Bring Back the Yogh and the Thorn


ThornYe Olde Shoppe. We’ve all seen the signs like this. Ever wonder why it says “ye” instead of “the”? Me, too, at least way back then. I’ve known the answer a long time now from decades of reading about English, about typography, Chaucer, and about Middle English orthography. Spoiler alert: It was pronounced “the.” Not “ye.”

Thorn evolvedThe “ye” was actually spelled “(thorn)e” — thorn was a letter in the Old and Middle English alphabets that stood for “th.” It started out looking like a lowercase “p” as in the images at the top, but as time went on, it devolved into something that looked more like a “y” (on the left) in German printing (which lacked a thorn in its character set) which got passed back into early Modern English. When printing arrived in England, Caxton used the “y” form of thorn in his books, hence the “ye” in “the olde shoppe…”

Although Latin characters are the basis for most European languages, Latin (itself derived from earlier Etruscan) had only 23 characters in its alphabet, missing several used in other languages including the Germanic and Norse tongues that loaned so many words and sounds to English. To convey these missing sounds and letters, medieval scribes used characters and runes from other alphabets. While Latin was the official language of Christendom, which spread throughout Europe, it had some hiccups in translation.

Latin had no J, U, or W (or any lowercase form, which was also invented in medieval times), so these came from elsewhere into English. I was used for J; J wasn’t even a separate letter until Gian Giorgio Trissino used it in a book in 1524, but it didn’t appear in English books until 1633, and still wasn’t commonly used until around the early 19th century. So there was no Jesus, Joseph, Jehovah, Joshua, or any other character whose name started with a J in the original bibles (Latin or Greek). Those names are the result of translation into later English.

W had been represented in 7th and 8th century Germanic texts as a digraph (VV or uu), but didn’t make its way into English until the 13th century. It still took a century to become standard. Before then, the sound was represented by the rune wynn. U was originally just a stylistic variation on the letter v, used in the middle or end of a word, while the pointed v was used as the first character. Although u was accepted as a separate character as early as 1386, it was only in its lowercase form. The uppercase U was not used in English until the 17th century. 

EthAnother lost symbol for the was the Irish character eth, which also represented ‘th’ but was a slightly longer sound than thorn (try saying thing versus this to hear the difference).

YoghThe letter “y” wasn’t used back in Chaucer’s day, and instead scribes would have used a yogh, looking a bit like the numeral 3,  spelling our “ye” as 3e.  But yogh was flexible. Yogh, which derives from the Hebrew character gimel, was used for more than one letter, depending a bit on context and pronunciation: it could be g, z, w, or y, or sometimes an x or the allophone gh (as in night or knight, although these were not silent as they are now) and the guttural ch in loch or Bach. Yogh suffered from its closeness to the Arabic symbol for number three. Arabic numerals were gaining popularity in Britain around the end of the 14th  and early 15th centuries, and the two symbols conflicted.

By Chaucer’s day, by the way, the Latin I and Y had lost their distinctiveness as sounds in English.

Another lost letter is wynn, which was used for the “w” sound centuries before the letter was finally adopted into English. Several of these lost characters stayed around in English writing until Chaucerian times, but after the Norman invasion of 1066, French became the official language, and they disappeared from court documents and records. 

Thorn, eth, wynn, and yogh were incorporated into early English because they represented existing sounds not in Latin, but the long s was a typographic affectation for the letter s: style rather than pronunciation, so it had somewhat greater longevity. By Caxton’s time most of these symbols and letters had vanished from printed works, in large part because the printing press and its moveable type were imported from Europe where they didn’t have any of these symbols, so Caxton and others had to make changes to suit the typefaces they had.

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The magic of reading

Jumble_02Can you make sense of those lines in the image to the right? Of course not. They’re deconstructed from the letters of a simple, one-syllable word and randomly re-arranged. It’s just four letters, but their component parts are not arranged in the proper order, so they seem like meaningless lines and squiggles. We’ve not been taught to assemble them into a structure that makes sense to our brains. Yet we’re quite capable of assigning meaning and context to abstract forms, if they’re assembled properly.

The order that we prefer those lines and curves to be in is arbitrary – the association of any particular line or curved with another piece is simply a convenience we all agree to use. Other cultures, other languages have a different agreement, equally arbitrary. The lines that form a lamed in the Hebrew alphabet don’t look anything like the lines we use to make an “L” but they get translated into that sound in the reader’s brain because that’s what the reader was raised to expect. Similarly, a Cyrillic “L” looks different from both English and Hebrew, yet performs the same function in the language. When a non-Hebrew or non-Cyrillic reader sees them, they recognize the lines, but there is no neurological association to tell that reader what they mean.*

Jumble_01When those lines and curves are again aligned differently, they offer a hint of order. English readers can more easily recognize some of the forms, even if they don’t always coalesce into specific letters. You might be able to guess at some of the letters, maybe even all., but most likely the word itself remains obscure unless you put a lot of cogitative effort into solving the puzzle.

Yet even if you can’t figure it out, our brains are remarkably agile in that they are eager to build associations from even the smallest clues. That’s how pareidolia happens – described on Wikipedia as, “…a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g. in random data).” But while it makes for imagined faces of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, it also helps us identify things that are not in the exact shape and form that we expect.
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Square words

Square word calligraphyWriting has been described as the most significant human invention. We tend to think of inventions as mechanical things, like the wheel, or fire, or the printing press, the airplane, the internal combustion engine or cell phone. But without writing, few of them would exist. Writing allowed us to share the others, to improve them, to record them, to pass them along and record them.

Writing allows us to share ideas, emotions, visions, beliefs, stories, poetry and music through a series of abstract squiggles. Without writing there would be no literature, no religion, no philosophy, no songs, no politics. We would not have a history or mythology beyond what we could share orally. And when you consider writing is no more than 5,000 years old – out of a history of humankind that is millions of years old – it’s pretty astounding that is is so relatively recent.

Humans experimented with various pictographic scripts prior to writing, but they tended to stay localized because they were both difficult and complex to learn and share. They are inefficient for conveying large amounts of information and data, too. With writing came laws, taxation, the census, banking, the codification of government and of religion.

cuneiform tabletTurning sounds into abstract symbols that could be pieced together into words was a new idea that seems to have developed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt almost simultaneously (both before 3000 BCE).

The Sumerians first used writing to keep track of mundane lists: sales, inventory, receipts and temple donations. That evolved to put laws, genealogies and myths into clay – works we still have and can read today. To be able to read the Epic of Gilgamesh, a remarkable tale written around 2100 BCE, today is entirely thanks to the invention of writing.

In Egypt, migrant workers developed a written script as a phonetic way to learn the speech of their Egyptian taskmasters because they couldn’t master the hieroglyphs. Or it may have begun with their graffiti scratched into a quarry wall. Either way, it was a brilliant and necessary invention.
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Back to black

Grey scalesI had noticed of late that several websites are more difficult to read, that they opted to use a lighter grey text instead of a more robust black. But it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t my aging eyes: this was a trend. That is, until I read an article on Backchannel called “How the Web Became Unreadable.”

It’s a good read for anyone interested in typography, design and layout – and not just the Web, but print as well. It makes several good points about contrast including providing some important technical details about how contrast is measured.

I’ve written in the past about how contrast is important in design (here, and here for example). But apparently there’s a design trend of late away from contrast towards murkiness. In his article, author Kevin Marks notes:

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Others have noticed this too, even before Marks. In 2015, Katie Sherman wrote on Neilsen Norman Group’s site:

A low-contrast design aesthetic is haunting the web, taking legibility and discoverability with it. It’s straining our eyes, making us all feel older, and a little less capable. Lured by the trend of minimalism, sites are abandoning their high-contrast traditions and switching to the Dark Side (or should I say, the Medium-Gray Side). For sites willing to sacrifice readability for design prowess, low-contrast text has become a predictable choice, with predictable, persistent usability flaws.

This trend surprises and distresses me because it seems a singularly user-hostile trend; anti-ergonomic against the whole point of the internet. Apparently it’s part of a minimalist design trend. Now I don’t mind clean, uncluttered web pages, but I balk at making them unreadable. Pale grey reduces accessibility and legibility.

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Designing Type

Designing TypeKaren Cheng’s 2005  book, Designing Type, is the third of the recent books on typography I have received*. Of the three, it is the most technical, appealing to the typophile and design geek more than the average reader. But it’s also a reference for layout and graphic artists looking to choose a specific font for a work.

If your goal is to actually design a typeface, she helps appreciate the subtleties of design that differentiate and separate typefaces and letterforms. But it’s not a book about design.

Most books on type and typography focus on the result: working for the combination of readability and legibility that create an emotional, psychological and intellectual effect on the viewer. Cheng takes us on an almost microscopic tour of type, zooming in on the minute parts.

There is a prevailing theory that type should be ‘invisible’ in that the reader doesn’t see the face, simply benefits from its effect. And, I suppose, for the average reader that makes sense. Designers usually don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by a closer examination of the font. Writers don’t want readers to lose track of the plot or theme in order to puzzle over the lack or presence of serifs. But a lot of work and time goes into creating a typeface that accomplishes that goal.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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