Thursday, 3 April 2008

Writing Backwards

My subconscious noticed it first as a gazed blankly out of the train window. Focusing on the block number on the corner of the HDB, the digits are painted in reverse italics, the numbers slope backwards not forwards.

Have you ever wondered why italics only ever tilt to the right? No word processor that I know of allows the opposite tilt. I moment of reflection and the answer is plain - right-handed people naturally tilt their letters to the right, and left-handed people just have to do the best they can. English typography is strictly right handed.

The reverse just looks ... wrong. The Chinese (and Japanese) ideograph for a person is like an inverted "Y", a forward slash "/" with a leg stuck out to represent a person walking. So even though Chinese can be written right-to-left, left-to-right or vertically, they chose a person walking to the right. We walk by falling forwards and catching ourselves at each step so it looks natural and progressive. We don't walk backwards (the lower leg and foot are wrong) and leaning back just looks like a person toppling over.

I find it surreal, in the Salvador Dali sense, evoking his pictures with clocks that have melted over edges like soft cheese. It can't be a mistakenly reversed template as "812" isn't left-right mirror reversible. A quick look around shows newer blocks tend to have straight numbers, older ones italicised or at least some digits with a bit of a lean. It's inconsistent as digits with horizontals (7, 4) painted straight, but looped digits (8, 6) leaning. This evidence-based approach suggests an errant paint job but I prefer the idea that there is a subversive element at work; an urban graffiti sign-writer executing hit'n'run typography anarchy. It makes a welcome change from Singapore's controlled, uniform street scene.