What makes an "a" an "a"?

spiral's picture

What is the essence of each letterform? i realize a lot of it is context, but it amazes me how wildly varying shapes can be perceived as the same letter, so i'm interested in knowing your thoughts or others' as to what makes each character be recognized, what its essence is...

gulliver's picture

Wow -- what a great topic!

I remember the point of realization when I was very young, noticing that a typeset double-storeyed lc "a" and "g" looked quite different from the handwritten single-storeyed "a" and "g" that I had been taught to write in school. Further, I could recognize either instantly as the letters they represented. This realization might have been a sign of the first inklings of my developing love of type.

To answer the question, the "Emigré" standard of familiarity ("We read best what we read most") seems too simplistic, but I suspect it holds part of the answer, in any case.

Consider the old-style "long s" (which gave way to the "ß" [eszett] ligature): In colonial America, Europe (and still much of the modern world, particularly readers of German), it was recognized easily as an "s", as in "WHEN in the Cour?e of human Events

gulliver's picture

(Whoops... It looks like approximating a long "s" by using the Macintosh (option-b) integral sign didn't work as well as I had hoped.... Just know that the "?"s above represent the long "s"....)

David

foss's picture

its interesting that you point out that each letter has its own "essence." this happens because letters will remind us of things in the natural world. I think of the letter "Y" as being feminine and the letter "X" as having a much more masculine "essence"

hrant's picture

This is not a great topic. This is *THE* topic.
To me it's really the foundation of typography.

I've thought about this myself for a while, and it's actually part of what motivated my Alphabet Reform work. One thing to not lose sight of here is that writing and reading are separate things, especially these days when we read typeset text almost exclusively. For example, David's example of the "D" is actually very telling! It's a very ambiguous letter, not least because efficient writing makes its corners softer, as a result making *reading* harder; look at the "D" in OCR-B for an effort to counter this ambiguity*. BTW, amazing but true: many Japanese people actually put a crossbar on the stem of the "D" when writing in English, specifically to disambiguate it! And I can bring many other examples of how writing has reduced readability.

* http://www.myfonts.com/CharacterInStyle0044-62668.html

Familiarity is one of the two foundations of reading. But it's just as misunderstood (or actually, just as ignored) as the other foundation: human physiology. It doesn't matter how familiar you are with the UC "I", lc "el" and numeral "1", they're *still* unnecessarily ambiguous. And it's not just a matter of the type design making them less ambiguous - they have a *structural* problem. On top of all this, there's the fact that we [generally] read boumas (word shapes) as opposed to individual letters.

"Essence" is a great word to use, even though it might erroneously convey that the letters have a static nature. The truth is, the essence of a letter is different for each one of us, depending on our personal realities, and it even changes over time! The main thing to realize about the essence is that it depends on what's been called "acrocratic" features, or features that stand out and differentiate each character. For example, the UC "Q"'s acrocratic feature is its tail. When a letter has weak acrocracy (like the "P", specifically with respect to the "B" and "R") then it's less decipherable.

The issues of gender is another *very* interesting topic (at least to me) - although I'm not sure how deep its relevance is in decipherment/reading.

BTW, here's a shameless plug:
I've tried to deal with these issues in some depth in my article (called "Improving the Tool") in a recent book called Graphic Design & Reading, edited by Gunnar Swanson:

http://gunnarswanson.com/GDandR/GDandR_Book.html

hhp

mart's picture

I don't know why I thought of Blackadder, but this discussion reminded me of an interchange between Dr, Samuel Johnson (compiler of the first English dictionary) and George (IV) Prince Regent.

Dr. Johnson has come to ask the royal for patronage of his dictionary...

George: "So, Dr. Johnson. Sit ye down. Now, this book of yours...tell me, what's it all about?"

Dr. Johnson: "It is a book about the English language, sir."

George: "I see! And the hero's name is what?"

...later on in the discussion...

Dr. Johnson: "...No-one gets murdered, or married, or in a tricky situation over a pound note!"

George: "Well, now, look, Dr. Johnson, I may be as thick as a whale omelette, but even *I* know a book's got to have a *plot*."

Dr. Johnson: "Not this one, sir. It is a book that tells you what English words *mean*."

George: "I *know* what English words mean -- I *speak* English! You must be a bit of a thicko."

Anyhow - I know it's not exactly the right metaphor - but it seems to me like trying to define the essence of a letter is a little bit like a dog chasing it's own tail.
And maybe that's not the right comparison either.
I guess there could be a reductionist, engineering specification for each letter, but how does that really help us? I'm not an anti-academic, but with all due respect the exercise seems like intellectual twaddle. In advance - sorry.

And yes, Blackadder was utterly anachronistic as the above scenario could never have happened.

hrant's picture

> I guess there could be a reductionist, engineering specification for each letter, but how does that really help us?

Although "reductionist" is probably a good term here, I don't think we're on the same wavelength otherwise. I can't be sure about anybody else, but what I myself have in mind I think can be very useful for anybody interested in pushing the boundaries of type, as opposed to just churning out variations on the conventional theme - a senile theme.

If we can define (not necessarily absolutely, but just as much as possible) for a given writing system what makes each of its characters decipherable (note: in the context of the whole), and more importantly (at least for a text face) what makes each character contribute to the decipherability of boumas, then we've created some firm ground to walk on: we can push the structure -and subsequently the finish- of each character to the limit (not that this limit is static, though). This approach is the main guidepost of my Alphabet Reform efforts.

Let me try to give a quick, specific example:
As much as I like Tarzana* overall, its UC "Q" is flawed, because the tail seems part of the left curve, instead of being independent. By ignoring the acrocracy of the tail of the "Q", Licko pushed too far, or more accurately, in the wrong direction.

* http://www.emigre.com/dp/getfontpage.php?PTarNR.html

The foundation for creating good fonts is the understanding of each character's functionalities, and in terms of the act of reading, the essences of the characters play the central role.

hhp

gulliver's picture

As much as I agree with and admire Hrant's arguments on the subject of readability (and I think Hrant would agree with this), I'm pretty sure that readability is only a part of the equation.

Similarly, Martin's analogy from Black Adder (which I also love :) ) is flawed for almost the same reason. George's problem was in his definition of "book". A book CAN be a narrative, with a hero, plot, conflict, etc., but that is not the ENTIRE definition of the word book. A book can also be a book of reference (as a dictionary), a book of stamps or even a bankbook.

Similarly, readability is not the only element of typography or design. It is an important element in many (perhaps even most) contexts, but it is not the only consideration -- and may not even be the most important consideration.

If we learned anything from the grunge and deconstructionist experiments of the '80s and '90s, it is that very good typography, design and letterforms can be not very readable at all -- and still be considered "good" or successful solutions. It all depends upon the context and even more, on the design problems that are to be addressed.

The point of my previous post is that MANY things influenced the letterforms we have today: language, phonics, iconography/symbology, tools of writing, writing surface, community education, vernacular, popularity/familiarity, printing technology, style, experimentation, and yes, readability. I have probably left a few out of my list as well.

We may be getting a bit off-topic, however; as I interpreted Spiral's original question, it was "What is the essence of a letterform?" In other words, why do we recognize an 'a' as that letter, and not as a stunted "d" or "q", for example?

I think Hrant is on to something when he mentions boumas (the gestalt of word contours), but again, I think that is only part of the answer. If that were the whole answer, I suspect that our alphabet might have shed all of its counters centuries ago, relying instead only on outlines of words. Or, perhaps, individual letter glyphs might have been dropped long before typwriters or even typesetting made them a now-necessary staple, and we would have instead evolved toward a system not unlike Chinese or Japanese pictoglyphs. But of course we haven't, and we manage to recognize varied forms of the same intended letter glyphs just fine, thank you very much. Spiral's question is, if I read her question correctly: why?

hrant's picture

> readability is only a part of the equation.

Well, yes, I do agree. And I don't think the essence of a letter is restricted to some dry skeleton that one might be tempted to draw. For one thing, I might expound on what Phil wrote and say that many letters might have actual physical associations (noting that humans *are* physical beings who live in Nature, after all) - and these associations tie in to the essence. But how much of that pertains directly to decipherment, a very low-level function of the human mind? I think some of it does, but it's very hard to grasp things buried so deeply. Not to mention this bummer of a philosophical truth: "A system can never understand itself."

BTW, Alfred Kallir has a book called "Sign and Design" where he explains how the Latin alphabet as a whole and each letter in particular are derived directly from our psychosexual reality! He refutes the classic "A = Ox" bullshit (pun intended :-), and although his premise might sound far-fetched, many of the points he makes have the unmistakable smell of truth to them.

In focusing on readability I was trying address one -important- aspect Spiral's question, and to me it's important because it's possible to improve the Latin alphabet (or any other writing system), *if* you first understand how the thing really works!

> If [boumas] were the whole answer, I suspect that our alphabet might have shed all of its counters centuries ago, relying instead only on outlines of words. Or, perhaps, ....

Well, just because these things didn't happen doesn't mean that they *shouldn't* have, and it also doesn't mean such things shouldn't happen in the *future*. Social inertia is always a thing to consider, and very often to fight against.

> we manage to recognize varied forms of the same intended letter glyphs just fine

In the same way that I managed to live out my adolescence in Beirut with electrical current only about half the time? :-)

The deeper functionalities of writing are hidden from casual observation - and this is directly related to the difference between legibility and readability. Furthermore, the reason change is slow/difficult is largely because it's hard to convince people something needs improving when that thing is virtually invisible.

> Spiral's question is, if I read her question correctly: why?

I think you lost me.

hhp

hrant's picture

BTW, something from a while back:
http://www.themicrofoundry.com/ss_trajic.html

hhp

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