Why Roman typography is the most developed typography between other writing system?

Gunarta's picture

Hi People!

Why Roman typography is the most developed typography between other writing system? The alphabetic writing system that we use today,
i started asking that for my self days ago and i got no answer. Thank you.

daverowland's picture

I'd imagine it's a combination of being:
Most widely used
Less complex than other scripts
Less characters than most scripts - ie. quicker to build fonts
Right place, right time

riccard0's picture

most developed typography

Please define better.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Because of the power and reach of ancient Rome.

hrant's picture

Good question.

Of course it's a combination of many things, including luck! But also the Industrial Revolution, which came from the West's strong materialistic streak.


riccard0's picture

I still disagree with the assumption, at least in its vague formulation.
However, I will point out that the concept of “development” itself is typically a western concept, and since latin alphabet is the western script of choice, saying that its typography is the “most developed” is something just short of a tautology.

hrant's picture

It's nice to hear this sort of thing from a Westerner, and I'm no fan of chauvinism, but some cultures are better at some things than others. For example Armenian culture is highly developed* in many ways, and more developed in type design than many other cultures, but still not as developed as with Latin.

* Which BTW is not a Western concept, it's a human concept. In fact animals probably have it too, it's just hard for us to tell.


quadibloc's picture

Since the Latin alphabet has but 26 letters, it is clearly much easier to design a new font for it than it is for Chinese, Japanese, or even Korean.

Many other scripts, though, aren't much more complex than the Roman script; Thai, Tibetan, Devanagari, Burmese, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Georgian, and Amharic, as examples.

Here, "more widely used" is clearly a factor. But another factor, not noted in the list given above, is that the Latin alphabet, being used in the United States and Western Europe, is the alphabet of most of the world's richest countries.

Thus, there is more money to spend on developing new typefaces for newspapers, magazines, books, and advertising than in most other places. Japan is also a wealthy country, but its script has many more glyphs, and Israel, Georgia, and Armenia belong to the developed world as well, but their scripts belong only to one small country in each case.

Thus, if we confine ourselves to objective measures - the number of available typefaces, the economic importance of type design - the Latin alphabet is far ahead for obvious reasons. The objection that quantity is not quality can be made, however, and it's true that despite the handicaps noted, there are plenty of good typefaces available for many of the other script systems noted.

The Cyrillic and Greek scripts, which I didn't give as examples above, are less widely used than the Roman script as well, but they're so closely related that a large number of typefaces are shared between all three writing systems.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

First, we talk about the *English* alphabet rather than about the Latin.

Latin: A B C D E F (G) H I (K) L M N O P Q R S T V X
English: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Second: I don’t think that graphical aspects do count much here. Latin/English (bicameral!) is less complicated than Chinese but more demanding than e.g. Hebrew. So what?

Third: I think it has much to do with that:
– Roman imperialism – spread of the Latin alphabet;
– English colonialism – spread of the English alphabet;
– US-American … world dominance – further spread of the English alphabet.
There you go.

quadibloc's picture

I wouldn't want to speak of the English alphabet, because that would imply the Germans and the French and the Italians obtained their writing systems from the English-speaking countries, which, of course, is nonsense.

Even if we are responsible for the letters J and W. I'm not sure we are, and I'm quite certain U isn't a British invention, but instead originated on the Continent after the fall of Rome.

EDIT: W might have originated from uu in English; U, however, was definitely a Continental invention from the Middle Ages, and J, according to Wikipedia, turned up first in German, then Italian, and then French before the English borrowed it from them.

EDIT: It may also be noted that there is an urgent need to add the following letters to the Latin alphabet:

Бб, Гг, Дд, and Зз

...in order to replace b, g, d and z in Pinyin. In this way, the Latin alphabet will have b, б, and p as three distinct letters to properly represent the three consonants of this type in the Shanghai dialect, assigning the voiced one to English b, which it matches in sound.

Of course, without worrying about Chinese, just to represent the sounds used in English, we need to add

Жж, Чч, and Шш

Θθ is also needed, but here, instead of going to the Greek alphabet, we could just go to Icelandic (and older forms of English) to get Þþ.

Number3Pencils's picture

Korean also has a three-way contrast between plosives (and even an affricate). They solve the issue nicely by just doubling the consonants. So the word for "lid", 뚜껑 [t͈uk͈əŋ] with tensed t and k, is transcribed "ttukkeong". With no need to borrow anything from Russian.

Foreigners here in Korea have enough trouble figuring out the existing Romanization, and it's quite simple. I can't imagine if they tried to add entirely new letters. Not to mention that no one would be able to type "дuгeong".

russellm's picture

English colonialism – spread of the English alphabet;
And French colonialism, Spanish colonialism, Dutch colonialism, German colonialism, Danish colonialism, Portuguese colonialism, Italian colonialism, Belgian colonialism ....

Industrialization of publishing, completion in the printing industry & advertizing.

eliason's picture

The exact ideas in this thread were addressed by Henry Lewis Bullen a century ago in the passage quoted below. I find this passage really insightful. At the same time, the Orientalist assumptions expressed—typical of the time, 1912—are really distasteful in the context of colonialism.

"The model of roman types is at once the most rigid in its elementary lines, and the most flexible in its expression.

"If we except the Greek capitals (which were parents of the Roman capitals) and Russian (which is also derived from the Greek), all other alphabets now in use are solely cursives, in the sense that they are constructed with the purpose of being readily produced by pen or brush, even in their most formal uses. Hebrew characters are... representative of hundreds of oriental alphabets similarly cursive in their structures, each of which conforms with an almost unvarying model. None of these lend themselves to decorative effects. While most of them are graceful, none afford scope to the designer; seemingly fluid, they are actually unyielding. They fitly typify the oriental civilizations, which, like their alphabets, had become stereotyped long before the invention of typography, and have remained practically unchanged ever since.

"Opposed to these numerous and more ancient oriental cursive characters is the solitary roman letter model, structurally more severe and less graceful, seemingly less pliant, but actually more expressive. The roman letter is exactly typical of the ever-changing, ever-progressing occidental civilization; and probably the models of the characters by means of which the occidentals have been educated for centuries have had a stirring and beneficial psychological influence, which would have been lacking if Europe had adopted an alphabet purely cursive in its structure."

hrant's picture

Nice quote - thanks Craig.

Speaking of chauvinism (still prevalent two decades later) here's a gem from Stanley Morison that I just had to quote in my "Latinization: Prevention and Cure" piece:

"The Roman alphabet is not merely in possession, but it is in possession by right of conquest. The conquest was not made possible, or even expedited, by external authority; the victory of the Roman letter was due to its inherent flexibility and rationalism."


Nick Shinn's picture

The bicameral alphabet predates typography.

And the innovations of employing contrast in layouts through mixing upright with italic (16th century) and different weights (regular with bold, 19th century) did not develop in the fraktur culture of northern Europe, which also used the Roman alphabet.

So it is the Antiqua which has developed typographically, not the Roman alphabet (Latin script) per se.

However, it could be argued that the Fraktur has developed more variety of letterform than the Antiqua, especially after perusing Fraktur Mon Amour. How much of this variety existed in fonts prior to the 20th century, or was it more of a script phenomenon?

Latin script scripts are something else again, but their development has been primarily outside typography.

1996type's picture

I am writing an essay on the development of Humanist typography, which should answer your question. Like so often, it is a combination of different events in history.

1996type's picture

Just for your information, Humanist typography is often referred to as Roman typography. I prefer the term Humanist, since it is much more true to the origins of it.

John Hudson's picture

Humanist typography is often referred to as Roman typography. I prefer the term Humanist, since it is much more true to the origins of it.

Note that the use of the term 'roman' to refer to a style of type and typography references not classical Rome but the development of the first humanist types by Sweynheim and Pannartz at Subiaco, just outside Rome, and then within the city itself. The Subiaco types have been described as 'half-Roman', i.e. somewhere between blackletter and the contemporary humanist book hand. The types they made in Rome after 1467 are the first 'roman' types, and strongly influenced Jenson, who really established the style.

So I'd say that 'humanist' and 'roman' are entirely synonymous in the context of typography: the one describes the cultural origin and the other the geographical origin.

dberlow's picture

Germs, guns and steel. Then ASCII.

froo's picture

Of course, [...] just to represent the sounds used in English, we need to add
Жж, Чч, and Шш

We have them in Latin already: ž č š.

1996type's picture

Thank you John. How do you know all these things? The esay I'm writing should've been written by you, I guess :)

I guess another reason to use 'Humanist' rather than 'Roman' is because the term 'Roman' is also used for 'upright', as in, the opposite of Italic.

John Hudson's picture

Yes, if you're going to talk about both roman and italic, then humanist is a good term: roman type is based on the humanist formal bookhand, and italic type is based on the humanist informal secretary hand.

quadibloc's picture

We have them in Latin already: ž č š.

Yes, that's true; but presumably accented letters are confusing, and so each sound should have a separate letter all its own, rather than borrowing a letter for another sound just by putting an accent on it.

Instead, to avoid what happens with Vietnamese, accents would be reserved for use as tone marks - so that the Latin alphabet would be fully suited for writing Chinese, which is what started me on this.

Of course, when it comes to vowel sounds, on which I did not touch, wholesale borrowing from, say, Greek would be required in order to add extra vowels to the language. Maybe Armenian too!

The idea being to have something like the Shaw alphabet, but composed entirely of conventional and pre-existing letters. And with a few extra letters for non-English sounds like the German U-umlaut (also used in Chinese!) and the Russian yerry (Ыы).

hrant's picture

My kind of thinking.


Nick Shinn's picture

…wholesale borrowing from, say, Greek…

Trissino (16th century) proposed omega for long “o”.
Not adopted, but his “j” and “v” were added.

Icenlandic has letters to differentiate two “th” sounds, but that practice died out elsewhere.

dezcom's picture

Means, Need, Money

Commerce created a greater need for written/printed documents; Technology of industrial Revolution created the means; Money and notoriety were the motivation.

The countries with the greatest of these were more motivated and capable of pursuing it. They were the same countries who used the Latin script. The Dutch, the Spaniards, the French, the Italians, the Germans, and the English (and later the Americas) had motive and means.

hrant's picture

that practice died out elsewhere.

It didn't die out, it was killed. By English cheapness.


Chris Dean's picture

am i the only one that loves the irony of a question about “development” when it is posted using poor capitalization?

Nick Shinn's picture

I repeat, the issue is NOT one of writing systems, because the Fraktur genre uses the Latin writing system, but the Western countries that used Fraktur did not develop their typography to the extent that those using the Antiqua did—with contrast of slant (roman vs. italic) and weight (regular vs. bold).

Would it not have been possible for a contrast-based typography using fraktur fonts to develop? After all, fraktur may be slanted and have varying weights.

froo's picture

@ quadibloc:
I understand your idea, so I agree with non-Latin additions like ж, ч, ш. But I deeply disagree with the "Anglocentric" approach. For example: English, French and Polish/German letter j represents 3 different sounds - џ, ж, j (that can be found in Serbian). Which spellings to reform? When you propose adding the extra letter ы to the alphabet (which sound is quite rare in English, indeed), you save English spelling (inconsistent here), while razing broad and consistent use of y in Polish, Czech and Slovak, where it sounds like ы ...

Back to the topic: I think there have been means, good will and conducive atmosphere.

quadibloc's picture

You raise a good point. But I don't know how to address it.

If I add letters to the Latin alphabet in order to represent additional sounds in a phonetic manner, one sound being assigned to one letter, then clearly an assignment of sounds to letters is being made.

And, as you've pointed out, the pre-existing assignment of sounds to letters in different languages using the Latin alphabet differs. So, which letters to add and what sounds to assign to them would also differ.

I suppose that this could work, though, if the speakers of different languages reviewed their requirements independently, with the result being that some added letters - like some existing letters, most notably W in French - would not be used in all Latin-alphabet languages.

Note that I've tried to address both foreign-language transliteration and spelling reform; both areas have different needs, even if additional letters seeming to be useful is common to both.

Maxim Zhukov's picture

The idea being to have something like the Shaw alphabet, but composed entirely of conventional and pre-existing letters. And with a few extra letters for non-English sounds like the German U-umlaut (also used in Chinese!) and the Russian yerry (Ыы).

Sounds like a project of an international phonematic alphabet proposed by Telingater in 1965.

oldnick's picture

Short answer: because Roman Law is subject to creative misinterpretation through the medium of language.

E.g., the creative, linguistic misinterpretation of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which revolves around an implicit condition phrase, whose sole ambiguity revolves around a participle: intentionally impaired inference and the mystery of "being."

OTOH, George Zimmerman's defense fund is running dangerously low.

quadibloc's picture

Wow, I have found this: The anti-absurd or phrenotypic English pronouncing & orthographical dictionary, from 1845!
And, of course, one interesting thing about it that is immediately obvious to the people on this forum is that the many new symbols added to the alphabet were all formed by turning existing letters upside-down, which, of course, did not require the expensive cutting of new symbols in the lead type era.

froo's picture

By the way, I don't remember the details, but always when it comes to question about the success of the Roman typography, I recall the story of the first printer of Istanbul: After the Battle of Vienna, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire began to realize the failure and backwardness of the state. Then a Hungarian convert (I don't remember what his name was) entered the scene, offering printing technology, that could address the desired educational and informational issues. Since the introduction of printing could threaten mass riots (there were 3000 copyists employed in Istanbul), the Sultan agreed to print only the clearly secular materials. As can be easily guessed, the project has not led to success ...

quadibloc's picture

Then a Hungarian convert (I don't remember what his name was) entered the scene, offering printing technology,

For a moment, I thought you might have meant Ohannis Mühendis-oğlu, but he isn't Hungarian. But I see it was Ibrahim Müteferrika that you meant.

hrant's picture

Hovhannes Muhendisian -the first person able and allowed to print in Arabic script in the Ottoman empire- was Armenian. :-)


quadibloc's picture

Yes. Not only is that ironic, but the spelling of his name that you used lets me learn that a noted modern composer is Armenian.

John Hudson's picture

Hrant, Müteferrika preceded Muhendisian, but as I understand it there was a gap between them during which it was again forbidden to print Arabic script. They were both remarkable men.

hrant's picture

I think the difference might have been that Muhendisian was allowed to print the Qur'aan. I'll ping the expert... :-)


Thomas Milo's picture

Müteferrika was a Transylvanian Hungarian Unionist Protestant, who fled to the Ottoman Empire when the Austrian Catholic Habsburg Empire took over. Around that time he converted to Islam, which gave him access to Islamic script expertise, the key for creating acceptable Arabic typography for the Ottoman Empire. Previous printers of Arabic in Europe and (potential) Arabic printers in the Middle East (Jews, Greeks and Armenians in Istanbul and Syriac and and Catholic Christians in Syria-Lebanon) did not have this expertise - which apparently was very difficult to acquire for non-Muslims.
The Ottoman authorities were keenly aware of the strategic importance of what we would now call Information Technology, but they were less then impressed by the graphic atrocities resulting from unfamiliarity with Islamic script practice. According to Orlin Sabev, the Ottoman Authorities had no issue acquiring any technology from unbelievers as long as it served their purpose: the Ottoman armed forces were the first in the world to be fully equipped with fire arms, therefore opposition to printing was not motivated by Islam but by functionality: type without the correct script architecture was useless. The Ottomans were in fact keen on mass producing the Koran, if possible using printing technology, as that could be a powerful tool in spreading Islam (unlike the Catholic authorities, who discouraged the laymen to read the Holy Books). However, although Müteferrika's type was structurally sound - unlike Eurabic and Syrian-Lebanese efforts, which broke many rules of Islamic script architecture - the calligraphic quality was not up to Koranic standards. That is why it was not allowed to be used for religious work. Consequently, Müteferrika printed mainly strategic materials (dictionaries, atlases, grammars, descriptions of foreign lands, etc). Following the closure of Müteferrika's printing shop, work continued with the same or very similarly structured typefaces. According to Uğur Derman, Ottoman Sultan Selim III was so concerned about the low quality of Arabic type, that he ordered the best Ottoman typographer/punch-cutter of his realm - yes! an Armenian - Poghos Araboğlu (http://www.genocide-museum.am/eng/g_brief_08.php) to cut punches after the calligraphy of Hattat Deli Osman Efendi (quoting Derman off the top of my head). This produced a much better result, but it was indeed the Armenian Hovhannes/Ohanes Mühendisyan/Mühendisoğlu who created the breakthrough for the acceptance of Arabic type throughout the Ottoman domains (1866).

Summarizing, there was a three-stage development of Arabic typography with the required script architecture, each of them the result of interaction by a typographic using Western technology with direct access to Islamic script expertise:
1. 1730's - Müteferrika, a polymath familiar with typography but most likely not an experienced printer himself, who was able to learn the basics of Arabic calligraphy (from experts) after his conversion to Islam, but he did not succeed in getting the aesthetics right. He only worked on naskh/nesih, which he managed to reproduce structurally correct, but not well shaped.
2. 1790's - Araboğlu, a famous Armenian printer, was ordered to work with Deli Osman. I am still studying the nature of his work, but clearly it was not the breakthrough. It is remarkable that, apart from naskh/nesih, he worked on (nas)ta`liq - one of the key scripts of the period.
3. 1860's - Mühendisoğlu, the dean of Armenian printers and creator of impressive (nas)ta`liq type, closely collaborated with the top calligrapher of his day, Mustafa Izzet Efendi on naskh/nesih. I do not know yet what the nature of their relationship and collaboration was. From the material in my possession it is visible that, though Mühendisoğlu cut all the necessary sorts for a perfect rendering of Islamic script structure, his mastery of the system was imperfect. He frequently uses correct forms in positions where they do not belong. Clearly it took an Islamic upbringing to master this writing system.

None of them ever printed the Koran, but I do have a Lebanese printed Gospel dating from the 1890's in a Mühendisyan (derived?) typeface.

The first typeset Koran was printed in Russia in the end of the 18th century probably by and/or for the Saint Petersburg Tatar Turkic community, with type imported from Germany that had all the typical European defects. The same type was still in use in Kazan (capital of Tatarstan) in the early 1990's. The same typographic style is used by Russian orientalists for Persian texts, notably the first volume of the two part Персидско-Русский Словарь by М.А. Гаффаров. It forms the basis of the persian flavour os simplified naskh, called kitabi.

The first typeset Koran in the Arabic world was printed in Egypt after the collapse of the Ottoman world, in 1924. Apparently, the Ottoman objections against inferior script architecture were dropped in favour of orthographic precision (tajweed), see:
The typeface used for this Koran conforms dramatically better to Arabic script architecture than what is used by Dutch, German and French printers. It is claimed to be cut after the handwriting of the great Ottoman calligrapher Abdülaziz Efendi. However, while there is a visible relationship between Mühendisoğlu's nask/nesih and Mustafa Izzet Efendi's calligraphy, there is no such match between this typeface and the hand of Aziz. Moreover, e.g., a publication printed in Vienna (Theodor Nöldeke's Zur Grammatic des classischen Arabisch) in 1897 uses a very similar, Mühendisoğlu-inspired typeface - minus the necessary Islamic script architecture: like in Mühendisoğlu's case, all the shapes seem to be there, but, typical for Europeans, the awareness of the system was absent.

John Hudson's picture

One further note re. Müteferrika: his punchcutter is recorded as having been an Ottoman Jew. If anyone comes across any further information about this man, I would be very interested.

hrant's picture

Thomas: Wow, what a great mini-lesson! Thanks.


Peter Van Lancker's picture

Maybe try "neo-Carolingian" in stead of "Roman".

froo's picture

The capital letters aren't neo-Carolingian.

quadibloc's picture

Neither are the small letters, having already existed as uncial.

But the writing system we use now has both small letters and capital letters, so it's not the one the Romans used - so the point raised is valid.

However, I would agree that it is picky - the small letters also derived from Roman writing, if by a different path; it's not as if we're writing with twenty-six new symbols commissioned by Charlemagne.

Of course, he did commission a brand-new alphabet of his own (with twenty-four characters), but that one was used as a cipher for secure communications.

hrant's picture

Just use "Latin".


oldnick's picture

Ex nihilo, nihil fit.

david h's picture

> Müteferrika: his punchcutter is recorded as having been an Ottoman Jew. If anyone comes across any further information about this man, I would be very interested.


The Jewish punchcutter & printer: Jonah ben Jacob Ashkenazi (was born in Zalosce, Poland - now Zaliztsi, Ukraine; also known as Zalozcy, and particularly in older Jewish sources Zalozitz; was among those who cast the first Turkish type)
Jonah ben Jacob Ashkenazi contributed significantly to the revival of the Ladino language & literature.

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