Words are Shapely

While watching a show about design a few months ago, I learned that the use of mixed upper and lower cases on road signs was a deliberate choice. Research showed that people could read the signs from a distance more easily because people could recognise the shape of the word before they could really even read the word.

(For the font nerds, the signs and Transport Medium font were designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. You can download the font here or here )

Certainly, I find sentence case easier to read than ALLCAPS, though the word, sentence or whole paragraph in that format has its place.

The realisation reminded me that there is more to appreciating the English language than simply vocabulary, punctuation and grammar. Sometimes there’s a real pleasure in just the look of a whole word, as though it has artistic resonance and visual meaning beyond the collection of letters and the meaning of the word.

I love how the word awkward looks… well, awkward. I love how the word ‘Melbourne’ jumps out at me from a map even when I’m not wearing my glasses. That word has the shape of home in it. I love how the word ‘parallel’ has its own mnemonic in it, the double ‘l’ which is also a set of parallel lines.

Some languages have alphabets that naturally give of themselves to artistic forms. Arabic’s beautiful flowing script is often used artistically. I have an applique street scene I bought in Cairo in the 1990s, in which the buildings spell out ‘in the name of the compassionate and the merciful’ and the moon is a beautiful crescent-shaped Allah.

I only ever learned a little Arabic during my time in Egypt, though I learned to speak and hear more than I could read or write. Still, I can recognise the words for Allah and halal on sight still. Their distsinctive shapes are reminders of a fascinating period of my life, and a fascinting culture.

Recognising words by their shape and appreciating the art of the shape of language are all lines on the spectrum. It’s all part of loving the written word.

(And then there are the glories of the spoken word and onomatopoeia, but that’s the subject for another post.)

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.

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Posted on November 26, 2012, in creativity, language, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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