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For thousands of years, since the age of classical Greek philosophy, we have upheld the idea that writing is simply the transcription of speech. This theme was discussed by Lussu on several occasions see his book La lettera oa In this article was published by Typography papers in an English translation.

We are grateful to Hyphen Press for allowing us to publish this text online.

From Typography papers no. English translation by Karen Le Marquand.

The colour of thoughts. The issues for this discussion were summarized well in the two quatrains chosen by Pierre-Simon Fournier le jeune in for the opening of his Manuel typographiquereproduced here from the excellent edition of James Mosley. It is taken from a translation in rhyming couplets of the great Latin poem about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Pharsalia, by Lucan, the nephew of the philosopher Seneca.

Phoenices primi, famae si creditur, ausi mansuram rudibus vocem signare figuris. The Phoenicians were the first, if the story be believed, to dare represent the voice with rudimentary signs. Before Egypt had learned to fasten together the reeds of her river, and when only the figures of birds, beasts, and other animals, carved in stone, preserved the utterances of her wise men.

Writing is, above all, the representation of the spoken word; 2. The alphabetical system is the most perfect. Over the course of two and a half thousand years, not much has changed of this ideology.

Let us now quickly review these three assumptions. Is writing the representation of the spoken word? This belief can be traced back to Aristotle, who expressed himself very clearly on the subject:. Words spoken are symbols or signs of affections or impression of the soul; written words are the signs of words spoken De interpretatione, 16a, 3—4.

By the beginning of the s, Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the great founders of modern linguistics, does not express himself very differently:. Language and writing constitute two distinct systems of signs: For Leonard Bloomfield, father of the American linguistic tradition, things are not much different:.

Writing is not language, but merely a way of recording language by means of visible marks Language, These beliefs can be summarised with a simple diagram [3]: A one-to-one association is claimed between sounds and letters, which are then laid out in a sequential line, simulating the linear flow of speech.

But those who are concerned with the form of letters are quite conscious of the fragility of this connection. The English language, with its twelve vowels for only five letters and with its infinite spelling exceptions, already poses a number of problems: Each of the other languages transcribed from the Latin alphabet, with its own diacritic marks and variations on pronunciation, has its peculiarities and more than a few flourishes.

Lussu file #4: The form of language – CAST

Non-Latin alphabets also have innumerable idiosyncrasies: In the Korean alphabet, which is actually considered particularly efficient, letters are set out to visibly form syllables, without corresponding in any way to the sequence of sounds [5]. In fact these are all conventions that have very little to do with spoken language; they have evolved independently and are part of a different, graphical, history.

Are upper and lower case letters pronounced in different ways? What of italics, or small capitals? And indentations, different type sizes, tabulations, the blank spaces on a page, to what do they correspond?

Is it not true that Garamond and Futura, in certain circumstances, are different forms bearing different messages?

The British anthropologist Jack Goody, in The domestication of the savage mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridgefinally introduced a more correct model, which was revolutionary for its very simplicity [6]: The new technology offers a form of communication which explodes the myth of writing as an ancillary recording system subservient to speech.

It both vindicates the view of writing as a mode of communication sui generis and opens up a future in which writing is the essential, systematically creative process and speech merely oral commentary on what writing has created. In the past few years, however, we have come to realise that perhaps things did not quite happen that way.


The well known tokens studied by Denise Schmandt-Besserat How writing came aboutled to a belief that these small clay objects, which despite being non-representational and of arbitrary shape, managed to denote the type and quality of goods that circulated on the old Middle Eastern trade routes, actually preceded real writing by thousands of years [7].

In-depth scientific research is revealing previously unsuspected complexity in the great collections of stone and bone carvings from the Upper Palaeolithic age: Can it really be plausible, that the extraordinary depictions of animals at Altamira and in the Dordogne, just appeared from nothing, without tens of thousands of years of preceding graphic practice?

We are beginning to consider the hypothesis that, contrary to the well-respected and commonly held belief, figurative representations were actually preceded by notational ones. We now know that Mayan writing used a complete series of syllabic phonetic signs, but with a number of alternative forms, and they could be composed in various ways to form words [10, 11]. It was not until the death of Eric Thompson, the indisputable elder statesman of Mesoamerican studies and pre-eminent champion of alphabetical prejudice, that the proposals made by the Russian scholar Yuri Knorosov Michael D.

What is more, these were open systems, in which the scribe was able to insert modifications and innovations, confident of being understood, and therefore they escape from the conventional definition of code as a closed system.

Today we can start to claim that there has never been a wholly pictographic system of writing, just as there has never been a wholly phonetic system. Is the alphabetic system really best? James Boswell, famous as the biographer of Samuel Johnson, the most authoritative English intellectual of his time, recorded one of their conversations Life of JohnsonFriday, 9 May Johnson called the East-Indians barbarians.

Chinese writing is finally starting to seem less bizarre and unreasonable than it was for the Eurocentric Doctor Johnson. All those quibbling comparisons between the alphabetic system and the Chinese system are rendered futile by the evident operating efficiency of Chinese, with which it is possible to write excellent literature and at the same time manage sophisticated technology and for the Japanese, who use a more complex system, things are even more obvious.

The reason may be that decisively associating a word with the form of its written representation is far more structured a system than has been believed, and turns out to be an advantage from the point of view of the cognitive processes involved. The Chinese tradition has always been aware of the graphic nature of writing [17, 18]. This means that, when creating a new piece of work, the author must not only think of the meaning and the sound of the words, but also the visual appearance.

Unicode though has since given full technological plausibility to Chinese.

On the other hand, since the introduction of the Pinyin system of alphabetic transcription [19], even the Chinese system is starting to become mixed. Today lussuu are starting to glimpse signs that the evolution of writing leads to the recognition and integration of its components.

But let us return to Central America, to the Mixtec and Aztec traditions lttera, 21] and compare a page from the Zouche Codex also known as the Nuttall Codex, drawn up in Mexico in the 15th centuryin which there are no phonetic symbols as we conventionally intend [22], with a brief alphabetic transcription in English [23, 24].

In what way is the Mexican text different, if not in its form? It contains exactly the same content, is equally unambiguous and decipherable and has form we might describe as considerably richer and more suggestive.

There is no doubt whatsoever that each specific sign corresponds to a specific word with specific pronunciation, and therefore the transcriptive aspect of the spoken word uccife intrinsically present. Of course, it is not possible to write everything lettea the Mexican system, but then we are not able to write everything with our alphabet and have to resort to specialised notations, in which the incidental presence of alphabetical symbols has no phonetic giovanin at all [25], and without which science and technology would certainly not have got uccidde far as the computer.

And we can also reflect on the fact that there is also a representational aspect to notations, for what is a mathematical formula if not a depiction of the logical processes being represented?


And what of typography? Typography is primarily writing with pussu, and even the Phaistos disc from the 3rd millennium bc [26] is undoubtedly typographic, having been made by pressing stamps into the clay, one for gioovanni different sign, so that they are always the same.

We know well how essential the introduction of printing with movable type into Europe in the s was to the development of modern society, and how the same procedure laying out type, archiving and then placing next to the other in order to write later passed almost unchanged into digital printing. But typography is eminently alphabetic: It is not by chance that the Chinese and Koreans abandoned it at the time, because it was so unsuited to the characteristics of their systems.

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With the introduction letgera typography we have lost all the most expressive traits of writing, from the monocondiles of Byzantine calligraphy [28] to the sumptuousness of Arabic script [29] and the elegant ligatures of Giovan Francesco Cresci [30]. Digital technology has now reached a phase in which it is capable of simulating analogical processes satisfactorily.

The programme Heliscript, developed by the Tiovanni mathematician Edo Hans Dooijes infor example, features a simple mathematical model capable of providing uccidee acceptable representation of cursive script.

The process is not typographic in any way, because the letters of the Latin alphabet are described from a topological point of view, as the paths of a point moving on the surface of a system of tangent cylinders [31, 32].

The final result is perhaps not particularly exciting [34, 35], but a good designer could use it to create something very interesting: And why not reclaim the many marvellous experiences of the past?

Why not move forward, why not look for new ways to represent thought other than the spoken word? And what use today is the illusory representation of spoken language? A writing workshop I held a number of years ago for children between the ages of 9 and 10, not yet completely subject to alphabetical prejudice, left me convinced once and for all of the extraordinary potential for new approaches.

After a few days of working with the children, they were asked to think of words that could be written in way that represented their meaning.

Though I have shown these results on numerous previous occasions, I still find them fascinating: I will conclude with a highly imaginative premonition by an author of whom I am particularly fond.

It is from The divine invasions by Philip K. Dick, known to the general public for Blade runner and Minority report:. The total structure of Scripture formed, then, a three-dimensional cosmos that could be viewed from any angle and its contents read. According to the tilt of the axis of observation, differing messages could be extracted. Thus Scripture yielded up an infinitude of knowledge that ceaselessly changed. It became a wondrous work of art, beautiful to the eye, and incredible in its pulsations of color.

Typographers of the world! Onwards, let us go beyond typography! This article comes with the images that were published in black and white in Typography papers and follow the same sequence.

The images used here are from the slides shown by Lussu in his lecture. Though the photographs of the four inscriptions have not previously been associated with this article, as they are so well suited to it, we decided to include them here.

They were carved in octagonal travertine slabs and placed in brick pyramidal structures surmounted by terracotta jars. Lussu shows these four inscriptions in his Altri fiumi, altri laghi, altre campagne Sign in Get started.

Home About this publication Foundry. English translation by Karen Le Marquand 0. The colour of thoughts The issues for this discussion were summarized well in the two quatrains chosen by Pierre-Simon Fournier le jeune in for the opening of his Manuel typographiquereproduced here from the excellent edition of James Mosley. This belief can be traced back to Aristotle, who expressed himself very clearly on the subject: