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Alternative Typographic Histories

October 9, 2023 Summer 2023

Throughout its history, the formal evolution of written language has been driven by the technology used to render that language, from cuneiform to stone-carved Roman capitals, and up to letterpress and pixels. In the last century, this phenomenon has accelerated rapidly with typography adapting to new display possibilities, such as segmented LED displays in early electronics to more contemporary storage and rendering standards such as postscript.

The locality of these innovations has been primarily situated in the West where the Latin typographic script is the predominant form of written language. The opportunities presented by these technologies generated significant pressure for alternative scripts, such as written Arabic, to conform to the formal constraints of these Latin-based technologies, which in some cases have undermined the traditional formal structures of the scripts.

The class investigates the relationship between technology and language by inverting the inherited constraints of Western-centric technologies, and re-examining the evolutionary paths non-Latin scripts, like Arabic, could have taken to create new timelines and structures that center these languages.

In the first five weeks of the class, Levi Hammett and Hind Al Saad presented lectures that survey language developments notable within the history of computing, offering details of computational technology that is often obscured by its innate complexity and domain specificity, leaving important innovations missed by those of us outside the tech fields of expertise. These highlights are historical instances ranging from radical innovations to evolutionary dead ends, featuring typefaces and technologies that anchor the computational timeline.

Latin Segmented Alphanumeric Displays.Arabic Segmented Alphanumeric Displays - find that started this research interest. IBM “Golf Ball” Selectric Typewriter - innovating flexibility of typefaces to use // proposals for standardizing Arabic to work in a daisy wheel printer.Example of how technology shaped typography: Latin letter proportions changed to work as Monospaced fonts for typewriters + Arabic letters in metal typesetting couldn’t interlock.Latin typewriters were monospaced because of the mechanism + whereas a new mechanism was designed for Arabic typewriters to allow proportional spacing to accommodate the connecting letterforms varying widths.1977 “Trinity” computers in the West + earliest computers that displayed Arabic.Sakhr MSX Computers - first fully localized Arabic computers.How Arial + Simplified Arabic became the ubiquitous standard typefaces on our computers.

In the last five weeks of the class, we engaged in collective research to construct genealogies for various scripts. Then, everyone developed their own project that speculated on their script’s typographic evolution and imagined narratives and forms to materialize their explorations and alternative perspectives. The produced research was collected into a zine — archiving the stories and discoveries that emerged in those ten weeks.

Screenshot of the Alternative Typographic Histories in Issuu, a digital publication platform where you can read the zine

You can read the zine here.

Here are some excerpts from the varied projects, their collective discussions in class generated research areas that linked different projects to each other, some were:

Imagining an alternative typographic timeline, where the script was part of the technological evolution…

“A typewriter in an alternate universe. It is mechanically almost the same system as a Latin typewriter in our universe. With a couple of key differences: Baybayin keys. Each key is stamped with a Baybayin syllabic character. Since Baybayin has a smaller set of characters there is no need for a “shift” key.  Punctuation. A full stop is two straight lines. A brief pause is one straight line. Quotations are the same as in our world. But their question mark is said to have evolved from the word tanong meaning question in Tagalog. Scholars believe that early scribes used the ta to denote a question. Thus taking it’s shape from t to provide emphasis to a sentence.” How Typographic Technology Evolved through Baybayin in a Parallel Universe Diana Kris Navarro

“Chan Tz’ihb (lit. tiny writing-thing or tiny text) attempts to imagine an alternate history where Written Mayan prevailed through the centuries, and had to undergo a sort of forced simplification to meet the computational limits of the mid to late 20th century. It aims not to only imagine a fictional Mayan past, but to draw a roadmap for its inevitable continued use by Maya people in the future. It is a pixel font that aims to fit all Mayan glyphs into a less than 32x32 pixel frame, which are then combined into larger compound glyphs.” chan tz’ihb (tiny writing): a font for re-encoding written mayan histories Nick S

“the letters written on this web aren’t necessarily monospaced, nor do they always line up neatly with each other. this intentionally destructs the notion of what written language ‘should’ look like and frees the fidel to play across the screen.” a tessellated web for digital ge’ez thummim mekuria

Investigating the relationship between language and power, where the script challenges the “standard” …

“Counter-surveillance type trusts absence. Counter-surveillance type remembers. It embraces metatextuality and reference.” Possibilities of *bs*nc* and 3xc3$$ in counter-surveillance type Ellen Perleberg

“Within the context of Latin America’s wrought history and rich culture, what place do alternative ways of writing have in acknowledging a violent past? How can we subvert the established hierarchy inherent in our present-day written language to include indigenous wisdom? How can we tie together our individual genealogies to imagine a collective future?” Quipu: Knots of Resistance Hugo Gonzalez

“In this digital world, why do we continue to only acknowledge dominant languages? What might the world look like if all languages were able to be supported?” Majority < Minority: individualized language for a modern world Jay Mahabal

Exploring the relationship between language and medium, where the script embodies new meaning from the way the form is shaped and morphed …

“Data interwoven with physicality is a process that offers a nonlinear jump through time — warping the learnings of 19th-century methodology with modern computation, wefting how we read text on the screen or on paper as symbols, numbers, patterns, imagery, poetry, resistance, as creativity… all bringing new meaning and language to light.” the physical + digital warping: parallels of poetics in weaving + computation Eileen Ahn

“This transient nature of words may seem less obvious in digital writing. Typed words appear eternal, with each letter seemingly identical to the last. However, the cyber domain, too, is not immune to decay. Computer hardware can fail, software can become obsolete, and data storage can run out, leaving once-meaningful sentences lost in a sea of obsolescence.” Stretch Marks Heya Kwon

“This might be an exercise in design but not poetry, or meaning, or history. For a ligature to really be born, there needs to be a reason for it to be born. So I imagined an alternate history, a kind of reversal of Afrofuturism, in which poems existed in the past that used these ligatures in much the same ways as chéngyu. I imagined what would happen if, over time, these ligatures were all that remained of those poems. Something like the shorthand people who love each other have in which simple words, or no words at all, express entire lived worlds of meaning. That too is poetry.” Is lyricism possible in a letter? Keith S. Wilson

top left to bottom right: nick’s 3d low poly bowl render / hugo’s quipu spread layouts / haider’s modular type grid design / miro-board of the script genealogy collective research / thummim’s childhood tv show reference / class group photo / diana’s title drafts!