At the recent Face/Interface exhibition (for which the domain must have bought before settling on the show’s final name), and the concomitant conference organised at the library of the Stanford University, participants were invited to give their take on the following question:
‘Non-Latin’ is a peculiar term, defined negatively rather than affirmatively—by what it isn’t rather than what it is. If you had to define ‘Non-Latin’ type design affirmatively, what would you say?
The answers were put on panels shown at the exhibition. My contribution had to be shortened to fit the panel’s dimensions, and I am posting the original, unabridged, version here as a contribution to this exchange. My, admittedly provocative reply, is meant as a reminder that political correctness, despite its place, should not become a distraction, or indeed an end in itself.
The term non-Latin has to be seen historically. It is the product of a typographical world that was, and by and large still is, shaped by cultures of a European origin, where the Latin script has been dominant for more than two thousand years. Defining things by their ‘otherness’ is neither uncommon, nor unique to any one language or culture. As is generally known the term βάρβαρος (barbaros pl. βάρβαροι barbaroi),was used to describe all that were not Greek, and more specifically those that did not speak the Greek language. Similarly, the Slavic root немьсь (nems), with its numerous variations in different languages, originally denoted ‘mute’, describing those without a language that could be understood. It referred to the Germanic peoples, as for the Slavs the grunts and hums of those to the West could not be identified as a language: they had to be mute. Incidentally my name – Nemeth – today means ‘German’ in Hungarian, and has travelled further on. In Arabic نمسا (nimsā) means Austria, the German-speaking country of my birth.
Anyone knowing a little bit about living languages knows that they change and morph, that meanings shift and can change entirely. The term ‘non-Latin’ has succeeded the more contentious ‘Orientals’ and ‘Exotics’ printers used earlier, and given the prevalence of the Latin script in the history of printing, as well as its share of use around the world, ‘non-Latin’ appears relatively benign. Reflecting on its origins, the politically-correct indignation about the existence of the term is quite superficial.
Origins aside, what merits does ‘non-Latin’ have? As Gerry Leonidas put it, ‘the Latin script is the odd one out’, describing the exceptional simplicity and modularity that made Latin particularly suitable to its representation with movable type. Most other scripts are more complex, either through morphological rules – the dependency of letterforms on context – or the number of letters, or a combination thereof. Summarising these various scripts under the umbrella term ‘non-Latin’ acknowledges this fact, and – given historical consciousness – implicitly recognises the influence of Latin typographical culture. Bearing this in mind, as well as the plethora of ‘negative’ definitions that are not perceived negatively – non-verbal, non-confrontational, non-proliferation, non-smoking, just to name a few – I am inclined to seeing this as a non-issue.