Humans have remarkable ability that is shared by – as far as we know – no other animal. We can turn abstract images and symbols into meaning. Words are, of course, the prime example, as old as our history. We can turn a word like dog, tree, table or vacation into a broad and deep understanding of what that word means to us.
Of course when I write “dog” and you read it, they’re not the same thing. I need to add qualifiers – adjectives, descriptions, anecdotes – for you to come close to appreciating my meaning. Even then, it’s still based on your and my individual emotional experiences. And they’re likely not aligned or similar. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop writers from discussing dogs, from describing dogs.
But like molecules are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles yet, and those made up of quarks, sentences are made of words, words are made of letters, and letters are made strokes. The jot and tittle of Biblical phrase.
The amazing thing with the human brain is that we can take a collection of slashes, lines, strokes and dots and transform it into a letter and thus into a word. We take the abstract and solidify it.
Dissect an ‘A’ and what do you have? Two angled and one horizontal line. In lowercase – ‘a’ – we see two curves, one cupped against the other.
But in the human brain that’s a letter; a vowel, an indefinite article. It’s a crucial component in writing and speech, one of five (and sometimes six) sounds that connect the vertebra of consonants. Tens of thousands of words depend on those simple lines. We could not do without the letter A. it is part of the genetic makeup of language. Yet by itself it’s just some lines on a page.
The letter “A,” we told, comes from the Phoenician aleph: a stylized bull’s head, rotated with use (see here). Today we’re using symbols created 3,000 years ago (although our Western alphabet - Latin - is really a creation of the Romans, dating back more than 2,700 years, although in today’s form and content about 2,100 years old. Consider the heritage in that, every time you type a Facebook post, an email or write a letter: the history of writing is ancient.
The alphabet is a remarkable invention. It turned human vocal sounds into abstract symbols, it codified the world into abstract symbols. Humans assembled a series of strokes, lines and curves to define language. And we did it a long time ago – in Egypt in the 27th century BCE by most accounts. More than 4,700 years ago. Others identify it with Sumerian culture, somewhat earlier. Either way, it’s pretty impressive and probably the most important human invention. Clive Thomson writes in his book, Smarter Than You Think,
Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.
(I don’t agree entirely with Thompson’s assessment that writing is on the same technological level as, say, an iPad or the internet, nor that technology makes us smarter; in fact I argue the opposite in that technology makes it simpler to do things, so we work less at them. But I sigress and will save that argument for another post.)
But letters are not rocks: they are not fixed in the firmament. They change, they evolve like living things.
The design of those letters has been debated and developed since the first words were scratched into rock. But it really became an art when the printing press was invented, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg. And ever since his invention, people have been debating what makes a good, readable, legible and aesthetically pleasing typeface. Sometimes with great emotion.
Robert Bringhurst, in his book The Elements of Typographic Style, made a comment typical of the passion that type raises in its aficionados, designers and critics:
In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles.
Type and typography creates in some people the fiery emotions we see in other arts.*