Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Robert Bringhurst

Robert Bringhurst has recently published The Solid Form of Language, 2004, in which he presents a new model for classifying writing sytems.

Beginning with the original relationship between a language and its written script, Bringhurst takes us on a history of reading and writing that begins with the interpretation of animal tracks and fast-forwards up to the typographical abundance of more recent times. The first four sections of the essay describe the earliest creation of scripts, their movement across the globe and the typographic developments within and across languages.

In the fifth and final section of the essay, Bringhurst introduces his system of classifying scripts. Placing four established categories of written language - semographic, syllabic, alphabetic and prosodic - on a
wheel adjacent to one another, he uses the location, size and shape of points on the wheel to show the degree to which individual world languages incorporate these aspects of recorded meaning.

This wheel may owe something to the medicine wheel of the aboriginal peoples of North America. The four cardinal directions of the medicine wheel are defined here.

In addition to having his own taxonomic wheel for writing systems, Bringhurst writes about the Cree Syllabary and its use among the Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibway.

For instance, in talking about the artificial syllabary created for the Algonquian languages of the Cree and Ojibwa by James Evans in the 19th century, which was later adapted to Inuktitut (the unrelated language of the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic), he adds, 'Other enthusiasts based new scripts on Evans's principles, adapting the idea of rotating characters to suit the needs of Carrier and Chipewyan -- Athapaskan languages phonologically very different from Cree or Ojibwa.'

The point of Bringhurst's bringing up the Canadian syllabary is to contrast it with another artificial writing system, the Hangul script of Korea. Both systems were new, both were artificial; but in Korea, when Hangul was introduced in the 15th century, there was already a long tradition of writing using the Chinese script -- including a sophisticated calligraphic practice -- whereas the Cree and Ojibwa had not been in the habit of writing down their languages at all. Nor had the Inuit.

'In the Eastern Canadian Arctic,' writes Bringhurst, 'the Inuktitut versions of this script are now a major tool for administrative work and are used for literature as well. Yet after one and a half centuries of use, Canadian syllabics still have not developed a fluent cursive form nor a calligraphic tradition.' After pointing out that most people using the script today "write" it using a keyboard rather than a pen, he concludes, 'It remains to be seen how the script may now develop through the medium of digital design.' Then, responding to political developments in the Canadian North since the original version of this essay, he adds: 'It also remains to be seen what effect the creation of Nunavut will have upon this script. Inuktitut literature is old, and so is the tradition of Inuit independence, but an Inuktitut-speaking bureaucracy has never before existed.'

While Bringhurst comments correctly that no cursive form developed, I have seen syllabics being written fluently. I wonder if it is the very minimal nature of the shapes that has discouraged the development of a cursive form. I would be interested in asking Bringhurst what his thinking was behind this comment.

Bringhurst is himself responsible for designing a Cree font which he used in writing a play, Ursa Major in Latin, Greek, English and Cree.

Ursa Major was typeset in Giovanni Mandersteig’s Dante type with New Hellenic Greek and Robert Bringhurst’s Cree Syllabics. The play was written in English, Latin, Greek and Cree, and is presented on the page in two colours to capture the polyphonic aspect of the work as it has been performed.


Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

I have just done a quick check in google and have found out that Canon Redfern Louttit who taught me how to write in syllabics died since I was last in Northern Ontario. It may be that Bringhurst is more right than I wish to believe when he says that most people today keyboard the script rather than write it with a pen.

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