Friday, 22 March 2013

Welcome to my Latest Nerdy Obsession

I'm fascinated by writing - handwriting, alphabets, languages and how they're expressed visually. One of the reasons why I love The Lord of the Rings is Tolkein's creation of languages, and writing systems to go with them. Fonts, calligraphy and artistic uses of the alphabet all please me, and I love seeing artists write in their art journals in florid versions of their handwriting. When I was in school, I spent many hours reading books on calligraphy, medieval Gothic fonts and the Book of Kells. I dreamed of going back to a time when writing was appreciated for its beauty as much as its ability to convey information. So different to our standardised, Times New Roman, Arial world.

Later, when I had access to a University library and the internet, it gave me the opportunity to delve deeper into the amazing world of non-Western writing systems as well. Did you know that speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese use the same writing system? They may not understand each other if they try to speak to each other, but if one writes something down, the other can understand. That's a huge reason why China has such a long-lasting and cohesive culture. Fascinating! Pictographic writing systems like Chinese were built on stylised drawings of objects the writers saw in the world around them. Yet they thrive in the modern world and are able to express new concepts and technologies their inventors never dreamed of. I find this amazing. I've always been quite sad that the Western alphabet is so simple and boring. Only 26 characters and they look like stick figures. Even writing systems like Arabic and Cambodian, though with a similarly limited number of symbols, are much more elegant and beautiful than our alphabet. I guess it's all a matter of perception though - clothes and accessories featuring Western text are popular in Asia because they're exotic and represent membership of a global culture. Still, even with the most beautiful fonts and distinctive handwriting, our bog-standard alphabet just isn't that satisfying for me!

For many years, I've been interested in Chinese and Japanese style brush painting, calligraphy and poetry. When I was at Uni and had the time, I would go to the Asian art section of the gallery and admire the calligraphic works on paper. On weekends I would do Asian-style landscapes of scenes around the campus. Sometimes I would make up haiku to accompany them. (I didn't know it then, but this is an art form called Haiga in Japan.) The English words always looked wrong on the page, though. Those stick figures marching from left to right spoiled the aesthetic of the painting. And trying to write the letters with a Chinese calligraphy brush and ink was never successful. They just ended up looking like those cheesy fonts you used to see on Chinese Takeaway signs with English letters made up of wedge-shaped pseudo-brushstrokes. If only there was a way to write the haiku in English, but in a style that more closely resembled Japanese or Chinese! I was thinking about a more "realistic"-looking and -functioning text that can be written vertically and drawn with a brush. When I finished Uni I got a job and didn't have time for lazy afternoons of painting anymore, but I never quite forgot that artistic dream.

Years later I was surfing the intertubes and somehow randomly came across the unromantically-named Block Script. This experimental writing system was invented as an attempt to slot the English language into a syllabic writing system. Our familiar consonants and vowels are re-formed and built into blocks. Of course, English is very different to Mandarin and Cantonese so concessions needed to be made. But I think this system demonstrates its point remarkably well. I know it's meant to be written left-to-right, but when written vertically, it looks somewhat similar to a primitive form of Chinese.

From Omniglot.

Could this be the solution I'd been looking for all these years? At the time though, my interests were elsewhere, so I filed the information away. It must have been in the back of my mind though, because "learn to write in Block Script" found its way onto my List of 40 Things to do Before Age 40, a list I drew up a couple of years ago. Looking for new experiments to try in my art journal, and remembering my old love of writing in all its forms, I've now found myself studying Block Script. The entire body of knowledge for this writing system (as far as I know) consists of a single page of information hosted on But learning to read and write fluently using this system may take me years of practice. I'm already thinking of ways I could streamline and beautify it. I need to do some research on word construction in English, as well as text formatting in both Chinese and Japanese, and possibly Korean as well.

To the library!!

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