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