The Latin alphabet’s letter A can be traced back to an Egyptian hieroglyph of an ox head; the letter M is believed to have its origins in a hieroglyph representing water. These pictograms are no longer part of the modern English alphabet, and instead the connected dashes and lines are abstract symbols evoking sound. In A Typographic Abecedarium by Ornan Rotem, released in October by Sylph Editions with the University of Chicago Press, the London-based book designer and Sylph Editions publisher considers the 26 letters as pictorial objects.
“The phonetic value of letters, their functional role, is so securely lodged in our mind that it takes a conscious effort to see a word, rather than to ‘hear’ it,” Rotem writes in an essay. “One need only recall the experience of seeing words in a language one doesn’t know — it is as if sound forces itself upon the eye.”
An abecedarium traditionally chronicles letters to standardize them, or as an educational aid. Rotem’s slim book is more about detaching the letters from the current system, then reconnecting them. Each letter is documented in four ways: in a serendipitous photograph out in the physical landscape, such as an H formed from feral ivy growing around two windows, an M in the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, or a C from the drape of electrical wires; then in a three-dimensional example on signage or elsewhere; in two-dimensions in a book or other flat surface; and finally just as a typeface line drawing. In the back of the book, Rotem breaks down each image’s visual narrative. For example, for A:
The fluttering drapes of this autumnal Berlin window would have vanished without a trace had they not been apprehended. This is in sharp contrast to the solidity of the carved A that adorns Amsterdam’s old Scheepvaarthuis (Shippinghouse) on Prins Hendrikkade. La Baïonnette was a satirical weekly published in France between 1915 and 1920. The printed A is from the masthead of a 1916 special issue called ‘La danse macabre’ in which Death dances with murderous Germania.
A foldout poster included in the book couples Rotem’s meditative essay on the letters with the images, offering another way of viewing the often overlooked history of language and form. These are, Rotem writes, letters “on holiday: unhampered by function, relishing pure form, accountable neither to sound nor to language, letters barely recognizable, letters incognito.” A Typographic Abecedarium encourages an unconventional perspective on the alphabet, to consider its obscure past and present meaning.
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