"Artificial characters"?

Peroyomas's picture

I've read a lot of complains every time a new character design emerges. I can stand those, but I don't get why a recurring argument against those is calling them "artificial characters". Is there such thing like a natural character? All characters we use are conventions that have to be taught and get used with; they were created by humans, evolved with the time and definitely aren't stored in the unconscious mind. It is true that people generally grow being a 'native' speaker of some alphabet, yet even with that logic new characters I don't think that the "artificial" word is property used.

Joshua Langman's picture

I do think the characters we use daily are stored in our unconscious mind. That is why you can look at a word and know what it says without consciously "reading" it, as much as you try only to look and not to read.

The difference between "natural" and "artificial" has to do exactly with that "evolved with time" bit. Still, I don't think this is particularly common or standard terminology.

hrant's picture

Typographically speaking, the only way I can see the term
"natural" applying is in relation to reading. Which means
for example that any form that attempts to be easy to write
is typographically unnatural. In fact, almost every glyph
ever made is mostly unnatural.


John Hudson's picture

I don't get why a recurring argument against those is calling them "artificial characters"

Can you provide an example? Who is calling new characters 'artificial'?

I suppose such a term might be used in the sense of inorganic, as a parallel to how the word artificial is used relative to things like sweeteners. For the most part, the signs that we read every day are the product of a long 'organic' process. They have been filtered through the triple screens of writing, reading and culture, and this accounts for both their conventional forms and for the stylistic variety of those forms.

I don't think it is the case that all new signs are inorganic; that is, I believe new signs can be devised, thoughtfully, to fit within the organically evolved systems of writing and reading and cultural expression. Or it can turn out that way mostly by chance, which I think was the case with the euro symbol: the speed with which type designers found ways to convincingly represent that new sign in virtually any style of type is evidence of its organic compatibility with existing typographic conventions and styles. On the other hand, I think the new Turkish lira sign has a problem that will be much more difficult to resolve in a way that fits organically with other letters, numerals and symbols.

Té Rowan's picture

@Peroyomas – Natural characters do exist, but now-a-days they are prescribed all kinds of psychotropics to make them 'normal'.

@Hudson – The amount of problems with the new TRL sign depends on which side of the channel the authorities decide to sail closer to: Recognisability or adherence to spec.

Nick Shinn's picture

Any character that readers encounter after they have learned to read has an awkward status.

It’s related to the difficulty most people have in learning more than one language fluently, if the multiple languages are not all learned concurrently as a young child.

So to make a character “natural’, it has to be part of the alphabet taught to (and learned by) children when they first read, when the most profound impressions and connections are made.

In Britain during the 1960s, an experiment was carried out which compared 873 children taught with the traditional alphabet against 873 taught with Pitman’s ITA (initial teaching alphabet).

The results showed that children in the ITA group learned faster and wrote better, but ultimately the least able of them had severe difficulties in adapting to real-world complexities and irrationalities, which children in the traditional group had been dealing with since day one.

An awesome piece of social engineering, unfortunately to the detriment of some of the guinea-pigs.


On a smaller scale, the last characters to be added to the Western European alphabet were two of many improvements proposed by G.G. Trissino in 1529— the addition of V to disambiguate certain usages of U, and of j for like reason with i. These caught on slowly at first in Italy, and then elsewhere, but eventually came to be the norm.

A more gradual, organic form of cultural evolution.

(However, I don’t know to what extent Trissino’s reforms were actively promoted and/or enforced by various authorities of the day, or how much they spread infectiously throughout the medium of culture.)

hrant's picture

Nick, I think you just made the single best argument for
chirographic type, at least for the current generation of
readers. I'll have to think more deeply about it...
(Thank you.)


Andreas Stötzner's picture

> … in 1529 — the addition of V …

I always thought this letter was around in use since the time of the Romans. The ancient times.

riccard0's picture

So to make a character “natural’, it has to be part of the alphabet taught to (and learned by) children when they first read
That’s why so many people have trouble writing @.

I always thought [the letter V] was around in use since the time of the Romans
Yes, more precisely we could say the distinction between V and U was made in the 1500s.

Nick Shinn's picture

Sorry Andreas, I accidentally transposed U and V.
It was of course the U that was added in the 16th century.

quadibloc's picture

I would think that while it certainly is true, for example, that the letters of the Latin alphabet came into being by the hand of Man, and thus they are artificial, one can still draw a distinction between symbols which gradually developed over time, arising spontaneously from the activities of many people - and characters which can be traced to the action of a single individual.

This is true whether we are speaking of the "interrobang" punctuation mark, the new currency symbols for the Indian Rupee or the Turkish Lira, or the astrological glyps for the Uranian planets of the Hamburg School.

"Artificial" may be the wrong word for the distinction which is intended to be made, but it is perhaps the closest word we have, and as I think the distinction is real and significant, I can't criticize people for using the best word for it that is handy - because to do so would simply have the result of preventing the distinction from being expressed.

joeclark's picture

I am pretty sure what we are really talking about here are new currency symbols quite obviously dreamed up by some twit in a Second World government or, worse, by the winner of a “talent” competition.

Theunis de Jong's picture

Joe, are you in a Euro-using country? (Ah, I see you're not -- I thought as much.)

That's exactly what the state of the Euro sign was, a decade ago. Or perhaps sans the Second World govt reference. I vividly remember typographer's complaints on the "rule" that the shape ought to be used "as is", as it seemed to imply you could not even make a bold version, let alone a Bold Sans Condensed. I also remember the flurry of activity it caused to get my hands on fonts that actually contained the cursed thing, in whatever any shape or form.

Every now and then someone will need a new symbol, be it governments, mathematicians, or linguists (the latter I have very close & personal experience with).

hrant's picture

> I vividly remember typographer's complaints on the "rule"

Only typographers actually believed it was really a rule.

With skill and talent you can make amazing things with lemons.


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