Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Utopian Alphabet

The Utopian Alphabet of Thomas More

The Utopian alphabet was invented by Thomas More for his book, Utopia, 1516. However, when the book was printed the fonts for his alphabet were not available as this note From the Printer to the Reader explains:

"THE Utopian alphabet, good reader, which in the above written epistle is promised, hereunto I have not now adjoined, because I have not as yet the true characters or forms of the Utopian letters. And no marvel, seeing it is a tongue to us much stranger than the Indian, the Persian, the Syrian, the Arabic, the Egyptian, the Macedonian, the Sclavonian, the Cyprian, the Scythian, etc. Which tongues, though they be nothing so strange among us as the Utopian is, yet their characters we have not. But I trust, God willing, at the next impression hereof, to perform that which now I cannot: that is to say, to exhibit perfectly unto thee the Utopian alphabet. In the meantime accept my goodwill. And so farewell."

We know what these letters look like because they were recorded in Champs Fleury, 1529, by Geofroy Tory, who is famous for relating the letters of the alphabet to the proportions of human anatomy.


"This example was given a Latin translation by More:

"My ruler Utopos [Greek for "no place"] made me into an island from a not-island. Unique among lands, and without philosophy, I signifiy for mortals the philosophical city. I freely share my gifts, and accept without complaint what is better."

I found this alphabet while flipping through The Alphabet Abecedarium by Richard Firmage, 1993. Naturally the Utopian alphabet was in chapter U. About this alphabet Firmage says:

"The new alphabets proposed by linguistic or artistic reformers have become mere footnotes or curious period pieces in the general history of writing. Some alphabets were never intended for general acceptance or even any actual use, however, being merely literary appendages or embellishments. These include what Geofroy Tory called Utopian or Voluntary letters - named after the alphabet devised by Thomas More in his Utopia. These letterforms are a literary conceit or exercise in ingenuity meant to give a flavour of authenticity to fictional accounts of the civilization of imaginary societies." p. 226

These letters show an early attempt to construct a writing system using a set of shapes in four orientations. Does it also reflect a desire to seek a set of ideal letters not based on the arbitrary inherited Phoenician symbols?

PS Humble apologies, dear reader, I have just previous to this accidently posted a message from the Conlang list that I meant to save as a draft. Being ignorant of blogging etiquette, I did not remove the post but have left it as is.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In November 1516, Peter Giles sent the Utopian alphabet and page of text which appears in your link to Jerome Busleiden. He says that he has 'prefixed it' to the letter and - it would seem, therefore, that he perhaps invented it. It is possible, however, that More actually did invent the alphabet and sent it to Giles, in order that it be circulated around
the European humanist circle, to perpetrate the elaborate hoax that Utopia actually was a newly-discovered island.

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mrs. McCarthy,
I found your site by chance while looking for information about "Utopian Alphabets".
My name is Claudio, I am a graphic designer from Italy and I am interested in the history of writing and type design.
If you wish, have a look here:
It's a site by a friend of mine, Luciano Perondi, about writing systems experiments.

4:23 AM  
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10:09 PM  

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