THE RED LIST

The Stonehenge Syndrome Writing as Pattern
How about switching between scripts?

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Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

terena-bell

Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

When you visit Stonehenge, what may catch your attention as much as the stone formation is the behavior of the visitors.

Stonehenge is almost always thronged with people, and they all have their heads slightly on one shoulder and they’re squinting at the stones, or lining them up with the sun, or pointing to various features on the horizon.

They’re responding to an enigma: Just by looking at Stonehenge, anyone can see that it has shape and pattern. Pattern implies intention, and intention implies meaning — but we don’t know what that meaning is.

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The very shape of the structure becomes an unanswered question; we get captured by it. We try to resolve the enigma by finding its meaning, and until we do so, it nags at us. It becomes a kind of question mark, and a question mark is shaped like a hook: It won’t let you go.

What does this have to do with language? I’m going to argue that language, both spoken and written, is also a kind of pattern, and while we’re accustomed to thinking of the words as having meaning, I propose that the pattern itself also has meaning.

As human beings, we depend on our ability to perceive patterns. Neuroscience tells us that we don’t take in everything we see; instead, we do a quick scan of our surroundings every few seconds to reassure ourselves that our assumptions are valid, that things are more or less what, and where, we think they are. We’re looking for reassurance — but we’re also looking out for anything that breaks the pattern, because that may indicate danger. A perceived pattern strikes us as orderly; a broken pattern is unsettling, and we want to look away, or do something to fix it, or get ready to defend ourselves.

Equally, the way we negotiate our potentially dangerous world is by creating patterns, because patterns enable us to offer predictability to each other. Music is a form of pattern. Speech is a form of pattern. And art is a form of pattern, or a vast number of forms of pattern.

But I hadn’t thought of writing as a kind of pattern until 2012, when Dave Wilson at Sterling Hardwoods in Burlington gave me an incredible piece of wood.

He actually didn’t know what species it was, so I took to calling it “oil wheel wood,” after the psychedelic projections they used to play during concerts in the ‘60s.

Its grain was chaotic — in fact, it was chaotic in a literal and even literary sense: it was so turbulent it reminded me of Milton’s description of Satan’s journey across Chaos in Paradise Lost. Chaos is so utterly without form that Satan takes one step forward and falls 10,000 fathoms, but immediately is blown upwards ten thousand miles. The grain of this piece of wood was like a map of Satan’s progress. It even had little knots like planetoids randomly embedded in it.

I decided I would carve, in the beautiful-but-endangered Balinese script, the chant, “Om and shanti, shanti and om.” As I was doing this, it struck me that a chant is a pattern, a pattern of sounds repeated over and over to center oneself, in an effort to bring calm and certainty to an unpredictable and chaotic world.

And looking at the finished carving, with its key letters and words mirroring and balancing each other, I realized that writing, too, is a pattern, consisting of a series of shapes we know well, shapes we call letters and words — and as such is also a way of organizing reality.

The words themselves epitomized the capacity of thought to transcend matter, change, and time, or perhaps the attempt to impose order on chaos by means of prayer. On that incredible wood, the wood of universal discord, the carved words of the chant were the visual equivalent of breathing calmly amid the storm: They imposed familiarity, they (like Stonehenge) manifested purpose, and their orderly progress, so different to Satan’s, implied that all would be well, come what may.

I suggest that the same effect takes place, somewhere below the level of our awareness, with all writing. Consider the most prestigious form of writing, the book. A page of a book embodies all those values of pattern: It consists of orderly, horizontal, parallel lines of roughly or exactly the same length. Look still more closely, word by word, at its ascenders and descenders, not quite as rhythmic and predictable as the rising and falling spikes on an EKG, but with a similar sense of pulse.

And this sense of pattern is reinforced by the tradition that “real” writing has consistent x-height and cap height, consistent leading, consistent kerning.

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Which is why we are so badly thrown by an amazing script like Mandombe, which refuses this consistency, rising to a variety of heights and looking like a row of unfinished houses. Like many indigenously-created African scripts, it has its own sense of pattern.

This aspect of writing is not something we do consciously or by choice, but that’s not to say we don’t notice it. One of my tutors at Oxford talked endlessly about his magnum opus, the book on Chaucer he was writing, and a few years later I stumbled upon a copy. I opened it idly, wondering whether it would be worth all the fuss he made of it, and something instantly struck me as odd about it. The pages somehow just looked wrong.

Eventually I realized what it was: His writing was so pretentious and polysyllabic (he seemed particularly fond of the word “architectonic”) that the page was overburdened with long words. The ratio of print to white space was so heavily in favor of print that each page seemed dark, crowded, just plain wrong.

And at the risk of riding this particular horse too far, I want to suggest that pattern is intimately connected with what we call beauty. One of the first kinds of wood I used for my Alphabets carvings was Vermont curly maple, and it’s still one of my favorites. When the piece is finished, the rippling wood becomes three-dimensional, anatomical, muscular. The black text seems to float both in and above it, as if it is both part and not part of the wood.

One day I was staring at this combination, and it struck me that something fascinating was taking place in terms of pattern. The grain in the wood and the ripples running more or less perpendicular to it, looking like patterns in wet sand, are expressions of the rhythms running through everything.

Trees have been on this planet for some 370 million years, and the patterns in their grain are expressions of heat, light, wind, and water, elements as old as the world itself.

Part of the human condition is to try to see the shape and drift of those forces. And what struck me about the Alphabets, especially when carved in wood, is that they show our own efforts to understand the world by creating patterns — patterns that others can recognize and convert into speech, into ideas — overlaid on the deeper, older, more complex patterns that have made us what we are.

The grain and ripple in the wood also have another interesting quality: We recognize them as a pattern, but they are not, in fact, completely predictable. The ripple in a piece of curly maple actually has all kinds of subtle variations, to the point where if I were to try to predict what the next piece of wood would be like, immediately beyond the sawn edge of this board, I couldn’t do it in anything other than very general terms. It’s like the rise and fall of a line of hills: We acknowledge and love its graceful undulation, but at any given point we have no idea whether the ridgeline will go up or down.

I suggest that this combination of the patterned and the unpredictable is at the heart of what we think of as beauty.

If a shape is perfectly symmetrical, its pattern obvious, it is impressive and satisfying, but there’s something mechanical about it. If a shape is entirely unpredictable, it strikes us as a mess. But manifestation of variety within order, with luck, has that combination of pattern and chaos, meaning and mystery, and seems inexplicably right.

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