The Roamin' Alphabet


Change is Here to Stay

The quaint notion that there is a right and a wrong way of doing everything ignores human nature and reality. A living system is in constant motion; if it doesn't move, it's dead. Manners, morals, and language are nothing more than what people agree on as right at any particular time. If enough people do something, that something becomes correct. In the words of William Safire, "When enough of us are wrong, we're right."

The very idea that the alphabet is sacred and inalterable, or that one form of type, lettering, or handwriting is intrinsically superior to another, or that there is for our spoken language a correct grammar embodying inflexible, universally applicable rules, flies in the face of reason and common sense. In my youth, table manners had reached a zenith of pointless elaboration. Childhood was marred by formal mealtimes. It was impossible to both eat and enjoy oneself. Most of the misery came from trying to master hosts of arbitrary, incomprehensible laws governing the transport of nourishment from the plate to the mouth, and everything else that happened while at table. Many a child has salted his soup with tears. But, no matter how irrational these rules may be, once learned they are usually passed on as holy writ to future generations of baffled urchins.

Spelling is a lot like table manners. There is no particular reason why a word should be spelled one way or another, but the conventions of society decree that one way is correct and that all others are incorrect. Since spelling is so out of step with the actual pronunciation of the words, and the choice of letters to symbolize sounds so arbitrary, learning to reed and wright is generally a process of brute-force memorization.

The learning of table manners, grammar, and spelling does much to drive home the conviction that different, new or unfamiliar is bad. Thus equipped, we enter the rich, rapidly changing world of printing and typography.

The alphabet is a set of abstract symbols to which arbitrary meanings have been assigned. There is no reason, except tradition, that any one shape should be preferred to any other. The alphabet has been in a state of flux from the time of its invention nearly four thousand years ago. Like language, it is the product of everyone who has ever used it; quick or dull, male or female, slave or free, they have made it suit their ends. The result is a design system that uniquely reflects the Western aesthetic. And there could be no better model for the student of design.

The changes in form of the Roman alphabet from the Emperor Trajan to Gutenberg are those wrought by faster writing. By the ninth century ad, two alphabets had evolved: one used for emphasis and formality - the big ones - and one used for speed - the small letters. The big ones looked just like their Roman ancestors. The little ones kept changing. The rising demand for books required faster writing, and the Roman alphabet was rounded, sloped and condensed until the beautiful letters of the Italian Renaissance evolved and neatly coincided with the invention of printing.

The first printing types were copies of the best hands of the day. Letters cut into steel soon departed from the model of the hand.

In 1798 Alois Senefelder invented lithography, and the alphabet was in for a round of wild mutation. The virtues of mass production were combined with the imagination of hand lettering, and the boundaries imposed by hot metal disintegrated. Letters could intertwine, creep up the page, indulge in grotesque antics. Letterpress, forced into action, indulged in fierce competition and a menagerie of nineteenth century typography was created, just in time for the brand-new industry of advertising. In 1816, the first sans serif appeared in a type specimen book.

In the early twentieth century the Bauhaus made a great to-do about sans serif type, but it wasn't anything new. Script made a comeback,but really, it was just a matter of fashion. Letterpress got into a losing tussle with offset lithography, and printing technology remained in the hands of the highly trained few and their expensive machines.

Then, about the middle of this century, the computer made its entrance. Computers were too costly to be of much use to anyone but government and big business, and too complicated to be of much interest to anyone but technicians. Typographers and printers paid little heed. Hidden below the surface, evolution continued, willy-nilly. By 1974 computers had become affordable and popular.

By 1983, hot metal was dead and gone, replaced by electrons. We have seen, by the disappearance of foundries, skilled typographers and established printers during the last twenty years, that those who will not bend must break. There are no restraints on the shape of letters generated by computer. Type will change again to suit the dominant reproduction medium. The people who influence the change will be those who use the new technology.

David Lance Goines


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The Roamin' Alphabet

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