“Writing is the solid form of language, the precipitate,” writes Robert Bringhurst. “Speech comes out of our mouths, our hands, our eyes in something like a liquid form and then evaporates at once.” This image gives him the title for the essay in which it appears, “The Solid Form of Language,” a remarkable meditation on the nature of written language that Bringhurst subtitles, “An Essay on Writing and Meaning.”
The sturdy letterpress jacket of Robert Bringhurst’s pocket-sized Solid Form of Language (Gaspereau Press, 2004).
Bringhurst is one of our most thoughtful writers on typography; his seminal book The Elements of Typographic Style is now in its third edition, and it influences the way innumerable practitioners, both students and experienced professionals, think about that craft. He is also a much-lauded poet and a translator of indigenous literature from the people of the Northwest Coast of North America. It’s not surprising, then, that he thinks about hands-on subjects like type in ways that include its many concentric rings of context and meaning.
Taxonomy of Written Language
This essay was first published in a book I edited, Language Culture Type (New York: ATypI/Graphis, 2002), where it was the lead-off piece. It set the stage, along with a more technical essay about Unicode by John Hudson, for the range of topics to be covered in that book on multilingual type design. Bringhurst introduced a scheme for classifying written languages, a “taxonomy” of writing systems that he visualized in the form of a wheel, a circle with four quadrants: alphabetic, syllabic, semographic, and prosodic. (Roughly, these are written symbols that represent, respectively, vowels and consonants, complete syllables, ideas rather than sounds, and “intonational features” of how the sounds should be read.) No writing system exists purely as just one of these four kinds, so “[a]s a consequence, no known script in actual use can be correctly represented by only a single point on the wheel.”
Robert Bringhurst’s ‘taxonomic wheel’ of scripts, classifying them according to how they work.
The point of this systematic approach is to help us think about how we write, what the various systems we use have in common, and what’s different about them.
Now Bringhurst has revised and slightly expanded the essay, adding a richer set of illustrations, and it’s been published as a small book by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia. The Solid Form of Language is pocket-sized but exquisitely made, designed by Bringhurst himself and Gaspereau’s Andrew Steeves. It sports a letterpress jacket printed in three colors on a heavily textured paper, which makes the book a highly tactile small object; but if you slip off the jacket and put it aside, you’re left with a simple, flexible, Smythe-sewn paperbound book that fits easily into your pocket, so you can take it with you and contemplate it anywhere.
Detail of a text page from The Solid Form of Language, designed by Robert Bringhurst and Andrew Steeves and typeset in Carol Twombly’s typeface Chaparral.
There are no major new parts to the essay, but Bringhurst has taken the opportunity of book publication to refine his prose in various small ways and to add asides or expansions to his thoughts here and there.
An example comes at the end of the essay’s first section, after he has made his most wide-ranging generalities about the nature of language and is about to focus on the narrower subject of human writing systems. Originally, Bringhurst ended the section with this somewhat playful sentence: “In the next few pages, I will use the words language and writing most of the time in rather selfishly human terms.” In the revised version, he adds a bit more: “It is worth remembering, however, that language and writing are of value in the human world primarily because, in other forms, they are implicit in a world very much larger and older than that. Lovely though they are, human languages, and the language-like systems of symbols with which they are written, don’t exhaust or even dominate the realm of possibilities. They constitute something more interesting yet: a wonderfully accessible, well-documented, varied special case.”
In a few places he has obviously revised his text to be more precise and to take into account exceptions to an earlier categorical statement. For instance, in talking about the artificial syllabary created for the Algonquian languages of the Cree and Ojibwa by James Evans in the 19th century, which was later adapted to Inuktitut (the unrelated language of the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic), he adds, “Other enthusiasts based new scripts on Evans’s principles, adapting the idea of rotating characters to suit the needs of Carrier and Chipewyan — Athapaskan languages phonologically very different from Cree or Ojibwa.”
Page spread from The Solid Form of Language, with an illustration showing the elements of the Korean writing system Hangul, and the effects of the Korean calligraphic tradition.
The point of Bringhurst’s bringing up the Canadian syllabary is to contrast it with another artificial writing system, the Hangul script of Korea. Both systems were new, both were artificial; but in Korea, when Hangul was introduced in the 15th century, there was already a long tradition of writing using the Chinese script — including a sophisticated calligraphic practice — whereas the Cree and Ojibwa had not been in the habit of writing down their languages at all. Nor had the Inuit.
“In the Eastern Canadian Arctic,” writes Bringhurst, “the Inuktitut versions of this script are now a major tool for administrative work and are used for literature as well. Yet after one and a half centuries of use, Canadian syllabics still have not developed a fluent cursive form nor a calligraphic tradition.” After pointing out that most people using the script today “write” it using a keyboard rather than a pen, he concludes, “It remains to be seen how the script may now develop through the medium of digital design.” Then, responding to political developments in the Canadian North since the original version of this essay, he adds: “It also remains to be seen what effect the creation of Nunavut will have upon this script. Inuktitut literature is old, and so is the tradition of Inuit independence, but an Inuktitut-speaking bureaucracy has never before existed.’
The new illustrations show a much more complete range of the writing systems discussed than were shown with the original form of the essay: among them, not only a systematic showing of the Hangul script and Canadian syllabics but a complete list of the 214 radicals out of which all the characters of written Chinese are constructed, as well as striking examples of two very different styles of Chinese calligraphy.
In Language Culture Type, Bringhurst showed taxonomic wheels for twelve of the world’s languages; here, in this smaller format, he breaks them up and groups them onto three separate pages, with more extensive and focused information in the captions. This taxonomy is clearly something that he will continue to work on and refine in years to come.
Four writing systems (Chinese, Japanese, Korean/Hangul, and Sanskrit/Devanagari) plotted on Bringhurst’s taxonomic wheel; each script has elements of more than one category.
One of the most welcome new illustrations is a page from Leonhard Fuchs’s botanical volume De Historia stirpium (1542), printed in Basel by Michael Isengrim. Bringhurst had described this book as an outstanding example of how different typographic treatments of various parts of the text could reflect the nature of the different elements: German, Latin, and Greek, for one thing, but also sideheads and run-in heads. Today we take this variety for granted as a typographic tool, but it had to develop slowly in the history of printing. “Polyphonic music was in vogue all over Europe in Fuchs’s time, and there is something polyphonic in the typography of the book.” When we were putting together Language Culture Type, I very much regretted the lack of an image from Fuchs’s book to show what Bringhurst was talking about; now, at last, we have one.
A page from Leonhard Fuchs’s 16th-century herbal ‘De Historia stirpium’ (left), and a detail from it (right), showing the ‘polyphonic’ use of different styles of type for different voices and meanings.
While I naturally think that everyone with an interest in international typography and type design would benefit from having a copy of Language Culture Type on their shelf (it’s still available from Graphis, I am also a great fan of having a seminal essay like this in handy, portable form. And the new material, both textual and visual, in the Gaspereau Press edition of The Solid State of Language justifies a little duplication. Get a copy, stick it in your pocket, and go off and contemplate all the forms the written language can take.