Graphic Information Design: The Function of Visible Speech

Visible speech or writing is one of humankind’s greatest inventions. Found in clay tablets from ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia and slightly later tablets from neighboring Iran (ancient Elam) – a partially deciphered script known as proto-Elamite details lists of raw materials and products, such as barley and beer, lists of laborers, and their tasks, lists of fields and their owners, the income and outgoings of temples etc. All calculations concerning production levels, delivery dates, locations, payments and debts.


As adults we rarely pause to think about the mental-meets-physical-process which turns our thoughts into symbols on a piece of paper, screen or stored electrical voltages held in a silicon chip. A page of foreign manuscript serves to remind of just how rich, complex, subtle and versatile writings’ innovation it is.


It is a skill that most take for granted. Perhaps the closest to appreciating its complexity, genius and power are children. Often writers forget the heritage stored in these enigmatic patterns; the power to transcend space and time. We learn its fundamentals at school beginning with the alphabet, or, if we live in the majority of the far east, the Chinese characters.


Writing and literacy can be generally seen as forces for good as they extend our capabilities. It is obvious the opportunities that are opened up for those who can read and write are in more abundance than those of the illiterate. The dark side of the use of writing can also be seen in examples in the annuls of history.


Writing has been used to tell lies as well as expound truths; to confuse, bamboozle and exploit as well as to educate; to make minds lazy as well as to teach them. Written language has been used and developed in different societies for over five millennia. Key to its understanding are the evolution of early communication, the essences that have combined to become the principles of ‘visible speech’, the mechanisms by which writing systems work graphically and linguistically and the contextual relationship between historical scripts and the languages they write.


Written language can be viewed in many different capacities, among them as a repository of human knowledge, a codex of thought, a chronicle of experience, a tool of fuzzy logic, an instrument for detailing our encounters in the universe, an extension of memory and the foundations of complex calculations. Until the enlightenment in the 18th century, divine origin took precedence as to writing’s genesis. In the modern frame of thought many scholars believe that the earliest writing evolved from accountancy.


The Power to Communicate Over Space and Time


According to H. G. Wells in his Short History of the World, all societies, ancient and contemporary were and are deeply concerned with what was to come. Writing enabled the codification of thoughts and ideas as well as the extended ability to postulate and calculate future events.


Political leaders, in particular autocrats and dictators have always used writing for propaganda purposes. Writing put agreements, laws, and commandments on record in public places. It made the growth of state larger than the old city state possible. It made a continuous historical consciousness possible. The command of the priest or king and their seal could go far beyond their sight and could survive their death.


The urge for immortality has always been an impetus of high import to many writers. In a primitive way this is the quality found in funerary inscriptions – i.e. for memory to go beyond the passing of the body. There is little evidence of accounting in the surviving writing of ancient Egypt, China and Central America. In the late 4th millennium BCE the bureaucracy of trade and administration in Mesopotamia reached a point where it superseded the memory of the governing elite and found itself expressed in writing.


The recording of transactions in a finite, definitive, incontestable form became essential and valuable. Administrators and merchant could then say “I shall put it in writing” and “May I have this in writing”. Most ancient writing was probably comparatively mundane to the highly evolved forms of prose etc we find today.


In example, it probably provided the equivalent of an identity card or a property marker. Anyone among ancient rulers required a personal seal for signing clay tablets and other inscriptions. The cartouche enclosing the name of Tutankhamun was found on objects throughout his tomb from the grandest throne to the smallest of boxes. This was so for any merchant or person of substance. Writing gave presence to people’s name, and by extension, their person.



Such ancient name tagging has been found in Mesopotamia, China, and Central America. Among the Maya it took the form of bark paper books elaborately painted in colour and bound in jaguar skins. Their writing consisted in part of predictions which were based on a calendar system so sophisticated that it extended back as far as 5 billion years; longer than is postulated the scientific age of the earth.


In China, during the Bronze age Shang Dynasty, questions about the future were written on turtle shells and ox bones; they were called “oracle bones”. The bone was heated with a brand until it cracked, the meaning of the shape of the crack was divined and the answer to the question was inscribed. Later, what actually transpired might be added to the shell or bone.


A report from mainland China found that, during investigations of a Chou dynasty site (c. 1028-221 BCE) near Ch’i-shan, turtle shells had been found which had not only been used for divination purposes (a practice which was known), but which had been inscribed with crude characters or signs.


In one version of his legend, Fu Hsi says that he first saw the eight trigrams marked out on the shell of a turtle. This is a very significant comment because it gives us the first real clue to the possible origin of this entire system of writing. Until 1977 this particular legend seemed unintelligible or, at the very least, of no historical significance.



In The Orient

The I Ching is one of the world’s oldest books. By looking at the history of this book we can discover clues about the history of written language. Quite how old it is or, possibly, how old the material within it is we are unlikely ever to know with any great accuracy. Its roots, like many things of any significance in China, lie back in the dim mists of prehistory and are the province of legend and semi-history.


As recorded in ‘The Great Commentary’, the ‘Ta Chuan’, which forms one of the appendixes to the main text. In the section ‘Hsi Tz’u’ comes this description of the discovery and significance of the I Ching. Another purpose for writing was to predict the future.


In Theodore de Bary’s work Sources of Chinese Tradition the following account is given of the origin of the I Ching and the invention of writing. When in ancient times Fu Hsi ruled the world, he looked up to observe the phenomena of the heavens, and gazed down to observe the contours of the earth. He observed the markings of birds and beasts and how they were adapted to their habitats.


At the same time it is very likely that here also is the origin of the trigrams, for on many of the turtle shells used for divination series of inscribed lines, often three in number, are to be seen. Perhaps we have here verification of at least part of the legend of Fu Hsi and the turtle shell. The turtle or tortoise shells were used for divination as follows: a small dent or a hole was made in the shell and heat, perhaps from a smouldering stick, was applied until the shell cracked.


The lines which were formed by these cracks were then ‘read’ – and here is the origin of the earliest forms of Chinese characters. According to Kwang-chih Chang and Robert Temple in the works Shang Civilization and Conversations with Eternity respectively, it had been known for many years that the Shang (1523-1028 BCE) and the Chou dynasties had used turtle shells for recording official transactions. However this represented the first evidence of their use both for divination and for recording the messages received in divination.


Hexagram Ch’ien

The beautiful scripts of the orient hold majesty not just in their aesthetic, but deep and long running legend which has helped forge culture and continent.  In the tradition of the I Ching we discover poetically how entwined words are with meaning throughout life; in written language we can find stores of knowledge revealed as words move into context with culture…


The Yellow Emperor, Yao, and Shun allowed their upper and lower garments to hang down and thus the world was ordered. This they probably took from the hexagrams Ch’ien and K’un. They hollowed out logs and shaved pieces of wood for rudders, and by the advantages of boats and rudders opened up new roads of communication to distant places for the profit of the world. This they probably took from the hexagram Huan.


Hexagram K’un

After Shen Nung died, the Yellow Emperor, Yao, and Shun arose. They comprehended change and caused the people to be unwearied, transforming them with spirit so that they were rightly ordered. When the Changes has run one course to its extreme, then it changes, and by changing it is able to continue, and by continuing it achieves longevity.


Thus the Changes receives help from Heaven: good fortune and nothing that is not beneficial. After Fu Hsi died Shen Nung arose. He carved a piece of wood into a plowshare and bent another piece of wood into a plowshare and bent another piece to make a handle, and taught the world the advantages of plowing and weeding. This idea he probably took from the hexagram I.


He set up markets at midday and caused the people of the world to bring all their goods and exchange them and then return home so that everything found its proper place. This he probably took from the hexagram Shih-ho. Some ideas he took from his own body, and went beyond this to take other ideas from other things. Thus he invented the eight trigrams in order to comprehend the virtues of spiritual beings and represent the conditions of all things of creation. He knotted cords and made nets for hunting and fishing. This idea he probably adopted from the hexagram Li.


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

The Pictures We Communicate With

The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Liebniz and the fellows of the Royal Society in the 17th century posited the idea that an entire written language for international communication based on ‘universal’ symbols that all of us will intuitively recognize is possible; this quest, although not successful, did elaborate and contribute a great number of symbols to our language – particularly in the area of mathematics.


Hieroglyphs are sacred character used in ancient Egyptian picture-writing or in picture-writing in general. The etymology of the word is from the Greek hieroglyphikon – hieros, sacred, glyphein, to carve. Analogous to hieroglyphs are signs we see in European culture beside motorways, at airports, on maps, in weather reports, on clothes labels, in machine operation manuals, on computers, keyboards and in mathematics.


Along with syllabic signs, alphabetic letters and logograms, the phoneme is encountered in linguistics. Otl Aicher was to influence greatly the way we communicate through pictograms in modern times by developing stick figure signage at the 1972 Munich Olympics.


The classification of a writing system is an ambiguous matter due to the matter of there being no such thing as a pure writing system; a writing system composed purely of syllabic signs, alphabetic letters or logograms.


Thus all writing systems are a mixture of phonetic and logographic elements. The higher the proportion of phonetic symbols in a script the easier it is to calculate the pronunciation. In example, the Finnish script is predominantly phonetic, whereas the Chinese script is predominantly logographic. Logogram comes from the Greek ‘logos’ meaning ‘word’. Ideogram is a term of more ambiguous nature which stems from the Greek ‘ideo’ meaning ‘idea’. When generalised these terms go to summarize pictographic expressions which represent whole words and concepts.


In European and American language systems there are recognized around 52 alphabetic signs (lower and upper case), as well as various logograms or ideograms; ie. +, -, £, %, @, etc. Author of Visible Speech, John DeFrancis, describes full writing as “a system of graphic symbols that can be used to convey any and all thought”.


The majority opinion is that full writing operates on one basic principle. All systems use symbols to represent sounds (signs with phonetic values), and similarly all writing systems use a mixture of phonetic signs and semantic signs standing for words and concepts (logograms and ideograms).


In this field the phoneme is ‘the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language’.  The Oxford Concise English Dictionary defines as phoneme as “any of the units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another”.


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by Alex Dunedin