Talk Description to Me

Episode 55 - Writing Systems

June 12, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 55
Talk Description to Me
Episode 55 - Writing Systems
Chapters
0:47
Modern English Alphabet
4:54
Typefaces and fonts
14:33
Graffiti
17:50
Egyptian Hieroglyphics
22:43
Rosetta Stone
27:14
Chinese Characters
Talk Description to Me
Episode 55 - Writing Systems
Jun 12, 2021 Season 2 Episode 55
Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

From the little dots over lowercase I's and J's in the modern English alphabet, to the evolution of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and fine brush marks of traditional Chinese characters, there's a lot to describe when discussing the visuals of the world's writing systems.  Luckily, Christine and JJ have a whole half hour in which to pontificate! This tip-of-the-iceberg episode on the visuals of writing systems will answer some questions, pose a few more, and hopefully leave you appreciating your grandma's lovely penmanship! 


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

From the little dots over lowercase I's and J's in the modern English alphabet, to the evolution of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and fine brush marks of traditional Chinese characters, there's a lot to describe when discussing the visuals of the world's writing systems.  Luckily, Christine and JJ have a whole half hour in which to pontificate! This tip-of-the-iceberg episode on the visuals of writing systems will answer some questions, pose a few more, and hopefully leave you appreciating your grandma's lovely penmanship! 


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to Me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashtag in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

Today we're going to talk about something that is a lot more complicated than I realized, which is writing systems. And it's, it's a bit like base ten, you count to nine, and then you put a zero and we score to think that's the way the only way to write numbers. And of course, that's not true. And the same with writing, we're all used to a, the writing system that we grew up with, even if that's Braille, or if that's printed a Latin alphabet, it's sort of we have this idea that that's the way to write. But of course, that's totally arbitrary. writing systems have evolved and developed all over the world. And there's so many more of them than I realized. And so I think, JJ, we're going to start with our own writing system. Right?

JJ Hunt:

That's right. Yeah, I think we'll start with ours, with the modern English alphabet, because that's what we know. And as you say, this is one of those topics where it's a great idea when a listener wrote in and asked us to describe written language without our fantastic idea. And then I started plotting out how to cover it. And I realized how challenging it's going to be. I mean, there are 6500, plus different writing systems in the world, there are alphabets and abuguidas and abjads and logograms, I don't even know what half those things are, let alone How to describe them. And then when you add in different typefaces and different kinds of fonts, that can dramatically change the visuals of the writing systems, which is what we want to talk about, right? It's so so vast scholars spend entire careers on this stuff. So we could get lost if we're not really careful. So yeah, let's let's do instead of doing like a one on one on writing systems, instead of trying to teach that course, which we're not frankly qualified to teach, maybe we can just pick some of the interesting visuals from different systems and talk about those. And we can start with the Latin or Roman alphabet, because it's ours, like you said, it's also the most widely used alphabetic system in the world. So this this is the writing system that is used for the English language, as well as for most European languages, too. As far as the look of the modern English alphabet, most people are fairly familiar with this, the letters are created with short straight lines, some circles, and a few short curved lines. So just, you know, a couple of examples, look at the letter H. So the uppercase letter H is two vertical parallel lines, those are called stems. And they're linked halfway down by a short horizontal line, that's called an arm, the lowercase H, that's one stem on the left, and instead of a straight horizontal arm, that leads off of the middle, this, this arm curves, and it curves down. So when it curves down like that, from the middle, that's called a shoulder. So that's the capital H, and the lowercase H, the letter P, the uppercase letter P has a straight vertical line on the left, then there's a half circle starting at the top of the vertical line that curves to the right and then you know curves all the way around and reconnects with the vertical line halfway down. That's called the bowl. And the lowercase letters pretty much the same, the lowercase P is mostly identical, but instead of the vertical lines standing on the baseline, so the baseline is the line on a sheet of paper, the ball sits on the baseline with the lowercase and the stem on the left is half above and half below. And so that's, you know, it's a fairly standard fairly simple alphabet. There are a few quirks, like the uppercase Q, for example, it's a large circle or an oval, and there's that short diagonal slash to the lower right, that's a fairly unusual mark in the in the written English language. And the lowercase i and j each have a floating dot over their vertical lines. There aren't too many dots in our alphabet, those little dots are called tittles, by the way. What amazes me about about written languages, about these writing systems and modern English script in particular, is how the letters, the symbols, how these can be recognizable even when they're very seriously stylized. So this is where we start getting into typefaces and fonts. So just a word on the language, technically typeface and font. Those are two different things. But in our computerized world, we usually use them interchangeably. So a typeface that's a set of characters that shares a common design. So like Helvetica, or Times New Roman, those are typefaces. A font is a particular weight, style and size of a typeface. So that's like bold, or italics. But like I say, for the most part, a lot of people just use those interchangeably. To think about the way the visuals of the English alphabet, let's imagine putting type faces on a spectrum to arrange them from the most straightforward to the most stylized. So the most straightforward is as we first described it, right, short, straight lines, circles, and a few short curved lines. And then you add Sarah Fs. So serifs are the tiny little lines on the open ends of any stroke, B, they arm or stem. So the uppercase I, for example, in a sans-serif font, without serifs, the letter is just a vertical line. But when you add serifs, what you're doing is putting tiny horizontal strokes at the top and bottom of that line, an uppercase E is a straight vertical line on the left, with three straight arms leading off to the right, with the one in the middle being a little bit shorter than the ones at the top and on the baseline serifs are then added to the ends of all three arms. So little vertical slashes little vertical marks at the end of all three arms and the arms themselves, they cross the stem a bit too. And what this does visually, is it creates a more formal look. So it looks more like a printer's typeface than hand printing.

Christine Malec:

I notice on places where you might find embossed prints like bottles, for example, it's common to find embossed print, and I try to parse out what it's saying. And I know my print letters, so you know, I have a reasonable chance of success. But that's a place where serifs seem to be really, really common. And it strikes me that it's not until I get an idea of the whole word that I can start to parse the individual letters. And so I earlier you said that, despite all of the different variants of the way the alphabet can look, it's always recognizable. And I feel like it must be context specific so that you have to see the whole word before it makes sense. Is that true?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, it often is. And you can do a huge amount stylistically with letters before they become unrecognizable. But it does very much help if it's in some kind of context, right? Like, if can, we can start talking about some of the more elaborate design heavy thematic type faces that are available. And if they are presented to you in a way that makes sense. You know, there's some context to it, if I'm reading a, an old fashioned designed birthday invitation, say, and you use embossed lettering with all the Sarah Fs and, and it's old fashioned in the whole design is old fashioned, it makes more sense. Whereas if you just, you know, take a really crazy font and present that out of context, it might be a little bit more challenging. But it's amazing how the brain is able to pick up on the the design of each letter, the symbol that we recognize letter by letter, and just interpret it. It's really, it's fascinating. So if you move along that spectrum of typefaces, right, starting with sans serif, and then go through the world of syrups, then you get to what we're talking about. Now, these really design heavy typefaces, and there are hundreds and hundreds, probably 1000s of font styles that that computer users now have access to I just did a quick search on my word processor. I've got 126 fonts currently loaded, and I'm downloading new ones all the time. And they range from like the the very straightforward Sans Serif fonts with slightly different weights and proportions. Some have finer lines, some are pitched on slight angles, some are more squats, some are tall and lean. And then they range all the way up to the wild and fabulous fonts that I have downloaded for, you know, making posters or themed work projects. And obviously, the letters are all the same, but the styles are so varied, that the actual look of the letters changes dramatically.

Christine Malec:

And there seems to be a way in which these go in and out of fashion. I think I've read recently "Now resumes should be in the..." insert whatever the latest font is.

JJ Hunt:

That's exactly right. There was a time when you wanted serifs because it looked more formal and serious. And now maybe what you want to do is to look modern and clean. So you take those serifs off and what you want as modern and clean, so that the idea comes through, not the design. Some of the more elaborate ones play on that. So the Vintage Victorian Parlor, for example, is a font that I have loaded. It's an elaborate, fanciful font, right with big lead in strokes on every capital letter and curls on strokes that end below the baseline. This is Victorian, this would have been used much more regularly in a different era. Circus is a font that I really like, I kind of like the tattoo aesthetic. Circus is a bulbous kind of bubble font with really thick rounded letters that have serifs, so the serifs are part of this bubble letter design. And then centered on the inside of each letter is a row of dots that kind of looks like the light bulbs on an old fashioned marquee. And then there's a font like Double Feature, which looks like the writing on a horror movie poster with dripping bold letters that look like they were roughly painted with a fat saturated brush. And if you use red as the color, it looks like dripping blood, right? You see that on horror movie posters and that kinds of thing. And then there's something like clip, which is, it looks like the letters are made from bent paperclips. So every single letter is designed to look like a bent paperclip, I've actually got three different Braille fonts on my computer. One is really simple dots. One uses tiny illustrations for each one of the dots to make them look three dimensional. And then the third uses drop shadows. So kind of like that embossing you were talking about to create that that 3D effect, the drop shadow. But what's funny to me is that all three of these fonts use a completely different dot pattern to represent the different letters. So I suspect they're actually gobbledygook for those who actually read Braille. I don't think any of them are accurate.

Christine Malec:

It sorta sounds that way! And how does this fit into cursive writing? Because so if someone had only ever seen print, yeah, if they saw the same message in cursive, would it be parsable? Would they know what it was?

JJ Hunt:

If you can't, if you haven't been taught to read cursive, it doesn't make a lot of sense. My kids, for example, they're not teaching cursive in school anymore. And so when they get a handwritten letter from a grandparent, they can't read it. They can read some of it, but some of it's just far too confusing. You know, when your M's and N's have extra bumps on them, that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. And then some of the letters when you connect too many of them in a row, they just no longer look like the letters themselves. Like some of the letters are very clear. T's still look like T's because you've got that cross line, that's pretty clear. But a G has a different swoop below the base line, that then comes back up and connects to the next letter. That's really confusing. But I would say that the M's and N's with their extra bumps that then connect to others, if you've got a word that's got two M's or N's in a row, it just makes the whole thing unreadable to someone who hasn't specifically learned how to read cursive.

Christine Malec:

That's really fascinating. We're present at a moment where a writing system is going out. It's becoming extinct.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, and some people are really upset about this. Because it locks people out of history, is one of the things. Even if you say, "You know what, I don't need cursive now, because almost all of my communication is done by computer. I don't need to use it." That's true maybe for how often you write, but what about what you read? That's the thing that people are losing is the ability to go back and read historical documents, which were all written in cursive -- and sometimes, you know, very severe cursive with really strong slants and letters that are tightly packed together that it's very difficult to decipher letter by letter, like you said before. You kind of need to recognize the whole word in some cases, not just letter by letter. So to go back to that spectrum, that stylized spectrum, at the very far end, where it gets it actually does get unrecognizable is graffiti. So graffiti artists take the basic structure of letters and they pull them and push them and twist them in all kinds of wild directions. So they play with shape and color. They connect letters, they overlap them, they add wild syrups and you If you break down graffiti into alphabets letter by letter, which some people do, it kind of looks like really cool calligraphy like it's got that kind of calligraphy element to them because they're connecting letters it's, it's a little bit like cursive. So all of the downstrokes, most of the downstrokes in graffiti writing, they tend to slant in the opposite direction to metallics. So with italics, the top leans to the right. And with graffiti, the top tends to lean to the left in graffiti tagging, which is different than like graffiti art. So graffiti tagging is when an artist just writes a name generally, over and over and over again, in public places. That's often done with a with a flat, wide tipped marker. This the shape of the tip of that marker is important because it allows the artist to vary the width of the line, fat or thin, depending on the angle of the marker. So that can leave a sharp edge that looks great with smooth curves. And it can also you can then make abrupt changes in direction, you get really sharp points. And again, that's very similar to to someone who writes calligraphy that the calligraphy pen does the same thing, the shape of the nib allows you to change the the width of the line. So it often looks like when you're when you're looking at graffiti tagging like that, like the pen never leaves the page or the wall or the lamppost, or whatever. So you get a lot of these backstrokes and connecting lines, and that becomes part of the style. So then if you take that style of tagging, and then move it into big artworks on the wall, it isn't just a single line, you turn these letters into block and bubble letters and they overlap and sometimes not like one always on top of the other on top of the other in an orderly fashion. The letters get one behind the other and then the next one's in front and then that's tucked in behind that one. It's really intricate and confusing. They overlap, they are faded and blended, then there are crazy embellishments. So instead of just adding serifs on the ends of strokes, you're adding any kinds of shapes, you know, diamonds and spade shapes and all kinds of other things. And it can be really difficult to discern the letters, and not even the words! Not even if you step back! If you're not someone who's in the know, if this isn't your culture, this does take a writing style that we are otherwise really comfortable with and understand clearly and it takes it out of our understanding. If you are in the world, if you are in the know, then this type of writing is as recognizable to you as like a vintage American typewriter font is to me, but if you're not in that world, it's that gobbledegook again.

Christine Malec:

I'm a bit of a history buff and so I'm interested in ancient writing systems. And I wonder if we could talk a bit about each option hieroglyphics.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, hieroglyphics are really cool. So hieroglyphics is a logographic system. Logographic systems are written characters that represent words instead of letters. Often the logograms within the system are originate with visual representations, right. This is where Egyptian hieroglyphics come from. You have drawings of things that then represent an idea. And then over time, those drawings get stylized and in some cases, they get stylized to the point where they are unrecognizable. But with hieroglyphics Egyptian hieroglyphics, you still have many logograms that are still pictures, images of themselves. So from a strictly visual perspective, the Egyptian hieroglyphs that we see represented in movies and kids books, those are the ones that look like simple little pictures drawn on to papayas are carved into rocks. And they are generally presented in rows or in columns. Sometimes they are presented in tidy boxes with one boxed row stacked on top of the other. And I mean, one of the challenges in trying to describe this writing system, Egyptian hieroglyphics as a system, is that it evolved over a period of like three to 4000 years. And over that time it went from the highly symbolic paintings and carvings in that really on their own wouldn't be considered writing. It evolved into this mature writing system with highly stylized single consonant characters that function like an alphabet. So to try and describe all of those different elements? It'd be goofy, right? So instead, I thought maybe what I would do is describe a single example of hieroglyphics just to give a sense of what they look like. So I've got here a photo from a stelle circa 1321 BC. That's cool. currently housed in the loop. And I've chosen this example because first of all, it's very clear, easy to easy to read, easy to see. It's also genuine. This is an actual this isn't, you know, from a kid's book or something like that this is an actual bit of hieroglyphic writing. But it also looks exactly like the kind of hieroglyphs that you would see in a kid's book. It is almost stereotypical, right? It's exactly as you would imagine hieroglyphics to look. So this line I'll read kind of half of one line from the stele is a is carved into tan stone. It's done in orderly rows, this is one row, the rows are separated by straight lines, and from left to right. The first symbol we have the first logogram we have is a tall bird with a pointy beak and long legs and it's standing facing are left, there are three vertical slash marks below the tail feathers. And there's a stylized palm leaf over the shoulder of the bird. The next character along to our right resembles a comb, with the teeth pointing up or maybe like a bit of sod with pieces of grass sticking up, that's what that looks like in the middle. And then above it is a round stylized pot with a flat lid to the upper left. And then below it are three more pots centered in a row. And then to the right of that there is an almond shaped eyes with pointed corners. And that is placed above his zigzagging horizontal line and a straight vertical line below that, to the right of that are a series of shapes that are kind of like the classic cane with long handles like the curve and then the handle comes down a little bit. And then there are a couple of backwards uppercase L's with swoops instead of sharp corners. And then there's a tall skinny vase with a flat top and a vertical zigzagging line. And then to the right of that is a seated figure facing our left, and that figure has one knee up one arm pointing left, and then a bent arm behind with the elbow pointing to the right. And that's just one half of one line. The whole the whole stellate is is lined with these with these logograms all in a row. And you know, in a movie, you know, the Egyptologist would kneel down and read like point symbol by symbol the Pharaoh was and that's not necessarily how these things are actually laid out. But visually, that's what it looks like.

Christine Malec:

I remember when I first read about the Rosetta Stone, I got chills. And so I want to give a bit of background about how we know what hieroglyphics are, because I can't help myself. So in the early 1800s, as unfortunately part of a military campaign, French, the French were in Egypt and they came across this stone and on the stone were three distinct groups of letter shapes or carving. And what this was discovered to be eventually was basically like a travel sign saying, here's where you are, here are the rules. You can you're allowed to do this, but don't do that or will kill you. And it was the reason that this turned out to be so significant is on it was enough Greek that classically educated people who were on that expedition recognized the ancient Greek, then they were able to understand that the other two languages represented were hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt and Sumerian cuneiform, which they knew about but did not know how to read. And so by this multilingual signpost that is 1000s of years old. More or less modern scholars were able to learn two ancient language writing systems and that just blew my mind. I thought that was so amazing. So JJ, I understand you have a description of the Rosetta Stone

JJ Hunt:

Ya I've got an image of it in front of me here. So the stone is a great big dark black stone and it's one face is is smooth and polished apps. So you know obviously split at some point and and polished down and that is the surface upon which the writing appears. It is got one straight side on the left, a fairly straight bottom and a little bit of the straight side on the right and then there's a crack taking out the lower right hand corner. And then you know, the upper right is it's, it's it's shorn off and then the top is also split. So those are rough, jagged edges which cut across any of the writing that's on there. But visually what you're presented with, as you say, are three blocks. of text, there's an upper block, which is the Egyptian hieroglyphics and then the middle block, which is the kunia form, and then the lowest block. So the one that's closest to the ground, that would be the Greek and the Egyptian hieroglyphics at the top, again, orderly rows, a lot of those symbols think since some of the symbols we just described the the bird. In some cases point facing the right in some cases point facing the left in some cases, with a tail in some cases without you've got some figures standing with arms at the sides of their flattened figures with bent elbows in some cases pointing in one direction in some cases, pointing another the hieroglyphics on the top, and then below that the cuneiform title is more tightly packed. And these this writing, again, not as someone who can read this, but is just talking about the visuals, it looks very packed together, it's hard to see separate words is just a string of characters with lots of squiggly lines packed together very tight. And it's more difficult for my eyes to pick out repeating shapes, like if I'm looking at, if I was to look at just a sheet of paper with English letters from from the Latin alphabet, in randomly presented, I'd be able to pick out the the same shapes over and over again, because I know them, it's difficult for me to do that with this, it does to my eye look like very tightly packed squiggles, again in orderly rows, but tightly packed, so there's no start and end to individual words that I can tell. And then below that, you have the Greek in a separate block of text. And this is even more tightly packed. But the Greek letters are lots of straight lines. So you have letters that look like T's O's, I's, and E's that are recognizable to me and so it's easier for my eye to pick out those similarities. I can see B's and things that look like X's, K's, and mostly straight lined, squat letters, very square shaped letters. And that's tightly packed again, with no separation between words that is clear to my eye.

Christine Malec:

Other systems use lager grounds as well. So the Chinese writing system is if I'm not mistaken, based on logograms, is that right?

JJ Hunt:

It is. So that's hanzi. And I don't know much about this at all. So my descriptions of this are going to be purely visual because I obviously I don't, I don't read it, I don't speak the language. So what I did was I went on to YouTube, and I found a video that featured the hand of an artist painting simple pictures in black ink. And it was accompanied by On screen text that compared those paintings to hanzi characters. I think it was actually for kids. But I found it really helpful when thinking about like, how did these pictures evolve into Chinese characters. So for example, the hand begins by painting what looks like stick figure trees, with a few bare branches that are pointing up and a few swooping roots that are pointing down at the bottom of the tree. And the On screen text then shows three characters. And the first is the character for wood. This is a straight line with long branches that swooped down on either side. So they start at the uppermost point and then spread near the bottom like you're drawing a simplified Christmas tree right with the swooping of the branches. And then there's one cross stroke near the top kind of like an uppercase T. And that is identified as wood. And then the lager gram for pardon me the logo gram for jungle is two of those characters side by side. But they're they're narrowed so that you can fit two of them into the same space as the character for wood, and that's jungle. And then there's the character for forest which is two of those same symbols, but squished vertically. So now they're really squat side by side. And then there's a third one, the third character, exactly the same character, but really squat and widened. So it's as wide as the suit two side by side versions. So that's how the painting or the drawing of trees becomes wood, and jungle and forest. And then the hand painted a stick figure with two straight legs. So kind of like an upside down V, and a straight line that crossed the the stick body that does that straight line was the arms and then the hat that was represented by a shorter straight line right close to the top of the head. And so that's a little character -- that's a little stick figure man, and that character for man or that the drawing of man is almost identical to the character for man. It's just slightly stylized, so the legs swoop out so that they're bent out instead of being straight like an upside down V, and the arms are perfectly horizontal. And the hat is a shorter parallel line that's directly above it. So there's your stick figure man representing the in That turned that becomes the character for man. And then in the in the animation in this in this video, the stick figure then jumps on to a sketched horse. And the logogram for horse, or for riding is this is this man character, this little man on the back of a very simplified line drawing of a horse, where the body is a small square with kind of j shaped legs at the front and back, and a slightly open slanted rectangle for the horse's head. And that little sketched man on top of this little sketched horse is the character for ride. So I do want to make sure it's clear that not all hanzi characters can be broken down like this in this very simplified way. I really don't want anyone to think that Chinese or Japanese writing always looks like simplistic series of stick figures, right? That is not it at all. I just thought these examples were interesting to illustrate that evolution. The style that I've j st described is accurate in that they tend to be painted in bla k lines, straight lines, b nt or curved, any of those, you know, will find their way in o these figures. And ther are short slash marks, but haven't seen many dots or circ es in these characters.

Christine Malec:

The way you described graffiti, is there any way in which it kind of evokes pictograms or other language systems, other written language systems?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. So there are, I mean, depending on the style you're writing in. In the same way that you can ta e, you know, a sans serif font a d turn it into Double Featur with dripping bloody letter , in graffiti can do anything w th the style of it. And someti es what artists will do is pul in writing styles from differe t places and pull in differen forms. So you will see pict res blended into letters, or yo will see writing styles tha are drawing off of, you know, t e hanzi style of writing, or anji writing from Japan, you'll ee these different styles pull d into the style of graffiti. And so all of these things come into play. Graffiti is one of th coolest ways that that art sts use the symbols that we ha e for writing, and turn those sy bols back into the art from whi h they originated.

Christine Malec:

I love that. I makes me wonder if we'll eve develop like a global writin system that incorporates thing from all of these and graffit could be the linchpin

JJ Hunt:

There you go. I like that.

Christine Malec:

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Modern English Alphabet
Typefaces and fonts
Graffiti
Egyptian Hieroglyphics
Rosetta Stone
Chinese Characters