowing a foreign language,” Ms Merritt notes.

The future of language

However, that doesn’t mean linguists are going to stop attempting to come up with the key to truly universal language. Late last year, it was announced that a new initiative had been launched to create a single, simple phonetic alphabet that could be used all over the world. The Spell As You Pronounce Universal Project, or SaypU, was unveiled by Logos Capital on Human Rights Day with the hope of ultimately promoting world peace.

According to those behind the initiative, inconsistencies in the way words are pronounced and spelt in different languages make learning to read and write difficult. By compiling a list of all the words in every spoken language, a simplified alphabet could be created.

“We hope that this will lead to a better understanding and an increased efficiency in communication between people who speak different languages and who come from different cultures. This might help making the world a more peaceful and harmonious place,” the organisers explain. To achieve their goal, they are asking volunteers to add, correct and vote on the proposed spellings of each word in the database. Among the spellings suggested are ‘buut’ for ‘boot’, ‘kat’ for ‘cat’ and ‘rileyshn’ for ‘relation’.

A new letter has also been added. Looking like a reversed ‘e’, the symbol represents the neutral vowel sound ‘shwa’. It is used to represent an ‘a’ sound, such as in ‘sofa’ or ‘allowed’, or a hard ‘u’ sound, such as in ‘circus’ or ‘run’.

Language is always evolving and it appears the next big aim is to create something that people can use all over the world, no matter what their mother tongue is. Whether it’s a universal alphabet, a series of pictographs or something else entirely remains to be seen.