The Esthetic of Alphabets

From its earliest manifestations literacy had a decorative aspect. How could it be otherwise, since implicit in all pictograms, hieroglyphics, and letters is some cultural esthetic, some answer to the question, What is most beautiful? The Meso-american answer lies in looped and bulbous rock carvings, the Chinese answer in vibrantly minimalist brush strokes, the ancient Egyptian answer in stately picture puzzles. Even alphabets, those most abstract and frozen forms of communication, embody an esthetic, which changes depending on the the culture of its user. How unlike one another the carved, unyielding Roman alphabet of Augustus’s triumphal arches and the idiosyncratically homely Romano-Germanic alphabet of Gutenberg’s Bible.

For their part, the Irish combined the stately letters of the Greek and Roman alphabets with the talismanic, spellbinding simplicity of Ogham to produce initial capitals and headings that rivet one’s eyes to the page and hold the reader in awe.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 165

Here is an interesting thought. Our alphabets and scripts are actually clues to what we find beautiful.

Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The Esthetic of Alphabets

  1. In teaching English to Arabic speakers, I notice how the differences in writing reflect differences in culture. Arabic letters are curved , and vowels are omitted. English has mostly straight lines; vowels are seldom omitted. It’s important for English letters to touch the bottom line. Not so for Arabic . English is “Get to the point. Be clear.” Arabic is “Be courteous and ambiguous and flexible. We’re not in a hurry.”

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you haven’t watched the movie, The Book of Kells, you need to. It really emphasized the relationship between pagan ideas of language and how contextualists seek to create a lingual bridge to the good news.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s