Creating scripts

Throughout history, social, political and cultural changes have led to the creation of new scripts. New forms of writing can appear for all kinds of reasons. Migrants settling in foreign lands may take a different approach to writing. Political revolutionaries or utopian theorists might formulate new modes of expressions. Societies moving towards literacy might require a new script for their language. Spies during wartime invent secret codes. New technologies, from printing presses to mobile phones, require new symbols.

Illuminated manuscripts

It was Romans who first brought an alphabetic script to England. Christian missionaries coming to England in the sixth century AD brought many new words into the existing Old English language. As the missionaries gradually gained land and wealth, their words and culture became more influential. Many Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, and subsequently adapted the Roman alphabet to the sounds of their own languages. The Roman church also brought with it a culture of manuscript production. Scribes in monasteries created beautiful illuminated manuscripts, most of which were religious texts. Throughout the middle ages, thousands of manuscripts were produced, all of them copied out carefully by hand. The rise of universities from around 1200 produced a greater demand for books, and led to an increase in production of all kinds of texts, not just religious. At this time written documents were an expensive luxury, but this was to change radically with the invention of printing.


Many people think that Johan Gutenberg invented the printing process. However, the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans had been printing books using woodblocks for at least seven centuries before Gutenberg's time.  Printing with movable type was invited in China at the beginning of the 11th century but the Chinese script had thousands of characters, so the impact of this form of printing was limited. It was in Korea that the use of metal movable type was first developed in the early 13th century and the oldest extant example is a Buddhist work called Chikchi simch'e yojǒl printed in 1377.

The breakthrough which Gutenberg did achieve in about 1455 was the development of re-usable metal type in Europe. Gutenberg recognised that the limited number of letters in the western alphabet could be cast in metal blocks, made up into words and then re-used. This system of movable type has been in use in the west ever since. The image below is from the Gutenberg Bible; one the first books to be printed in west using movable type.

William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476. Caxton printed all kinds of texts: mythic tales, popular stories, poems, phrasebooks, devotional pieces and grammars. Thanks to the invention of printing, books became easier and quicker to produce, and cheaper to purchase - although they were still only available to the wealthy. An ever-increasing number of writers were able to publish their works, literacy rates rose, and an early form of modern English began to emerge.

Victorian ephemera

In the 19th century new types were developed specifically for advertising. They were designed to grab attention, and were used on posters or handbills. These traditional Victorian circus posters use different sized lettering to attract the eyes of passers by.



At the beginning of the 19th century most printing was carried out in small, haphazardly adapted workshops, on heavy wooden hand presses, using traditional methods which had changed very little in 300 years. By the end of the century the industry was dominated by fewer, larger firms, operating in specially-built factories housing batteries of noisy machines, and where nearly all the processes were fully mechanised.

The new technologies churned out all sorts of texts: novels, cookery books, newspapers, advertisements, pamphlets, posters, song sheets, greetings cards. These texts were quicker, easier and cheaper to produce. As literacy rates rose so did the demand for reading material and the opportunities for advertisers. Thousands upon thousands of ephemeral texts were produced, encouraging people to spend their money, and to fill up their leisure time.

Russian Constructivism

Jumping closer to the present day, these 1920s Soviet book covers show a fantastically experimental use of typography. Constructivism was a Russian avant-garde artistic movement established in the early 1920s. The Constructivists produced a diverse range of vivid and daring designs - sculptures, posters, book covers, furniture, fabrics, paintings and architecture.

The Russian revolution offered a great sense of hope and excitement, and a belief that the world might be transformed for the better. The Constructivists attempted to express this spirit of optimism in their artworks. They believed that their designs could play a central part in creating a new environment, and felt that the art forms themselves should embody the utopian passion of the day. Boldly coloured works incorporated energetic pictures of modern technology - machines, tools, trains, cameras, modern architecture - the symbolism of a technologically transformed future.

Collage techniques - cutting and pasting together different images and letters - expressed the idea that the world could be transfigured and reworked. And the words themselves were spelt out in a variety of fonts and letter sizes, and set at tight, conflicting angles as if they themselves were magical machines.


Today's innovations

In recent times differences in the ways that we are able to communicate have also prompted innovation.

Braille is a reading and writing system used by blind and partially sighted people. It adapts the alphabet by making it tactile. Letters of the alphabet, numbers and other characters are formed with combinations of six raised dots, arranged in two vertical rows of three. A blind or partially sighted person can interpret these characters by touch.

The alphabet does not need to be transcribed letter by letter because the system includes a variety of shortcuts including symbols for letter-groups like and , ing and er and composite signs for words.

Braille can be written using a typewriter-like machine or a computer, which translates text into Braille and prints it with a Braille embosser.

Deaf people in the UK use various methods of communication, but British Sign Language is the most widely used method of signed communication. BSL uses hand shapes and movements, facial expressions and shoulder movements. It is structured in a completely different way to English, and like any language it has its own grammar. Sign languages are as diverse as spoken languages and BSL has many regional variations just as spoken languages have different dialects.

People who use BSL also use fingerspelling - although fingerspelling alone is not sign language. The alphabet is represented with hand signs, which are used to spell out certain words - usually the names of people and places. As well as the standard alphabet there are Welsh, Irish and deafblind alphabets.