Shapes for Sounds

July 16, 2009

The written character is and remains the basis of every typographic activity. It is not a creation of our century. The written character goes far back in time, spanning the vast distance from early hieroglyphics to the abstract written symbols of today and involving many contradictions," observed Emil Ruder in Typographie: A Manual of Design (1967).

In Shapes for Sounds, Timothy Donaldson explores the evolution of one of the world's greatest inventions - the written alphabet. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, fuses topics as diverse as the anatomy of speech, hieroglyphics, the development of minuscules (lower-case letters), semaphore, Braille and many more through an array of charts, essays, graphics and maps. As Ken Garland observes in the foreword, "casually handled, such a conflation might have been confusing and indigestible, but this book is both erudite and limpid".

Part textbook, part reference, the book demands to be explored in a non-linear fashion. At its heart are 26 charts that illustrate the genesis and evolution of each individual letter. Each chart can be read from left to right across two pages. The charts are beautifully designed and densely illustrated with explanations not only of the historical development of each letter but also, for example, of its sound and its representation in non-Roman alphabets. With repeated study and reference to other sections, the charts become highly functional as a reference tool.

Each letter is introduced by, among others, its radio-telephony spelling and images of the sound as a phoneme head (a diagram of the organs of speech in profile) and a viseme (a photograph of the front of the mouth). Across the spreads runs a timeline charting the evolution of the letter from its prehistoric origins to the revolution of printed type that Donaldson refers to as "freezing" the alphabet.

Each of these examples is also considered in the sections before and after the charts. There is an informative introduction to the way humans make noise and the science of the shaping of sound into speech, and a collection of essays recounting the history of the alphabet that mirrors the sequential structure of the charts. The essays and charts are augmented by a total of 37 appendices. Along with the bibliography, all references to sources are fully annotated.

It is in many of these individual cases that this book reveals itself to be more than just a historic recounting or collection of visual explanations. The introduction to such a diverse and often esoteric range of ideas is highly enjoyable. A particular favourite is Ogham - a 20-letter alphabet referred to in James Joyce's Ulysses whose origin and form are derived from the cutting of notches into the edge of a tree. For would-be typographers such ideas can be more of a source of inspiration than the well-documented examples of machine-generated alphabets that are already closely associated with type design.

One of Donaldson's most interesting conclusions comes in his discussion of the effect printed type has had on the development of the alphabet. Experiments with the underlying skeleton of the alphabet show that it has, in fact, remained largely unchanged for the past 500 years. Despite there being thousands of type designs, most are merely subtle variations of a system that was "frozen in the Roman and Carolingian shapes it was in when type came along". Donaldson quietly challenges designers to continue experimenting with the shape of the letter, armed with this book as reference and inspiration.

Shapes for Sounds

By Timothy Donaldson

Mark Batty Publisher

176pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780979966620

Published 3 November 2008

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