There is a special creative space occupied by the overlap between these three expressions of writing:

  • Handwriting, once a commonplace skill and now displaced by keyboards, is moving into the realm of craft, something we cultivate as a form of personal expression rather than for its utility.

  • Calligraphy is the practice of handwriting using a broad-tip instrument (pen or brush) to give letterforms a new level of expressiveness. Within all handwriting and calligraphy there is a “cursive/printing” spectrum. Styles on the “printing” end of this spectrum lay emphasis on legibility at the price of speed. Styles on the “cursive” end lay emphasis on speed (via combine pen strokes to create ligatures, for example), and on subsuming individual words into the broad visual texture of the page, at the price of legibility.

  • Shorthand is the collapsing of whole words into individual glyphs and even individual strokes. While shorthand proper — formally encoding large swaths of useful vocabulary - is now even more obsolete than handwriting, in limited forms it turns up frequently in cursive calligraphic forms: single strokes for “and”, “the” and “of” are common examples.

At the overlap between these three lies the customized orthography, or the “new” orthography: any highly unique system of writing developed by a single individual.

On this page we examine these New Orthographies and the meaning behind their development. This page is a progression of thoughts first collected at New Orthography on ThoughtStreams.

The New Abbreviations by Z. D. Smith incorporates all three of these things, and was the first thing to set me thinking about examples of what I am calling New Orthographies.

“For the last six years or so, I’ve worked on a complete and comprehensive system of transcription-based shorthand which takes its inspiration primarily from the abbreviationes of the medieval scribal tradition.” – Z. D. Smith

Click on the images/link above to read his complete writings on the subject.

Joel Dueck (Author) ·

Upon seeing his samples, I was immediately reminded of the “Luxeuil Miniscule” family of calligraphy as described in Marc Drogin’s book Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique (samples below).

Ductus for Luxeuil Miniscule

Luxeuil Miniscule sample, early 8th century, French

Marc Drogin writes the following about the evolution of “charter hands” such as Luxeuil Miniscule:

“However, when it came to the creation of a script in which to write legal documents a special quality was required. A good charter hand or court hand was so ornate that one viewed it with awe, and so complicated that it not only resisted forgery but could not be understood by those who had no business reading it.”

He continues, “Sometimes this succeeded too well…”

Joel Dueck (Author) ·

Tolkien’s Tengwar elvish writing is probably the most widely known new orthography:

Saruman's Book
A shot of Saruman’s Book from the Two Towers extended edition.

Tengwar was designed with an intentionally limited, and elegant, visual vocabulary: stems which can be short or long, and ascend or descend; boughs, which can be single or double, open or closed; and diacritics. Each aspect of a stroke corresponds with its phonetic sound.

Like other new orthographies, the basic system lends itself well to customization. There are many, many calligraphic styles of Tengwar.

Joel Dueck (Author) ·

The calligraphic element in Z. D. Smith’s Abbreviations reminds me also of Elian Script, which evolved from a simple grid-based alphanumeric code into a highly calligraphic script that resembles Chinese pictograms while remaining essentially phonetic.

Early version of Elian script
Early version of Elian script

Later version with calligraphic elements
Later version with calligraphic elements

Joel (Author) ·

“In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas.”

— Ted Hughes, interview in Paris Review, Issue No. 134 (Spring 1995)

Joel (Author) ·

The Writing Hand

It’s possible that writing by hand opens up vastly more expressive bandwidth than does typing by allowing for additional channels of expression: pressure, shape of strokes, speed.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, when writing by hand I am usually aware of having done a tremendously more thorough job of recording every layer and color of my “mind-state” at the time. My thoughts also seem to return much more fully-formed when I review handwritten notes vs typed notes.

Joel (Author) ·

Graphology posits that handwriting is deeply symptomatic — of attitudes, personality, and character — an idea to which I am receptive, even though all the incarnations I’ve seen include long lists of claims which are conspicuously evidence-free.

But the application of new orthographies is not concerned so much with diagnosing the person, but rather with the question: Might not writing by hand be deeply causal as well?

Joel (Author) ·

Regarding this, last question, In correspondence with Z. D. Smith in February 2013 (excerpted here with his kind consent):

Z. D. Smith:
“…when I use it, and when I add something to it, I still get a real frisson of pleasure at its mechanisms…”
“…There, I think, is the real appeal of the Abbreviations, or any alternative orthography: using it to hack your cognitive style and to leverage more expressive bandwidth in recording thoughts.”
Z. D. Smith:
“I don’t know if you have much experience with meditation and its covalent pastimes but what you describe—which I experience also—sounds very close to what one could call ‘mindfulness’: a sense of presence, a wider, more fine-grained present-time sensory awareness, which bring along a clarity and concentration of thought.

“This isn’t a novel observation, of course. Many Chinese and Japanese Buddhist traditions integrally include calligraphy as practice—not only for the product of beauty and the expression of Buddhist aesthetics, but as a venue for the cultivation of concentration and mindfulness. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Muslim and Hebrew calligraphers have a similar experience.”

Joel (Author) ·

Photo: full-page inscriptions rendered in Luigi Serafini’s made-up language from the Codex Seraphinianus
Full-page inscriptions rendered in Luigi Serafini’s made-up language from the Codex Seraphinianus

From the Chance Press tumblr:

…one of my alerts alerted me to this book series, about which I know nothing except that Serafini contributed illustrations. I contacted the publisher asking for more info, and in the course of emailing about my collecting habit, he asked if I wanted him to get Serafini to sign my copies. Lucky break, right? Well, what I didn’t expect was full-page inscriptions bearing my name, rendered in Serafini’s made-up language from the Codex Seraphinianus. I was literally short of breath when I opened these books and realized what I had.

This writing system is asemic, meaning it has no specific semantic content. In 2009, in a talk to the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles, Serafini expressed this sentiment1:

The book creates a feeling of illiteracy which, in turn, encourages imagination, like children seeing a book: they cannot yet read it, but they realise that it must make sense (and that it does in fact make sense to grown-ups) and imagine what its meaning must be… The writing of the Codex is a writing, not a language, although it conveys the impression of being one. It looks like it means something, but it does not; it is free from the cage of a language and a syntax. It involves a visual process, not a linguistic process. (Prodi 2009)

This is another effect of “new orthographies” that I hadn’t considered. They allow us to re-experience this childlike mystery of encounters with writing in a way that simply reading other languages in a Western alphabet does not.

Joel (Author) ·

From John Overholt, curator at Houghton Library of Harvard (source):

18C commonplace book from Glasgow, containing ribald poetry and a book inventory, written in code.
18C commonplace book from Glasgow, containing ribald poetry and a book inventory, written in code.
A substitution cipher with a key kindly provided by the bookseller
Substitution cipher key kindly provided by the bookseller

Joel (Author) ·