Ye Olde Alphabet

Alphabet: An Exhibition of Hand-Drawn Lettering and Experimental Typography, an exhibition at The Cooper Union, features what you might call a plethora of interpretations of Ye Olde Alphabet.

All these variations on 26 letters, yet we haven’t see many proposals for new letters in some time. Not that there hasn’t been attempts in the last few centuries: Benjamin Franklin, Jan Tschichold, and George Bernard Shaw are among those who proposed expanding the alphabet, according to this fascinating article: Six New Letters for a Renovated Alphabet.

Here, at the level of the alphabet itself, we have surely reached bedrock: it is the stable and unchanging essence of all letters, the referent for all pieces of type… In fact, alphabetical solidity is nothing more than a temporal effect: if we could use time-lapse photography to revisit the development of the 26-letter Latin alphabet used to transcribe English, we’d see that letters have been discarded, added, and reshaped almost beyond recognition. The alphabet itself is malleable, temporary, subject to reform and revision.

George Bernard Shaw left money in his will for the development of a new alphabet; the competition attracted 467 entries. The winner, Kingsley Read’s phonetically accurate alphabet of 48 letters, can be found as a digital typeface: Shavian. More on Shavian on Wikipedia here.

What will the alphabet look like in a 100 years? Digital type gives us new creative freedom, but we no longer have much need to reproduce letters by hand. Will the 26 letters of the alphabet become set in cement, metaphorically speaking, or will the new trend in handlettering bring back the evolutionary (and ephemeral) nature of type?