Book Review

Drop a word in the ocean of meaning”

Robert Bringhurst charts language

Eine Rezension von Brian Switzer


What are the dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween spo­ken and writ­ten lan­guage? What can the­se dif­fe­ren­ces tell us about human com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on and under­stan­ding? How has typo­gra­phy and design chan­ged writ­ten lan­guage? Robert Bringhurst’s book “The Solid Form of Lan­guage, an Essay on Wri­ting and Mea­ning” was writ­ten in 2002 for an antho­lo­gy on lan­guage cul­tu­re and type and repu­blished by the Gas­pe­reau Press in 2004. Bring­hurst descri­bes him­s­elf as a poet, lin­gu­ist and typo­gra­pher – in short someo­ne with a wide inte­rest in lan­guage. He has writ­ten “The Ele­ments of Typo­gra­phic Style” and has published books on nati­ve Ame­ri­can poets, writ­ten about the inter­pre­ta­ti­on of renais­sance ita­li­an pain­tings[1]. To round out his impres­si­ve list of abi­li­ties, Bring­hurst speaks, reads and wri­tes in a ran­ge of lan­guages. His poe­tic natu­re is clear right from the start: “Drop a word in the oce­an of mea­ning and con­centric ripp­les from. […] To catch the mea­ning of the words is not to catch the ripp­les that they cau­se; it is to catch the inter­ac­tion of tho­se ripp­les. This is what it means to lis­ten; this is what it means to read. It is incredi­b­ly com­plex, yet humans do it every day, and often laugh and weep at the same time.” (p. 9) This poe­tic begin­ning and the ele­gant pocket for­mat set the sce­ne for a brief intel­lec­tu­al jour­ney into writ­ten lan­guage.

From this poe­tic inde­ed almost visu­al begin­ning Bring­hurst takes his readers on a bre­ath­less trip through a histo­ry of writ­ten lan­guages and their deve­lop­ment, the uni­queness and fun­da­men­tal dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween writ­ten and spo­ken lan­guage. Bring­hurst wri­tes: “Star­ting from scratch, with no impor­ted models, peop­le have made the shift from oral to lite­ra­te cul­tu­re at least three times … In Meso­po­tamia, about 5,000 years ago, in nort­hern Chi­na about 4,500 years ago, and in Gua­ta­ma­la and sou­thern Mexi­co about 2,000 years ago, humans crea­ted a script and a scri­bal cul­tu­re, appar­ent­ly wit­hout impor­ted models of any kind.” (p. 14) The­se ear­ly sys­tems were all ori­gi­nal­ly pic­tu­re-based or drawn. After a pre­ci­se defi­ni­ti­on of wri­ting (to dif­fe­ren­tia­te it from drawing) the four points listed here are dis­cus­sed in grea­ter detail. “(1) Wri­ting is abs­tract. […] (2) A wri­ting sys­tem is codi­fied. It con­sists of a repea­ting set of sym­bols […] (3) The­se sym­bols are defi­ned in terms of some­thing else. […] (4) The sys­tem is sty­listi­cal­ly as well as sym­bo­li­cal­ly self-con­tai­ned.” (p. 16f) He covers a small selec­tion of scripts inclu­ding: basic chi­ne­se glyphs, latin, ara­bic, korean and nati­ve ame­ri­can wri­ting sys­tems as well as dis­cus­sing their sty­listic heri­ta­ges. Bring­hurst dif­fe­ren­tia­tes the spo­ken lan­guages as evol­ved and evol­ving, and writ­ten lan­guage as inven­ted and trai­ned (p. 12–13). This link in writ­ten lan­guage to “reli­gious or poli­ti­cal aut­ho­ri­ty” (p. 24) makes scripts emblems of cul­tures and belief sys­tems, and like belief sys­tems con­nec­ted with reli­gi­ons and empi­res often rigo­rous­ly spread.

Bring­hurst also looks at the evo­lu­ti­on of our wes­tern european ways of wri­ting, and how typo­gra­phic style extends the ori­gi­nal bounda­ries of our lan­guage. His cen­tral examp­le (p. 45–47) is “Leo­nard Fuchs’s bota­ni­cal work De His­to­ria stir­pi­um, first published by the Basel prin­ter Micha­el Isen­grin in 1542.” (p. 44) The mixing of scripts (whe­ther more cal­li­gra­phic or con­struc­ted) in a sin­gle sen­tence is now com­mon, inde­ed this review is full of chan­ges from roman to ita­lic and back. So much so that we often fail to read its signi­fi­can­ce: a chan­ge in voice or tona­li­ty. In this way aspec­ts of spo­ken lan­guage has slow­ly trans­fer­red to wri­ting. Bring­hurst also empha­si­zes that the use of other typo­gra­phic styles indi­ca­te shifts in con­tent. The­se ide­as were revo­lu­tio­na­ry in the Renais­sance and chan­ged how we wri­te and read today.