A View of Latin Typography in Relationship to the World

Essays by Peter Biľak
1 063 words6 min read
waldseemuller 1507

A short essay scrutinising the general misconceptions of western typography, and the appropriateness of Euro-centric type terminology.

It is generally acknowledged that it was Gutenberg who invented movable type printing in 1436. It is generally forgotten that what is missing in that statement is the necessary qualifier “in Europe”. Thanks to the present-day dominance of Latin script we have largely forgotten that there are parallel histories outside of Europe, but the first recorded movable type system was more likely created in China around 1040 AD by Bi Sheng. His early type was made of wood, which was later abandoned in favour of baked clay, which produced smoother imprints. Unlike Latin script which uses 26 letters, Chinese script uses thousands of characters, making type composition particularly complicated. Nevertheless, movable type has been in continuous use in China since the 11th century.

Elsewhere too, printing progressed. Choe Yun-ui, a Korean civil minister, made the transition from wood to metal movable type around 1230 AD. Metal movable type was also invented independently of the Koreans in China during the Ming Dynasty. During the Mongol Empire movable type moved further west. According to legend, Laurens Janszoon Coster, a respected citizen of Haarlem, could have been the first European to invent movable type, if the account presented by Hadrianus Junius is true. But the story is not widely believed, which brings us back to Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, who invented movable type a decade later. In Europe.

Even today, typography as a discipline continues to be plagued by a Euro-centric bias. If any of the major typography reference books are to be believed, the development of typography has generally been limited to Western Europe. In Type & Typography (2002), the otherwise excellent book by Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam, the authors make a note that the history of writing and the alphabet goes back thousands of years, but they do not elaborate more on this. It goes without saying that their history of typography is only the history of Latin-based typography. Other books are even more blunt when it comes to the scope they cover. Classic volumes such as Updike’s obviously nationalistic Printing Type, first printed in 1922, or Harry Carter’s also already somewhat dated A View of Early Typography (1969) can be overlooked. But even recent books such Designing Type (2005) by Karen Cheng or A Typographic Workbook (2005) by Kate Clair & Cynthia Busic-Snyder don’t bother to mention that there is more to typography than Latin typography.

Most of the existing typographic classification systems also apply exclusively to Latin type. In catalogues of the traditional type foundries such as French Imprimerie Nationale, the house of Garamont, Didot and Romain du Roi, typefaces other than Latin are referred as “Orientales”. Most contemporary digital type foundries such as Monotype call these fonts “Non-Latin”. These terms certainly have rather colonial overtones, suggesting the idea of “the other”, describing foreign scripts in negative terms as “non-European”. In other disciplines, language and terminology have adjusted to the wider environment of the global village, reflecting the progress that the society has made in the last couple of decades, and we no longer find a boxed set of paints with the name “flesh” given to a light beige color. Only typography continues to display a shameless bias towards western civilization.

Some common type terminology is also inappropriate for typefaces which didn’t evolve in Western Europe. The term “Roman” is customarily used to describe serif typefaces of the early Italian Renaissance period. More recently, the term has also come to denote the upright style of typefaces, as opposed to the word “Italic”, which refers to cursive typefaces inspired by the handwriting of Italian humanists. Thus Linotype offers fonts called Sabon Greek Roman and Sabon Greek Italic, (designed by Jan Tchichold), based on 16th century models. But by using terminology which is typically associated with Latin type and evokes the history of Italian typography, Linotype makes a careless statement. “Greek Roman” and “Greek Italic” are contradictions in terms, mixing two very different histories. Such slanted versions of Greek or Cyrillic types should properly be described in more technical terms such as inclined, oblique, or cursive. Roman and Italic suggest that the Greek version has been Latinised, borrowing too much not only of the terminology but also of the formal characteristics of Latin type, ignoring the rich Greek traditions of typography.

The news is not all bad, however. Recent changes in technology such as the introduction of the Unicode system and OpenType font format have inspired type designers to consider the previously overlooked domain of “non-Latin” typography. It is estimated that in the last decade, more Greek fonts were created than in the entire preceding century. Books such as Language, Culture, Type (2002) have been published, promoting cultural pluralism, admitting that English and the Latin alphabet account for only one segment of global communications today. (According to 2006 Encarta statistics, the number of native English speakers is less than the number of native Hindi and Arabic speakers, and roughly one-third the number of native Chinese speakers.) Such books are very important because they also present models for alphabets less explored than the Latin one, and offer a comprehensive history of their use.

In his concise book, The Solid Form of Language (2004), Robert Bringhurst proposes a new classification system of world’s various written languages and scripts. This approach promotes a consciously inclusive approach to typography, and considers the whole history of humanity and its relationship to script and meaning.

The new possibilities are exciting for designers working with “non-Latin” type. There is a modest interest in Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, or Indic scripts, and even type design competitions have responded to the new situation by creating special categories. The new development is also good news even for designers working exclusively with Latin typography: while we might think that most of the possibilities of Latin type have been explored, traditions of typography from Greece, the Middle East, India and elsewhere can help us to rediscover how we understand Latin type today.