In this digital age, are there cultural lessons for us in looking to the earliest kinds of communications? The icons used in ancient Mayan and Sumerian language systems are presented here as direct cultural links to the visual presentation of World Wide Web pages on the Internet. The book shows how the development of digital screens has caused visual human communication to come full circle from the earliest representations. The in-depth analysis demonstrates how these visual languages now serve as a rich source for renewed study for the development of meaningful computer icons. Readers are also invited to become involved in ongoing investigations through participating in a WWW site that will synthesise all the research and current data.
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Visual Language for the World Wide Web
By Paul Honeywill
Intellect LtdCopyright © 1999 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Learning from the Past to Inform the Present: Maya Hieroglyphic Writing
Thomas Erickson pointed out that interface design normally follows the traditional approach of art and design, which requires reworking to refine an idea through visual playfulness until a solution has been achieved. Erickson (1990, p.12) wrote that 'design by symmetry works by juxtaposing concepts that are similar at a very deep level – the concepts are symmetric in terms of some deep structure or underlying process. Once the underlying symmetry is established, designers attempt to extend the symmetry farther, using what is known about one domain to suggest new ideas about the other'. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is to explore the Maya visual writing system and how hieroglyphs work as representation or as a precise phonetic meaning, which are unlike computer compound icons which remain utilitarian. Hieroglyphs and English grammar are compared for their use of syntax and how this is applied to computer compound icons. The comparison will expose some of the similarities and differences between all three to identify verb, object and subject use which is used here in the sense of language as metaphor for human-computer interaction. The advantages and disadvantages of a writing system that has remained visual, yet has progressed from ideographic to phonetic will be explored to establish if there is an implication for computer interfaces.
Jill Hamilton (1997, p.7) stated that 'it doesn't look as though the pace of technology is slowing down – the technology is already in place to allow for the production of systems which relay and receive video telephone messages via your computer – providing facilities for such applications as video tele-conferencing, remote job interviews by selection panel, international training seminars or multiple opinions from medical experts around the world as a remote surgical procedure is actually taking place'. Communication through computers and the convergence of mass media through WebTV now knows few barriers. The television viewer has a passive relationship with a television programme. Computer users do not view a computer, instead there is a 'doing' relationship. In order to do things with a computer there must be a dialogue between computers and users. Iconic metaphors used as the language of the Graphical User Interface have only been in recent existence. Can the development of computer iconography as visual language aid communication across transnational language and cultural barriers, and if so where should this begin?
Before the development of an intuitive computer interface all human interaction with computers was through command-line instructions. This required a high level of computer understanding – computers were for computing and not for ordinary working tasks. With the advent of the Apple Lisa, learning complex Boolean logic was no longer required to operate a computer.People with real needs, such as those identified by Hamilton can now execute complex code sequences without the need to recall correct command-lines, and like operating the computer itself, the design process of any program requires that each stage is expressed simply before complex line-commands are written. Under the title The Icon Revolution, Gunther Kress (1995, preface) writes that:
While Gutenburg's revolution made language in its written form central, the current revolution is taking us both backwards and forwards into hieroglyphics. Whether this is in the introduction of emoticons through the exploitation of the visual potential of typographic elements, or the proliferations of the use of icons in so-called written texts, or indeed in the treatment of (verbal) text itself as merely an item in a visual composition, in new-modal, multi-media form of text, what is happening is a fundamental challenge to the hitherto unchallenged cultural centrality of written language.
Indeed, the need for mediated human-computer-human interaction challenges the centrality of written language. Geoffrey Sampson (1985, p.26-45) questions the possibility of constructing a writing system out of symbols that have no necessary connection with language. Michael Coe (1992, p.17) cites William Wang (1981, p.22-3236) and answers this by pointing out that certain Chinese characters were adopted by the Japanese for their sound value, although both spoken languages are different. The Japanese took the structure of Chinese and used selected graphical elements to form the basis of their writing system. Japanese signs are used in two ways – first, to write the words in full, and second, to assign smaller characters around the main character to aid meaning. Modern Chinese concept-scripts might have lost their similarity with the objects that they originally depicted in their archaic form – the archaic for 'the spoken word' and the 'horse' appear abstract, but their connotation is identifiable once explained (Chizlett, 1999) Richard Gregory (1970, p.137), a Professor of Bionics at the University of Edinburgh, is interested in the psychology of seeing. Gregory writes that 'early Chinese ideograms are remarkably similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics though separately invented ... the ideographic scripts became, gradually, systems of writing related to the spoken words in use at the time. This occurred first with the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Cretan and (figure 1). Hittite scripts, which all developed sound associations' (see Chapter 5). At present computer icons do not have a phonetic structure they are utilitarian which is similar to early ideographic writing systems. However, the structure – of how a writing system works can have parallels with the development of computer icons.
Hieroglyphic writing first appeared in the Nile Valley about 3100BC and did not change in its essential logographic form until its decline. This Egyptian method survived 3400 years of use, longer than any alphabet system. It was free from ambiguity, with only a small percentage of the 2,500 individual signs in common use. Hilary Wilson (1993, p.30-33) tells us that if the Egyptians needed new words there was a sufficient vocabulary of signs that could be joined with phonetic complements to express meaning – the system had rules. Other hieroglyphic systems such as the Maya developed independently of any 'old world' influence, yet, like the Egyptian system contained a mix of logographic and visual phonetic elements. This system also utilised a smaller percentage of glyphic elements rather than the full array, which would have been available to the scribe. In a glyph for glyph showdown the Maya writing contained less elements than the Egyptian system, so the Maya encoders and decoders had less to learn. To construct a visual writing system that is not linked to any particular language, with unambiguous usage, could as Kress suggests, enable mediated human-computer-human interaction across national boundaries, but should this be more than encapsulated concepts? We should indeed look back to look forward. Tatiana Proskouriakoff's (1960, p.454-475) achievement in identifying that Maya hieroglyphs conveyed meaning was not through attempting linguistic decipherment, but through the identification of structure. In the same way as Wang has identified, it is not the meaning as of Maya hieroglyphs that is important to the development of a language for the Graphical User Interface, but the structure of the Maya writing system. Empirical data collected from the many Maya inscriptions that have been deciphered now makes the structural analysis of the writing system possible.
In 1974 one of the pivotal Dumbarton Oaks mini-conferences about the Palenque inscriptions identified sentence construction as temporal statement verb/subject. By applying this grammatical structure to a Maya text the decipherment of glyphs was made easier when their value as verbs, subjects or objects was known. Linda Schele and Mary Miller (1986, p.324) stated that 'with this structural pattern as a starting point, it was possible to identify glyphs as verbs, subjects or objects, even when the signs occupying those structural positions were undeciphered. It was found for example, that the Maya combined two sentences in one, as in the English sentence "Bird Jaguar captured and sacrificed Jewelled Skull." In the inscriptions, the same statement would be arranged, "He captured him Jewelled Skull Bird Jaguar and he sacrificed him." To an English speaker, it is obvious in the English sentence that Bird Jaguar was the agent who performed two actions, but without reference to the normal order of object and subject'. The visual nature of the Maya system allows for the detection of meaning; who the actor was, what was the object and what was the action taken by the actor (figure 2, above).
Overall Reading Order of a Complete Maya Text
Before any structural comparison between Maya hieroglyphs and computer icons can begin it is important to outline how the language system works. The reading order of any Maya text block is normally top left, and then down two glyphs at a time. However, the reading order can sometimes be structured differently (figure 3). This can only be confirmed by knowing the position of the date glyphs which always preceed each sentance. After the dates have been located and the reading order established the system uses an ordered grammar structure. The text structure might be different from text to text, but the hieroglyph had to work in a precise way because many visual elements had phonetic values, and therefore a set of rules for reading. In this respect Maya hieroglyphs have progressed from ideographic to phonetic as either separate hieroglyphs or a mixture of both. Computer compound icons have developed towards greater utility, are self-contained and strive to be self-explaining. They have not been designed to work as rows of icons that then make-up a sentence.
Maya inscriptions will normally begin with the Initial Series Introductory Glyph (patron), followed by the Long Count (the date) and Calender Round (confirmation of the date by using a different method of time correlation). The Long Count places the text into a linear cumulative time frame. This linear time frame is measured from the base zero. Each sentence within theinscription will then normally begin with a Distance Marker (Distance Number Introductory Glyph) followed by a Distance Number. The Distance Number refers back to the time difference between the sentence and the Long Count. This is then followed by a Calender Round confirming the date which will be one of 13 numbers and one of 20 names. Both numbers will change daily until base 13 and base 20 have been reached. All glyphs after the Calender Round and before the next Distance Marker will be the sentence (figure. 4). Each new sentence begins with a verb followed by the object and then the subject (figure. 5).
Verb First in the Maya Sentence Structure
By placing the Verb (the doing word) after the date, the sentence now reads; 'Todays date is – the event is – the object and subject of that event are'. The hieroglyphs can therefore say, 'she was born' (figure 5a), 'she, the Cherished One of the Turtle' (figure 5b), 'Lady Kin Ahau' (figure 5c). Verbs appear to be mainly representative of their meaning with phonetic complements to the main sign to confirm that meaning. For example, the glyph verb known as 'Squash Frog' represents birth. Our equivalent to the squashed frog is how we visualise an unborn baby. Culturally, the concept would have been familiar to the Maya. If the main sign was used in a contemporary context, how an unborn baby would appear in the womb could be used to represent the direction or location of maternity information. The position of an unborn baby is familiar to us through its media usage to describe not only the human condition of pregnancy, but also of vulnerability, innocence and so on (figure 5a page 19, and 6 drawn by a different scribe).
The structure of a written English sentence is subject-verb-object. All declarative sentences have a subject and a verb, but not necessarily an object. According to Tom and Carolyn Jones (1995, p.66) the structure of the Maya text is verb-subject or verb-object-subject. This is similar to the necessary syntax required to interact with computer interfaces. The use of computer visual syntax allows the user to recognise objects on the desktop so that associations can be made with all the possible choice of actions. Simply put, one method would be for users to select an icon that visually suggests what it will do, and then apply the appropriate action through the pull-down menu. However, there are other relationships between users and the interface that are not underpinned by written language and depend on visual metaphors, such as an application programs tool box. These normally have a verb-object or a verb-object-subject syntax followed by the action of the object.
Verb First within Computer Syntax
The verb which is used here in the sense of language as a metaphor for system use is probably the most used and important part of computer syntax, and because computers are used for tasks the mood of the verb is in the imperative, and its subject is always in the second person because you are the user. For example, in Adobe Photoshop the compound icon used to represent the verb 'crop' is based upon the photographic L frame, with a broken line set at 45° angle to suggest anamorphic scaling. The L frame is a photographer's tool to crop the picture being exposed to photographic paper. Cardboard Ls are also a graphic design studio tool that allows the designer to see how a picture would appear after being cropped and resized. When a picture has been digitised for use as a computer file it could be from many sources such as an unedited transparency or a PhotoCD and so on. The crop tool (verb) is positioned over the picture (object) which is then click/dragged to the appropriate position by users (subject). After the crop action, the picture will have a different size. (figure 7).
From this it is apparent that desktop metaphors can form other relationships and change the order of the syntax depending upon their use. The pointer or I-beam within a program or on the desktop can select an object and then select the appropriate verb from either a menu or a palette. A folder on the desktop is not a verb, users iare not expected to do anything other than placing and removing objects to it and from it, and when necessary naming the folder. By identifying that verbs describe the action and that the subject does the action, and that the object has the action done to it, the metaphors used to describe the computer desktop forms three distinct parts of visual language, but in different combinations for both individual icons or as a sequence. Therefore, icons need to describe themselves as:
1) An object for choosing an action.
2) A verb that does something to an object with the subject of the verb.
3) An icon with no verb (such as a folder), but which represents an object or the subject of a verb.
Individual Hieroglyphs and Computer Icons
The smallest single element of meaning within a glyph can be representative of an object in the real world, or a phonetic unconnected to its visual representation. These elements come together to form the next highest unit, the Maya compound hieroglyph. These units of meaning are wedged tightly together within the hieroglyph. David Kelly (1976, p.209) cites Hermann Beyer and suggests that one of the most important conclusions of Beyer's study 'was that the order of elements is far more important than the particular way in which they are arranged in glyph blocks. Thus, some affixes may occur to the left of a main sign or above it, both being interpretable as prefixed elements'. Position within a Maya hieroglyph is important because of the representative and phonetic mix to spell out a precise meaning. Therefore, the reading order of a hieroglyph is normally left prefix, unless there is a superfix which occurs normally as a prefix with a reading order that begins from the top then to the left, followed by the centre (main sign), and finally right postfix. If the glyph has two postfix elements the right postfix is normally read before the bottom postfix. This is merely a general, and not a definitive guide to illustrate the reading order (figure 8).
The smallest single element of meaning within a computer compound icon is normally representative of an object in the real world, or part phonetic such as a single word or letter that has taken on meaning beyond its phonetic value. These elements come together to form computer compound icons. Like the Maya system computer icons feature a main sign and can have other visual elements prefixed, infixed or postfixed. Normally within a computer compound icon there is no established reading order other than visual priority. The position of elements within the computer compound icon are dependent upon size relationships to convey an idea. If the order of the syntax is incorrect, the meaning becomes difficult to understand. For example, if users were to remove a file from a folder, in English the phrase would be, 'the file was removed from the folder'. The sequence of selection of icons need only be the folder, and the file. If the metaphor for folder (object) was not first in the reading order (figure 9c), then the intended meaning that it is a folder that contains this kind of file would become confused. Therefore, programs such as Adobe Photoshop will have a folder to imply the content (figure 9d), which will contain the application program (figure 9e) and other folders inside of the main folder that are associated with the functionality of the program (figure 9f).
Excerpted from Visual Language for the World Wide Web by Paul Honeywill. Copyright © 1999 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Learning from the Past to Inform the Present: Maya Hieroglyphic Writing,
Chapter 2 Simple Words and Visual Metaphors,
Chapter 3 Designing Icons for the Graphical User Interface,
Chapter 4 Computer Compound Icons and their Families,
Chapter 5 Evaluating Representative and Abstract Computer Compound Icons,
Chapter 6 Navigating Interfaces,