On Thursday, Bwog’s character-based correspondent Diana Clarke hopped over to the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, where she joined a roomful of besweatered academics to listen to Thomas S Mullaney, GSAS ’06. He discussed the difficulties of creating a typewriter that could print Chinese characters and tried “to explain the convoluted mathematics of the subtitle.”

All in all, he explained his daunting lecture topic remarkably well. Chinese, as you can imagine, was a particularly difficult language to adapt to print. Unlike other languages, it is both non-phonetic and character-based rather than letter-based. Instead of just 26 letters that are combined in different ways to make words, it contains tens of thousands of different characters that each represent a whole word or half of one. Modern innovations are trying to address these issues by using predictive technologies like “further radiating codes” to anticipate character formations, similar to Google’s autocomplete function that fills in your search query after you type just a few words. However, the earliest method of printing, the press, required physical effort, not predictive technology, in order to work properly, which sparked the intimate relationship between the human body and machines.

Mullaney called this the First Recursion: with the advent of movable type came typesetting, which necessitated a person to carry the block letters to and from the press. Given that the Chinese lexicon presently has about 90,000 characters, this was a little overwhelming. To address this issue, the characters were ranked by frequency, with the most commonly used ones grouped together nearest the typesetter. This, Mullaney said, represented “a moment in which language is subordinated to the body.” Then came the massive Chinese typewriter, and with it a strain of “aggressively entrepreneurial” typewriting schools and manuals, which advocated excellence in clerical work, and advocated exacting physical training in order to bring people’s bodies, and even their minds, into synchronicity with the machines. Typists were encouraged to have a psychocorporeal anticipation of the next character, embodying the machine as they used it.

The Second Recursion, adapting typewriters back to the human body, involved reorganizing the characters on the keyboard to maximize their proximity to other characters with which they were frequently combined (we being to see a system of proto-autocompletion). This meant that the bodies of people using the machines wouldn’t have to stretch and turn so far in order to write. Despite this standardization, typists were still encouraged to have intensely personal relationships with their machines, whose characters had been organized to reflect the fluidity and patterns of human thought and memory. As an example of one person’s close affiliation with a machine, Mullaney mentioned a typewriter he’d once seen that belonged to a Chinese immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. Because the lawyer dealt with the same issues and wrote the same things over and over again, certain keys were used more often than others and had to eventually be replaced. Mullaney recalled that when he tilted his head to the side, these newer, shinier keys caught the light, illuminating words like “border” and “home.”

The Third Recursion, said Mullaney, is happening right now, with attempts to fit the Chinese lexicon to the familiar QWERTY keyboard, allowing easier interaction with the rest of the world. The difference between Chinese and most other languages became apparent during the Beijing Olympics, as the opening ceremony usually has nations marching in alphabetical order. The Chinese, who have no alphabet, dealt with this by instead having nations march according to the number of strokes in the first character of their names. But, Mullaney asked, can these series of strokes be adapted to our alphabet-based modern living? They’re still working on it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons