Sunday, May 08, 2005

Of fonts and faces

In his immortal rant about the actual scope of Eskimo snow vocabulary, Geoff Pullum highlights the sensationalistic nature of our fascination with the topic by asking his readers to substitute printers for Eskimos and font names for snow names in a typical textbook passage about the latter, which he quotes:

Would anyone think of writing about printers the kind of slop we find written about Eskimos in bad linguistics books? Take [the following] random textbook ..., with its earnest assertion "It is quite obvious that in the culture of the Eskimos ... snow is of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that correspond to one word and one thought in English into several distinct classes ...," Imagine reading: "It is quite obvious that in the culture of printers ... fonts are of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one word and one thought among non-printers into several distinct classes ..." Utterly boring, even if true. Only the link to those legendary, promiscuous, blubber-gnawing hunters of the ice-packs could permit something this trite to be presented to us for contemplation.

[Not having my copy of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax to hand here in Massachusetts, I cribbed this excerpt from an urban legend web page discussing it.]

This comparison had a salutary effect on me the first time I read it, more than ten years ago. It brought home the banality of the basic observation about lexicons, as well as a vague sense of shame at the credulous way I had first absorbed and later solemnly repeated the myth to fellow students as an undergraduate. It also caused me to resolve to watch out for such lightly disguised pointing-and-staring in academic and other writing about cultures different from my own, and to try to squash tendencies to such behavior in myself. I have subsequently used the illustration in my own teaching, hoping that it would stick in my students’ heads the way it has stuck in mine.

So it is with considerable astonishment that I report that someone did think of writing about printers the kind of slop Pullum found written about Eskimos in bad linguistics books. Well, ok: it’s not really the same kind of slop, because it’s not being presented as a deep point about the relationship between thought and language, but it’s material that could have been used to illustrate such a point, with printers as the example population. My guy Art was helping his mother clear out her basement a few weeks ago, and he brought home a copy of the 1937 tenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (fourth impression). I opened it at a random page, and read the following, in 8 point Bruce Old Style No. 31 Solid:

Faces of type are like men’s faces. They have their own expression; their complexion and the peculiar twists and turns of line identify them immediately to friends, to whom each is full of individuality. One who has worked with letters long enough to merit the title of printer remembers a type face as the ordinary man remembers a man face. The layman, however, is at sea; it isn’t in him to remember a certain type face, once, twice or thrice its name and distinguishing marks are pointed out to him. Students in advertising classes conducted by your author persistently ask, “How can I learn to recognize the different faces?” The only answer that can be given is “by association.” One must live with type faces and consider them as things alive and full of character. Laymen don’t understand that they are accustomed to recognizing men’s faces through long association, whereas they have little or no acquaintance with type faces.
As we have divisions of mankind, so we have similar divisions among letters. In general, type faces take five forms, as follows: Gothic, Roman, Italic, Block and Script. These five are the basis of all type faces, except in those languages like Hebrew and Russian, which have peculiar styles of their own. As we set the Italians apart from the Swedes by recognizing their broad racial characteristics, so we distinguish one Italian from another by his individual features. Thus, each one of our broad divisions of type faces, like Roman, has several or many individuals of varying details, beauty and utility.

Actually, I was relatively likely to run across this passage, since it is repeated on the subsequent seven pages in type of varying sizes and densities. It is reprinted from a 1925 volume, Type Lore, by J. L. Frazier. Other excerpts from the same book are used to illustrate other font styles, most chosen so as to describe the history of the font they are illustrating. I find that Frazier’s pomposity has a certain style, and his fervent devotion to the study of fonts is rather awe-inspiring, though one wonders if his dinner-table conversation might not have been a bit monotonous. I'm particularly fond of the sentence, "One who has worked with letters long enough to merit the title of printer remembers a type face as the ordinary man remembers a man face." [Emphasis on 'man', absence of use/mention on 'printer' in original.]

The quoted passage is sociologically and historically interesting to me in a couple of ways. First, the mention of ‘broad racial characteristics’ in the comparison of font families to groups of people grates on a modern ear, and the uncomfortable parallel suggested by fonts of ‘varying details, beauty and utility’ speaks, I think, of the contemporary assumptions about the discrete categorization of humanity into races and individuals of varying details, beauty and utility. Pullum’s point about the subtle jingoism behind the persistence of the Eskimo vocabulary factoid would likely have been greeted with blank incomprehension in 1925; the us/them (and them, and them, and those) distinction was then understood as an accepted fact of nature, not an unfortunate quirk of the human psyche.

The mention of 'association’ as the only way to become familiar with different fonts seems like it might evoke the then most up-to-date theory of learning, behaviorism (though it could just as easily be a natural turn of phrase). His comparison of the problem of distinguishing typefaces to the problem of distinguishing human faces is also interesting, since we now know that each is approached very differently by the brain. Normal humans are essentially all experts at facial recognition, while letter recognition is a problem for a significant subset of the population—even though the engineering problem posed by facial recognition is more difficult by several orders of magnitude than that posed by letter recognition. Heck, I can buy a text-reading device for less than $100, while a facial-recognition system is about $30,000. (Tweaking a text-recognition device to identify specific fonts wouldn't be too big a leap, I would think). Further, the mental specialization for face recognition in humans would perhaps have been a surprise to the behaviorists, whose associationistic model was intended as the general principle behind all learning; it should work the same whether applied to typefaces, 'man' faces, or (e.g.) language. Nice to think we know more than we used to. Fun to think about learning more in the future.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a few more words from Frazier, also quoted in the Manual of Style, about the history of italics:

The first italic type was employed by Aldus Manutius on his famous edition of Virgil, published at Venice in 1501, and is said to have been cut by Francesco de Bologna to imitate the beautiful hand-writing of Petrarch, famous Italian poet. The form at first consisted only of lower-case, important words being started with small roman capitals and it was independent of any roman font. The italic was used for the complete text, and in the hands of Aldus and the Elzevirs it made an admittedly graceful page medium, but somewhat too informal, in our estimation, and less legible than the more dignified roman style. The use of italic for emphasis in roman text was a later development which some say has marked the loss of its individual character, and not until Garamond made matched romans and italics was associated use considered.
Aldus, whose complete name was Theobaldus (Aldus) Pius Manutius Romanus, was born at Bassiano in 1450. He was one of the greatest of the so-called “fifteenth century masters” and successor to Nicholas Jenson. Famed wherever good books are appreciated, Aldus is revered especially for the high ideals that influenced him to take up printing. This is best indicated by the following quotation from his first book: “We (Aldus and his associates) have determined henceforth to devote all our lives to this good work, and call God to witness that it is our sincere desire to do good to mnkind.” A noble principle.

[Isn’t ‘Aldus’ a morphophonologically odd shortening of ‘Theobaldus’? Or is that perhaps not what the bracketed (Aldus) in the middle of his name indicating? And don't you think "Aldus and the Elzevirs" wbagnfarb? Hey, it seems that Elsevier is named after the Elzevirs. How about that. ]

[Itinerary note: On Tuesday this week I quit Cambridge, MA, for Cambridge, England, where I'll be working with Raffaella Folli on various tricky bits of Italian. Who knew being a linguist was going to involve so much fun travelling?]


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