I went crazy at Swipe one day and bought The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning by that total bore Robert Bringhurst. I seem to be the only typographic intéressé(e) who doesn’t love that man to death, and every time I say so I undergo a fusillade of defamatory comments on pipsqueak blogs.

Anyway, this little pamphlet, complete with letterpress-printed cover, indicates a kind of arrested development in the august writer and translator, now pushing 60 years of age. I read every book on typography in the library growing up, and also many books on linguistics (actually more like philology) up to and through my time as a linguistics major, and I can say that a trope of those disciplines is the luxuriously-typeset table listing the letters and characters of a foreign language. The more foreign the better, though Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic are recurring favourites.

You see this in the seminal layperson’s work that pushed me over the edge and got me out of engineering and into linguistics, Language Made Plain by Anthony Burgess, and you see it all over the place in other books. It’s not as though the information isn’t useful – I spent a hundred bucks on The World’s Writing Systems, a book Bringhurst criticizes, so I could have handy access to such tables – but at some point it becomes a matter of convention more than anything else: Look at those foreigners’ crazy letters. (But really, is any letter – anywhere – truly stranger than a swash italic Q?) It’s rude to stare, and it’s childish to gawk at another language’s writing system that you have split up and put on display like ear-tagged hogs at auction.

Nine out of the 20 graphics in the Bringhurst pamphlet are these kinds of exotic type illustrations, which, were they photographs of black guys taken by Mapplethorpe, would immediately be decried as colonial, fetishistic, and objectifying. At this point I know what Chinese looks like, I know Arabic letters change shape, and I don’t need a whole list of hangul. I can Google that shit now, and I have a pretty good mental image already. In a book about type, it does nothing more than show off.

Nonetheless, Bringhurst makes some excellent points.

  • Non-readers seek out every wisp of pictorial residue in Chinese characters because learning to recognize the pictures is ever so much easier than learning to read the language. But fluent readers of Chinese do not see pictures of horses, trees, and mountains in their texts any more than fluent readers of English see pictures of I-beams, D-rings, T-squares, Vs of geese or S-shaped links of chain.

    This is the mistake that wiggers make when they go in for tattoos that, unbeknownst to them, will someday end up on Hanzi Smatter: They’re responding to pictures, not words. Maybe their girlfriends will do the same thing, but wait till they find somebody who can actually read it.

  • He’s got a nice discussion of how scripts, developed after the fact for some aboriginal languages, look like sticks and balls and are, even a century later, impossible to handwrite in cursive. People just give up and use computers. (Check your International pane in OS X Tiger System Preferences; perhaps unbeknownst to you, you’ve got Inuktitut and Cherokee built in.)

  • There’s a great illustration – also showing off, but I totally learned something new that day – of a 16th-century book using Latin, Fraktur, and Greek scripts in different fonts, all of which were deemed necessary to express the respective thoughts. (That’s why bilinguals sometimes switch to the other language for entire sentences. Some concepts are just intrinsically English, or whatever.)

  • And finally somebody gets around to writing about the carriage-return character (yes, a real character – in fact, two ⏎) and how it is sometimes actually meaningful. You’d think this would be obvious, but it isn’t, especially during one’s laborious attempts to communicate with second-rate subtitlers and captioners.

    The ubiquitous yet invisible symbol known nowadays as the hard return is an alphaprosodic symbol in metered verse but semiprosodic in grocery lists, computer scripts, some unmetered verse, and, usually, in literary prose.

    Alphaprosodic means it represents the prosody of speech; semiprosodic means it represents the prosody of meaning. So a carriage return in a poem means “stop talking for a moment,” while in a grocery list it means “new item.” And here we had a lot of people thinking it only meant “send what I just wrote in my chat program.”

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.05.09 15:56. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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