Language and Typography

Notes from Language and Typography by Cal Swann

Chapter 1 - Introduction to language as human communication

What is Language?
Page 10: In its strictest sense, language is the system of sound signals which the human animal uses in highly structured arrangements. Language is not as effective as the theoretical concept of thought transference, but it is the most sophisticated system we have for the transmission of complex ideas.

Page 11: The 40-45 distinctive sounds which an English language speaker uses (some languages use as little as 15) represent the vowels and consonants, and these make up the smallest units (phonemes) of our language system. The structure of phonemes into words (phonology and morphology) and the structure of words into sentences (syntax) impart meaning (semantics) in a language system.

Human language is quite arbitrary. The sounds have no meaning in themselves (with the exception of a few onomatopoeic words such as 'bang', 'snap', 'crackle' and 'pop') and whatever meaning is placed upon a sound is entirely dependent upon the speech community. The word 'bang' is a representational sound whereas 'dog' or 'cat' are symbolic sounds which stand in for particular things. The sound symbols have to be learned and are not inherited as are the cries of animals.
Page 13: We think in terms of m // language and having a language structure enables us to develop thinking into action. The interconnection between thinking and the articulation of thought is inextricable and language-dependent. Marshal McLuhan (among others) went further and described 'typographic man' as a more intellectual human being who was able to develop rational thinking through being literate following the advent of the recorded word in writing/printing. This commonly held view is contested by those who subscribe to the view that oral cultures have alternative systems to articulate explicit ideas and that no evidence exists to show that writing/printing cultures have superior thought processes. What is not is doubt is that thinking takes place by making use of a language and many support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that the way people view the world is conditioned by their native language and that this dominates their thinking.

Page 17: Signs which have become codified and depend on learning are like a form of language. they are symbols which are arbitrary and stand for something other than themselves in the way that 'd' 'o' 'g' or 'c' 'h' 'i' 'e' 'n' stands for an animal. a drawing of a dog is a representational sign whereas the surrounding circle with a bar across it is a symbol like the arbitrary signs of the alphabet.

The communication process and codes
Page 19: Language is a central feature in the communication process, particularly in transmitting abstract or complex ideas. In order to understand further the whole area of verbal and non-verbal elements in this process it is necessary to examine the nature of the activity we regard as communication, self a much abused and over-used word.

There are two main definitions which are generally seen to be at extreme ends of a spectrum. Broadly, one view is that communication has taken place when a message has been sent form a source, by some means, and a recipient has received it. The assumption s that the sender has expressed the message correctly and that the receiver has decoded it with the intended interpretation. This one-way process is sometimes referred to as manipulative communication.

The second view is that communication is a participative process and that an intended message is only communicated when the receiver shares with the sender the cultural interpretative values inherent in the signals themselves, and interacts accordingly. In between these two poles are many shades of emphasis: the one-way definition may have more relevance in the area of media communication, whereas the participative view may be more appropriate in face-to-face situations where interaction is expected to take place.

Chapter 2 - A developing and living language

Language registers
Page 29: Language arose in face-to-face encounters in either single or small group situations and direct communication was limited to the distance the human voice could carry until the development of writing. The transmission f language in a visible form allowed a speaker's message to be heard by receivers at a distance of space and time. The invention of printing enlarged that process enormously and current technology provides a multitude of recording and transmission methods which exercises the language in manifold strategies and effects. In this domain of multi-media channels it is important for the message makers to understand the qualities which are inherent in the spoken language, and the overlapping of major differences in the transmission of the language in alternative (and often parallel) channels of transmission. The conversion of the sound signals into visual signals is what we now refer to under the various titles of written, typographic, visible, or graphic language. The nature of these transmission channels entails pre-planning, and designing the most appropriate form requires a detailed understanding of the orthographic (written/printed) system.

Chapter 3 - The visual system

Defining the visible language
Page 31: Visible language is a term which has found favour in recent years and more appropriately incorporates handwritten, drawn or mechanically constructed letters, all the orthographic forms, in fact, perceived by the eye. It is distinct from the term visual language because it is a system of arbitrary symbols which correspond to the smallest units of sounds in the spoken language, as opposed to more general images representing an expression of objects or concepts.

The orthographic or typographic system
The Western visible language is made up of a number of symbols (orthographic) which in the main represent sounds, plus some others (paragraphological) representing punctuation, mathematical signs etc.


Page 32: The letters of the alphabet (graphemes) usually correspond to a sound (phoneme) but there are a few logographs such as & and - which represent a whole word. The system works by placing graphemes side by side to make larger units of sound consisting of syllables and words. Each word is separated by a space and series of words are organised into phrases and sentences which are marked by punctuation. Punctuation is vitally important and can change meaning dramatically.

Page 33: Capital letters are used to mark the start of proper nouns and sentence beginnings. The Western language system is read from left to right and in lines from top to bottom. This seems a simple and logical system to Western eyes but it took a long time to evolve and other cultures developed systems in different ways.

Most of the research into legibility and the psychology of reading has been carried out using prose as 'continuous' text and the book as the norm. Comparatively little research has been undertaken on the visible language in the media and visual environment. However, the conditions which constitute the norm in prose form are important in considering the effects on the visible language when those conditions are varied.

When graphemes are juxtaposed the letterforms make up a 'word shape' and the skilled reader sees word shapes, not just individual letters. The 'correct' juxtaposition of the letters is very important if the word shape is to be perceived in its familiar and recognisable form; letters must be arranged side by side, and reading from left to right.

Page 34: Considerable research has been done since the last century on eye movement in reading, and this, along with other recent studies, is well set out in The Visible Word (1968) by Herbert Spencer. In summary, the eye moves along a line of text in a series of rapid jerks (saccades) and pauses at a number of 'fixations' which take in 10-12 letters (and spaces) at a time. It is surprising how close together the words can be in order for the space still to be noticeable in normal reading. Too much space between words is actually unhelpful for they eye to take in a reasonable number of characters, which can be as many as 30 characters in some cases. The eye seems to anticipate the left to right flow and takes in slightly more characters to the right of the fixation point. The average English word contains five characters plus one for the space and a normal line of text will contain around 60-70 characters, equivalent to ten or twelve words. It has been shown that lines of ten or twelve words allow the eye comfortably to make its series of 'saccades' before it sweeps back to make another series on the next and successive lines. Shorter lines may cause too many eye movements and become tiring if read in large quantities, and longer lines make it difficult on the return sweep to pick up the right line again, which means lines can be missed out.

It is important to remember that these 'optimum conditions' refer to adult reading in book form. Approximately 2mm high, the characters are usually 30-40cm from the eye and are presented as large blocks of text, which involve the least 'interference' in this channel between the author and reader.

Page 35: during the last four or five hundred years of book production, many variations of the roman letterform have been created, but at the size and distance in the reading conditions set out above there is no significant difference between one design and another. Given good conditions, skilled readers will reach a reading rate of 300 words per minute.

The visible route to understanding
Page 39: Previously, it had been assumed that decoding the written or printed word and understanding the meaning of the symbols was dependent on the auditory system. When a word is spoken, the hearer identifies the sound from a known 'bank' of words and refers this to a semantic system to interpret the meaning. It was thought that reading a word set up a visual reference which was then converted into the auditory version before 'plugging-in' to the auditory word bank. Although this can happen, it is now accepted that skilled readers have a direct visual route to the semantic system in the brain. Research into computer recognition of the visible language and the evidence emanating from patients suffering from brain damage have supported this view.

Page 40: It has been suggested that writing might be less efficient than speech for good communication, but that writing is better suited to the way the brain operates.

Page 42: Speech is often characterised by short bursts of information which are relatively independent whereas writing is usually in slightly longer units which are more dependent upon one another.

In speech, the number of ideas expressed in one utterance are usually quite brief and simple. It is thought that one idea in a clause of seven words is as much as our 'short-term memory' can handle. These phrases are expressed in about two seconds, have a coherent intonation and are preceded and followed by a pause. Each clause contains at least a verb and noun phrase as appropriate and although these conditions are not always present, they may e considered a norm for clear communication. Speech is composed spontaneously and can be further improvised on the spot to clarify or elaborate what has just been said. The act of writing is much slower mechanically but the writing can be re-composed and worked on in order to communicate clearly. It is read quickly, bit can be re-read many times and ideas may be absorbed at the reader's individual pace. The visible language usually contains more information than speech because ideas can be condensed in normally up to 11 words by the re-structuring which takes place in the writing.

Reading continuous text
Page 44: The ends of lines in book settings are somewhat arbitrary and have been described as 'linear interrupted' (as opposed to the more standard term 'continuous').

Prosodic visual cues
Page 48: In speech, variations in pitch, loudness and speed are referred to as 'prosody'. In print, different letterforms have been used to signify stress or emphasis since the end of the nineteenth century. The typesetting machines which dominated print production in the first half of this century contained a range of up to six or seven variations of the alphabet which were available in one size.

The standard triad range of roman, italic and bold typefaces have been extremely useful in subtly but distinctly indicating different nuances in the language intended by the writer. Used consistently, they represent different levels of discourse to be communicated between author and reader.

The opportunity for personal interaction is not normally available in writing/reading and all other forms of mass media communications. There is a 'distance' between the originator and the receiver. There may be more than one reader/receiver at a time whether the form of communication is a poster, newsprint or copies of books spread across different continents, and the collective source of the authorship is often unknown. In addition to the structure and density of the information in the composition of the visible language, all the visual equivalents of the prosodic cues that can be mustered are invaluable aids to communication. The small variations in weight or style of type may have little effect upon the legibility of the visible language, but they can have an important effect on the tone and attitudes which the author wishes to convey.

Page 49: In larger displays of visible language such as posters, advertisements and notices the style of letterform and layout are greatly exaggerated and have a conditioning effect upon the attitude of and interpretation made by the viewer.

Alternative reading formats
Page 50: 'Display' text, to use the conventional typographic term, covers the design arrangement of headlines, slogans, titles, advertisements etc. This includes the choice of letterforms, how the words are arranged in relation to one another, and their relationship to the space in which they are inserted. Poetry falls somewhere between continuous text and display text, in that it is deliberately arranged to comply with poetic conventions.

Page 52: The manipulation of language in the public domain, to influence the thoughts and actions of social groups, is acknowledged as an important aspect of language awareness. The manipulation of the visible language as a visual 'tone of voice' needs to be taken into account.

Chapter 4 - Form and connotation

Content, form, context
Page 54: Content and form are essential elements in making a message. A similar distinction has been made between a 'digital' code and an 'analogic' code which expresses and elicits feelings about the message (paralinguistic, iconic). Placed in an appropriate context as the important third element, communication can take place. In the spoken language, the content is the phonology, syntax and semantic structure of the words (sound, sequence and meaning). The form is the prosodic delivery of the words, that is the rate, accent, intonation, range, etc. Prosody has been described as 'a kind of musical accompaniment to speech'. The command 'give it to me' could have the stress on 'give', 'it', or 'me' and the emphasis is changed each time.

Written language and typography have parallel levels of content, form and context. The content is the spelling, syntax and semantic structure of the words and the form is the visual nature and arrangement of the typography. In addition there are the prosodic cues of stress or intonation, and the spoken word is usually accompanied by facial expressions, eye movements and gestures as paralinguistic signs (unless one is listening to the radio, for instance). The style of the letterforms, size, weight, and spatial distribution are the visual counterparts to the prosodic cues and paralinguistics.

Shape (Letterforms)
Page 55: The connotations which are stimulated by particular letterforms re historical and social. They are interpreted by our 'knowledge of the world' and are part of the cultural context of society.

Usually (but not always), the cultural association which a reader has from any of these letter styles is rooted in their historical origin. It is easy to select typeface designs which have developed in a particular national culture and which now connote the 'ish-ness' of the country.

Emil Ruder makes this point in relation to continuous text typefaces:

'... the various cultural centres of Europe began to grow party and to print in their own national typefaces. The development of national typefaces is closely bound up with the differences between national languages. Garamond is intimately associated with the French language, Caslon with the English, Bodoni with the Italian. If one of these is used for a foreign language, it may forfeit a great deal of its effect'.

Ruder later points out that some designs in more recent times have very little 'national' character and may be used in a variety of languages - the standard typewriter letterform being one of the earliest examples of an 'International' typeface design.

Page 57: The traditional values of strength, dignity, warmth etc have been shown to be associated with certain typestyles and abstract tests of typestyles and their connotations have been carried out since the 1920s. Connotations in German or Italian would not necessarily translate into English as connotations are clearly culture-specific. In almost all research, the varieties of letterforms have been investigated by testing styles of alphabets against associations with emotive words. In order to avoid words in a context of sentences which would condition the semantic interpretation placed upon them, alphabets of typestyles or isolated words have been used in the traditional format for this research. What would be interesting would be to approach the evaluation from the opposite end to discover the extent to which meaning may be affected by style. Professional designers use intuition in making these layout decisions, and although research has shown that this intuition is reasonably accurate in accommodating public interpretation, it may not always be the case.

Page 58: It is usually accepted that the emotive connotations of letterforms are more applicable to printed communications which are intended to 'persuade' as opposed to those which simply offer 'information'. The latter is expected to be presented in a neutral typestyle of 'maximum clarity'. It is significant therefore of the accepted associations that a less legible letterform (to English readers), the so-called Gothic or Old English style, was recommended as recently as 1970 by the HMSO publication Design of Forms - 'The use of special type for legal or solemn effect may be desirable for some declarations.' The 'Gothic' or 'Old English' letterform has a strong connotation of antiquity and, in addition to its legalistic use, it is the most frequent typestyle used by antique dealers.

Page 59: Letterforms base on 'copperplate' handwriting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries similarly have a connotation of antiquity and are favoured by old established institutions such as those in the legal profession. These conventions are subject to changes as the social climate changes and it is sometimes quite complex for a modern legal practice to demonstrate that it can speak the language of today, and still show it has the traditional virtues of long legal experience.

Size and Space
Page 61: the normal reading size is understood to be the size used in books in setting continuous text (between 8pt and 14pt). Words set in larger sizes are generally expected to have more emphasis, or are more important, and signify titles, or headings and subheads. In more recent research projects on large type sizes, which examined advertisements set on 18pt and /or larger, no significant difference in 'readability' was found. Size in itself, seems to have little influence on legibility or readability.

Page 62: More pertinent to display is the scale of letters in relation to the surface area and any other images which may be encompassed within the same area. Words printed within a rectangular area, for example, can be set in a sliding scale of sizes which might generally correspond to whispering, quiet, normal, loud speaking and shouting, particularly if the weight ratio (thickness of letters) increases proportionately. Seen within the border of the frame, the word/s may appear more important or 'louder'. The frame provides the visual context for 'scale' to be meaningful. It is difficult to extract the purely visual factors from the semantic dimension of the words, but it is clear that although size may be immaterial to legibility, it can be significant in the interpretation.

Page 63: The use of different sizes within one frame normally indicates a hierarchy of importance. It may indicate by size, rather than starting at the left-to-right, head-to-foot sequencing, what should be seen/read first.

Foregrounding by size is a very obvious strategy often used in visual presentation and is fundamental to the hierarchy of reading order and importance. It is unfortunate that this is frequently ignored by linguists when analysing text which is 'displayed' and not in continuous prose form. An analysis of language in visual form must include the basic visual strategies of presentation.

Form versus function
Page 64: Aesthetic considerations have always played a prominent role in giving the language visible form. The traditional convention of visually balancing lines of text around a central vertical axis (symmetrical) is no less dictatorial towards the shape of the language than its twentieth-century paradigm of 'off-centred', 'range left' asymmetrical style. Jan Tschichold claimed that 'in central typography, pure form comes before the meaning of the words'.

Page 65: Each era produces its won visual style according to the cultural values of the society of that period. The practice of arranging words in square boxes at the expense of different letter and word spacings has been an aesthetic device, on and off, over hundreds of years and enjoyed another vogue in the 1980s.

Page 66: deliberate flaunting of reading conventions in creating textual visual patterns may be due to rebellion against such conventions or of visual appeal together with foregrounding of keywords within the text. Such variables may be temporary and subject to fashion changes and influences from other fields, but they can be imposed on the visual language and inevitably affect the semantic interpretation in much the same way as a regional accent or 'solemn' tone can affect the aural language.

Literacy in terms of visual communication is both linguistic and visual.

Page 73: Poetry and advertising have many language characteristics in common; the layout or structure of the typography is also similar and sometimes there is much overlap in the form. However, despite the overlap, the visual registers are clear and readers will normally have little difficulty in differentiating between poetry and advertising on sight.

Chapter 5 - Visible Speech?

Aural and visual literacy
Page 75: The visible language is a part of the visual filed, and a bridge to the verbal language. Access to knowledge of these domains is by separate avenues at tertiary level in education, or directly into professional careers. It is not surprising therefore that many public signs are produced by individuals and institutions which demonstrate incompetence in both language and visual skills. The sense, clarity and suitability to the purpose in our daily interchange via the visible language is dependent upon a much wider understanding of literacy.

Public communications and the headlines of the mass media are somewhere between speech and written prose. They have the visual sign system of the visible language and are channeled at a distance form the receiver. There is no spontaneous face-to-face interaction, but there are some similarities in signs attempting their 'turn-taking' in the babble of visible conversation pieces which are all seeking our attention in the environment. The visual prosodic cues, which are much more apparent in display text, prompt meanings form the same cultural heritage as the spoken language.

Ideology and design
Page 88: Ideology may be defined as the set of unconscious values and beliefs which provide frames for our thinking and which help us to make sense of the world. In speaking or writing or designing we cannot avoid these frames of reference which are embedded in our culture. The relationship between speech and thought is interlinked and well expressed in the saying 'How do I know what I am thinking until I hear myself speaking?' Not that everything we say or think is a conscious act and it is important to recognise that ideology is largely hidden within a culture and so are the forms of thought which underpin the social structure and preserve it.

Another important factor is the plurality of values and beliefs and then sub-set of ideologies which make up a culture. There is a complex web of sometimes conflicting ideologies within any culture and when a culture can no longer contain such conflicts the structure breaks down into a crisis of social disorder. The network of ideologies which are contained is constantly adjusting to new refinements, adaptations and new ideas which may seek to change or influence established beliefs. The constant interchange of ideas - discourse - simultaneously reinforces those ideologies and incorporates variations which affect the nature of the ideology itself for regurgitation the next time round. It is a constant process of reinforcement or change and modification. When the change or modification is significant enough for us to notice it, we generally categorise it as being creative.

Language is not ten only feature of communication in the media and there are many others relating to visual imagery which are just as wedded to cultural ideologies. Designers of the message form are just as conditioned by their visual ideologies as are the writers. In this respect, 'conditioned viewpoint' is also an occupational hazard for the analyst and if we are to minimise this effect it is important to have an objective framework upon which we can unpack the hidden ideologies in examining 'who says what to whom with what effect?'

A suggested approach to analysis
Page 89: The complex elements which make up an item of public communication are interdependent and although they have to be dissected during analysis it is only by moving forwards and backwards between text to context that we can develop an analysis in greater depth step by step. Given the additions of a first-stage 'overview' to describe the item and a final stage for conclusions, there are three main areas concerned with the physical structure, the sociological context and the psychological states of the sender and receiver.

The structural elements are usually contained in the tow main areas of visual and textual, the visual being the typographic elements with the various connotations which can be invoked by selection and creative distribution, and the textual being the vocabulary, grammatical form and general cohesion of the language and other references drawn in.

The social context provides both a culture context with all the sub-cultures and stereotypes which are present in society, and an ideological context which reflects the orthodox sub-ideologies and sub-texts that are held by society. These are the 'histories' that are being referred to in the visual and verbal languages used in the structure of the design.

Just as complex are the psychological attitudes of the sender and receiver. How much ideology is shared and is expected to be shared between the sender and receiver, and how this dictates the shape of the message and the reaction to it, becomes crucial at the point of contact - when the message arrives at its intended destination.

Page 93: There is sufficient evidence to show that the perception and understanding of the visible language is distinct from the reception of the orally transmitted language. The visible language is much more than a typographic system for spelling and punctuating the spoken language. It is more than is implied in the definition 'a system of visual signs for the temporal and spatial transmission of language'. Visual perception involves more than the ergonomics of legibility, it incorporates a deeply embedded culture-dependent interpretative activity. Just as linguistic communication succeeds only under certain conditions, the visual message-maker succeeds only when an attitude is intended to be conveyed and the reader recognises this attitude.

Chapter four has shown that even without general visual images, the character of the letterforms and the way in which they are arranged within a rectangular frame imparts a 'personality' to the words and affects their interpretation. The body of knowledge that is evoked from a visual frame is just as important in providing an inferential base for understanding as in any language-based culture.

designers, for their part, especially those who have to manipulate the visual form as typography, should understand the principles of language communication and apply these to the visible transmission of messages, rather than slavishly convert 'copy' into the latest visual fashion. Visual fashion - the style of delivery - is vital to the interpretation as we have seen, but it should never dictate the content of the message; it should serve to enhance meaning ad make typography fully effective.

Swann, Cal (1991) Language and Typography, London, Lund Humphries




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