7-28-12: The Look of What We Write

When I have ideas about things I might want to blog on, I usually write them down in the notes section of my iPad. Hunting for something yesterday, I found a line that said “news in capitalization.” Actually, what it said was, News in Capitalization, and I’m well aware that when I wrote that phrase, I was thinking of words like iPad itself, which stows  the capital as the second letter rather than leading with it, or YouTube, a compound word with its capitals for each section but no break. There are lots of other variants of capitalization or the lack of it—perhaps a string of words written as one word with several capitals or the infinity of URLS that have a word string with no capitals at all or emails written, for convenience, all in lower case.

It’s a question, of course, whether this recent emergence of non-traditional capitalization should matter to anyone but writers or English teachers struggling to adjust to a brave new world. I think it does, but to make that argument, I need to expand the case to include more than the question of “to capitalize or not.” Really, our written language, while it is still anchored in tradition, is being transformed in many ways in the Digital Age and the age of social media. Think of all the acronyms that have burst into the language such as LOL, ICYMI, WTF (and is WTF always in caps because it’s meant to be shouted?). Think of how often words are abbreviated randomly for text messages or reduced to the single letter that equals its sound.

Linguists have a theory that, over time, language moves toward greater simplicity, that—in effect—we’re always looking, albeit unconsciously, for ways to communicate more efficiently. I think the first time I was really aware of an example of this in terms of the appearance of words rather than the words themselves was during the 60’s (I’m guessing on the time) when the incomplete sentence punctuated with a period became a huge hit in Volkswagen ads. It was a revolution in advertising, breaking rules with a particular kind of insouciance, and it sold a lot of cars. There was the extra long pause suggested by the period, which said something about meaning of course, but it was also true that the brevity of the sentences and the frequency of the capital letters rising up from the lines made a visual statement as well: let’s do this fast; let’s do it with punch.

It was a new style for the sentence, but not really a new style of writing. Poets have long been the first adopters when it comes to language and how it looks. They vary line lengths, skip lines altogether, use capitalization in a unique manner or drop it entirely. It’s another way of digging for meaning, of course. But it’s also a visual reminder that language on the page is itself a tool we can use to entertain and amuse, to show off or beguile. By its nature, written language has an important graphic element. Whether we’re Steve Jobs becoming fascinated with fonts as a predecessor to inventing so many iWorld communication tools, or John Given writing letters home during the Civil War with his careful penmanship, presentation is part of the package. Essentially, it’s another way of playing with language and stoking our insatiable need to create.

I was thinking of all this and imagining other ways we combine visual elements with words themselves—pages of the Book Thief come to mind with its random fonts and scraps of notes (am I remembering it right?), when I detoured into my late night reading, a few pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory, and found his odd and wonderful description of an ocular phenomenon he experienced—the pairing of letter sounds with distinctive colors. He’s Nabokov so he’s thorough—even dipthongs are included and the French on—but he’s also magical: “alder-leaf” the color for F, M, “a fold of pink flannel,” U, “brassy with an olive sheen” and V, an exact match with the “Rose Quartz in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.

I could go on, of course, speculating much more on how we depict language through letters and written words. With Nabokov, though, I feel vanquished from the field. CWOT 2wr mr.


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