alphabet – script – style

Improvised calligraphic alphabet, freestyle script. Not meant to be copied.
‘Foundational hand’ from my book Calligraphy & Lettering.
QWERTY sequence. Calligraphic improvisation.
Quote from Edward Johnston.

I recently had a question from a student asking about some alphabets that I had made. They were not made as exemplars for students to copy. They were improvised calligraphic pieces of art, where the alphabetic order was used as an excuse for creating calligraphy.


Why did I suggest that students refrained from copying them?


The question touched upon the subjects of ‘What is an exemplar?’, ‘What is an alphabet’, ‘What is a script?’ But the deeper question is that of Style.




An alphabet is simply the sequence of letters in a phonetic language. A Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew or Arabic writing system, for example, will have the letters arranged in a set sequence. It is obviously easier for children to learn the written language if the sequence is set. We say ‘learning our ABC’, for example.


The Latin alphabet has its sequence ABC etc. is because of its Semitic origin (the Hebrew alphabet has a similar sequence, alef beth gimel daleth, so does the Greek, alfa beta gamma delta). I have yet to find out why the letters were originally placed in this order. But it does have a pedagogical value. Which is perhaps why I got the question in the first place; we may assume that if someone shows us an alphabet they are trying to teach us something.


For calligraphers it somehow makes more sense to study the letters in related letter groups, in order to discover the ‘family likeness’ of the letters, their ‘unity’ or ‘underlying form’. After all, letters need to belong to one another if we want the alphabet to be recombined to make all kinds of texts.


I could have used a different sequence than the alphabetical, and indeed I have. The standard keyboard sequence in English and most latin languages is called QWERTY, after the first letters on your keyboard. Supposedly this sequence is logical as we statistically use certain letters more than others. But the story is a little more confusing than that. Some of the early typewriters would jam if the letters were set in a different sequence. At one point there was the rivalling system of DVORAK keyboard sequence (no connection with the composer). I have made several of these QWERTY calligraphic pieces, in which instance an extra dimension is added; the pieces become comments on the keyboard of the digital screen generation if you like. An anachronistic practice of putting the keyboard letters back into the pen where they once came from.


There is a fascinating online book-in-progress which deals with multiple facets of the keyboard here.


Another practice which is popular among calligraphers is to use pangrams. These are sentences which contain all the letters of the alphabet. An example in English is the eternally annoying ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ (and yes, I find it annoying because I often feel the ‘quick brown foxes’ of the human world as moralistic and unforgiving). The problem with pangrams is that they contain little actual meaning, that they are unpoetic or tiring, being repeated again and again.


So alphabets aren’t necessarily teaching aids in all instances. To me they are like musical scales one may play around with. Like pieces of music where there is no text – instrumental music.




Alphabets can be different. I’ve had students ask me ‘which font did you just write?’, which to a calligrapher is absurd; our letters came from writing first, then they became typographic, and the word ‘font’ refers to typographic letters, whether they are printed in letterpress or show up on a screen. For calligraphers letters are written, so I would suggest using the word ‘script’ instead.


A script is a given writing style. But it takes more than one practitioner to make a script. When Edward Johnston based his ‘Foundational hand’ on the Harley 2904 m.s. in the British Library, he invented the phrase himself. After several generations of scribes, the Foundational Hand has now become a standard script, more or less. However, there are different interpretations of the same script, or ‘hand’. So the word ‘style’ comes into play.




What is ‘style’? Is it the almost imperceptible nuances between my own Foundational hand and that of another colleague? Is it simply an individual approach, regardless of the quality of the writing? I once lost a commission to an amateur calligrapher because (said the customer) ‘he has a different style’. It infuriated me at the time; ‘it doesn’t really matter if someone has a ‘different style’ if their work is bad!’.


But there are exceptions to everything, and when we look closer at the word ‘style’, we find that it can be all of the above. There are fashion considerations, cultural differences and a whole spectrum of different influences to take into consideration.


‘One may lawfully follow a method without imitating a style’. What does Edward Johnston mean by that? Well, his method of teaching was methodical. He also told students that they should ‘let their work grow naturally’. That ‘originality comes of necessity, not of searching’.


It is for this reason that the exemplars that I have made for students to copy are more rational, normative and showing less of my own subjective ‘style’. However, ‘style’ will strictly speaking always be present, however subtle. Otherwise why would one teacher’s exemplar differ from another teacher’s? Even comparing two different ‘standard scripts’, like an italic hand, will show differences in approach.


So ‘style’ is something we can’t really get away from, however much we try. A universal ‘standard’ is practically impossible, there are bound to be different interpretations. The question would rather be; has this or that student let their work grow naturally, letting originality come of necessity, or are we dealing with someone who has skill on the surface, but who on closer inspection has made a copy of someone else’s (often painfully) acquired skill? Who lacks a deeper understanding of letterforms and their relationship to one another?


True style is something different from a script, it takes a long time to evolve. A student would be well advised to not get ahead of themselves in a process of learning, however tempting it may be. We all have to walk the walk.

Original calligraphic alphabets for sale here