Signs of the times: a winner

Congratulations to Katherine Tong for correctly figuring out the answer to the puzzling inscription from yesterday’s post.

As you will recall the inscription was as follows:

This very perplexing because the final letters of StatE and UniversitY are enlarged, but not the final letter of WaynE.  As Katherine correctly points out, this is because on various places in the Wayne State website, as well as letterhead, and other inscriptions around campus, the words are arranged as follows:

with the words in two lines.  To only enlarge the W, S, and U would look unbalanced in this context, because the leftmost W and U would both be enlarged, giving it a definite leftward skew, so the final letters of ‘state’ and ‘university’ are also enlarged.  The final E in Wayne is not treated this way, however, because it falls in the middle of the line.    As Katherine points out, if this inscription intended for two lines (or one originally on two lines – there’s no way to tell) were put on a single line, the result would be the incongruous one seen in the puzzle.

It’s worth noting, though, that the U and Y in UniversitY are lowered, not raised as in the first inscription; it wouldn’t make any sense at all to lower the U and Y in an inscription where there is only one line – in fact, it requires there to be a constant typographic baseline.  When there are two lines, having a constant baseline wouldn’t make any sense because then the raised U and Y would create a gap between the baseline of the top row and the mean line of ‘niversit’.   This makes me suspect that someone just said to the people in facilities, ‘Give me a set of Wayne State University letters’ and then received the letters (with the enlarged W, S, E, U, and Y) but then, when actually laying the letters out on a single line, just put them in the way that made the most sense.

There is a third letter pattern seen around campus, which is the ‘correct’ single-line layout, with a fixed baseline and only the initial letters enlarged/raised:

Here, one could raise the last letter of UniversitY, but there is no great incentive to do so; in the second image above, both the W and U were on the left, and thus cognitively demanded some balancing, but here, the raised W, S, and U are relatively evenly spaced throughout the single line.

Issues such as these are of constant concern in the fields of typography and graphic design,  but in the anthropological and archaeological study of writing systems, and indeed in classical epigraphy, they are almost completely ignored, which I think is a serious mistake.   Epigraphy can tell us a lot about the aesthetic interests of a society, and the way in which certain principles are emphasized is not just a casual choice, but reflects decisions made for understandable reasons – some meaning-bearing (semantic), but others reflecting aspects of script far removed from the direct graphic communication of meaning.

Liz Throop, a professional graphic designer / design instructor, has discussed the cognitive and aesthetic shifts required when integrating the Western numerals into early European printing technology (Throop 2004).  This is a topic that I will be expanding upon at the International Medieval Congress next spring at an AVISTA session run by my colleague Shana Worthen.    Similarly, my colleague John Bodel at Brown, who is a Roman epigrapher, introduced me to his concept of ‘paragram’: signs and graphic conventions that normally stand outside writing systems as conventionally conceived and yet which play a crucial role in shaping how we understand and read texts.  Thinking about these sorts of quasi-aesthetic decisions has forced me to go beyond the question ‘What is the set of valid signs in X script/numerical system?’ and to think about the way that graphemes are designed, combined, arranged, and modified for various purposes in various contexts.

I should add that it may not be a coincidence that Katherine, who was one of my honours thesis students last year, and has now moved on to bigger and better things at the University of Toronto, was the first to correctly determine the explanation.  While she is not exactly a ‘ringer’ in this contest, she is the author of a truly exceptional paper, and certainly the most bizarrely titled: “THE MR MAROR TO BE JOLLY LA LA LA LA LA: An investigation of writing (and gibberish) on Dollarware” (Tong 2008), which is part of The Dollarware Project.  It is an analysis of the aesthetic, semantic, and just plain bizarre text found on discount ceramic mugs, and is (if I may say so) better than her thesis, and seriously in need of a peer-reviewed publication venue.

Katherine will be claiming her prize shortly, the privilege of choosing the topic of an upcoming post here at Glossographia.  Congratulations!

Works cited

Throop, Liz. 2004. Thinking on paper: Hindu-Arabic numerals in European typography. Visible Language 38(3): 290-303.

Tong, Katherine. 2008. THE MR MAROR TO BE JOLLY LA LA LA LA LA: An investigation of writing (and gibberish) on Dollarware. Dollarware Project, report 17.



  1. Pingback: An unshort answer to an unsimple question « Glossographia

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