My research in unit 2.3 Design and rhetoric has focused on language, in particular the relationship between speech, writing and typography. I am interested in the idea of typography as a faulty transmitter, a language at one remove from writing, which, in turn, is a language at one remove from speech.

Language is constructed from a set of units called phonemes - these are the sounds from which words are constructed. The meaning of the individual phonemes disappears as they are joined together – in limitless ways - to create words. Language, then, is a system of representation: a letter represents a sound; a word (a collection of letters) represents an object or rather, a mental picture of an object. A word contains two parts: the signifier and the signified, a sign is produced when these two parts are brought together. The relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary: in different languages, different words signify the signified: a different set of phenomes is used. In every language these phenomes are arbitrary: the word used to signify an object bears no relationship – either in its spoken or written form – to the thing itself.

“All that is necessary for any language to exist is an agreement amongst a group of people that one thing will stand for another. Furthermore, these agreements can be made quite independently of agreements in other communities”[1]

In his book Orality and Literacy, Walter J Ong states:

“Jacques Derrida has made the point that: ‘there is no linguistic sign before writing’. But neither is there a linguistic ‘sign’ after writing if the oral reference of the written text is adverted to. Though it releases unheard-of potentials of the word, a textual, visual representation of a word is not a real word, but a ‘secondary modeling system’. Thought is nested in speech, not in texts, all of which have their meanings through reference of the visible symbol to the world of sound. What the reader is seeing on this page are not real words but coded symbols whereby a properly informed human being can evoke in his or her consciousness real words, in actual or imagined sound. It is impossible for script to be more than marks on a surface unless it is used by a conscious human being as a cue to sounded words, real or imagined, directly or indirectly.”[2]

“(Saussure) saw speech as the original, natural medium of language of language, while writing is an external system of signs (For example the alphabet) whose sole purpose is to represent speech. Writing is thus a language depicting another language, a set of signs for representing signs. Typography, then, is removed one step further as a medium whose signified is not words themselves, but rather the alphabet.”[3]

[1] Crow, David (2003) Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics Lausanne, AVA Publishing

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

[3] A Natural History of Typography by J. Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton, published in Looking Closer, Critical Writings on Graphic Design, edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and DK Holland, 1994




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