Thoughts on written language

Monday January 3, 2011

Rambled on the plane from Chicago to Japan, 2011.1.1-2.

Written Language
Yes, I will tell you what I think about typography, or some related issues, at least

Let's take graphic novels on one side, and plain ASCII text on the other. ASCII, if you don't know, is a standard computer thing that allows you to record lower and upper-case English letters, along with the standard punctuation. Nothing fancier than a hyphen and underscore, not even smart quotes. Just plain text, as it is sometimes called. Graphic novels, if you don't know, are comic books with aspirations.

The point is, there are differing levels of graphics magic that can go into things that fall roughly under the heading of "the written word".

In plain text you can't underline, or put things in italics, or bold. It's really very restrictive. Just the words. You can create some sort of emphasis-alternative by putting things in all caps. In my opinion this is almost never the right thing to do.

But normal books these days do all of the italicizing and bolding and underlining they want. I notice it but usually it doesn't bother me. It does lead to annoying things like having to mention whether it was the author's emphasis or not when you quote it or whatever, but okay.

And then also a lot of ostensibly normal straight-up books will interrupt the text to put in a whole picture or something. My beloved Kurt Vonnegut does this (rather a lot) in Breakfast of Champions. He writes things like, "He ate an apple. Apples look like this:"

And the next thing in the "text" is a line drawing of an apple. Even Harry Potter has some stuff like this; little sketches inserted here and there - and I don't mean the decorative illustrations; the little pictures form a part of the "text".

My gut feeling is to be opposed to this. I am not quite sure exactly why, or where to draw the line. Graphic novels are their own thing, but in things that are otherwise just text, novels and the like, I think a line needs to be drawn.

In the case of pictures, it seems to violate the idea of the text recording speech, just telling a story. You don't think of telling a story around the camp fire, and then stopping to hold up a picture. I guess you could stop and draw a picture in the dirt or something, but it's really different from just TELLING the story.*

There's also issues with pictures, like the difficulty "quoting" them, or changing them to audio books or Braille, also translations if they contain text, etc.

I am pretty sure I can unilaterally condemn pictures in novels. Novels are not picture books. They are for reading. That's why graphic novels have a different name, and one that might be better if it was even more different.

Also, as a person who is literate, I am used to writing without sticking pictures in everywhere. It would be annoying and a little difficult to add a picture to this, as I type it out with my thumbs.

Is it just because of convention, because of habit that I don't want to add pictures? Will people in the future add a lot of pictures all the time, with big touch screens everywhere and appropriate software for easy drawing?

But pen and paper has been along for longer, and you aren't considered a good author if you throw up your hands and say "Heck, it's hard to describe but it looked like this:" and then sketch it out. I think the key reason that pictures are usually kept separate from the written word is that the written word is modeling the spoken word, which is necessarily non-graphic.

So what should be the building blocks of "the written word"? Just 26 letters and the space? Lower and upper case? Punctuation? Italics? Bold? Underline? Different font sizes? Different fonts? Different font colors? Smileys?

Would Shakespeare be better if he'd used fonts to convey some of the players' emotion?

As anyone who's texted, chatted, etc. can tell you, it can be difficult to convey your message in ASCII. Hence all the extra cues people use.

2b r not 2b lol
THAT is question j/k

That sicks me out.

Maybe only my family used that expression. As you can guess, I'm not a fan of all that in published writing. I don't want to read a book of it. Sure I use it for communicating with friends.

Here I think the problem really is that written language does not actually capture spoken language as well as we would like it to, or as well as we would like to pretend it does. In speech we rely on shortcuts like inflection to pack more meaning into words. I try to put some of that into things I write too; I left in the all-caps I instinctively resorted to above (at the *).

I think the very real disconnect between spoken and written language is something that should be more clearly acknowledged, perhaps. I think of Latin, which served as a sort of written-only (almost) language for a long time in Europe. Being dead might not be so bad for a language, if your goal is just clear communication of ideas between various people.

As a note on punctuation, I think what I did above with the asterisk and most recently with parentheses are kind of cheats. I could probably improve that with editing.

Also in Korea for a long time there was no written form of the Korean language(s) and the elite used Chinese in a role roughly similar to that of the aforementioned Latin. But in that case I am forced to think of the way in which Chinese characters were used to write Korean poems in transliteration. Apparently at least some Korean people were not so interested in doing their poetry in Chinese.

Maybe it's appropriate for writing that is trying to capture the human voice, like poetry might, like dialogue, like a story can, should make full use of whatever technology is available. Maybe a novel can be a better novel for having a bunch of typographical trickery. But in that case it makes me think that we need some kind of though-out genre distinctions. A novel is a novel and a graphic novel is a graphic novel; are there a thousand grades in between?

If I look at standard practice, it seems like italics is pretty popular. I guess it's mostly replaced underlining, maybe because it looks better and people don't rely on type-writers any more. Bold is pretty popular too. Now that I think about it, underlining seems to have gotten really rare.

In books and newspapers aside from headlines, writers almost never change font or font size, probably because it's just so obnoxious - both to change and to read.

So maybe I should accept bold and italics as part of the standard set. But I really don't want to. Is it just romantic attachment to ASCII? Is it that it won't copy and paste cleanly on ever web form?

What would I do if I was writing a novel? I'm writing this whole thing because of the italics in Oryx and Crake. I didn't really mind reading it that way.

But in the end I don't think I could be happy with it for myself.

But then you have stuff like MLA format demanding all these typographical things, argh... And even as I bemoan that I can't get away from using obviously vocal things in my writing. Is that just laziness?

Is this all heading for a conclusion other than "written language, like spoken language, is guided by social conventions specific to audience and application, and these conventions can change with time"?

Maybe not. But I don't like all that darn formatting sneaking in everywhere.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.