As I continued to work on my talk for JSHeroes (come say hi if you see me there), I couldn’t help but remember the amazing 24-hour Alphabettes hangout for International Women’s Day that happened a couple of weeks ago.
It was real nice to just chat with some of the ‘Bettes about typography, conferences and whatever random topics that popped up. One of the conversations we had sort of veered toward non-Latin scripts (we are still trying and failing to come up with a far better term) and I put in my off-the-cuff 2 cents. But those thoughts hadn’t gone away over time, and the words have to go somewhere, so here they are.
Writing systems started off on a fairly even playing field. You needed a writing implement and a surface to write on. Everything else came about from human ingenuity. There’s something about the freedom to create a physical manifestation of our thoughts, feelings and ideas.
It is quite something that we developed a system of communication through sounds generated from the vibration of our larynxes (how did that even happen?). But to be able to capture something as ethereal as a sound or an emotion and record it onto something physical, that we can see and feel. That, is something else.
But when printing came along, something shifted a little. Printing is the process of mechanical reproduction via some form of template or master source. A create-once-replicate-many type of situation. Woodblock printing was pioneered and polished to near perfection by the Chinese. Moveable type, which was also a Chinese invention, did not fair as well with the Chinese language in genereal.
Printing with moveable type is a technique that best suits alphabetic writing scripts, or at least scripts with discrete alphabets and no significant variation regardless of glyph position. But writing systems are more than just a means of communication, they are also a reflection of a people’s culture, their spirituality, even their soul. With so many different communities across the world, it is only natural that there are thousands of different languages and writing systems.
Moveable type highlighted the differences between the writing systems. An ideographic language like Chinese which require thousands of glyphs for any extensive writing is not a good candidate for moveable type printing. The calligraphic style of Arabic writing also resulted in efforts to reduce the number of variations of letters and diacritical marks.
To me, these typographical compromises are akin to having the finest sculptures in the world caked in dirt and mud. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if every respective culture was allowed to progress at their own pace.
I’m not saying that trade and exchange of ideas is a bad thing and should not have happened. On the contrary, I think that it is precisely the exchange of ideas that makes our world better. But human history has always been littered with violent takeovers and forced assimilations.
I expect many people to disagree with me, but I think that the world we are living in now is simply one of a myriad of possibilities. That we are living in the culmination of a series of insignificant events which had a domino-effect over human history. Regardless, here we are today.
Right now, I am typing these words on the keyboard of my computer, and seeing these letters appear across my electronic screen as pixels of light. Sometimes I wonder why I’m not more amazed that this is possible. Because it really is extraordinary. But I take a lot of things for granted most of the time.
Change is inevitable, and our rate of change seems to be speeding up. We can either choose to fight against it and get swept away anyway, or flow with the tide and learn to work with it.
I think the digital age presents an opportunity clean off the dirt and mud off scripts that have long had to compromise to “get with the times”. Our digital age is the age of light and electronic signals. There are far fewer limitations as compared to a physical medium like moveable type.
If the virtual world is being touted as a realm with limitless possibilities, then it should be reasonable to expect that all our scripts can be restored to their full artistic glory in the digital world.
I suppose these words are simply not enough to capture the depth of emotion I feel when I think about such things, but for now, these words will have to do.