Chinese character variants & the future of digital scripts

Since the very early periods of space research —and I might be even talking about when Uranus was discovered— fictions have been thinking how would alien civilisations organise themselves. This is very basic question, but being so, has a influence over all other questions. What if there is a type of non-cellular life that we cannot grasp? What if you cannot even see them? How will aliens talk? Would they even have mouths? Would they even need to talk? And what about writing? All these questions have been treated in wonderful artistical and even scientific ways in many works of fiction. One particular point is shared between a majority of them, that is: How will we write in the future? Will there even be the need to change our current scripts?

Some weeks ago I started watching BBC’s Doctor Who (The 2005 revival) for the first time, being that I had a nice memory of some episodes I caught on TV around a decade ago. Being a show about aliens and time travel, there was bound to be some reference to the future of writing, or more precisely, the future of scripts. On episode 2 of the very first season, we already get some proposals, who knows if they were serious about them, but it already made me wonder about how fictions think about, let’s say, scripting. Depending of the lore’s depth, some series might go all the way to creating a fully functional and realistic writing system for their characters, such as Gallifreyan in the own Doctor Who series. However, many shows also just tend to make an English side-by-side stylisation in an “alien” fashion. That is it, that is the future. It is sort of what happens in Doctor Who‘s 1×02, where we get Latin alphabet in a baroque-style to provide the “alien” or “futuristic” effect.

Image 1. “Welcome to Platform One” Is it futuristic if it is harder to read?

You can see what I am referring to on IMAGE 1. In this episode, future script is artistically made as a more ornamental latin alphabet. I have not been able to find any information if there was any explanation to this script. It is not the only example of this type we find, the common trend of futuristic alien scripts in fiction for years has been this ornamental, “sundandese” style look. An important question that arises from that is: Have we meet the end of writing systems evolution with computers? Is redecorating letters the future? What we use today as digital script standards are mostly based on what printing machines were able to do and had been doing because it was effective, as in using the special “a” instead of the cursive “a” that could be confused with “o”. Different languages had different ways of doing it:
– Most Latin alphabet serif fonts are loosely based on stone carvings.
– The most frequent Chinese classical font is a take on brush writing. And the regular serif font is based on the Chinese traditional wooden carved table printers.
– Languages that cannot follow a horizontal line, such as Mongolian, can now be used without problems on the web.

Part of writing evolution came of mistakes, artistic decisions and even feelings from users of each script. With the increased use of technology, handwriting is not an essential tool in our lives anymore. You do not even need it to sign papers. What room is there to mistake and feelings with digital, rounded, perfect letters then? Chinese, with its logical, but also very deep system of writing, provides a good amount of examples of this. When a writing system is particularly difficult to digitally standarize, you leave room for these situations. Traditionally, being used in a very vast territory and spread across many others, characters of the Han ethnic suffered great changes. They are usually recorded in 異體字字典, or “Character variants dictionaries”.

Image 2. A Chinese character variants dictionary.

Chinese character codification came definitely later than others —I still remember than some international space agreements from the 60s were translated into Chinese by handwriting (IMAGE 3)—, and it is still a very rich in nuances. The conglomerate of Han characters used by China, Japan and Korea (and others such as Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong) is known as CJK. Since each language influenced by Han characters uses them in different ways and each country and region developed their very own computer sets, the paths they took rapidly differentiated, which is a very different approach to that of Latin alphabet users (being that with just one set, you can even write Greek and Cyrillic). This alone provides digital Han characters with a distinct flavor in each of these languages with not much effort.

Image 3. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. 1966 United Nations’ document translated into Chinese, when Republic of China still held the seat. I always found ironic the concept and the output of this document. Imagine aliens finding a space treaty written by hand. Thing is, who said alliens had computers? (1)

However, an additional layer of changes comes with font use. Since coding Chinese characters is no trivial matter, free and, more important, comprehensive fonts for them, are not specially abundant. Try writing rare Chinese characters with a Japanese font set, and you will probably end with a blank square or uneven sized characters (and you do not have to go too far for that, you would just need 說, “to talk”). Not even China and Taiwan coordinate in this matter: between their official sets strokes change places, tails are longer in one, shorter in the other, dots move an inch or not… Do users of CJK users really notice these changes? As far as I know, many of them do not, since they are used to this little variants just as we Latin alphabet users are used to our digital “a”.

For students of CJK languages though, the case is different. Since language learning time is greatly spent online, we are very influenced by digital script rules and struggle when we do not understand the concept of 異體字. That is also what gave me the impression that CJK scripts still have some room for personality in the digital era. IMAGE 2 shows us the variants of 請 (to invite, to ask, please). Usually, variants are hard to find in a computer character set, but I remember very vividly seeing the third variant printed in a street sign. A friend told that might have happened because the person chose a Korean or Japanese font for the sign without noticing. To be fair, the right side phonetic component, 青 is indeed seem some times as 靑 (its orthodox form from the Kangxi dictionary) and I have found it in both Microsoft Pinyin and Microsoft Bopomofo sets, but it does not appear when trying to write 請, even on the IME pad. The fastest way to get to this variant is using a Korean font, since Korean standarization prefers the Kangxi orthodox form. Then again, however, many Korean fonts do not let you input the more frequent 青.

Image 4. The IME pad.

A short conclusion of this matter would be that fonts are the ultimate digital resource for individuality in the digital writing era that erases variants and priorizes speed, but that becomes its own curse. Font selection used to be a trait of many old school webchats, but has since then declined in use. A more interesting, more easily available process that is ongoing on almost all languages in the world is the adaptation to the new logographic and image-dependant structure of speech. Kaomojis, emojis, stickers & animated stickers are blending with today’s scripts, substituting, fixing and completing parts of the speech. However, we are not in full control of them, just as we are not with sets and fonts, being that the designs behind emojis and stickers, for example, tend to come from official app designers. They fill a gap of one’s personality traits that would seem to be lost without handwriting, or do they? Spanish Contemporary artist Juan Viedma talks about how abusing the emoji system could break its own attempt of giving diversity to online speech, transforming emotion on a choice from a set (2). Searching for personality in digital scripts seems to be a hard task in an era that ironically offers more choices than ever regarding customization.

Are we advancing to Doctor Who’s baroque font? Trends have shown us that simplicity is the new goal. Brands now are switching to sans serif fonts by dozens per year. A “Platform One” proposal seems rather laughable seeing this trend. Will we try to fill the warm of humanity in digital speech through even more emojis and stickers? This is a far more plausible case. In the digital era, computer reading fonts do not seem to be an area that has suffered great changes. Arial was invented in 1982 and has stayed since then as a true neutral font for almost anyone. If it were not for Microsoft’s decision to change its default Office font to Calibri, Arial’s reign would go further than just the neutral internet font. CJK sets have a longer path ahead, but later attempts have gotten closer to a true shared CJK set, such as Google’s Noto CJK Serif.

Luxury brands new logos: Mistake or success? | HIGHXTAR.
Ines Martí shows some rebrands on her “Luxury brands new logos: Mistake or success?” article Sans Serif is rapidly gaining territory on brand identity and does tells us about the growing power of simplicity. (3)

There is plenty of options that we have not mentioned, such as Chinese handwritten input (that sadly omits the output) or Internet slang transforming Han character meanings further imaginable (I am looking at you, 冏 and 草), to which I might devote a second article. For the moment being, the future of scripts and fonts in a ever changing time looks rather conservative and harmonizing, with little room for change based on mistake and fixing.

(1) United Nations. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. 1966, https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/oosadoc/data/resolutions/1966/general_assembly_21st_session/res_2222_xxi.html

(2) Viedma Vega, Juan. El dedo que arrastra la comisura de tus labios (I). 2019, http://blogcentroguerrero.org/2019/07/el-dedo-que-arrastra-la-comisura-de-tus-labios/

(3) Martí, Ines. Luxury brands new logos: Mistake or success? 2018, https://highxtar.com/adaptation-of-the-logos-of-luxury-brands-mistake-or-success/?lang=en

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