Shaping Language

October 8th, 2010 by Bruno Nadeau

We constantly convey our thoughts with languages and writing systems that evolve throughout the ages. These systems remain in a constant state of change, unconsciously transformed in everyday interactions, explicitly assaulted by playful artistic experiments, and broadly affected by technological innovation.

Spoken languages, which enjoy a much longer history than their written counterparts, were long transformed by the uses and abuses of the people who speak them, indirectly affected by technology. They evolve slowly over time shaped by everyday spoken discourse, and they adapt more drastically in time of needs, but it is not until the recent technological advances of the last centuries that speech became a practice that regularly relies on technology. Societies developed the means to travel ever further, bringing diverse people close enough for their languages to clash, merge and deform, but the direct widespread impact of tools on spoken languages is still recent. It is only with the advent of the phonautograph and later the telephone that spoken languages became directly affected by technology.

Writing is a different beast, forever dependent on some form of technology, it relies on a range of heterogeneous tools used to delineate spoken words. The accessibility to these technologies tends to change over time as they infiltrate everyday practices, and often, as their cost decrease. Scribes in Ancient and Medieval times were provided with the once expensive materials with which and on which to write, and new discoveries and inventions provided new writing technologies, new inks, new surfaces that transformed their practices. Computers enjoyed a similar but significantly more rapid evolution as early programmers with access to expensive systems made space for the everyday typist. Writing necessitates materials, technologies and skills that are not equally available to everyone. The practitioners who engineer and possess the skills to use the technologies we write with have had a significant impact on the production of language.

It is hard not to wonder how the printer hired by Mercure de France, the house that published Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools in 1913, reacted, proceeded and affected the outcome as he was asked to bend his standard practice? How did the advances in techniques of lithography and photolithography transformed the work of F. T. Marinetti when his requests for an unusual page were possibly met by the frowns and blank stares of some printers? How do the decisions of programmers and software engineers behind font formats like TrueType and OpenType, type design applications, like FontLab Studio, Fontographer and FontForge, and any application that make use of the type they help produce affect our everyday typographic landscape?

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