Stylistic Negligence

Entry for Critical Dictionary after Georges Bataille

Seals of a Chinese supplier of paper, in a Javanese manuscript of Panji Angreni. British Library, MSS Jav 17, f.10v.

Sty·lis·tic  /stīˈlistik/ adjective. of or concerning style, especially literary style. “the stylistic conventions of magazine stories.” Origin mid 19th century: from stylist, suggested by German stilistisch. 

Neg·li·gence /ˈneɡləjəns/ noun: negligence; failure to take proper care in doing something. Origin Middle English: via Old French from Latin negligentia, from the verb negligere (variant of neglegere ‘disregard, slight’: see neglect). (Oxford English Dictionary)

The origin of alphabetic spelling is a paradoxical phenomenon. Alphabetic writing answered a need for more flexibility in adapting to the sound structures of any language that has previously functioned with syllabaries. The optimal possibilities of phonetization which are created in alphabets, if fully exhausted, would complicate language use to the point of obscurity. No wonder outdated orthographies that are not modernized due to the primacy of tradition in writing cultures can still be found in many languages. Alphabetic spelling provides precision in the reproduction of linear sound sequences that can not be syllabified but it also tears out the associative connection of the sounds into syllables. The evolution of the syllabary is therefore more than just a less precise precursor of alphabetic spelling, it represents a symbiotic connection between writing and intuitive knowledge of the compositional technique of syllabification on the part of the user who is usually an insider to the writing culture. Verses and nursery rhymes that are memorized in syllabic form are the foundation of any literate society. The first characters that Japanese preschool children learn are syllabic signs of the Hiragana system. Hiragana is also used in writing Japanese children’s books. Japanese children naturally get used to the structures of their mother tongue in this manner. A greater degree of adaptation to the conventions of syllables implies dependence on speech. But this weakens the autonomy of writing. In alphabetical writing, the principle of phonetization achieves its maximum efficiency. This is perhaps the reason why colonizers regarded syllabic writing scripts as inferior when they encountered their use in the former Dutch East Indies; regarding the extant documents of strange writing cultures as stylistic negligence. They would endeavour to replace this with the Latin Alphabet which developed around the same time as most of the writing scripts they encountered.

The extent of how much alphabetic spellings depend on sound structures becomes problematic when a script responds to historical changes in language. Before being dismissed entirely by the colonial regime, ancient writing scripts in the island of Java had to adapt to the mixture of Dutch and Arabic. A number of discrepancies manifested because as a cultural institution, writing is rather slow in keeping up with the phonetic changes in language.

This is true even in English. Despite its leading role in the age of globalization, it still preserves medieval writing conventions, which seem like cultural-historical anachronisms. For example, the sound /ü/ is rendered in a number of ways: the /wo/ in two, the /ue/ in true, the /ui/ in fruit, the /ew/ in chew, the /ough/ in through, the /oo/ in choose, not to mention the spellings of proper names. There are recognizable technical disadvantages when the standards of an adapted alphabet are not constantly updated according to the development of speech.

Of the many alphabetical variants that have sprung up over the past three thousand years, there are some success stories: Phoenician, Aramaic, Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic alphabets, the Indian Brahmi script, and several other scripts have been adapted as the basis for numerous languages. Based on the qualitative differentiation of the character sets, one can gauge how the sound structures of the languages ​​for which the typefaces have been created differ from one another. The Latin alphabet, for example, lacks the numerous nuances of the qualitative differences between sibilants (hisses), affricates (stops), and palatalized (softened) sounds, which are represented by individual characters in Cyrillic. For cultural-historical reasons, Portuguese is written with the Latin script. In view of the complex consonants of this language, which is imperfectly represented by Latin letters, the application of the Cyrillic script would be far more precise. In the Czech alphabet, the lack of differentiation between vowel length and consonant qualities in the Latin script is compensated by diacritical marks. The letters of most alphabets are arbitrary. An exception is the Korean Hangul script with its ability to mark the manner of articulation. When considering strategies for adapting writing scripts for phonetics and when analyzing specific cases considering the extent to which a writing system approaches the ideal sound reproduction, a crucial consideration is the theoretical demands on a writing system that are not limited to the sequence of linear sounds of the word but also phonetic peculiarities. Measured by such an ideal level, every alphabet, including English, is a compromised system and highly incongruent. A perfect writing script that considers everything, though, would be exceedingly cumbersome for everyday use.

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