Text/Origins of Typography

Our third lecture covered the origins of written language, words and letter form.

As humans began living together in greater numbers and things like trading required larger amounts of information to be documented, the need for a quick efficient way of recording everything appeared. Cave paintings worked well for communicating a simple message, but they did not suffice when more complex ideas had to be exchanged at a faster rate. Simpler, less pictorial forms of writing developed, and soon the first alphabets appeared. They gave symbols to sounds, allowing spoken words to be written.

Many different alphabets have developed throughout history. One very significant one is the Latin alphabet, it evolved from a western branch of the Greek alphabet called the Cumaean alphabet. The Latin alphabet’s use is widespread throughout Europe and the world today. An interesting feature that some fonts have are serifs. Serifs are small lines that appear at the end a stroke.

Trajan’s Column in Rome, Italy, displays a good example of early Latin text. The Serifs are clearly visible at the end of each line in the majority of letters. They exist due to the limitations of the chisel. Lines chiselled into stone have untidy ends, so the designer turned his chisel 90 degrees and added the extra mark, bringing the line clean stop. These added marks became serifs. They are an example of mediation, when the media used shapes the language.

Serifs can also be found in other languages. Block printing was heavily used during the Song and Ming dynasties in China. The grain of the wooden printing blocks was horizontal, so carving out vertical or curved lines that go against the grain was quite difficult and required more chisel work which resulted in those lines being thicker. The serif-like additions were added to horizontal strokes to prevent wear and tear.

Now, in the time of computers and biros we no longer have the limitations that chiselling or wood grain block printing had. Yet the additions they added still remain in some fonts. Even thought they serve no purpose any more I still think they are important. They serve as a reminder of our past and have a rational beauty that no new font can truly have.






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