INTRODUCTION The following attempts to summarize my research so far concerning multiple writing systems and the history of writing. I then propose what I think would be necessary to achieve the development of a new multilingual and inclusive writing system (or to improve existing ones), and why I think it to be necessary. The majority of this research was conducted during my final year of studying Communication Design at the University of Applied Sciences, Darmstadt. It prepared me for my graduation piece, the development of my own writing system, which I will also briefly touch upon.
HOW ARCHAEOLOGISTS DECIPHER OLD WRITING Writing, essentially, is the agreement of a group of people to understand a group of little symbols a certain way. If an archaeologist can’t figure out how something is meant to be read, he will never decipher it. While there are certain formalities that can hint towards letters, in many cases we can’t even know if the funny signs on a clay disk are even writing in the usual sense at all, since the “key” to the agreed upon method isn’t known to us. Before Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered, it was widely assumed they are meant to be read as a picture story. Only the understanding that they are in fact encoding syllables, combined with a knowledge of related languages, lead to their decipherment. A writing system purely based on an unknown idea or a lost language is impossible to decipher. The decipherment is therefore largely based on comparison to related and deciphered writing. In order to find the “key”, philology today can resemble Science Fiction, where complicated algorithms are used to find resembling patterns of repetition in ancient letters and modern languages.
HOW SYSTEMATIC WRITING FIRST DEVELOPED The answer to this question further illustrates the close connection of a writing system to language. The understanding of how sound becomes fixated into small symbols inevitably shows how tightly each writing system is tied to its people’s world. The first level of abstraction of signs is often attaching new meaning to an old image: The glyph of a sun can describe the sun, but it can also be summer, midday, happiness, harvest time. Chaos can be crossed strings in a culture that weaves cloth, or a sinking ship in a seafaring culture. People that never see snow won’t have to find a word or a sign for it, and even if you use a modern alphabet, the sounds it can record won’t necessarily match the ones used in a foreign language.
The first phonetic attachments are rebuses. Rebuses are signs that initially stand for one idea but are used for somethingthat isn’t that same idea but instead sounds the same. People that learned to text on an old Nokia phone are all familiar with this: “Come 2 the Sk8 park”. There are a number of ways to ultimately organise writing: One can stick with signs to describe ideas (whole words), which will lead to a high number of glyphs in a writing system, and is rarely used in the modern age. That can be difficult to learn. While Chinese is using such ideographs and has signs for each morpheme, hardly anyone knows all its over 80.000 symbols. Almost as complex are logo syllables, which again use the rebus principle by extending ideographs with a few consonants and syllable glyphs. If one only wants to use a couple of hundred signs to record thoughts, one can use a writing system like the Japanese Katakana, where each syllable gets it’s own sign. The decision to record each phoneme in a language leads to the alphabets used so commonly today and a set of less than 100 glyphs: Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, etc. are all highly effective means to record information.
WHY WE NEED NEW W RITING SYSTEMS The ability to directly record something we would say in a very precise way obviously has been amazing for the history of science, education and human development in general. However, the fact that most modern scripts record language and therefore sound, becomes a disadvantage for a minority. People that are born deaf have no concept of sound and have an unusually hard time grasping forms of writing that are so connected to it. Some people live without the cognitive ability of reading sound-binding signs, but are still capable to understand symbols that are connected to imagination and ideas. Writing serves the precise transfer of a thought from one person’s brain into another. Sign language isn’t based on sound, but still accomplishes that. So far, it sadly hasn’t been consistently notated and therefore can’t be used in books or way signs. There are other cases in which the use of sound-independent writing serves a purpose. Ideas are universal: I don’t have to understand the language to understand the symbolism of a heart sign in the same manner as my foreign neighbour would. Bliss-Symbols, a writing system used to communicate with disabled patients, was originally designed to cross language barriers. There is evidence that children learning to read Chinese develop a better context understanding because they read in ideas directly, not a sound based representation of them. The necessity of expressing emotion through rapid-fire texts gave rise to the emoji: small symbols to represent complex inner lives. The question of an alternative writing system that tackles the shortcomings of phonetic writing and/or helps disabled people to a more inclusive mean to transfer knowledge has been tackled by designers and thinkers frequently in the past. The utopia of a visual language that can be understood by everyone, no matter their mother tongue, is an inspiring concept. So far it hasn’t been sustainably achieved. This is a pity, as text is now more present than ever: On mobile phones and computers, in context menus and in messenger conversations with our families, in political debates on twitter. Our communication has been altered drastically in the last two decades, but it is still driven by text.
HOW UNDERSTANDING WRITING’S HISTORY HELPS IN DEVELOPING NEW WRITING SYSTEMS My own experimental writing system “Linear D” started as a playful experiment to better understand the particulars and limits of ideographic writing. Understanding how a writing system first develops and how the systems function gave me a toolbox full of possible ideas to apply to my own writing system. Loaning ideas off already existing systems (both ancient and modern) helped me understand what components are needed in order to create a system that actually can record ideas. Knowing about the close relationship of language to a writing system, I worked with essential vocabulary lists to understand which concepts are needed to transfer basic knowledge. I assigned several meanings to one idea: A tree can mean a tree, but with a small sign to mark it as an adjective it can also mean stability. To reflect another aspect of a well-developed writing system I started to design abstract shapes for each idea. Historic scripts have accomplished relatively simple and abstract shapes through centuries of use and adaptation to be as usable as possible. A highly usable writing system features easy to draw and remember shapes, that don’t resemble each other so there is always clarity on how to understand the particular glyph. Using my experience of how we experience shapes (i.e. symmetrical shapes seem balanced and safe, slanted shapes seem insecure, a shape opened at the top seams like a trap, a shape open at the bottom looks like shelter) I tried to convey the meaning of each concept in an intuitive shape that is not a complex picture. While my system works, and with a list can even be deciphered, it’s still small and quite limited. Read out loud it resembles “baby speak”: “Human-with-seeing-help-object sits thinking on sitting-object.”
WHAT WE NEED TO CREATE A SUSTAINABLE WRITING SYSTEM I believe that most of the attempts in creating new writing systems made so far suffer from a lack of disciplinary diversity and simply never reach the level of functionality of a system that has been in development for over 4000 years. For example, Bliss Symbols work well systematically, but the glyphs are forced into a strict matrix and its rules don’t allow for redesign and typographic treatment that could improve readability or would make it adaptable for varying materials, applications or any intention beyond the pure transfer of information. Other new universal writing systems, like my own, (that use ideographs) are viewed through the lenses of cultural and linguistic bias. Anyone who has ever learned a second language knows that some things can’t be literally translated and some concepts simply differ depending on where you live. In French, we “win” money, in English we “earn” it, in German we “deserve” it. What would happen if we brought the knowledge of linguists, cognitive science or perceptual psychology together with the abilities of typographers, historians and archaeology? Could it lead to the development of a possible new writing system as well as in the understanding of old ones? I believe that looking into the history of one thing drastically lets us understand its principal function and can inform us on how to further develop it in the future. The perspectives of archaeologists and philologists might hold aspects that can make a new writing system as sustainable as our existing ones. I also think that a systematic view from a psychological or cognitive scientist on what makes a writing system work well could help historians understand why past systems have developed as they did. Design can help by putting literal, functional shape to any evolving idea.
ABOUT ME I’m graphic designer and typographer, currently living in Darmstadt, Germany. I work as a self-employed designer since I graduated in summer 2017 and am currently looking to move into a more academic practice of design. Already before graphic design lead me to typography and an interest in multilingual typesetting, I was interested in letters. Strange looking ones in particular: I became obsessed with the story of the Rosetta stone when I was in primary school and learned Tolkien’s elvish when I was a young teen. Driven by the fascination I felt for the beauty of non-latin writing and ancient history, my graduation topic became “undeciphered writing”, meaning only archaeological writing at first. The way it goes with an itch you shouldn’t scratch, I stumbled upon a much bigger topic. I am currently looking for possibilities and spaces for me to extend my knowledge, to learn from the disciplines mentioned above, but also to bring forward my own ideas as described: As a student, as a researcher or research assistant or as a designer and future design educator.
THANK YOU FOR READING.
I’d love to hear your thoughts: e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org | twitter: @Anna_Voss_ | instagram: @annavoss.eu
Please follow this dropbox link to download the Linear DXX17 documentary book. It's in german only, sorry, but it does include the complete bibliography used for this essay.