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  To write, that is to carve some soft matter with a stylus. Such meaning can be found in very numerous languages: to write, reissen in German, scribere in Latin, ktb in Arabic. Painting and writing coincided at the origin. A modern semasiography is still alive: arrows as a symbolical indication and road symbols, graphic conventions used in mathematics, in logic and other sciences; sub-linguistic cartoon ideograms.

All the great writing systems (Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese etc.) were originally developed through images. As time went on, figures were schematized up to a phase of linear forms. It is not possible to know what they intended to represent in such forms; writing has grown in a different way from painting, owing to the evident practical reasons of quick performance.


The writing systems which were originally completely developed are seven:

a) Sumerian (3100 B.C. -75 A.D.)

b) Proto-Elamite (3000-2200 B.C.)

c) Proto-Indic (2200 B.C.)

d) Chinese (from 1300 B.C. up to now)

e) Egyptian (3000 B.C.-400 A.D.)

f) Cretan (2000 B.C.-1200 A.D.)

g) Hittite (1500 B.C.-700 B.C.)


  Sumerian writing was a cuneiform writing: carved in the clay with a stylus of a regular form, with a few notches. Each sign meaning one syllable. So the Sumerian writing was a syllabic one.

  The hieroglyphic writing was used in Egypt in order to be publicly shown, but it was not the everyday life writing, which was provided with two cursive forms, the hieratic and the demotic writing. This kind of writing, may have been influenced by the Sumerian, took a logo-syllabic or word syllabic form, without any indication of vowels.

  In the Chinese writing words are expressed with word-signs (logo-signs): a sign corresponds to each word.

  The four writing systems (Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittite, Chinese) are characterised by three classes of signs:

I)   logo-grams, that is to say signs corresponding to words in the language.

II)  syllabic signs, developed from logo-grams according to the rebus principle:   

      identical syllables of different words are to be written with identical signs.

III) auxiliary signs, such as the punctuation marks (auxiliary marks).


  The western Semitic writings come from the Egyptian writings (hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic writings). They are: Phoenician, Palestinian, Aramaic, southern Arabic, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Ethiopic.

  The fundamental event in the development of writing was the so-called phonetic transfer (or rebus-form). Its principle is based on associating words of difficult writing with any signs which look like such words as far as sound is concerned and are easy to draw. For example the English word mandate  = man  + date; I saw = eye + saw; the proper noun ‘Neilson’ = neil + sun (or son).

   The Greeks passed from the syllabic to the alphabetic writing. Greek writing comes from the Phoenician writing, as shown by the words phoinikèia gràmmata. The passage from the Phoenician to the Greek, that is to say from the syllabic to the alphabetic system, took place when the so-called “matres lectionis”, which were signs having vowel functions, were used as vowels by the Greeks; “matres lectionis” were irregularly and sporadically in use with the Semites. So, from the “mater lectionis” aleph (a light aspiration in Semitic), we had alpha’s “a”, from he we had epsilon, from waw upsilon, from yodh iota, from ‘ayn omicron, from het eta. Finally, the Greeks doubled omicron into omega, and combined omicron with upsilon to get the sound ou, as in French.

  The oldest writing system historically is Sumerian, which extends towards east, to influence proto-Elamite and proto-Indic, in the Indus Valley. Probably, it influenced the Chinese system. The Chinese system appears about 1300 B.C., during the Shang Dynasty, an already completely developed system; so an external influence is to be supposed.

  About 3000 B.C. the Sumerian writing system influenced the Egyptian hieratic and demotic forms of writing. Then the Egyptian system extended towards the Aegean Sea, influencing the western Semitic writings, Phoenician writing among them.

  Writing developed according to the so-called one-way principle; a principle also common to the development of language, art, religion, science and economy. Writing has to go through the logo-graphic phase, then the syllabo-graphic phase and the alphabeto-graphic phase successively. In the language development, languages analogously go through the isolating monosyllabic phase to the agglutinative phase, then to the inflective phase, and then go back, circularly, to the isolating phase. If the Chinese evolution is examined, we find that the Chinese language, which originally was an isolating language, is now a nearly agglutinative language; as far as the English language is concerned, we find a trend to develop now as an isolating language, starting from an originally inflected system.

  Writing is more conservative than the spoken language and greatly restrains the natural development of language, look at the difference between literary and everyday languages.

  Calligraphy is sometimes so much exasperated, although the main purpose of writing is not to produce an artistic effect, that writing is transformed into decoration; for example look at the Arabic writing, a very beautiful one, but so difficult to read; look also at some excessive use of writing in advertising. In each writing a formal, very accurate writing is found for official use, as the hieroglyphic Egyptian writing was, all things considered; and we find also the abbreviated cursive writing.




  Writing indicates the passage of language from the acoustical to the visual level. Poetical iconicity originates from a chain of relationships between language and drawing through writing. Between language and drawing different and common properties can be found.

  Different properties: drawing is to be understood on an optical level, the word on an oral level; drawing is composed by spatial connections, the  word by temporal connections; drawing may be read  by comparing spatial elements, without any compulsory course; the word must be read through a regulated, continuous development of relationships in repeated successions.

  Common properties: quantitative, continuous or discontinuous varieties, allowing the language  a) to constitute segments of equal (repetitions); b) to fix positions (correlations, parallelisms, chiasms, enjambements); c) to permute  minor units (like the order of the words in the clause, of subordinate clauses in the periods, of phonemes in the morphemes, and so on) within the body of major segments; d) finally, a compact space and a segmented space may be found in drawing.

   Writing so puts language and drawing into contact, through their common properties. Writing is the transcription of language into its smallest units, phonemes, and must be carried out by drawing each individual letter; drawing can vary according to the thickness of the line, to the body size of the hatching, to the colour of the drawn lines. Such marks are not absolutely necessary, but they enrich the written language.

  The writing act is a kineticism fact, but once written the writing stands still. When reading, the eye scans it, like a train travelling along the tracks, and it becomes again a kineticism phenomenon.

  Spacing between words and punctuation, by interrupting the line, turn it into a discontinuous quantity, to which a cadenced time corresponds; whilst, a progressive time corresponds to the continuous quantity.

  Verba volant, scripta manent, oral word dies as soon as it is born. The written word involves a compulsory, progressive and orientated course, in one single direction, from right to left according to western convention; other directions are not prohibited, from right to left in the Arabic writing, from top to bottom or the other way round in the Chinese writing; or in a diagonal or curvilinear way.

  Theoretically, the written line could go on indefinitely; actually, the line is interrupted by the measure of the support,  which makes it necessary to start a new line.

  In relation to orality, the line ought to possess the same measure as the oral communication, that’s to say ought to prolong itself up to the conclusive meaning, a strip of paper as long as a clause; but owing to the support, the writing must be made level with the side margins. Another breach of the natural linguistic measure is the western convention to trace the writing line horizontally and from left to right.

  Several horizontal and parallel lines compose a rectangular dark surface on a light support.

  Apart from the completeness of the meaning and the breathing possibilities in the oral diction, language can be also measured through rhythmical (metrical) unities: lines, rhythmic clauses and so on.

  When lines are transcribed, it is customary not to bleed off on the right, instead of splitting them as in the prose and strophes are  accentuated with white horizontal spaces. But the marginal left axis may be changed and other kinds of axes may be used, for example aligning with a central epigraphic axis. When the graphic body, a dark surface on a light support, is bled off according to certain criteria, the contour of an object can be outlined; such a method is used in creating the Alexandrine “paegnia”, which were later on known as carmina figurata.

  The defaults of writing versus language allow the composition of iconic poetry. Reading  figured poetry means to link together two separate and different acts of comprehension, a hampered linguistic reading, the reader being compelled to follow lines of writing  which go in several often discontinuous directions, and an iconic reading. Between the two series of readings there may be a relationship of coincidence or of opposition or even of unconnectedness and juxtapposition. Understanding what is read and interpreting a figure and, besides that, mentally listening to the soundworking of the verbal message, are operations that must be integrated. The reader, starting from the figure, must arrive at the meaning through the significant.

  There are two kinds of figured poetry: one kind refers to the properties of the language, which are not represented by writing; the other one refers to the iconic properties of writing, which do not represent anything about language.


Let’s now analyse the most typical figures of the iconic, figured or visual, poetry, among those that are present in the glossary.


As far as transcription is involved:

I)        Concerning the horizontal parallel straight line, a calligram is born from the

            transgressive transcription;in a calligram the drawing contours are represented

            by a row of written text, not by hatching;

II)        Concerning the aligning of the linguistic super-segmental units, from the

            transgressive transcription are born: the paegnion, first the Alexandrine and

            then the Renaissance and baroque paegnion, the cubic poem, the square

            poem, the magic square SATOR, Rabelais parallel columns, the futurist

            “parolibere” or free word tables, the heroic ciphers.


  As far as hatching is concerned:

The following iconic figures are created by adopting a property of hatching (colour, thickness or body size of the line and so on): acrostic, versus intexti, alphabetical poem, notaricon, chronogram.


  As far as drawing is concerned:

We get, as a linguistic transcription medium, hieroglyphic, emblem, device, rebus: we get the rebus whenever the linguistic significant is concerned; we get the hieroglyphic whenever the linguistic meaning is concerned; we get the emblem and the device (impresa) whenever drawing and language do not overlap, but are put side by side.


  As far as the support is concerned:

The support may play a part in figured poetry when it is a paper support, or a support of another material, when the surface is smooth or rough or broken, when it is curved and so on; different possibilities of figuration are born, up to bodies of poetry, when the support is a tridimensional one.


  From the distribution of linguistic elements we get:

I)                   phoneme distribution, or else internal rhymes (rimalmezzo, bisticcio or else play of words), hyper-rhymes, pantogram, AEIOU;

II)                 permutations: by shifting the letters within the fixed measure of a moneme, we get the anagram; by shifting monemes within the fixed measure of a line we get a proteus and anarheme; by shifting lines within a strophic measure we get permutational poems and interchangeable lines;

III)              from the distribution of words considered within their syntactical function we get rapportatio;

IV)              from the distribution of words as  mere enumeration: we get the additive scheme, that is an enumeration of words within the whole textual body and their repetition, as far as the same enumerative order is  preserved;

V)                from the distribution of words as far as their physical frame is concerned: we get rhopalic lines or fistulares;

VI)              reticulate lines that is an embedding word disposition, with the possibility of different ways of reading; this is an extremely sophisticated figure.


Two-course mobile verbal patterns:

In this case a two-way reading is possible, recto and reverse, as long as a meaning is preserved. Then the following figures are born: palindromic line, crab-like lines, alphabetical anamorphoses, recurrent or anacyclical lines, backward or retrograde strophes.


  There are straight iconic contrivances (calligrams, paegnia, versus intexti, palindromic lines, retrograde lines, anacyclical lines, anagrams, protei, reticulate lines, exchangeable lines, mazy lines, concordant lines, acrostics, alliterations for the eye, rapportationes, chiasms) and sound or iconic contrivances, only on given occasions.

  The resulting meaning in all these contrivances goes beyond the common sense, towards a slackening of the syntactical nexus; but this is exactly the specific quality of the poetical discourse, to compose and to decompose the linguistic entity.

  The artificial figures may comply with the criterion of an excessive regulation (see the reticulate lines), or with the opposite criterion of disorder, going as far as to abolish the language (see: absent word), or else to give rise to new abstract languages (see a number of examples, from Rabelais to Morgenstern and Scheerbart, from Molière to the Dada phonetic poetry, to the futurist onomalanguage by Balla and Depero, to the Pentecostal and shaman glossolalia. Here we are in the field of sound poetry).




  Two phases may be distinguished in orality, the performance and the composition phase. In the performance phase we have the recto tono reading, used in monasteries or else according to the repetitive modes of the voiced prayer; then the futurist declamation (see “The dynamic synoptic declamation” manifesto by Marinetti, 1916) and after that the Dada declamation (Cabaret Voltaire) and the oral zaum (trans-mental language) by the Russian poets V. Chlebnikov, Kručenych, Iliazd.

See also poetry and music, in glossary.

  In the composition phase we note, particularly in the avant-gardes, a trend to abstract the relationships which the sounds establish among themselves; that’s to say to build a sound instrumentation different from that of the verbal sound; this may be obtained by distinguishing the relationships that phonemic sounds or phonematic combinations hold between themselves, from the relationships established by the sound combinations with the meanings they convey. The figures of the significant, or else the primary and secondary onomatopoeias are studied; and then connections between sounds and meanings, autosuggestion in the use of sonorous substances of the language, meaning effects that are connected with the rhythms and so on.

An autonomous instrumentation in connection with the meaning must imply: 1) that linguistic sound has a peculiar quality of its own (soft, hard, shrill, deep), that may be taken in itself, without any representative function; 2) that this is valid for all the series resulting from the sound combinations.

  “Excessive” sound instrumentation can be found within the boundary of an established language, or else may refer to the acoustical qualities of imaginary languages (see), when one has recourse to a mere sound symbolism, a symbolism connected to such activities as magic, mysticism, utopia, wherefrom secret magic formulas, glossolalia, speculations about the original pre-Babylonian language spring ; or else foreign languages are imitated, only in their sound aspect, and then we have the grammelot; or else a programmed deformation of language is put forth, with expressive purposes (Rabelais, Lewis Carrol, Joyce, avant-gardes).


  Here’s a list of the conspicouus resources:

a) use of sounds that do not exist in a certain language (lectrism);

b) combination of sounds that are admitted in a language, but are connected in such a way as to form new words, for example the sesquipedalian words.

c) intensified onomatopoeia, like Marinetti’s  futurist sound effects (rumorismo), Balla and Depero’s onomalanguage (onomalingua) and the French simultaneism  (Barzun, Divoire, Voirol).

d) linguistic compounds obtained by combining together fragments of existing words in the established languages, or else combinations of roots with prefixes and suffixes, or else of a root with another root, as in Chlebnikov’s zaum; a combination may be made also with fragments of different languages, then we get the macaronic and the polyphileic languages.

e) intensive use of words having a  rare or a strange sound; when massively assembled, they produce new unknown effects; for example lines that are composed only by monosyllables, or only by proparoxytone words, or else by words playing with alliterations or with plenty of rhymes (hyper-rhyme).       

f) intensive use of paronomasia, a basic figure in the field of pure word-sound: paronomastic nursery-rhymes, calembours, concettism, agudezas and so on.





English version by Antonio Agriesti



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