Thursday, September 13, 2007

Never noticed... and it was right there!

Garamond f-i ligature
(from Wikipedia)
It's amazing... little things. I've been writing my thesis for the last few months using the wonderful typesetting language LaTeX. It does a great job of putting graphs and figures in the right places, producing beautiful equations and numbering them correctly, and providing accurate and well-formatted cross-references and endnotes.

It also does great typesetting. Little things that I've never noticed before--not until coming across this page completely randomly.

I got to learn about something completely new to me: ligatures.

Ok... It's not that I've never heard of them before. But I've never really put much thought into what they are, where they come from, and how pervasive (it seems) they are in my life.

So I opened up the PDF of this gargantuan document that I've been working on all summer. Lo and behold, there they are... All over the place! I zoomed in on the text and stared wide-eyed, like a child, at these little compound characters that had completely flown under my radar until now.

The really fascinating part is how things like this develop. Language--spoken and textual--grow and mutate over time. For different reasons things change. Sometimes the reasons are political or religious (in this case, dropping characters from an "out of vogue" pagan tradition or two) . Sometimes, it's just to make life easier (like developing compact characters so that scribes can transcribe more efficiently).

The cultural impact of evolving languages is an interesting one. I grew up in Quebec, where language has always been an issue--the mainstay of a culture that feels marginalized. The internet and SMS brings a whole new transformation of language (bastardization to some, innovation to others), and until today I wasn't sure how I felt about it all.

But now, the way I see it, it all fits into a grander societal and cultural growth. The kids of today--tapping away on cell phones and in online chat rooms--just took the same license as monks in the middle ages. No longer a stylization to simplify the reproduction of illuminated text, this new economy of typographic language means an immediacy to communication that is less accessible when you're worried about every punctuation mark and extra syllable. The dynamism and information content isn't lost, and the only downside is potential miscommunication as the norms of the new language structure develop. (But that's nothing new. Just look at some of the ligatures on that Wikipedia page. There are a couple of those that, if I saw them in a text, I wouldn't know what they meant. For example, the "ss" ligature looks like a "beta" to me, the science geek.)

I sense a parallelism here deserving of inquiry: A critical view of l33t speak as a modern-day echo of the middle-ages development of accepted typographic ligatures. Could be interesting.

And I wonder: What is the link between modern SMS texting and the shortcuts we take to write text messages quickly (and with as few characters as possible) and, say, the acceptable shorthand of scripting ligatures that allowed a monk to reproduce a ready-to-distribute manuscript just that little bit faster?

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