Modern scribal ligatures

Number3Pencils's picture

Some people say handwriting is dying, but I don't believe them, and I decided it's high time we started bringing back the medieval practice of coming up with shortcuts for writing common words. I write a journal nightly, and last March I came up with a few such ligatures. The original short list has grown a fair amount, so here are the ones I use on a day-to-day basis now:

The typographical forms are hypothetical, but I put them here to show how they could be done in a text font and also because they help clarify the forms. Maybe someday I'll bother to put them in a font that I make, but for now I just use the handwriting forms.

Here's an example of them in action in my journal.

(Sorry for the blurry uploads. I don't have a scanner where I am, so I have to make do with my camera.) And here's a transcription of the journal page:

websites. I need to keep in mind that focus I felt after / I watched The Call of the Wild. I had it [for] a little / while, [but] now I'm drifting again.

>St Patrick's Day [........................] 0059

The weather [was] wonderful today, [the] warmest it's been in / months. Sean [and] I originally intended to just get groceries / [and] cream cupcake things, [but] we decided it'd be a shame / not to do something outside. /
[ ¶ ]So after enjoying our cream cupcake things, we went / to try [and] fix that swing under [the] bridge south [of] town. / We managed to raise it, [but] not to get it narrower at [the] top, / [and] some weird kind [of] physics thus prevented us [from] / propelling ourselves by pumping our legs. A bit disappointing, / [but] we also went [and] saw a great little dam a short / walk away, [and] saw minnows swimming around. I waded / [and] it [was] refreshing. I missed liquid water.

So... what do you think?

Nick Shinn's picture

Did the scribes do it for speed, justification, or to save materials (paper)?
I write a bit, but have never been inclined to this kind of abbreviation, other than Ampersand.

smrvl's picture

I'm no professional type designer, but I love the thoughtfulness you've brought to your characters. I feel like I can read them easily, and I'm a big fan of this kind of visual/inventive linguistics, when it's useful; and I think this is exactly that! Nice work!

Andreas Stötzner's picture

This is an interesting attempt. In your above image for me the more worthy parts are not the cumbersomely drawn type designs but the tiny bits above them which you’ve actually written, this is where the music plays. In the designs you try to develop how this could look in formal type, alright. But these designs reveal that you are not familiar enough with the nature of type forms evolving from scribal forms. Many of them look artificial and constructed, not natural.
My advise would be: keep on with it. Exercise writing with a broad nib pen, study carefully and in extenso the works of Latin scribes. Study their way of writing (!!) abbreviations, and how those forms were subsequently transformed into cast type. Study the tiniest details of that with utmost care. You’ll see by time, your own inventions will get better by that.

And look into Capelli (if you didn’t already).
Last but not least, s a member of MUFI I may also suggest that you have a look at the MUFI recommendation. There are many abbreviational characters listed.

hrant's picture

I'm a very big fan of "heavy ligation" (by which I mean compounds that cannot be readily deciphered and require conscious learning) and lament the loss of that practice in Greek typography. However focusing on spreading new handwritten forms would put this very high on the list of Things That Cannot Happen. Even introducing new typographic forms (which laymen only have to read, not make) is in Everestian challenge. And when you think about it, since handwriting is become far less relevant (although not threatened with extinction - organisms die, but concepts don't, at most they become dormant) why handicap the results? Simply make notan. Yes, it's harder to make-look-pretty, but it's also harder to eat brussels sprouts than chocolate cake.

Most of all, the central question is always: Why? If you do this purely as an act of self-expression, that's not design, it's self-centered. Better would be to figure out how it could help other people. I think there very much is a readability advantage to heavy ligation (when done with a lucid and meticulous strategy) but it's very hard to leverage, and even harder to sell.

The one powerful weapon at your disposal is linguistic context: with the benefit of surrounding words even vaguely decipherable components can come together to deliver the content. But that does mean a ligation should only be deployed when there's enough context, otherwise the individual-letter version should show up. And that's not something our software does yet...


Ryan Maelhorn's picture

interesting. I dont see how it improves upon shorthand, however, which a lot of people already know and use.

Té Rowan's picture

And a lot more do not. Seems, btw, the current is the other way: dumb down the writing. Bells, the Germans are throwing out their economic writing on account of it taking too long to learn, or something equally lame.

5star's picture



Number3Pencils's picture

I should've been clearer about what I actually expect to happen with these in the future. Basically, I figure I'll always be the only one using them, but I enjoy them, so that's enough for me. However, if someone else picked them up and started writing with them, I'd be absolutely tickled. I have a vague idea that someday I'll write a book and then set it in a font of my own designing and maybe use these. That's the only thing I can think of that might even have half a chance of popularizing the ligatures, but I don't really believe it would. I guess it might make me a little bit more memorable as an author, though.

Andreas, I looked at the MUFI code chart and there's some really interesting stuff in there. My initial reaction was going to be, "these ligatures are different from the old ligatures, because I don't have the same handwriting or circumstances as any of the old-time scribes. These ligatures are based on me, not the medieval." And I guess that can hold true for the handwritten forms. But looking at the symbols in MUFI, a lot of them do have a certain elegance to them that my drawings don't. If I decide to put these in an actual font, I'll take another look at MUFI. And someday I'll have a broad-nibbed pen to practice with.

What's Capelli? And Hrant, what's notan? All I get from Google is the design principle of alternating dark and light, but that doesn't seem to make sense. And Té, I'd love to find out more about the German economic script. That wouldn't be Sütterlin, would it?

hrant's picture

Basically my long-held (and oft-contested) view is that "painting" the black make sense (in the sense of being unavoidable) when you're writing by hand, but it's an arbitrary design constraint when making forms meant for reading. What does make sense is instead defining the relationship of the blacks and whites (notan) which can only be done "purely" by drawing the boundary between the two. So I would base the compounds not on how you'd [be forced to] originate their bodies by hand, but how their notan would best serve a purpose.

However, if your purpose is merely to enjoy making and admiring them...

In any case you might consider focusing in the most frequent words, which in English can be found in the rightmost column here:


Number3Pencils's picture

I did focus mainly on the most common words, but I skipped a bunch of them for being so short that it was plenty easy to just write them out in full. Which is why I have no "in", "is", or "a" ligatures.

Interesting thoughts about notan. I'll have to keep those in mind next time I'm designing something.

paragraph's picture

Great stuff, Nathanael! I just wish one of the great script designers built them into their fonts. Where would they go in Unicode, please, Andreas?

Andreas Stötzner's picture

> Where would they go in Unicode?

The question would rather be *why*, not so much “where”.
If they were to go into the standard, a case for their necessity as characters would have to be made first.

In the meantime, a custom workaround could always be achieved via Opentype feature code and ligature substution formulae.

John Hudson's picture

If they were to go into the standard, a case for their necessity as characters would have to be made first.

Indeed. A subset of mediaeval Latin scribal contractions were encoded in Unicode, because mediaevalists wanted to be able to transcribe diplomatics as plain text. But it seems to me a poor solution, because a) the set is limited to the most common contractions so only works for some documents and not others, and b) ignores Gothic and Greek abbreviations that scholars also need to deal with. I recently made a font for transcribing diplomatics of both Greek and Latin Byzantine seals and coins, for which the encoded mediaevalist characters were no use at all. So we handle everything with just regular Greek and Latin characters, and the scholars use XML to mark up the diplomatic in the transcription, which is then displayed via OpenType Layout features.

Here is a sample. Note S-like shape in the diplomatic transcription of the obverse side that is actually a contraction for 'ΚΑΙ', which becomes apparent if you copy and paste the text into a plain text editor.

[The term 'diplomatic' refers to a transcription that represents the appearance of the original text, rather than its meaning. When seals and coins are published, it is usually with both kinds of transcription.]

quadibloc's picture

I find the image beautiful.

I am not concerned, at this point, with the fact that these ligatures, or any other form of "heavy ligation", is not likely to come into general use any time soon. What you have done can still be useful, rather than merely self-indulgent, even if all it does is serve as an inspiration to others who might go on to produce something practical.

Since heavy ligation adds to the burden of learning how to read and write, even if it makes the task easier after the learning is completed, that is a major strike against it. We want children to learn to read and write as quickly as possible, so that while myelinization of the brain is not yet completed they have as much time as possible available for other learning.

(Ultimately, I think we're going to want to genetically modify ourselves so that our brains don't stop growing at age 2, and so that myelinization is postponed to reflect the fact that we spend more of our lives learning, and start doing later on. Why would we do that? Because some people - including some of those likely to be in positions of power - feel we need more advanced science, more advanced mathematics, than we now have. In order to figure out how to feed everyone, or how to defend ourselves in a nuclear age, and so on and so forth.)

hrant's picture

Interesting angle.


Number3Pencils's picture

If I were programming these, I would definitely leave them unencoded or put them in the Private Use area. I don't expect these to make it into Unicode unless by some miracle people suddenly think my little idea here is the best thing since alphabetic vowels and start using it all the time.

The neuroscience angle is interesting, but I think in perspective it hardly matters. My image has 26 symbols on it, some of them analogous to others, all of them (except ampersand) built very recognizably out of relevant letters of the alphabet (and a number, in the case of "between"). That makes for a very light learning load compared to the one placed on, say, a Chinese child.

Té Rowan's picture

@Number3Pencils – German can be a tad longwinded at times, so German orthographies had a number of rules that, as far as I could tell, existed to save resources and sometimes add a bit of elegance at the same time. One such rule (dropped during last reform) cut three-character runs to two. Hence, river boat traffic changed from 'Flusschiffahrt' to 'Flussschifffahrt'. Ickier than ichor.

quadibloc's picture

What, not "Flußschifffahrt"?

Té Rowan's picture

Depends. Some German speakers have dropped the ß altogether.

hrant's picture

I don't mind them dropping it when they're speaking ;-) but those who drop it when they're writing are doing cultural damage.


quadibloc's picture

Given that ß, at least in some older Roman-style typefaces, reveals itself as derived from a ligature of ſ and s, I can't get excited over its loss as "cultural damage"; not all typefaces used for setting English have the ff, fi, ffi, fl, and ffl ligatures - and most typefaces dropped the ct and st ligatures ages ago - and no one complains about that.

If the Dutch suddenly decided that "ij" is just a digraph of two separate letters, and not a letter in any sense whatever, would this be "cultural damage"?

While I don't think that the Germans are under any obligation to drop the ß to avoid confusing foreigners, if the increasing level of contact between speakers of different languages means that this unique feature of German is confusing or too much bother or whatever, I don't see this as a harmful form of homogenization.

When it comes to the x-height of Armenian typefaces, I tend to take the opposite view, and root for the retention of Bolorgir tendencies, because in that case I can't see that anything is gained in making one script look like another.

If the Armenians, on the other hand, switched to the Latin alphabet, then there would be a gain which might make the cultural loss worthwhile. But a very limited gain - since, after all, this wouldn't make anyone understand the Armenian language who didn't do so already. And the Armenian script has no inherent legibility issues.

When it comes to the Hebrew alphabet, I could see switching to Latin as advisable. But of course it won't happen, because the cultural concerns are intense with a tie to religion. However, the ancient script was much more legible, and so a "trued-up" version of ancient Phoenician (unlike the nightmare Romanized versions of the Hebrew square script suggested by Gill and Schoenfeld, which I cannot in good conscience recommend) might be a possibility.

hrant's picture

Learning a new language is confusing. But it gives you power. Same thing with learning a new letter. To me simplification is a succubus, and something like the ß -beyond its nice and useful cultural richness- contains meaning beyond "ss", so it contains value. It also has a nice rich ascender, something lacking in Latin. I wouldn't mind seeing it adopted by English (as long as it's applied discriminately).

The best reason for Armenians to keep their alphabet (shared to a good extent by Jews/Hebrew and others) is that it helps keep us Armenian, especially when you consider most of us live outside (because of the Genocide). It's something tangible for people -especially subsequent generations- to hang on to, to hang on from.

BTW, when a script does have readability issues (and they all do) fixing it is much better than replacing the whole thing.


Té Rowan's picture

Oh, and ere I forget again... Sütterlin aimed, IIRC, for as few pen lifts as possible.

Syndicate content Syndicate content