There was a discussion recently among the Bettes about the phrase ‘Latin-type‘ when Sahar Afshar asked the question of what would be a good alternative to the phrase ‘non-Latin type‘. It got me thinking, because I realised I did not have a good alternative to that phrase at all.
We had several suggestions, like ‘global scripts’, ‘world scripts’, even ‘across scripts’ (to include fictional unworldly scripts), but the key point here was that Latin scripts are generally viewed as the default. Most of the literature and discourse on typography we have today is Latin-centric to begin with. To ask the question of why this is so, inevitably will bring us to the topic of power and influence on a global scale.
My thoughts on this issue are based on my experiences as someone who was born and bred in South-east Asia, a region that was heavily colonised by Europe from around the 16th century up until the 20th century. I once came across an epic publication known as The Histomap, which attempted to condense four thousand years of world history, in terms of relative power among contemporary states, nations and empires, onto a single, albeit very long, poster.
A key takeaway I got from this visualisation is that power has always waxed and waned across civilisations. It just so happens that in this day and age, a majority of this relative power currently lies with Europe and North America, AKA ‘The West’. Humanity itself is a very complex topic that some people spend their lifetimes researching. There are countless theories on society and culture, and almost all of them have their own salient points.
The basis of every theory and argument stems from an author’s mind, and their mind is able to formulate ideas and thoughts based on their life experiences. The books and papers they have read, the people they have interacted with, the environments in which they have lived. True objectivity is a myth, simply because no human being can possibly experience the world from every view point. With that being said, let me share some of my thoughts.
Although we can and do communicate in a myriad of ways, writing is the dominant method of human communication, and was essentially what advanced human civilisation from prehistoric times. The term ‘prehistoric‘ itself implies that history only began when human beings could record it.
There cannot be writing without language. And although there are cultures in the world that do not have a written language, but they are now few and far between. Writing is essentially the solidification of an idea, giving it some permanence as a record, as opposed to the spoken word, which relies on human memory. Given that culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society, language and culture are very closely intertwined.
When I think about language I always wonder how much of an impact does the language itself affect our thinking and the way we see the world around us. I remember coming across a few articles that went along the lines of ‘Awesome German words that English needs‘ or something like that. There are many Japanese and Chinese phrases that simply cannot be translated into English because they convey a concept that no English words can map to.
I grew up speaking both Chinese and English and I did not realise that I thought in two different languages at the same time, as there are certain concepts that are culturally Chinese which can’t really be expressed accurately in English.
For example, the phrase 孝顺 (xiàoshùn) is translated filial piety. The dictionary explanation of filial is relating to or due from a son or daughter or denoting the offspring of a cross, which isn’t what 孝顺 really means in Chinese. And I still am unable to explain the phrase 默契 (mòqì).
The reason I brought this up was to highlight the cultural differences between societies that speak different languages. Bringing it back to the topic of power and global influence, geography and the environment in which these cultures developed seemed to play a significant factor in determining their behaviour and beliefs.
If we attempt to trace the history of the myriad of writing systems still in use today, it seems that there were three points of origin, Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia and China. The scripts over most of the Eurasian and African land mass, with the exception of Han scripts, have their roots in systems Egyptian hieroglyphs and consequently, the Proto-Sinaitic script.
In spite sharing the same land mass, Han characters were developed independently in China, potentially dating back to the Neolithic period. A key milestone in the development of the Chinese language was the standardisation of Chinese characters by the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang.
The Americas developed their own scripts and writing systems as well, which were a combination of logographic and syllabic writing. Unfortunately, much of their literature has been lost due to European conquest and proselytizing by religious missionaries.
Which brings me to my next point of the role of religion in the spread of languages. An idea put forth by Marisa Powell in her article entitled Spread of Language, Spread of Religion is that a power base is necessary for the spread of a language. And if we think about it, there simply is no greater force that can shape humanity than religion.
Steven Dutch made the distinction between forest societies and desert societies, referring to societies that exist in environments where resources like food and water are plentiful versus those that survive under harsh, dry conditions where resources are scarce, respectively. He observed the pattern that societies of plenty tend to be more tolerant than those of scarcity.
The monotheistic religions that dominate the world today originated from desert environments. Such harsh conditions promote binary thinking in terms of definitive cause and effect, for example, if you do not find water, you will die. In essence, viewing survival as a zero-sum game. It could be such an environment that encouraged these religions to actively proselytise and even wage wars in the name of their beliefs.
Hester, I’ve seen people try to divide the world. Simplify it. Create clear rules. I understand why you want to. But it leads to nothing good.
— Max, Channel 4’s Humans
Dutch also suggests that the ”hard-headed dualism born of the desert, moderated somewhat so that the obsession with patriarchy and status is somewhat diluted, might be just what would be needed to permit the emergence of science.“ Just one of many theories to why the Scientific Revolution occurred in Europe, but it does seem reasonably plausible.
There was also the issue of timing. The Chinese were relatively open and receptive to the outside world during the Yuan dynasty, and by the Ming dynasty during the early 15th century, Zheng He commanded one of the grandest naval fleets around the world, establishing China’s global reputation through diplomacy as much as possible, though never shunning from using military might when diplomacy failed.
The Ottoman empire was also rose and thrived from the 11th century through to the 16th century, which at it’s peak covered territories across areas of Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Both these powers were on the decline when Europe started its own age of expansion and discovery from the end of the 15th century to the 18th century.
Greatly aided by the development of new technologies during the Industrial Revolution, Europe soon became the prevailing world power through their rapid colonisation of territories, extracting valuable resources and labour, in addition to developing trade routes, to increase their wealth and geopolitical power. And the recency of that legacy is what colours the world we live in today.
The colonial powers of Spain, Portugal, England, France and the Netherlands all used Latin scripts for their writing systems. As such, it is no surprise that Latin alphabets replaced the earlier Arabic and indigenous Brahmic scripts that were used for various Austronesian languages in former European colonies, like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
And so here we are, in the 21st century, where the world seems to be as messy and chaotic as it always has been throughout the course of human history. We just have a different set of problems from generations past. It is doubtful that we will ever escape the human condition, but it will be interesting to think about how the world might be in another century or two, even if we will no longer be here to witness it.