Of fonts and men. A few thoughts

In my most recent post, I overviewed how fonts operate, and the steps involved in transforming unknown orthographic structures in ancient Chinese into typable glyphs. Here I would like to reflect a bit more on the relevance of learning about fonts and input systems for scholars, regardless of their interest in DH studies. 

A first reason to dedicate some time to this topic is why we study history: understanding how we got here is necessary to understand where we are going. A couple of days before my article went online, Liu Li from atelierAnchor (a design studio based in  Shanghai) published a piece on what it took to developers and designers to make Chinese language appealing on displays, so that the result would be not only legible but also (perhaps, especially!), aesthetically appealing. How computer fonts were first created is explained more in detail also in this article by Tom Mullaney. Liu’s article concludes with an apt invitation: “don’t forget the work done by generations of designers and developers to make what you see possible. (…) Where [this work] goes from here is up to us.” 

Second, because all research, including DH and digitizing research, is meant to bring us forward. As Liu Li said, where it goes depends on us. And it depends on our grasping of what fonts and digitizing languages entail, regardless of how DH oriented our research is. This is why in my last post I defined Jing Tsu’s opinion piece puzzling, since it does not explain how all the changes that should have been implemented for this language reform were going to take place, given the complexity that releasing half a million new characters would entail. In the absence of more explanations, it is also counterintuitive how having more digitized characters would reduce netizens’ choice of words to avoid censorship.[1] After 6 years from the announcement, there are no direct signs that the reform was implemented.

Third, the world is inevitably becoming more and more digital. And academic research with it. We type non-alphabetic languages daily, looking up words and sentences in databases and online platforms, with an ease that is in fact deceiving. The COVID pandemic made archival research impossible, and many countries such as PRC and Japan are still hard to access in person. I am sure that many scholars from all fields wished to have digital access to archival documents and manuscripts, and we need to think about what this implies. I look forward to the moment when ancient Chinese scripts will be typable, with online databases through which words and graphs can be searched and compared. But I am willing to wait until this transformation can be done in a way that does not underrepresent the variety of ancient scripts without having to navigate an overwhelming number of choices when I search for a word. Furthermore, at the current stage, we grasp around 30% of ancient Chinese language(s). To come up with new fonts and input systems now would bind us to a lot of editing later on – an amount of energy that could be better spent otherwise.

So what is left to do? Simply, continue to learn about writing systems, fonts, and devise ways to bring premodern manuscripts into the DH world. Chang’an was not built in a day. Nor were digital fonts, and neither will be the fully digital reproductions of manuscripts. But if you work with manuscripts and keep an eye on DH, you may be part of the solution. 

[1] In another contribution to the New York Times, she also claims that Chinese language in writing has been around since 3000 BCE, and that the Phoenician alphabet was pictographic until the Greeks took over. Both claims are incorrect. The earliest evidence of writing in Chinese history are the oracle bone inscriptions, circa 1300 BCE. Prior to that, symbols have been found on various objects, but there is no evidence that these symbols represented the presence of a written language. The Phoenician alphabet was already no-longer pictographic.  

One thought on “Of fonts and men. A few thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s