VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Small-capital Confusion

Dear Reader,

When I wrote "Capital Confusion," I was only able to demonstrate the use of small caps back to the Domesday book of 1086 AD, leading me to believe along with Robert Bringhurst that they were added to our standard writing system after lowercase was invented.

I have since learned that smallcaps go back much further than a thousand years. Indeed, they predate lowercase. The creation of lowercase by Dark Age scribes took centuries, with numerous alphabetic inventions along the way. Although most of these intermediate alphabets fell by the wayside once Alcuin and other Carolingian scholars refined the lowercase alphabet to something like its current form, two of them survived.

Uncial, also called insular, a unicameral alphabet, was developed largely by celtic Christian scholars and remains to this day associated strongly with Ireland, Scotland, and other celtic countries. If you look at an example of it understanding its status as an intermediate development between upper and lower case, you can see how it contains elements of both. It was not folded into our culture's standard suite of alphabets, but remains to this day a specialty alphabet used to create an emotional or cultural effect in the text.

Long before uncial, however, small caps were developed as one of the first of these intermediate alphabets. If you search diligently, you can find examples of ancient Roman inscriptions set in caps plus small caps. Unlike uncial and the other intermediate alphabets, small caps remained a standard part of the scribes' toolset, and later became a standard typographers' tool as well.

The small-caps alphabet's apparent obscurity or optional character today is a conceptual illusion created during the industrial, reductionist craze of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when small caps and lower case figures temporarily fell out of fashion. (In case you think the industrial attempt to purge these two elements of our writing system was reasonable, consider that they also tried to purge lowercase as well, to reduce writing back to all caps. DOES THIS IRRITATE YOU? HOW ABOUT NOW? HOW MANY PAGES OF THIS SHOUTING DO YOU THINK YOU CAN READ WITHOUT GETTING A HEADACHE?)

The absence of these two important typographic inventions was reinforced starting in the 1870s when Christopher Sholes's QWERTY keyboard became the basis for typewriter key layouts, which in turn became the core of the design for computer keyboards. This crude design omits numerous typographical characters - including text figures and small caps - leading the overwhelming majority of people to believe by default that Mr. Sholes's invention somehow defines the official character set of the English language. It does not. Many essential elements of our writing system - including entire alphabets - are missing from modern keyboards.

Small caps and text figures are essential to protecting the readability of the modern Roman alphabet, especially when we have come to rely so heavily on acronyms and numbers in our writing. The absence of small caps and lowercase figures appears normal to us only because we have become habituated to it. Type designers are decisively ending this industrial-era experiment in reductionism by including small caps and lowercase figures in most serious, professional typefaces produced since the 1980s.

Hence, if my recommendation in "Capital Confusion" to use small caps (when available) to set acronyms like VISTA appears eccentric or needlessly fastidious, I encourage you to broaden your horizons, to learn a bit more about the history of your own writing system, to remove the blinders you have taken for granted, blinders imposed on you without your knowledge or consent by people who did not have your best interests at heart.

For an excellent eighty-three-page introduction to typography, a quick and illuminating read, try Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type by Geoffrey Dowding (ISBN 0-88179-119-9).

A better known and highly respected, more in-depth guide to typography is Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style (ISBN 0-88179-206-3).

Yours truly,

Postscript: Learning is good. Learn more.

Postpostscript: Questioning authority is good. Start with the authority your own assumptions, biases, and habits hold over your mind. Wake up.

Postpostpostscript: Subtlety, nuance, and mastering the details are good. Sweat the little things. Pay attention.

Postpostpostpostscript: The deeper point of this and the previous post is that we know much less about the world and ourselves than we think we do, that not only are we liable to make mistakes about complex subjects like VISTA, we cannot even get right such simple subjects as how to capitalize it properly or even the nature of our alphabet. An open and inquisitive mind eager to explore the unknown and to discover its own errors in fact and judgment is far better preparation for dealing with VISTA than any amount of confidence, experience, money, or political power.

Indeed, as we will explore in this blog, the greater your success with other ventures, the greater your odds of failing with VISTA, exactly because your success leads you to overconfidently trust in tried and true ways of looking at the world that fail badly when applied to VISTA.

No comments: