The concept of “arbitrariness” between speech and grapheme in writing systems is the central basis from which I develop my argument.



York University


April, 2011


David Cabianca
Paul Sych


Modern linguistic theory suggests that letterforms are arbitrary and that the relationship between the signifier and the signified has no discernible pattern. This thesis investigates the arbitrary relationship between spoken sounds and graphemes and extends that relationship to letterform design. While graphic design rarely intersects with the field of linguistics, a culturally pivotal relationship with great potential for investigation exists between the two. In this thesis, graphic design is used as a medium to explore the arbitrary nature of written signs and draws attention to this importance in visual communication.


A theoretical and historical investigation informs the production of visual artifacts: a book specimen relating speech to written form, as well as a typeface that investigates the arbitrary design of letterforms while also demonstrating existing multiple connotative implications within letterforms. This thesis demonstrates that similar to letterforms having multiple speech sound associations, a typeface can have multiple connotative associations.


The overall intent was to demonstrate that letterforms are culturally created visual forms that enable visual modes of communication and to emphasize the important of letterform aesthetic and shape manifestation in reinforcing and signifying meaning. Further, the thesis implicates graphic designers as active contributors to meaning when engaging with linguistics signs.


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