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The Impossible E

In the book by our friend Tim who is in The Future of Text, he writes about manuscript hand-writing VS. print:

“When I’m giving talks about the Alphabets, especially if I’m speaking to a class, I often call for a volunteer and, when someone puts a hand up, I hold out a marker and ask, ‘Will you come up here and draw a capital E?’

They come up to the whiteboard, a little warily, sensing a trick, and do it.

I say, ‘That’s great, but the three horizontals are not quite parallel. Could you just fix that?’

When they’ve erased the lines and drawn them again much more carefully, I say,

‘Well, actually this one’s a bit longer than the other one…’

So they correct that, and then I say, “And the vertical isn’t quite vertica…’ And maybe I go on to ask for serifs, and get more and more annoying in my polite demands.

The point is, it can’t be done. What they are attempting to “write” is a mechan-ically-reproduced image derived from letters on monuments that were created using stonemason tools – squares, straight-edges, agents of geometry. The human body is not designed to do that.

Then I show the class the E from the Eastern Cham script of Vietnam, and I say,

‘Okay, I want you to write this, with your fingertip, in the air.’

They’re a little self-conscious about being so demonstrative in public, but they do it, and I tell them to keep doing it, writing in the air, until the motion starts to feel natural. Then I say, “Okay, without stopping, just look around at everyone else.

Look at their wrists, their hands, their fingers. That is the hand of a Thai dancer.” I’m making two points here, I hope. One is the difference between a script, something written by hand, and a typeface, something designed to be printed.

The first is an extension of the natural, graceful movements of the human body; the other is not.

The other point has to do with geometry, and with the values that are embea-ded in writing. The Latin alphabet as we use it today descended not from everyday Roman handwriting but from monuments to emperors. The letteriorms themselves represent the virtues of a military empire: stability, balance, longer ity. Almost any Latin uppercase letter stands on its own feet, as if bestriding the known world. What’s more, every Roman emperor was by definition a god, so graphically, these qualities had to be represented not by ordinary, everyda vernacular shapes but by ideal Euclidean forms: symmetry, parallelism, rectan-gularity, perfect circles. Shapes not found in nature.

The Cham script doesn’t care about those values. There’s a grace, and an implied balance but no symmetry. It is still a human script rather than a divine one or a mechanical one”

Tim Brooks(Brookes, 2024)

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