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The shape of writing

How letters adapt to the limits of our cognition [comic]
Olivier Morin et Fabien Roché
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Résumé

Historians and epigraphists examine the shape of letters to identify manuscripts or understand the development of a writing system. Analyzing letters and characters can also help bring an older story to light: that of the human brain and its evolution. It is at the intersection of these two stories that Olivier Morin became interested in an article published last year in the journal Cognitive Science. Fabien Roché, graphic designer and cartoonist, tells us this article for Terrain.

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Texte intégral

1Historians and epigraphists examine the shape of letters to identify manuscripts or understand the development of a writing system. Analyzing letters and characters can also help bring an older story to light: that of the human brain and its evolution. It is at the crossroads of these two types of evolution – cultural and cognitive – that this study of the shape of written characters is situated. It has revealed surprising constants in the shape of letters in writing systems around the world. These near-universal shapes – cardinal orientations and vertical symmetry – are ubiquitous features of the environment in which human brains evolved. Animals are also sensitive to them. Their visual cortex, the structure of which was in part shaped by genes selected over millennia of evolution, inherited an innate sensitivity to these shapes. Their presence in most letters makes writing easier for our brain to perceive. So how did they appear? Nothing in the historical comparison of past scripts and their descendants suggests that these properties resulted from a slow evolutionary process. They emerged spontaneously at the earliest stages of writing, and appeared when peoples invented syllabaries or alphabets with entirely new forms. While the vagaries of written transmission and changes in technique and medium obviously influenced letter shapes, they rarely affected these underlying structures. Thus, the letters born of human invention quickly converged towards cognitively optimal shapes, of which psychologists have only recently become aware.

2This comic is based on the following article: Morin, Olivier (2018). “Spontaneous Emergence of Legibility in Writing Systems: The Case of Orientation Anisotropy.” Cognitive Science, 42 (2): 664–77. https://doi.org/​10.1111/​cogs.12550.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Bande dessinée : planche 1
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/17783/img-1.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/17783/img-2.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/17783/img-3.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/17783/img-4.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/17783/img-5.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/17783/img-6.jpg
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Olivier Morin et Fabien Roché, « The shape of writing », Terrain [En ligne], 70 | octobre 2018, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2018, consulté le 19 avril 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/17783 ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.17783

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Auteurs

Olivier Morin

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena

Articles du même auteur

Fabien Roché

Graphic designer and illustrator

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