Dropping the vowels

Much has been said recently about the rebrand of Standard Life Aberdeen to ‘abrdn’, and much of it not very flattering. The comments mostly seem concerned with the dropping of the vowels and how it can now be misread and misinterpreted. To me, all this is a bit far fetched.

The dropping of vowels is nothing new, even for us who use an alphabetic writing system; we do so regularly in text messages and yet nobody seems to complain about it. I personally find it annoying when I receive such a message but so far it has never led me to misunderstand the message. Proficient readers are perfectly capable of interpreting a consonant only approach since we recognise the context the message is in. Where there is great ambiguity in a consonant only word, simply place a vowel for clarity.

Moving to a primarily consonant only approach in writing would change our writing system from alphabetic to abjad. Arabic and Hebrew writing systems are examples of abjad, and the readers of those systems do not seem to have a problem with the clarity of the message in their day to day communications. At school, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and other speakers of languages using the Arabic writing system learn to write and read with vowel indicators and other pronunciation marks. Once they have mastered this they will move on to the more ‘simplified’ way of writing and reading. There is no reason this could not also be applied to languages using the Latin alphabet.

British English speakers who seem so incensed over ‘abrdn’ should take a look in the mirror and remember how our American cousins tend to pronounce Gloucester, Worcester and many other words that are spelled nothing like they are pronounced which, btw, does not help those with reading difficulties or learner readers.

Humans use many different ways of writing their language, and broadly we can categorise four types of writing systems: alphabetic, syllabic, abjad and ideographic. Out of the many dozens of systems I can think of only a handful that are alphabetic, the main ones being Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian and Georgian.

As far as branding the organisation goes, it certainly has done the job: everyone is talking about it, and given a few more weeks the waves will have calmed and people will continue to call it ‘Aberdeen’ despite it being written ‘abrdn’. It’s worth noting that so far we have only seen the wordmark without the context of application. Will the organisation call itself ‘Aberdeen’ or ‘abrdn’ in running copy? I could imagine that a consonant only spelling will become annoying very quickly when everything else is written with vowels.

All the debates that are currently had over this — a storm in a teacup, frankly — do nothing but show our deep inherent cultural and personal biases toward one thing or another. It shows our tribalism and why branding works so well.

Bruno Maag is an expert typographer with over forty years of expertise in his field. He founded Dalton Maag Ltd, the world’s leading studio for typeface design.