Thuistezien 215 — 25.03.2021

Morgane Pierson
Missing Scripts: Elymaic

Morgane Pierson is a graphic and type designer and researcher at Atelier National de Recherche Typographique (ANTR) and the French National Library (BnF). For the research project Missing Scripts she worked on designing the typographic font for the writing system of Elymaic, an early semitic script belonging to the ancient kingdom of Elymais, now encompassing regions of Iran. Elymais was a semi-independent state of the 2nd century BC to the early 3rd century AD. Reportedly these people were great archers and natives of Susa, which lies to the east of Elymais territory. Most of the Elymais were probably descendants of the ancient and mythical Elamites, who once had control of that area in the past. Nothing is known of their language, even though ‘Elamite’ was still used by the Achaemenid Empire 250 years before the Elymais came into existence. A number of Aramaic-like inscriptions are found in Elymais. From the diverse sources analysed, scholars were able to reconstruct the Elymaic alphabet.

The project of Missing Scripts is dedicated to the digitalisation of scripts into Unicode - whether ancient or still active. Unicode has become an essential character-encoding standard for exchanging texts electronically. Unicode 13.0 (as of 2020) encompasses 150 different writing systems, and more than 139.000 characters: its ambition is to include all the scripts of humanity. And yet, more than a hundred writing systems are still missing from Unicode. Jenticha, Kulitan, Garay (Wolof), Ranjana (Lantsa), Mayan Hieroglyphs… minority scripts, sometimes ancient or undeciphered (but not necessarily complex in their design), which are still awaiting to be approved by the Unicode Consortium. Together with linguistic expertise and type designers, new proposals are submitted for these writing systems to Unicode. Many of these scripts have never existed in a typographic form, and display some very interesting shapes: they represent an unexplored territory for type designers.

There are many aspects up for discussion in this work. How to decide upon a typographic font to a writing system for which the sources are diverse? How to establish the gestures and strokes made to writing the letters in the first place, which could then inform their digital form? Pierson compared each letter to neighbouring alphabets, such as Hebrew and Aramaic, to look for similarities and try to understand the evolution of the writing systems within the regions. When digitalised and incorporated into scholarly research, text can become more readable and applied to research, independently of its representation in scarce inscriptions. Pierson categorised the alphabet into a basic set, and alternating contextual sets that are specific to geographical places of the inscriptions. The challenge and importance to encoding ‘the minority’ in ancient writing systems, is to remain functional and comply with standards while remaining respectful and as close as possible to available sources. The process of digitization serves towards preservation, as well as responding to a need of users of that linguistic community. It is also a great way to study societies and the evolution of writing for research. Pierson particularly pleads for a more active role of type designers in the process of integration in Unicode, collaborating with linguists and the Unicode Consortium, rather than merely executing the last step. She sees great opportunities in writing - ‘beyond the semantic content’.

Text: Yael Keijzer