Thuistezien 260 — 10.05.2021

A women’s script

Nüshu, the fifth writing system in China, is exclusively used by women. The ‘women’s script’ is very vernacular and only until recently, it remained a ‘secret’. Nüshu was passed down by women and was a way to deal with domestic misery and social inequality in China. Nowadays, the writing system is no longer actively applied. Though preservation of the Nüshi documents with daily conversations, poems and singing songs is necessary.

Nüshu is encoded in Unicode, which makes the digital preservation of the cultural documents possible. The script is kind of a deviation of the standard Chinese characters. But when does a deviation become a writing system in itself? French graphic designer Thomas Huot-Marchand points out that Unicode keeps track of the evolution in writing systems. They are recorded and integrated but the problem is: “How to deal with variation inside a writing system for a unique character reference? When do you consider this a different character or a different glyph?” Writing systems are not fixed. Historical writing systems can be subject to change. Michael Everson, expert on writing systems of the world, tells that even the Latin script is not finished. He keeps adding information about European paleography but the people at Unicode do not seem to pay much attention. Everson quotes Deborah Anderson, a liaison member of Unicode. She referred to the Unicode Technical Committee as: a lot of people who work for companies that are concerned about ‘counting the beans’. Everson concludes: “that why Unicode keeps adding the emoji, because emoji make the money,“ and sighs deeply. Everson also refers to an earlier talk on the symposium about Afaka, a minority language in Suriname. “It is a very bad idea to try to go and talk about writing systems in terms of colonisation and decolonisation. It is ink or blood. Marking on bark or paper or something and those marks are abstract and may or may not refer to anything in the real world. And may or may not have a good or less good association with any particular phonemes. Alphabets are not magic.”

At the one-day symposium about letters, scripts and languages, the panel of typographers, linguists, script encoders were quite stunned to learn that the first Nüshu font has been developed. One of the participants told them that Chinese ‘inheritors’ of the language are learning to read and write Nüshu. A local calligrapher designed a font that is now available for the preservation of this cultural heritage. The ‘women’s font’ is no longer missing.

The Missing Script Colloquium of 2019, takes a multidiscliplinary outlook on writing systems of the world and can be viewed here.

Text: Marienelle Andringa