7 April, 2008
How We Know Our ABCs
“Collation” is the technical term for the order in which the letters of the alphabet are arranged. Anyone who’s ever glanced at a foreign alphabet has noticed the consistencies that have been preserved over the millennia: our Latin “A, B, C” resembles the Greek “alpha, beta, gamma,” as well as the Arabic “’alif, bā’, tā” and Hebrew “aleph, bet, gimel,” all of which are traceable to the Phoenician “’āleph, bēth, gīmel.” By the time we’ve passed through the Proto-Canaanite “’alp, bet, gaml” to the Ugaritic “alpa, beta, gamla,” we’ve travelled back 3,500 years; what's interesting is that the shapes of these letters are unrecognizable, but their order is utterly familiar.
I came across a passage last night that speaks to the significance of alphabet collation. I’d always imagined that the modern practice of labelling parts for assembly using the alphabet — insert tab A into slot B, etc. — must be a post-industrial innovation, one which relied upon modern standards of literacy. Not so:
Ancient Near Easterners used fitters’ marks, single letters of the alphabet apparently used to indicate the order in which various building materials are to be assembled. Various decorative ivory pieces from Nimrud, Iraq, were letter-coded to show the order in which they were to be inserted into furniture. In a temple at Petra, Jordan, archaeologists found “large, individually letter-coded, ashlar blocks spread along the floor of [a] room ... in the temple structure.” In a 1971 salvage expedition of a ship downed off Marsala, Italy, Honor Frost discovered “letters at key places where wood was to be joined ... the ship assembly [was thus] a colossal game of carpentry by letters, like a modern paint-by-numbers project.”
This is from The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. Oxford University Press, 1996. —JH
7 March, 2008
The Sulzbacher Eszett
The designers at H&FJ are often asked if there are particular letters that we especially enjoy drawing. Office doodles testify to the popularity of the letter R, perhaps because it synopsizes the rest of the alphabet in one convenient package (it's got a stem, a bowl, serifs both internal and external, and of course that marvelous signature gesture, the tail.) A quick straw poll names a, r, f and e as popular letters too, as well as the figures 2 and 5, and our resident Cyrillist admits a soft spot for the swash capital dje (Ђ.) The back end of the character set definitely invites invention as well: steely designers always appreciate a well-made paragraph mark or double dagger, and we certainly have our fun drawing them.
One character that's especially gratifying to get right is the eszett, if only because it so stubbornly resists being figured out. Eszetts can follow any number of constructions, from the romanized long-s-short-s of Archer to the more Teutonic long-s-meets-z of Verlag. Most fonts strike some balance between these extremes, introducing internal shapes that echo other parts of the character set (as in Mercury) or using simplified geometries that reinforce the philosophy behind the overall design (as in Gotham.)
Historian James Mosley has posted an essay about the eszett to his indispensable Typefoundry blog, which sheds some light on the character's checkered past. (The eszett lives in contemporary German as a ligatured form of the double s, but its very name means s-z; Mosley explains why.) An especially welcome gift from the essay is the correct technical name for the romanized ß: it is the "Sulzbacher form," after Abraham Lichtenthaler, the seventeenth century printer denizened in the Bavarian town of Sulzbach, who is credited with introducing the character to roman printing type. —JH