Happy Saint Patrick’s day, for those of you who celebrate such things. I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but Saint Patrick’s great addition to Irish and world culture was not his invention of green beer or of driving the snakes out of the Emerald Isle.
A few years back, Jasper Bear, one of The Globe’s founders (I designed their logo), gave me a wonderful book called “The 26 Letters” by Oscar Ogg, which was all about the development of the 26 letters of today’s alphabet. Jasper knows I’m a font geek (ahem, “letterforms enthusiast”) from way back.
Anyway, the book’s retelling of St. Patrick’s story was interesting, not only because of his escape from his Roman captors, but because of his invention:
St. Patrick invented lower case letters.
In Ireland, a Celtic land, people used an uncial alphabet. It kind of looks like the writing on the Lord of the Rings cover. When the Christians came with the Bible, it was written in a Roman alphabet, which at the time was all upper-case, like the writing you see on buildings.
St. Patrick devised a transitional alphabet designed to serve between the Roman and Uncial alphabets. Today we call it lower case.
The lower case alphabet, combined with the publication of a bible using it, was one of the major factors in spreading Christianity in Ireland.
The great Czech typographer Oldřich Menhart made a Czech uncial typeface called “Česká unciala,” which was his effort to tie in to the Czechs’ Celtic traditions as well. Veronika Burian’s masters’ dissertation on Menhart includes a lot his gorgeous letterforms (and don’t get me started about my admiration for Menhart!), but go to Page 52 to see Unciala.
Many great leaders brought about huge change through the invention of letterforms. Saints Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity to the Slavic world through the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet, and I’ve been told that Jan Hus developed the system of hačeks and čarkas used in Czech, Slovak, Slovenian and Croatian.
I’ve recently finished Saki Mafundikwa’s “Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika,” which was one of the best and most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. It took Mafundikwa, who lives in Harare, Zimbabwe, 20 years to write his overview of African letterforms, but he has weaved it into an amazing travelogue.
For example, he goes in search of Nsibidi, a secret form of writing used by the Secret Societies of the Ekpe in Nigeria and Cameroon. Then he traces it to Cuba as Ekpe religion becomes Abakua and Nsibidi becomes Anaforuana there. It’s an outstanding book and worth picking up.
Not all efforts at creating letterforms become wildly popular. Mafundikwa tells the story of Shu-mom, a writing system devised in 1896 by King Njoya of the Bamum Kingdom in Cameroon. King Njoya was a renaissance man who wanted not only to preserve his people’s heritage but devised a system for doing so.
As Mafundikwa writes:
“King Njoya not only invented a writing system at the age of 25, he also left behind a huge collection of his manuscripts detailing the history of his people. He compiled a pharmacopoeia, designed a calendar, drew maps of his kingdom, kept administrative records and legal codes, and wrote a Kama Sutra-like book – all this in the Shu-mom writing which he had invented. …”
“Not long after he had built a magnificent palace and built schools for his people, the French took control of Cameroon. Their power was threatened by his achievements. They destroyed the printing press that he invented, destroyed his libraries, and burned many of the books he had written. The French soldiers threw Bamum sacred objects into the street. And finally, in 1931, they sent him into exile in the capital of Yaoundé where he died a broken man in 1933.”
Who knows where we’d be without St. Patrick’s lower case letters? The Romans could have crushed his efforts as the French crushed King Njoya’s. Luckily they didn’t, which is reason enough to toast him tonight with a pint of green beer.
As for my copy of “The 26 Letters,” I don’t know where it ended up. I lent it to someone, and, as with many beloved copies of albums, people are loathe to give them up. I don’t know how many copies of XTC’s “Skylarking” or Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” I’ve lost this way, but I digress.
If you should happen to come across a copy of “The 26 Letters,” though, I’d highly recommend it. I just found one on Alibris and snatched it up.