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The Semiotics of the Alphabet

Option coordinator: 
Dr Robin Fuller


The aim of this module is to provide students with a detailed and broad understanding of the semiotics of the alphabet: from the linguistic/grammatological account of alphabetical-writing  and its relationship to speech, to the socio-semiotic analysis of styles of letters in the construction of cultural identities. The course will focus on the alphabet in orthography, typography and handwriting, primarily during the period from the nineteenth century to the present. Subjects covered include: typeface designletterforms and national identityconcrete poetry and graffiti writing.

As the course develops the students will gain knowledge of the history of the alphabet and semiotic theory, so that each week during second-hour (seminar) discussions, students will be encouraged to apply knowledge gained to new subject matter. Each week students will be provided with a short reading assignment pertinent to the subsequent lecture.

Working methods

Week 1 — An introduction to grammatology
Week 2 — Improving the alphabet, nineteenth-century phonetics 
Week 3 — Typology of typefaces 
Week 4 — Typography and national identity 1: Germany 
Week 5 — Typography and national identity 2: Ireland 
Week 6 — Functionality, legibility and the alphabet 
Week 7 — Study week 
Week 8 — Kurt Schwitters versus the alphabet 
Week 9 — The liberation of the letter 
Week 10 — Alphabetical identities 1: ‘Cholo’ gang graffiti and psychedelic alphabets 
Week 11 — Alphabetical identities 2: Hip Hop graffiti 
Week 12 — Review session 

Further details available at:

Learning outcomes

— An understanding of the fundamentals of grammatology and alphabetical orthography; 
— Knowledge of the palaeographic and typographic history of the alphabet; 
— An ability to recognise and distinguish styles of letter and their cultural associations;

— Proficiency in semiotic analysis of typography, lettering & visual communications generally.


Students will write an essay of between 4000 and 5000 words on an approved topic relating to the course content, and utilising a theoretical approach covered on the course.

Recommended Reading List

Roland Barthes, Elements of semiology, trans. by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.
Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Subway Art, London: Thames & Hudson, 1984.
Florian Coulmas, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Writing Systems, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Johanna Drucker, The Alphabetic Labyrinth, London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.
Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word, Chicago University Press, 1994.
Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, Indiana University Press, 1976.
Roy Harris, The Origin of Writing, London: Duckworth, 1986.
Robin Kinross, Modern Typography, London: Hyphen, 1992.
Robin Kinross, Unjustified Texts, London: Hyphen, 2002.

Ole Lund, ‘Knowledge Construction in Typography: the case of legibility research and the legibility of sans serif typefaces’, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Reading, 1999.   <>
Dermot McGuinne, Irish Type Design, Dublin: National Print Museum, 2010.
Stanley Morison, Politics and Script, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
Gerard Newton, ‘Deutsche Schrift: The Demise and Rise of German Blackletter’, in German Life and Letters April, 2003.
Herbert Spencer, Pioneers of Modern Typography, London: Lund Humphries, 1969.
Herbert Spencer, The Visible Word, London: Lund Humphries.
Walter Tracy, Letters of Credit, London: Gordon Fraser, 1985

Assigned Texts

(Assigned texts will be supplied as print outs or links to download)
Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death [1976], Sage Publications: 1993. Excerpt: ‘Kool Killer or the Insurrection of the Sign.’
Sofie Beier, ‘How My Brain Stopped Reading’, in Visible Language, 46/3. 
Robert Bringhurst, Elements of Typographic Style, Vancouver: Hartley & Marks, 1992. Excerpt: Classification of typefaces
François Chastanet, Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles, Dokument Press, 2009. Excerpt
Peter Daniels, ‘Fundamentals of Grammatology’, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Oct–Dec, 1990
The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces, 5th edn, London: Cassell, 2009. Excerpt: Vox/British Standards system of type classification
Rudyard Kipling, ‘How the Alphabet was Made’ and ‘How the First Letter was Written’. Both Stories are taken from the Just-So stories and are available in numerous editions.
Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems (1985) London: Hutchinson. 1985. Excerpt: Typology of writing systems
Kurt Schwitters, ‘Consequential Poetry’ (1924), translated in G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923-1926, Detlef Mertins and Michael W. Jennings (eds), Getty Research Institute, 2010
Herbert Spencer, ‘The liberation of the letter’, Typographica no. 6, 1952
Matthew Staunton, ‘Torchlight: The Content of the Form of Gaelic Typography’, 2012 <>
Hans Peter Willberg, ‘Fraktur and Nationalism’, in Blackletter: Type and National Identity, Peter Bain, Paul Shaw (eds), New York: The Cooper Union, 1998
Film: Style Wars directed by Tony Silver, 1983