Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Art of Money (Multilingual Quarters)

Commemorative quarters for Hawaii, DC, and other US territories, photo taken mid-2009.

Early in 2009 some media outlets were reporting on the release of new quarters commemorating Puerto Rico; these coins contained the words "Isla del Encanto" (Island of Enchantment) in Spanish on one side. As a follow up to the 50 State Quarters Program, the US Mint launched the DC and US Territories Quarters Program in 2009, with Puerto Rico receiving its own quarter. To see a diagram of the Puero Rico quarter (not in the above photo), see this website.

Many reports were treating the use of Spanish on US coins as novelty, but the presence of non-English inscriptions on US coins isn't a really a "new" thing. First of all, every US quarter bears the unofficial Latin motto E pluribus unum ("out of many, one"). Second, the state of Hawaii had already used Hawaiian in addition to the standard Latin motto on its quarter in 2008 (read more about the Hawaii quarter here). UA MAU KE EA O KA 'AINA I KA PONO = "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness."

As you can see above (click to enlarge), DC and the US Virgin Islands have mottos in English (DC = "Justice for All" and Virgin Islands = "United in Pride and Hope"). The Northern Mariana Islands have no additional motto aside from the standard Latin. American Samoa has a motto in Samoan: SAMOA MUAMUA LE ATUA ("Samoa, God is First"). Guam has a motto in Chamorro: "Guahan I Tanó ManChamorro" ("Guam: Land of the Chamorro").

(For the US quarter that includes a Braille inscription, see the previous posting.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Art of Money (Braille on Quarter)

The US Mint began its State Quarters Program in 1999, issuing commemorative coins in the order in which each state entered the Union. The state quarter of Alabama (released March 2003) depicts Helen Keller, and above her name is the equivalent "translation" in Braille dots. I wonder if a blind person is able to read this inscription at this size?

I think it's interesting that Helen Keller is depicted in the act of reading itself. She runs fingers over a book in her lap, presumably one with Braille dots or raised letters.

By the way, this quarter -- like all quarters -- contains some Latin: the unofficial motto of the United States, E pluribus unum ("out of many, one.")

(For more on the use of the motto E pluribus unum, see here and here. For more on Helen Keller, see my earlier posting about her statue in the Capitol Visitor Center; see also here and here.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Helen Keller (Capitol Visitor Center)

I've already posted about the National Statuary Hall Collection, but I thought I should follow up with one more statue. Helen Keller, whose statue is now in the Capitol Visitor Center, is one of two statues representing Alabama. Keller was deaf and blind at an early age, and this statue depicts a linguistic epiphany at a water spout: "Her expression of astonishment shows the moment when she and [her childhood teacher and lifelong companion] Annie Sullivan first communicated, by touch, the word 'water.'" (This episode has been made famous by the play The Miracle Worker.)

The base contains a relief sculpture of Keller's Alabama home with English and Braille inscriptions - and an inspiring quotation from Helen Keller herself: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart."

For more on Helen Keller, see this plaque (here) and the tomb of Keller and Sullivan (here).

Monday, August 1, 2011

Capitalization is WUNDERBAR

Georgetown, July 2011 [click image to enlarge].

These cheerful green buses can be found all around DC as part of Germany's "do Deutsch" campaign: it seeks to promote the joys of learning the German language and pique interest in German culture more broadly.The website promoted on the bus ( has some interesting links, include a German "word of the week" blog.

The bus itself strewn with various German nouns that have entered everyday English speech. In German, all nouns should be capitalized - but things are pretty erratic here (some words are in all caps, some in lowercase). "Wunderbar" [wonderful] is an adjective, not a noun, but - strangely enough - it's capitalized. Oh those wacky Germans, being so playful with their capital letters!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chinese Silkweaving, Multiple Scripts

During a visit to the Freer Gallery of Art last year, I came across this 13th-century scroll painting that depicts the art of Chinese silkweaving. The scroll links together 24 sheets of paper unfurling from left to right, and its visual content is fascinating (the scenes represent all the stages of silk production). Its verbal content is interesting as well. Each scene is accompanied by a poem that is written out in a formal style of calligraphy called "seal script." Next to each character of text in the poem there's a tiny gloss "translating" the character into standard script. There are also various inscriptions in "running script" throughout the scroll, in addition to the seals of multiple owners that have accrued over time.

To see more images of the scroll and download detailed documentation about its contents, see this website.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

DC's Letter-Named Streets (I and Absent J)

DC's system for naming its streets is distinctive. Streets running east-west take letter names (A, B, C, etc.) and streets running north-south are numbered (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on). In addition, diagonal avenues are named after US states (for a guide to navigating DC streets, see here). Above, two ways of rendering I (Eye) Street in Foggy Bottom. I've seen many people write addresses referring to "Eye Street" rather than "I Street" - I suppose order to avoid any confusion with the numeral 1 (one).

Why is there no "J Street" in DC, you ask? I've heard people say it's because the I/J distinction was difficult to discern (or non-existent) in 18th-century typography. Others claim that DC lacks a "J Street" because Pierre L'Enfant (the Frenchman who planned the city) disliked Chief Justice John Jay - but this is apparently an urban legend.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vintage Globe (Air and Space Museum)

View of the North Atlantic in an antique globe, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, September 2010. This artifact is part of the "America by Air" exhibition. Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am Airlines, was accustomed to using this globe to calculate flight distances (using string!) and often posed with it in publicity photos (see here for more).

It's interesting to see how much borders and place-names have changed over time. Here, the Hawaiian Islands are called the "Sandwich Islands" (Cook named the islands in honor of the John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich -- who, contrary to popular belief, did not actually invent sandwiches).

Take a look at North America! Canada is called "British North America." And Alaska is "Russian America." And much of what's now the Western part of the US lacks any borders or writing.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Children at Play" (Chinese Art)

"Children at Play" Exhibition, Freer Gallery of Art, April 2010. Last year I saw this exhibition and I thought these paintings 齊白石 (Qi Baishi) were just so charming I had to post about them on this blog. The painting on the left (c. 1930) is called 夜讀圖 ("Studying at Night"), and the one on the right (also c. 1930) is 送子師從 ("Taking the Son to School"). The paintings seem quite sympathetic toward the child's plight.

Incidentally, the name 齊白石 is a pseudonym. The self-taught artist was known for landscape painting (among other things), and 白石 literally means "White Stone," suggesting snow-covered mountains.

For more about the artist and his legacy, see here.

Guide to Arabic Calligraphy

Guide to the Arabic alphabet, "Calligraphy of the Islamic World," Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art, 2007. This pamphlet offers a chart providing information on the letters of the Arabic alphabet and it also allows you to trace the proper strokes in order to write السلام عليكم (As-Salāmu `Alaykum = "Peace be with you"). I'm not exactly sure if the chart of letter forms is all that useful, since Arabic letters (as I understand it) must change their shape depending on where they appear in a given word.

(For more on calligraphy in Muslim cultures, see this online exhibition. To see another chart of the Arabic alphabet with cute animal pictures, see this earlier post.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jibberish Scripts (Hebrew? Greek?)

A holy child writes in a book in this detail from Bernhard Strigel's Saint Mary Salome and Her Family in the National Gallery of Art (click image to enlarge). I was intrigued by the appearance of the writing in this book, which looks to me like jibberish script. At first I thought these letter-forms were approximating Hebrew, but if that's so then the writing is going in the wrong direction (i.e., the pen is moving left to right, as one does when writing Latin and other languages; Hebrew should go from right to left).

When I took another look at the entire painting online (see image and description here), I realized this child actually identified as SANCTV. IOHANES EWAN. (Saint John the Evangelist) - and his Gospel was actually written in Greek. But the writing doesn't look very much like Greek either.

I guess it doesn't really matter whether the writing is "supposed" to be Greek or Hebrew. It looks like the artist was much more interested in representing the "idea" of a holy writer rather than conveying the accuracy of any particular script. (For another creative use of script in a religious painting, see this earlier posting about upside-down Latin.)

I'm sure I could find other examples of jibberish script throughout the NGA if I really looked around, but here's a similar example from a painting I saw in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo during a visit to Siena:
I don't remember who this figure is or even the name of the artist, but it's another intriguing example of visually stylized script that lends an aura of authority. Whether it's meant to represent Hebrew or Greek, the symbols here look to me a lot like a older form of Arabic numerals.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chocolate-Covered Fortune Cookies?!

I saw this quality Valentine's Day themed product for sale today: chocolate-covered fortune cookies, complete with red "Chinese takeout" shaped box. Each fortune apparently has a romantic theme. The character 愛 (love) is written on the box in reasonably legible traditional script, but for some reason it has been rotated counter-clockwise by 45 degrees.

At least this company knows better than to use a stereotypically pointy "Chinese take-out menu" font (for some examples of this, see here). That being said, I do think it's rather odd that the white tear-drop shaped portion of the yin/yang symbol becomes the "dot" in the letter "I" as well as the apostrophe.

P.S. The origin of the fortune cookie is disputed (see here), but as far as I know it is not actually a Chinese invention.

P.P.S. I have not purchased, nor have I tasted, these cookies.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Muse of Poetry (National Gallery of Art)

Calliope (muse of heroic poetry), as sculpted Austin Pajou (c. 1763), in the French Neoclassical style. The name for Calliope comes from the Greek Καλλιόπη (Kalliope, or "beautiful-voiced"), and she is conventionally depicted holding a book or tablet.

In this detail, we see that the sculptor has chosen to show her holding an open book. On these pages are a Latin inscription. The first 3 lines on the left-hand page read CALLIOPE REGI/NA HOMINVM / DIVVMQVE (Calliope, Queen of Humans and Gods). The "queen" form of address is an allusion to Horace, whose Latin poetry refers to Calliope as regina, or queen (Carminae, III.iv.2). National Gallery of Art, West Wing.

To read more about this sculpture (including a full transcript of the Latin inscription), see here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Trans-Atlantic Poetry (Navy Memorial Metro)

Two poems are inscribed all the wall in part of Ocean Piece, an artwork by Jorge Martin (1995). As far as I can tell, the artwork honors trans-Atlantic navigation and exploration. On the left (Western?) side of the artwork is an excerpt from Walt Whitman's poem "The Prayer of Columbus." The lines read:

All my emprises have been fill’d with Thee, 
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee, 
Sailing the deep, or journeying the land for Thee; 
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine—leaving results to Thee.
O I am sure they really come from Thee! 
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will, 
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words, 
A message from the Heavens, whispering to me even in sleep, 
These sped me on.
By me, and these, the work so far accomplish’d (for what has been, has been); 
By me Earth’s elder, cloy’d and stifled lands, uncloy’d, unloos’d; 
By me the hemispheres rounded and tied—the unknown to the known. 

On the right (Eastern?) side of the sculpture - across a gentle bulge, which seems to me to evoke an ocean wave - is an excerpt from "Occident," a work by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. These lines read:

With two hands - Deed and Fate
We have unveiled in the same gesture, one
Raises the flickering and divine torch
While the other draws the veil aside.

Whether the hour was ripe or it owned
The hand that tore the Western veil,
Science was the soul and Audacity the body
Of the hand that unveiled it.

Whether the hand rose the glittering torch
Out of Fortune, Will or Tempest,
God was the soul and Portugal the body
Of the hand that bore it.

This artwork was a gift from the Lisbon Subway to the DC Metro (see this website for more). The oceanic and transportation-themed artwork is indeed fitting for its location: the Navy Memorial metro station.