Microsoft's Malayalam Typeface

hashimpm's picture

Microsoft had released Language support for many Indian Languages with WindowsXP. Crude and badly designed, the Malayalam typeface Karthika is an eyesore. With badly formed shapes, incorrect spacing and incorrect conjunct formation, the typeface and language support really mocks the language. Obviosuly people who didn't know the language were involved and made a mess out of it. On top of it, the OpenType/ Unicode support given is faulty and gives more disservice to the language.

Some improvement was expected over the years, but nothing has happened. Unfortunately for want of a choice, people are using it for blogs and sites as if this is the norm/ default. This is likely to corrupt typography in the language and general aethetics forever.

As a langauge lover and type designer in the language what can be done?

Si_Daniels's picture

How does it compare to the Malayalam font Apple supplies with Mac OS or the open source alternatives?

hashimpm's picture

There is no other OS level implementation on any other platform.

dan_reynolds's picture

Si, Mac OS does not support Malayalam, or at least is not bundled with any AAT Malayalam fonts (just Devanagari, Gurmukhi, Gujarati, Thai, Tibetan, and Tamil). I've come across some OpenSource Malayalam fonts, but I never installed any of them, so I can't say which ones are Unicode-encoded, and which aren't.

Hashim, which Malayalam fonts do you like better?

hashimpm's picture

There are some nice print fonts designed by Linotype and Monotype.

What we need in Malayalam is something like Verdana or Georgia (or even Helvetica and Times), tuned for the screen and looking neat too.

The made-for print fonts are too rounded to suit the purpose. Micrososft's Karthika could have looked and worked better had some linguists and designers who know the language were genuinely involved.

But I guess that is what happens in most Asian scripts!

Si_Daniels's picture

Well Prof Joshi passed away a few years back so he can't answer for himself. Have you tried turning on ClearType?

Can you suggest a better Monotype or Linotype font that Microsoft should consider licensing?

hashimpm's picture

I was Prof. Joshi's student and he passed away this February. He was been my source of inspiration too to get into language typography which hasn't kept apace with developments in technology. He was more into Devanagari typography, but I believe was also involved with Microsoft's Indian language efforts to some extent. But Indian scripts being many and so diverse one cannot expect one person to be an expert in all of them.

Turning on ClearType will makes it slightly better, but exaggerates its bad shapes further. I believe for on screen-reading bitmap fonts work best with B&W pixels— Verdana nd Gorgia being the best models to emulate. The language technology part needs to be corrected first, with better and more acceptable conjunct formations and then the shapes which needs to be screen-friendly. merely replicating the print fonts for on-screen use is also hampering other Indian languages, to the best of my knowledge.

Linotype Manorama designed by Fiona Ross is a good evolutionary model, though may not suitable for on-screen viewing. We need original designs which are hand-tuned for the screen.

Si_Daniels's picture

So Microsoft should not have consulted with Prof Joshi on this language and no existing font is suitable? We need new fonts and fixed shaping? Which type designer would you suggest Microsoft work with? And where are the shaping bugs are documented?

hashimpm's picture

No doubt. Prof. Joshi was the right person, but I wish linguists and type designers in the language were also consulted before designing the default typefaces in each language. I have heard similar complaints from other friends speaking different Indian languages.

I can help with Malayalam if needed, having designed many typefaces in Malayalam ( But the Unicode/ OpenType problem also needs to be addressed simultaneously to make it acceptable to a larger audience.

As you know there are two versions of Malayalam rendering: the traditional one (as recommended by Rachana, a group that recommends close to 900 characters to bring the language back to its original glory) and the reformed one (INSCRIPT/ C-DAC Gist with about 150 characters) which is more popular other than those used by various publishing houses (Summit's Indica, Mathrubhumi'system etc.). Karthika doesnot even match upto the INSCRIPT standards, bringing down typography in the language a few notches down. Script reformation in the 60's was an ill-thought-out step to make typewriters handle Malayalam, but Windows implementation corrupts the language further.

Si_Daniels's picture

Great, but where specifically are the problems with the font and Windows shaping documented? Lots of people complain, but sadly few are willing or able to articulate things that can be done to improve problems. Maybe a pointer to a concise article, white paper, blog entry or wiki that explains this?

>But the Unicode/ OpenType problem also needs to be addressed simultaneously to make it acceptable to a larger audience.

So Unicode is broken!? Well respectfully until you fix that issue any Unicode compliant solution (like Uniscribe and ICU) isn't going to support your scheme.

Si_Daniels's picture

PS the font is called Kartika.

hashimpm's picture

There is no such article, but I can compile some of the comments aired in our circles. The general public may be blind to it and may even be resigned to use it everywhere as there is no alternative. But typographers in the language have been lamenting about it ever since Karthika was released. I can give you a list of problems if you are interested in a few days time.

In the Open Source domain, you can come across frequent communication regarding the incomplete Unicode impementation. But I am no expert on that, but can connect you to experts, if you are interested.

Thanks for your genuine interest in the issue.

hashimpm's picture

Kartika for sure, but we Malayalis would have prefered Karthika which has a more Malayali sound.

Just like someone preferring Elizabeth over Elizabet! You bet!

Si_Daniels's picture

Certainly if there are improvements that can be made under the current Unicode framework I'd love to hear about them. But fixing broken aspects of Unicode is a bit out of scope for my group. Please forward any specifics to me at simonda (at)

Cheers, Si

hashimpm's picture

I will do that in a few days.

Tom Gewecke's picture

The sole Malayalam font for OS X is this one:

hashimpm's picture

Xenotypech's Malayalam is slightly better, and is seemingly based on C-DAC's Karthika (not to be confused with Microsoft's Kartika), which again being made-for-print is rounded and curly. Microsoft's font was a step in the right direction, but could have been better visually with more even counters, standrad x-heights and more acceptable character forms.

Print-specific fonts may not work well on-screen. Otherwise we would still be using Caslon, Baskerville and Garamond instead of Verdana, Georgia and Trebuchet.

What software is used to design a typeface like Verdana with hand-tuned bitmap screen-fonts?

Si_Daniels's picture

Matthew drew bitmaps using this tool...

...and outlines in FOG. Tom used FogQ to create TrueType outlines...

...and then used Visual TrueType to hint the outlines to match the bitmaps Matthew had drawn...

No one ever did it like this before, and few have since.

Current OS's have abandoned bi-level rendering, so this approach isn't really relevant today. Which is a shame. Maybe it will make a come-back?

hashimpm's picture

Thanks Simon for those screen shots. I have read about the pain-staking effort behind Verdana which has deservedly become the de-facto screen font.

I am willing to help anybody make Malayalam look better on screen, to save future generations from the sacrilege that is Kartika.

mike_duggan's picture

would it be possible to get a link url reference to the original article that was referenced at the beginning of the post?

Si_Daniels's picture

>I am willing to help

Great. Please let us know when you have that shaping bug list ready. We're here and waiting.

hashimpm's picture

Sorry Mike, no article was referred to in my post. This is just a personal feedback as a Malayalam-speaking-writing person and a type designer in the language.

Simon, the list is being compiled and will be sent to you shortly.

kentlew's picture

I think Mike wants to know what article (= site) your initial screenshot is taken from.

-- K.

Theunis de Jong's picture

That would be -- the Malayalam subpages are there.

And no, I don't read the language, but the name is right there, in the center of the image :-)

Si_Daniels's picture

Great detective work ;-) Here's a grab from Vista/IE7


HTML suggests its using an EOT. Will, have to delve in.

John Hudson's picture

Re. Unicode and Malayalam, I can confirm that the current encoding has been subject to much debate and some revision over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, there is a lot of disagreement about the correct/better way to encode Malayalam. Si, Peter C can probably tell you more about the issues involved.

Si_Daniels's picture

Thanks John, I guessed as much. Kindly Hashim sent us a couple of PDFs that show some of the design issues with the font. These seem to be independent of the encoding issues. I've passed these on to Ali and Peter for review.

hashimpm's picture

Regarding Unicode encoding—to the best of my knowledge—the disagreement is regarding the conjunct formation. Whether there should be 150 or 900. Can't OpenType fonts use this choice differently in different fonts, so that the user has a choice between say Kartika (traditional script) and Kartika (reformed script)?

Also Simon, the tools that you have shown wrt Verdana are Mac-specific and may no longer be available. Is there is a modern day option to go the same way? Does FontLab + BitFonter on PC suffice or are there any proprietary software being used nowadays? I am keen to explore possibilities.

Si_Daniels's picture

>Can’t OpenType fonts use this choice differently

I would assume if this were possible someone would have done it, however it seems unlikely.

>Is there is a modern day option

The proces (draw bitmaps, then draw outlines, and then hint the outlines to match the bitmaps) does not make any sense today for Windows and Mac OS fonts as these OS's don't rasterize bi-level any more. Not sure what tools you might use to repeat this as an accademic excercize, mabybe bitfonter, FontLab and VTT.

hashimpm's picture

Hi Simon,

Any progress on Kartika design issues?

Si_Daniels's picture

The wheels of progress move slowly, however the timing, with respect to our product cycle, could be worse.

hashimpm's picture

Thanks Simon.

Can you meanwhile give us some insight into the process of design of your screen fonts other than Verdana: Georgia, Trebuchet and the new ones? Are there any sites or useful links?

Si_Daniels's picture

That might be best served in a new thread - although i think using a search engine to scan typophile for the following keywords might provide some good results - ClearType Collection, ClearType Hinting, Calibri, Designing for ClearType etc.,

hashimpm's picture


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