While watching a show about design a few months ago, I learned that the use of mixed upper and lower cases on road signs was a deliberate choice. Research showed that people could read the signs from a distance more easily because people could recognise the shape of the word before they could really even read the word.
(For the font nerds, the signs and Transport Medium font were designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. You can download the font here or here )
Certainly, I find sentence case easier to read than ALLCAPS, though the word, sentence or whole paragraph in that format has its place.
The realisation reminded me that there is more to appreciating the English language than simply vocabulary, punctuation and grammar. Sometimes there’s a real pleasure in just the look of a whole word, as though it has artistic resonance and visual meaning beyond the collection of letters and the meaning of the word.
I love how the word awkward looks… well, awkward. I love how the word ‘Melbourne’ jumps out at me from a map even when I’m not wearing my glasses. That word has the shape of home in it. I love how the word ‘parallel’ has its own mnemonic in it, the double ‘l’ which is also a set of parallel lines.
Some languages have alphabets that naturally give of themselves to artistic forms. Arabic’s beautiful flowing script is often used artistically. I have an applique street scene I bought in Cairo in the 1990s, in which the buildings spell out ‘in the name of the compassionate and the merciful’ and the moon is a beautiful crescent-shaped Allah.
I only ever learned a little Arabic during my time in Egypt, though I learned to speak and hear more than I could read or write. Still, I can recognise the words for Allah and halal on sight still. Their distsinctive shapes are reminders of a fascinating period of my life, and a fascinting culture.
Recognising words by their shape and appreciating the art of the shape of language are all lines on the spectrum. It’s all part of loving the written word.
(And then there are the glories of the spoken word and onomatopoeia, but that’s the subject for another post.)
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
When I was a little kid, my younger brother, Bryce, and I decided to search the house for the Christmas presents we knew must be secreted somewhere in our parents’ bedroom. After some heavy duty snooping, we did indeed locate presents that matched what we’d been asking for, or at least seemed likely to be ours.
Come Christmas morning, we opened our presents and found… what we’d already found. It was disappointing. The element of surprise was lacking. It was like we’d already had our presents a month ago, but simply hadn’t been able to make use of them.
I never snooped for presents again. I never even picked up parcels from under the tree and tried to guess their contents. I didn’t want that awful feeling of Christmas Disappointment again.
Fast forward a good 20 years to Poland, where Tim and I lived and taught English for a while. We spoke only a smattering of Polish, so we didn’t bother watching Polish television or attempting to read Polish newspapers. English language films were not a problem, though: they were regularly screened with subtitles at all the local cinemas. However, we had to choose what to see purely on the strength of the poster art, as we had no other information about the film to go on. (Remember, this was pre-internet, with no way to look up plot synopses, casting information, reviews or trailers.)
As a result, we saw a lot of films with practically no expectations except those intimated by the poster. The Mask turned out to be hilarious, because we hadn’t already seen the best bits on the promo. The Crow was a last minute choice on a huge screen that was visually amazing. Arizona Dream was even more bizarre, but much less interesting, than the poster.. (Apparently, Johnny Depp cannot save every film. Not even when Jerry Lewis and Faye Dunaway are trying to help. Or maybe they were the problem.)
Other films packed all kinds of surprises because we had no idea what to expect. The twists and the reveals came to us as the film makers had intended, unfolding with the story. And Tim and I discovered that we liked this approach to seeing a film.
So here I am in the 21st Century, thoroughly spoilerphobic. I don’t even read the backs of books any more, as so many of them reveal events that don’t happen until half way through the story. If a trailer of a film I want to see comes on at the cinema, I close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears and hum.
It may seem excessive, but I don’t really want to see the Reader’s Digest version of a film, with all the emotional highlights and an suggestion (or downright revelation) of the ending, beforehand. If I see a film and am disappointed by the execution, so be it, but I don’t want to see it and be disappointed because, in effect, I already know the whole story.
Seeing something fresh for the first time, without expectations or waiting for the twist, is wonderful. It’s exciting. If a story is predictable or pat – in effect spoilering itself through bad writing or plotting – I lose interest and walk away. I love it when I can’t quite see how it’s going to pan out; or if I can work out, for example, whodunit, but not how- or why-dunnit. I can appreciate the writer’s skill in assembling plot, character, theme and rhythm without pre-empting their choice of pace and clues.
(Here’s something. I went to see Apollo 13 years ago. It’s based on real life events, but I actually couldn’t recall how those real life events had played out. The last half hour of that film, I was riveted with suspense because I didn’t know what was going to happen!)
Someone once told me that there was no such thing as spoilers any more, because all the information is out there on the internet. But if you can avoid the knowledge (simply by refusing to go looking for it) then surely the term still has meaning. Hell, if it had no meaning, there wouldn’t be a word for it.
I even think you should include spoiler warnings for old films, TV shows and books. After all, the film may have been released 50 years ago, but some people aren’t that old. New generations will still see it for the first time, and they don’t yet know about Rosebud, the Crying Game or Norman Bates. There are people not yet born who may one day appreciate not knowing crucial details of those films.
I know people who love to discover all the details of a film or show well in advance of the screening. That’s fine. If you like to know it all before you start, I wouldn’t stop you. But I would beg of you not to share your inside knowledge with me. I want my surprises as the writer intended.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.