Say, What?

My latest book, Mr. Wuffles!, is a wordless book that is full of dialogue that can’t be read.

I have a brief history of the lengthy path this book to fruition on another part of this website.

My initial idea – called, Greetings – had a visually wonderful opening. The first few pages were great. Sadly, I couldn’t come up with anywhere for the story to go after that and certainly nothing as visually good. I tried mightily for some time, but no story emerged.

Some interesting ideas did develop. I repeat this a lot, but it’s the essence of my process – draw out everything you think of. Put it on paper so you can see it, because those drawings, scribbles, doodles, can – will – lead you someplace.

Despite the knowledge that my story ideas for Greetings were not great, I drew out  complete versions – as thumbnails in my sketchbook and as full size dummies. The act of exploring even a so-so idea led me to come up with some pretty cool bits and pieces.

The most interesting idea that came out of these explorations was that the characters would speak in different languages – human, alien and bug languages. These characters could all have spoken English, but I loved the idea that each language would be visually different.

Here are some drawings from those early story attempts:

early language 1

A bug kept showing up in my drawings, so I left it in the story. Also, at one point I thought about having an interpreter:

early language 2

Years later, my story came together quite unexpectedly and the multiple languages were still a part of it. A big part. I now had a small amount of human language, a whole lot of alien language, a bunch of bug language, and a bit of cat language.

I did not want to have a glossary. What was being said could be inferred from the context of the pictures – action, facial expressions, body language. But, I did want what I did to feel like a language.

A digression. I understand the appeal of decoding a language. As a kid, I loved looking through the Time/Life books about art. My favorite was the volume about surrealism. What pictures! I was captivated by all that strange imagery.

I was particularly taken with Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture, The Large Glass:

Large Glass 1

All those cut out images sandwiched between the panes of glass mean something. Those items are a symbolic representation of a set of ideas Duchamp devised. Here is the glossary, if you will, that decodes the images:

large glass 2

I found this to be absolutely amazing. It was a visual secret language. Those things meant what they meant because Duchamp said so. So cool. (The Large Glass resides in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so I often go to look at it)

So, how do I create a language? The Large Glass was on my mind as I thought about this question. I didn’t want the alien language to have any connotations to any human language, so I decided to use geometric forms. I could have randomly combined them and let it go at that, but I wanted to see if I could bring a little more “structure” to it.

I contacted a linguist at Swarthmore College whom I had met recently (He is noted in the thanks on the copyright page of Mr. Wuffles!, if you are curious). Nathan had a lot of fascinating things to share about devising fake languages. He explained about the Cardan Grille as a device for embedding information in messages. I could also use this to construct repetition of forms in my text.

I drew up a collection of 30 or so symbols to define my language and then put them into a grid. I then made a template with three open windows. I placed it over the grid, writing down the symbols that appeared in the windows. I then turned the template 90° and wrote down the next set of symbols, and so on. This way characters will recur, but randomly:

alpa 1

This idea was good, but it worked best for a large block of text. My text was in small clusters in word balloons, so the repetition wasn’t noticeable. Nathan suggested that I could double up the characters, like in fractions, thereby increasing their number. This was a great solution, because it was a visual one. It gave me a lot more variety in the word balloons.

These are the symbols in my alien language:

alpha 2

Here is an early attempt at the word balloons, alien language, and text for the human speech:

first attempt 1

And I thought it would be easy. I guess I felt these balloons would have character if I did them kind of loose and casual. Ha. And my attempts at lettering were even worse.

Set type could solve the human speech, but I was going to have to do the alien stuff myself. I got out my straight edge, compass, ruling pen, and Pigma markers and got to work:

final text 1

final text 3

After drawing these, I then scanned them and cleaned them up digitally. Painful. Fortunately, I finally realized that if I made one clean version of the symbols and a few word balloons, I could combine them digitally, which was faster and easier.

The triangle became a sort of all-purpose exclamation. It shows up when the aliens are excited, scared, and shouting. Sometimes it has a modifier before it:

p6a hi

The alien in the green robe is the ship’s engineer (Think Scotty). I felt that this character’s speech would be very scientific and technical, so this dialogue is the most visually complex:

p11 text lo

One panel had all the characters sitting around talking. A sketch:

p19 1

A rough for the word balloons:

p19 2

Part of the balloon arrangement:

p19 3

And the final panel:

p19 4

By contrast, the bug language was very simple. Clusters of little scratch marks:

Bug text 1

After the book was printed, someone said to me, “Oh, I know where you got that bug language”:


I believe they were right. I wasn’t consciously thinking about Woodstock, but as a kid I loved how he ‘talked”. I’m sure I was channeling that memory and reinterpreting it for my bugs.

To further visually define the characters, in addition to the look of the language, the word balloons are a specific shape for each species: oval for the humans, rectangular for the aliens, cloud shaped for the bugs, and pointy for the cat:

balloon shapes


I was most interested to know if anyone would try and read the text and what that would sound like if they did. So far, I have had one report. A friend overheard his daughter reading to herself. She was going, “dink dink DINK dink-dink DINK DINK” and so on, modulating the pitch as she went.

Works for me.

This entry was posted by davidwiesner. Bookmark the permalink.