We haven’t reached those 26 letters yet

Signs and symbols often change the meaning. English physicist Stephen Webb studied the history of a number and wrote a great book about them.

When you read a message online, all you have to do is recognize the twenty-six letters, ten numbers, and some punctuation marks. If you look at the keyboard, you will see that there are more characters. And if you want to insert a symbol into a word processor, the world really opens up to you. In this book Symbols – a journey through the world of special characters Englishman Stephen Webb describes a hundred characters of his choice. Most of them appear in the so-called Unicode standard, which is an international data file containing more than one hundred thousand characters and symbols and ensures that we can display numeric characters correctly on our computers all over the world.

Webb has been interested in printing since he discovered TeX while studying to format his dissertation with several formulas. Only now is the time for a book on symbols, as it mainly stems from the many questions students have asked over the years.

Web: ‘If you use a code too many times, you take it for granted. This is how it should be. Students should focus on a concept, not on the symbol. But it makes sense that when they see a symbol for the first time, they would ask why we use it. Why does c stand for the speed of light, or is the Greek letter tau (τ) for a specific heavy particle? When you are asked a question like this, you are completely out of your mind and it makes you think.

π € @ 🙂

Webb is a physicist, but he has been working on digital teaching methods for some time at the University of Portsmouth in southern England. In addition, he is the author of several textbooks and popular science books. As a physicist, he naturally selects a number of physical and mathematical symbols in his book, such as c from E = mc by Einstein2 The number pi (π), but also the smile, the euro sign (€) and the at (@) sign. Even some signs of the zodiac and planets that astronomers no longer control, but would like to use by astrologers are reviewed.

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The book is surprising and at the same time a feast of appreciation, written with typical British humor. Webb had a lot of fun creating. “It was so much fun to find all these signs and symbols,” he says enthusiastically. “I learned a lot.”

Webb also designed a font so he could make some icons appear if he wanted to. Is this subject exhausted? Webb: ‘It just checked and the Unicode standard now contains 143,859 characters. This book only has 0.07 percent of that, so it still saves space.

Characters from existing languages

We all know more symbols than we think. Some of them originated in the distant past and others, such as the recycling symbol and the euro symbol, very recently. Other symbols have undergone exciting development, and some still stubbornly keep their shape, although their meaning sometimes changes.

And almost all of them happen in Unicode. However, this does not apply to the Rune script designed by writer JRR Tolkien for his Middle-Earth stories and a letter from the Klingon alphabet that a few Star Trek fans proudly use. Shouldn’t it be included in Unicode?

Not necessarily, says Webb. Well, you can laugh at that, but Klingon was designed by a linguist, and maybe we could learn something from studying a fictitious script. I think the priority should be to include all characters belonging to the current languages ​​in Unicode.


Some of the Webb icon dates make you think. Why do we stop using some symbols and why is there a strong association with symbols like the chaos sign and the swastika, which we know as the swastika?

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The success of the recycling symbol, in all its related forms, shows how good and simple design can take root. A web description of the symbols of radioactivity and biological hazards is an indirect call to consider that the symbols are often associated with culture and time. With some ancient symbols today it is difficult to get to know what they represent at first. However, some of the letters in this article also originated as a symbol for a house or cow’s head.

I work for an artist

Some of the new symbols we use for warning may not have as eternal value as we would like. Suppose there is nuclear, chemical or biological waste stored somewhere and we have clear warning signs on it. We will undoubtedly understand this in the next century. But the life (or half-life) of this dangerous substance may be longer than the life of our civilization. How would a smart being interpret these symbols in a thousand, ten thousand, or one hundred thousand years?

Webb mentions in his book that children can associate the skull with pirates and possibly treasure, and that the symbol of radioactivity will remind them of a windmill with three blades. Webb: If we want to communicate over a long period of time, for example to warn of a radiation hazard, the problem of communication is like where the linguist is in the movie Arrival Struggle with. It might not be as difficult as trying to communicate with an alien civilization, but you cannot make assumptions about a common language or culture for the future.

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He is reminded of the opposite problem the filmmakers faced. They wanted weird recordings for the movie that looked weird but still somewhat comprehensible. They unleashed anthropologists and linguists, searching extinct languages ​​around the world. It was pointless. In the end, the artist was allowed to do the job.

Design competition

Web: With these lengthy codes, the so-called Deep Time SymbolsWritten text out of the question – I actually have trouble reading Chaucer, who is only six centuries old. What will the texts look like after six or sixty thousand years? We cannot rely on colors. For me, for example, red indicates danger, but in China the color symbolizes luck. You can argue about abstract symbols.

Maybe a UN thing: a competition to design a warning symbol that could stand the test of time. Learning the meaning of a symbol should be superfluous and must be independent of language and culture.

Web: It’s a problem that I don’t know a solution to myself. But it is definitely interesting to think about it. Undoubtedly, many bright minds have already taken up this question. I think anyone who designs such an effective symbol deserves a colossal prize.

This illustrated book of symbols gives a face to 100 characters. For sale in our area Web store.

Winton Frazier

 "Amateur web lover. Incurable travel nerd. Beer evangelist. Thinker. Internet expert. Explorer. Gamer."

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