I think its important to recognise that there are two entirely different questions in that questions. Alphabets are not the same things as languages. Just because the written form of one is constructed from the other. Japanese doesn’t sound like kanji. Just look at the variance in the languages that are written in latin letters, or perhaps listen.
The link between language and writing is pretty crazy to think about in any depth. Lines on paper can be translated into sounds from mouths can be translated into thoughts in minds. The transference of information can be encoded into these abstract systems that we are so embedded in that we don’t recognise the abstraction. When we look at text, it is almost impossible to just see an arrangement of lines. The underlying structure becomes invisiblly hidden by the meaning. Its a perfect example of not seeing the wood for the trees. The system’s result overwhelms the process.
The problem isn’t so bad with languages you don’t recognise. Not being able to recognise all the letters in the cyrillic letters breaks apart the language enough for me to find it beautiful. The effect is more extreme with arabic or hanzi/kanji. These texts stop looking like texts. The layout gives the impression of language. We recognise it as language, but until I learn how to read it, I simply track its forms and envy them. It perhaps helps that the letters are so clearly made to be drawn and painted by hand. The latin alphabet feels like it was written to be carved, which is probably the case. This has lent it to the act of typography, but made the act of calligraphy trickier. Pretty writing in English tends to feel like an attempt to make the text less readable.Perhaps hiding the meaning increases the pretty.
I want to start talking about how chinese characters can be made up of semantic components that deepen the meaning. ‘Qi’ contains the characters for ‘rice’ and ‘steam’, suggesting that this is energy, built from real matter, but possessing an invisible form. I like that hangul (Korean alphabet) sorts the syllables into blocks of individual letters. So what looks like one character is actually a syllable made up of three letters. That strikes me as a great way to make a language learnable, though I don’t know it in depth enough to know if that’s true.
But that whole paragraph is utility, not aesthetics.
And I haven’t really talked about language at all.
The interesting thing is that civilisation is built on such beautiful and intricate tools that have become utterly every day. Only type geeks and graphic designers spend much time thinking about alphabets, but they are utterly embedded in our lives. The aesthetics are often invisible, despite the gorgeousness.
I think the thing to remember is that they are all gorgeous, not least because of their utility. Language has the power to destroy, but it is also responsible for allowing all our beautiful collaboration.
Illustration by Jaime