Saturday, January 1, 2011

On Text

The Roman Alphabet is beautiful, especially as it appears today, in type, refined by sharp-eyed designers who make the shapes and their in-between spaces a form of art so common we all take it for granted. At least we take it for granted until we see type done wrong: when type is illegible or creates the wrong mood (crowded kerning, a real estate ad in Comic Sans). Then, an aesthetic sense we were previously unaware of bucks and barks and demands satisfaction.

There are other alphabets in the world that are arguably more lovely. Take for example the very flowers-in-bloom of writing, the Arabic alphabet with its dives and dips, or Sinhalese with its swoops and curls:




These scripts are comparable to Roman script, the pretty cursive handwriting you were taught (but probably failed to master) in the 2nd grade, but they probably outcompete it in prettiness, although de gustibus non disputatum, and all that. In every case, though, these are alphabets that work entirely in the abstract. In these systems, the word "house" does not pretend to look like a house, nor do the letters that make it up particularly intend to look like the sounds that build the word and therefore the meaning in our minds. It is a system of abstract symbols, and "A" only means the sound you just heard in your head when you read "A" because you've been taught that it does.

The Asian logographs, which do purport to look like the things they represent, are closer, to my eye, to the nicely organized, almost formal, almost architectural feel of the standard Roman alphabet. For example Japanese or Korean type:


...are both really well-proportioned and have lots of straight up-down strokes. If Sinhalese looks like a lithe dancer spinning across the page, Korean looks like a old man crouched and listening. And I feel that's closer to the Roman alphabet, although I see our type more as a group of people in straight-backed chairs lined up and waiting to get a job done -- perhaps they're all going through customs, or working their way through the DMV.

But logographs come from a completely different idea: that the characters show the thing. This is just one level of abstraction (the symbol represents the thing) rather than the two we use [the symbol represents the sound which (in conjunction with other symbols of sounds) represents the thing]. It's simpler in this one sense, but more complex in the sense that, coming upon a Chinese character you've never seen before, you can't sound it out. Today the sounds of characters are strung together to form words, but that idea at the heart of the system, that the written character is a depiction of the thing being communicated, defines the shapes.

We don't have that, but people (who see faces in clouds and smoke, the Moon and Mars) will see cartoons of life whether they are there or not. We see connections between the shapes and their meanings: who says an "h" doesn't look like a horse? Why isn't an "o" the shape of your mouth when you say "o"? We make these connections because we use the symbols and we live in the world. They're as convenient and meaningful as "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" (although since Pluto isn't a planet anymore, how bout: "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Naan"). 

It's not ALL random, however: there is something called the Bouba/Kiki effect: a psychologist shows you two shapes and asks you which is "Kiki" and which is "Bouba."


If you are like nearly all people in the world (even people who speak other languages, even toddlers who haven't yet learned "K" from "B"), you name the jagged star-like shape Kiki and the softer blob-like shape Bouba. This suggests that the odds were better than even that a shape like "K" with its sharp angles would end up representing the sound it does, and a shape like "B" the sound it does. (Notice the similarities between the two letters: a vertical line on the left with two protrusions on the right; really the only difference is whether the protrusions are sharp or round.)

So not only do we, through culture and experience, start making connections between the words and sounds we know and the shapes we know to represent them, but in a very abstract way (representing the feel of sounds rather than the appearance of things) they came from non-random sources, too. I say this to validate, perhaps even rationalize the beauty I see in letters, so well-worked and neatly proportioned, so balanced, so rhythmic in their movements across the page. 

When I was a child, I liked to sit through church with a Bible and a pen, and draw lines from the top of the page to the bottom, dodging every letter, letting my line flow through the open spaces between them. This is to compliment the Bible-makers: the white space on the page fell down like a waterfall, the letters were the pebbles and protrusions that disturbed the flow, created the separate streams of thought that crashed into thunderous mists of meaning. As it is for many people, those stories are a part of me. Reading them and drawing through them is a part of me. And the appearance of both the ink and the paper was a part of that experience [an experience which, though I am not religious, I still treasure (after all, I am passionate about fiction, and religion is the ultimate fiction)]. 

Some of my latest fictions use altered typography and unusual text layout. The design of the page is part of the design of the story. I'm straining the proportions of the letters to fit the feelings behind the ideas I'm trying to communicate, and I'm arranging those letters so that the white space around them becomes part of the story. This is what writing workshops call "a risk" in the sense that the story is doing something that a certain number of readers will reject outright, even though another set of readers may find it welcome and exciting. That's fantastic by me, though: the fringes have always been my favored workspace.

My intent is abstract as the letters I'm using. This short piece (an early experiment):

...does not attempt to look like a cat standing in rain; it tries to look like what it feels like when you stop in the middle of your day and through barriers like glass and distance and species and power notice some small detail about life and other creatures living it, and the connections between you and them and the wet cold world and your window and your warm house and your prissy housecats who have a fit if a single drop of water falls on their heads.

How do an assortment of abstract shapes (culturally-coded with certain sound-meanings and in sum to the functions of nouns and verbs and other parts of speech and then arranged into a syntax to give us an image and sounds and feels and other hard to quantify ideas) communicate that? I don't know. But my latest adventure is to figure that out, or at the very least better expose the machinery that makes it happen.




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