Page 1

an alphabetical miscellany Laurent Pflughaupt Princeton Architectural Press, New York

Published by Princeton Architectural Press 37 East Seventh Street New York, New York 10003 For a free catalog of books, call 1.800.722.6657. Visit our web site at First published in France under the title Lettres Latines by Les Éditions Alternatives. Copyright © 2003 Laurent Pflughaupt. English edition published by arrangement with Les Éditions Alternatives, represented by Sea of Stories, This edition has been adapted from the French original. English edition © 2007 Princeton Architectural Press All rights reserved Printed and bound in China 11 10 09 08 4 3 2 1 First edition No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the publisher, except in the context of reviews. Every reasonable attempt has been made to identify owners of copyright. Errors or omissions will be corrected in subsequent editions. Translation: Gregory Bruhn Editor, English edition: Nicola Bednarek Designer, original edition: Pascal Sauvestre Designer, English edition: Jan Haux Special thanks to: Nettie Aljian, Sara Bader, Dorothy Ball, Janet Behning, Kristin Carlson, Becca Casbon, Penny (Yuen Pik) Chu, Russell Fernandez, Pete Fitzpatrick, Wendy Fuller, Clare Jacobson, Aileen Kwun, Nancy Eklund Later, Linda Lee, Aaron Lim, Laurie Manfra, Katharine Myers, Lauren Nelson Packard, Jennifer Thompson, Arnoud Verhaeghe, Paul Wagner, Joseph Weston, and Deb Wood of Princeton Architectural Press —Kevin C. Lippert, publisher Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Pflughaupt, Laurent, 1964– [Lettres latines. English] Letter by letter : an alphabetical miscellany / Laurent Pflughaupt. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-56898-737-8 (alk. paper) 1. Writing—History. 2. Alphabet—History. 3. Paleography, Latin. 4. Latin language—Alphabet. I. Title. P211.P5513 2008 411—dc22


table of contents



i history From Cuneiform to Contemporary Calligraphy


ii formal analysis


Strokes Angles Letter Anatomy Chakras Colors

30 33 37 38 42

iii letter by letter


glossary maps bibliography

141 156 157

For my parents. For Sandrine k Garance.


7 introduction


ictionaries have always fascinated me. My enjoyment stems from the paths to knowledge they open before me. Dictionaries document not only the meaning of words and their evolution over the centuries, but also encapsulate within a few definitions the new realms of knowledge and techniques that emerge along the course of their publication. My personal preference has always been for illustrated works. Reading as well as looking. Drawings, paintings, photographs, and graphics—this visual pleasure fuels a desire to understand, innocently inscribing an image into your memory, always leaving a trace. The letters themselves become images. Through their antiquated shapes, elegant initials, and their illuminated, rounded, or angled capitals, they create a rhythm of alternating tensions. Among the works that I have on hand, only the oldest linger over the multiple meanings and shapes that each of our letters has known over the ages. Today’s dictionaries no longer do this, undoubtedly under pressure to delve directly into the heart of the matter. How then can we learn about the origin of these characters, their appearance in the ninth century, or their function as abbreviating items? As a calligrapher who is passionate for signs and respectful of letters, I wanted to bridge this gap; as a non-historian, I was unaware of how difficult that mission would prove. So many previously unimagined directions opened up before me. The information that I was researching could not be found in any one book but in numerous works that ranged in topic from paleography, history, phonetics, and graphic arts to esotericism and philosophy. Readers should therefore not be surprised to find themselves following each of these seemingly distant paths, which in fact lead toward the same goal: inciting further research by consulting other texts, such as those listed in the bibliography. Let us begin by analyzing two French terms, main (hand) and Êcrire (to write), that are particularly important in the world of signs and that we still recognize in English words such as manual, manuscript, script, and scribe. Their etymologies alone are quite significant to the spirit with which I initiated this book.

8 letter by letter

The French word main, which forms the second syllable of the word humain (human) is derived from the Latin manus, which is itself constructed from the Indo-European root m-n. This same root plays into the formation of the Latin term mens (intelligence or mind) and the English word man. Beyond what it represents—the hand—therefore, it seems that the word main recalls in its very essence the fundamental interactions that exist between mind and body. This fact was underscored in the fifth century bce by the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, who claimed: “Man is intelligent because he has hands.” In fact, for thousands of years, man’s attention was focused on his hands, patiently educating them in order to refine their movement. Thanks to this effort, humans eventually succeeded in fashioning the objects that would be indispensable for survival and for mastering fire. About 30,000 years before the Common Era, they started affixing signs and images to certain cave walls. This allowed for the communication of values they wished to transmit over time and space. By accomplishing this gesture, mankind took its first step toward writing. Aside from their meaning, which escapes us to this day, wall paintings such as those found at Lascaux in France or Altamira in Spain prove that our distant ancestors had succeeded in establishing subtle links between the brain, eyes, and hands, in other words, between the three organs implicated in the act of writing. Certain rock paintings represent hands “in negative,” their outlines produced by crushing color around a hand placed against the wall. Of the majority of those analyzed at Pech Merle (Lot) and Gargas (Hautes-Pyrénées) in France or at El Castillo in Spain, a few seem incomplete, with certain fingers missing. To explain these representational differences, two hypotheses have been advanced. The first maintains that the non-represented fingers were amputated; the other proposes that it was more a question of purposefully bending certain fingers to reproduce the silent communication of hunters. The gestural and therefore fleeting transmission of information found itself fixed in representation. Charged in this way with meaning, the hand became a means of communication, lending its form to humanity’s first signatures. The word écrire comes from the Latin scribere, itself derived from the IndoEuropean root ker or sker, which is tied to the notion of cutting or incision. Writing would therefore suggest the fixing of any concept by means of engraved signs and not merely, as most dictionaries would have us believe, “representing a word or thought through prescribed graphic signs.”

Today, we know that the arrival of photography in the world of images did not put an end to the flourishing of painting, as was once assumed. In fact, photography favored an evolution toward new modes of expression. While the development of printing—a veritable cultural revolution—did not change man’s relation to the act of writing, the same cannot be said of the computer revolution. The rapid extension of networks—enhanced with sound, image, and movement—is being carried out to the detriment of writing, both in its orthographic and gestural values. In order to rediscover its authenticity and the values that form its power, writing must have its turn at exploring new directions. Revealing the fundamental characteristics of writing (rhythm, relation to the body, readability, meaning), the study and practice of calligraphy constitutes an essential basis for this new direction since it encourages the integration of skills and gestures that are indispensable to all future forms of creativity. Far from limiting itself to the simple act of copying, the art of beautiful writing is slowly wresting itself from the shackles of the past. Thus, this discipline, which today integrates the techniques and tendencies of modern graphic creation, is considered among the most promising paths. Indeed, the rebirth of writing has already begun in full force. In the workaday world (and that of leisure) word-processing software offers its users numerous typographical choices. Courses in calligraphy (Latin, Arabic, Tibetan, Chinese, etc.) are becoming increasingly common, and on our city walls, graffiti tags bear witness to a new life for letters and symbols.

9 introduction

Etymologically, the term écriture (script) therefore lends its signification to any form of intentional representation using images or signs, not just writing. It is applied, for example, to notation in music and choreography. Letters, on the other hand, have phonetic values that make them indissociable from speech and its graphic representations. Together, they form words and phrases. Tracing back through the history of these abstract signs, which we manipulate and decipher unconsciously on a daily basis, is often like discovering their hidden or forgotten meanings. We find that today we still use capital letters whose structures are identical to the engraved capitals that date from the beginning of this era. We also discover that the design of our printed letters is based on Carolingian lowercase letters, which were rehabilitated and perfected seven centuries later by Florentine humanists.

We have not reached the end of writing. In the filigree of the manuscript letter, we find our conscience inscribed. Our impulses and moods are the trace of its outline. As long as letters carry forward a part of human essence, we must continue to interrogate their mystery and beauty. This book is conceived in homage to letters.

organization 10 letter by letter

The main part of this book—chapter III—is arranged in alphabetical order, letter by letter, allowing for focused consultation. Each letter is discussed through three types of analysis: The first consists in describing the different stages that punctuate its history; the second in interpreting the letter’s various forms based on symbolism and graphic arts (shape analysis, color). Here, in order to best perceive each letter’s design, it is useful to place as much importance on the black outline that structures it as on the counterforms (the white spaces) that help define its expression. In the third stage the various abbreviations and expressions connected with each letter are discussed, revealing a part of the letter’s hidden meanings to us. The first two chapters focus on the history and forms of the signs of the alphabet. A glossary at the end of the book offers a definition for most of the terms used, and timelines and marginal images allow us to visualize the letters during the various eras, so that we may appreciate their successive metamorphoses. The study of the Latin alphabet developed in this book is based on correspondences, on symbolic play, and on elements borrowed from different fields of study. The originality of this approach, in which the letter itself, through its history, shape, and sound, binds together the various approaches, allows the reader to rediscover the meaning of words, not in a new light, but in a light that has been long forgotten.


In this book, most of the letters are presented in the purified forms that they have acquired in certain typefaces. You should keep in mind that each representation is merely an “intermediary state” within a broader evolution. As a result, we are interested in those letters that fix space for a moment before then rejoining a constant recreation of form, resting on the invention of new tools, the use of new materials, the tastes of a given era, and the inspiration of typographers.

Profile for Princeton Architectural Press

Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany  

Letters are the building blocks of our language, and quite possibly of our consciousness. Written into young minds through constant repetiti...

Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany  

Letters are the building blocks of our language, and quite possibly of our consciousness. Written into young minds through constant repetiti...

Profile for papress