Language and Text

The history of letterforms is intertwined with the history of language. To understand this relationship better I read Orality and Literacy by Walter J Ong. This book outlines the relationship between speech, writing and print with specific reference to the differences between oral and literate cultures. The book is absolutely fascinating and offered me insights into how thought is manifested in non-writing cultures. Ong argues that abstract, conceptual thinking does not happen in oral cultures; simple ideas such as the names of shapes (circle, square, triangle etc) do not exist, these geometrical figures are identified with the names of objects (moon, door, mountain): “They (oral subjects) never dealt with abstract circles or squares but rather with concrete objects. Teachers’ school students on the other hand, moderately literate, identified geometrical figures by categorical geometric names: circles, squares, triangles and so on. They had been trained to give school-room answers not real-life responses.”[1]

Ong goes on to consider the massive changes that print and the shift from hearing dominance to sight dominance have precipitated. Ong talks about how “alphabetic writing broke up the word into spatial equivalents of phonemic units (in principle though the letters never quite worked out as totally phonemic indicators). But the letters used in writing do not exist before the text in which tey occur. With alphabetic letterpress print it is otherwise. Words are made out of units (types) which pre-exist as units before the words which they will constitute. Print suggests that words are far things far more than writing ever did.”[2]

In A type primer, John Kane talks about the ‘authorial voice’, an idea that occurs in many books about typography and how meaning is understood by the reader. Kane suggests that typographic hierarchy is one way in which the reader can be directed to understanding a text.

“Obviously there is no single way to express hierarchy within text; in fact, the possibilities are virtually limitless. Once clarity has been established, the typographer can – and should – establish a palette of weights and styles that best suits the material at hand and the voice of the author.”[3]

Ong has an interesting section on the residual effects of hearing culture and how that presents itself within the typographic hierarchy of the printed page in sixteenth century title pages:

“Inconsequential words may be set in huge type faces: on the title page shown here the initial ‘THE’ is by far the most prominent word of all. The result is often aesthetically pleasing as a visual design but it plays havoc with our present sense of textuality. Yet this practice, not our practice, is the original practice from which our present practice has deviated. Our attitudes are the ones that have changed, and thus that need to be explained. Why does the original, presumably more ‘natural’ procedure seem wrong to us? Because we feel the printed words before us as visual units (even though we sound them at least in the imagination when we read). Evidently, in processing text for meaning, the sixteenth century was concentrating less on the sight of the word and more on the sound than we do. All text involves sight and sound. But whereas we feel reading as a visual activity cueing in sounds for us, the early age of print still felt it as primarily a listening process, simply set in motion by sight. If you felt yourself as reader to be listening to words, what difference did it make if the visible text went its own visually aesthetic way? It will be recalled that pre-print manuscripts commonly ran words together or kept spaces between them minimal.”[4]







[1] Ong, Walter J (1982) Orality and Literacy, London, Routledge




[2] Ong, Walter J (1982) Orality and Literacy, London, Routledge




[3] Kane, John (2002) A Type Primer, London, Laurence King




[4] Ong, Walter J (1982) Orality and Literacy, London, Routledge


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