Sylvia Paull
4 min readAug 28, 2021

Emojis: the 21st Century’s Return to Hieroglyphics

I spent my first school year in an ancient, four-room building in western Massachusetts learning how to write longhand with an old-fashioned ink pen whose nib required a baptismal dip into the inkwell in the furrowed wood desktop every few letters. I could have been writing just like the anti-heroine of The Scarlet Letter.

Mrs. Wheeler — a wizened tyrant of perfect penmanship — would stride between the desk rows and slap the back of your hand with a wooden ruler for any lassitude in a student’s performance. I still recall the shock and pain induced by the ruler’s force, which came down often on my right hand as I was often lost in daydreams of liberation from the drudgery of school.

I learned to write beautifully although my words only transcribed the infantile perambulations of Dick and Jane, our sole literary fare.

During one class, I pursed and smacked my six-year-old lips to throw mock kisses behind me to my boyfriend, Dennis, across the room. I was caught by Mrs. Wheeler and detained after school, where with many stubs of of white chalk, I had to write on the big blackboard “I will not kiss in class” 100 times. It took me an hour, and when my mother asked me why I was home so late, I told her that I had been helping the teacher.

The penmanship wasn’t wasted, though. When my father, a U.S. Army bandleader, was stationed in Bremerhaven, Germany, where I had started the third grade, I wrote letters to Dennis every week. He even wrote me back.

The summer before I started high school, I took typing and shorthand classes. At the time it was easy to get temporary jobs with these skills, especially for young women who wanted office work. In six weeks, I became the fastest typist in the class — 120 words per minute with I don’t know how many errors — and learned just enough shorthand to realize It would take years to master what was a sound-based language.

I took piano lessons for years and learned to read and even write music scores. Music scores were another language, a more difficult one than an alphabet, because they required collaboration between my sight, mind, hearing, and hands, as well as pedaled feet.

At Reed College, most students, like Steve Jobs who attended years after I graduated, took calligraphy from Lloyd Reynolds, a master of the art as well as an Egyptologist. You needed a calligraphy pen, onto which you could fit various styles of nibs dipped in special ink to create different typefaces. Over the four college years, students would develop their own, recognizable style, and I’m sure Jobs got the idea for all the various Apple fonts from this experience. Sumner Stone and Charles Ferguson, who later developed typefaces for Adobe, took calligraphy while I was at Reed.

In the cafeteria, calligraphic posters hung from the walls with quotes from everyone from Freud to Heidegger. Although I can’t recall a single quote,* long after college, I bought a felt pen with a calligraphic tip and scripted quotes I liked and taped them on my walls. Here’s one still inside my bicycle closet door by former Wired writer and author Paulina Borsook: “I have always lived by the nostrum that you regret the things you don’t do, as opposed to the things you end up doing.”

I was one of perhaps half a dozen students in the small Portland college with a typewriter — a beautiful (to me) Hermes. I disdained handwriting and calligraphy and typed all my papers, including my thesis, although since triple copies were required and we only had carbon paper to separate each copy from one another — making a mistake required tedious triple erasures — I eventually paid a professional typist $100 (a dollar per page) to finish the job.

In the late 70s, with the advance of home computing, I had to relearn how to write all over again with what I considered nonsensical key commands in MultiMate and later Microsoft Word. The Apple computer liberated me from these commands and I sometimes feel as if Steve Jobs had been channeling Lloyd Reynolds to marry beauty with function.

For after all, writing should be beautiful as well as communicate ideas. Consider the medieval illuminated manuscripts for prayers, the book of hours, prepared by monks with calligraphic pens as well as paints for the accompanying art.

Even audio books engage readers with a mellifluous and/or professionally trained voice.

And as emojis create a new mode of communications, let’s hope their designers don’t neglect the aesthetics. Who knows, emojis might incorporate calligraphy in novel ways.

*I think I recall one poster: “Was fur ein Qual.” This was in reference to the qualifying exam one needed to pass at the end of one’s junior year. You had to appear before a panel of three different professors in different fields — one in your major — who tested your knowledge and understanding about their respective fields. “Was fur ein Qual” roughly translates from the German into “What kind of torture is this?”

Sylvia Paull

Agent provocateur, Silicon Valley connector and high-tech publicist.