In the Name Of the Father (or the troubles with L-caron)

Essays by Peter Biľak
1 487 words8 min read
small letter l with accents

‘Is it all worth it in the end?!’, might be the type designer’s lament in a moment of weakness. As a typeface designer I spend countless hours designing first the basic Latin alphabet, then the extended Latin alphabet (to support languages ranging from Icelandic to Maltese), then mathematical symbols, currency symbols, diacritics, punctuation, Cyrillic characters, Greek characters… The tiniest details of design and spacing have to be checked. With more than 2000 characters per font, it can be a tedious task to make sure that all possible letter combinations look as they should. I could easily spend a week adjusting the spacing of the characters needed to write polytonic Greek. But only a handful of people use polytonic Greek, the basically obsolete system replaced by modern Greek. What else could be accomplished in the time that I spend adjusting characters that someone, somewhere might use sometime? How many lives could be saved? How many trees planted? How many houses rebuilt? What am I doing here? Does it make any sense?

Although I usually manage to convince myself that what I do is tremendously important (‘visualizing the language’, as I grandiosely call it), there are those weak moments when I am not sure. (After all, how many more fonts does the world really need?) Especially now: our daughter Elisa was born less than a week ago, scrambling all our routines, shuffling all our priorities. How can I compare spending an hour adjusting the spacing of a font to spending an hour soothing my baby daughter?

I haven’t touched a bezier curve for a week now, being a good father. And one of my fatherly duties is to stop by the city hall to request the birth certificate. Armed with all the necessary paperwork, I enter the monumental building of The Hague municipal office. After a brief wait, I get to explain to a charming, efficient lady that I have come to register our newborn.

‘Lovely. Congratulations,’ she says.

I present my ID, my wife’s ID and the papers from the hospital. Everything is fine, everything is in order, everyone is smiling, until suddenly she says, ‘And what is your name?’ The methodical Dutch civil servant can’t find my name in the system.

‘How do you spell that again?’

As a descendant of the Slavic settlers of the Danube river basin, I have a surname with an accent: Biľak. The name has given me some trouble because of the accent over the L. When I first arrived in the Netherlands, another efficient public servant in his best effort to record my name wrote: Bil’ ak. ‘Pretty close,’ I thought at the time. Charming even, how hard they try. Except that when I receive official mail, their software, programmed to capitalize all proper nouns, addresses it to P. Bil’ Ak, which probably makes my neighbors wonder what African tribe I come from.

After ten minutes of fruitless searching in the database for all possible variations of my last name, there are now four determined bureaucrats coming up with ideas. ‘Try searching by first name.’ There are over 4000 Peters living in The Hague. ‘Try his birth date.’ 253 people born on the same day.

After what seems like an eternity of searching, they finally find my records. But instead of relief, I feel concern: will Elisa have to go through this every time? I try to take action.

‘Look, my name is not right in the database. It is not Bil’ ak, it is Biľak.’ The gathering of Dutch civil servants gives me a collective perplexed look.

‘But that’s just what we have, don’t you see.’ I try to remain calm and polite.

‘Well, no it isn’t.’ I even have a convincing argument. ‘Move the cursor one letter at a time. It should be 5 characters: B-i-ľ-a-k, see, not B-i-l-apostrophe-space-a-k, as it is now.’

‘The trouble is,’ I say in the voice I use in my typography lectures, ‘that instead of the small letter L with a caron, you used L and an apostrophe. L-caron is a character used only in the Slovak language, so perhaps your computer doesn’t have access to it.’

‘No, that’s impossible, we recognize all accents– look.’ The assembly of clerks shows off, scrolling through a collection of accented characters. I scan through them, dismissing Latvian L with a cedilla, Polish L with a stroke, Catalan L with a mid dot, another few L’s whose uses I don’t know.

arial unicode ms letter l with accents

Finally I see it. ‘L-caron, there it is!’ I exclaim.

arial unicode lcaron

‘That’s not it, that looks completely different.’

Indeed, the L-caron that I am pointing to has a different form of caron, something like an inverted circumflex, a little upside-down roof. ‘It looks different because of the font you use, but it is the right character,’ I insist.

‘No, no, that’s a different letter. This is the right one,’ says one of the clerks, pointing at L-acute, another letter used in Slovak.

arial unicode lacute

I begin to realise that this is going to be difficult. I’ve lectured on typography to students, to professors, to designers, but never to sceptical city hall employees. The only point of reference they have is my original birth certificate, and I have to agree that the L-acute looks closest to it.

I start to explain that L-caron is a palatalized consonant unique to the Slovak language, that it is almost always followed by a vowel, that Jan Hus the Czech religious reformer is credited with the reforms of Czech orthography and first introduced diacritical marks sometime in the 14th century. That Anton Bernolák codified the Slovak language standards in his 1787 Dissertatio philologico-critica de litteris Slavorum and introduced the L-caron.

The clerks are not impressed.

‘This is a different letter, not your L-caron.’

I start to lose patience.

‘It’s your font which is wrong. What is it? Oh, I see, it’s Arial. Well, Arial Unicode is simply wrong. The problem is in the font.’ I start to sketch the differences between the correct and incorrect version on the back of an official document. ‘Two different representations, but the same phonetic value. Both versions are acceptable, but THIS ONE,’ I say with dramatic emphasis, ‘is the general standard in Slovak orthography.’

The clerks are dismissive, unwilling to negotiate the value of their system font. I am fighting an uphill battle. In the depths of my soul I begin to wonder: how many fonts have I designed? Many. Too many. But I’d be willing to change them all to include the incorrect version of the L-caron to save Elisa future troubles.

‘We can call the Slovak embassy, and they will prove that this is the correct character.’ I suggest.

‘No, that is not legally acceptable.’

‘So what would you need in order to accept the correct spelling of the name?’

‘We would need your birth certificate with this version of L,’ the clerk says, pointing to the incorrect L-caron.

I was running out of options. Getting a new birth certificate with the wrong L-caron would be as difficult as changing the font in The Hague’s municipal computers. Suddenly I had an idea. On the table was a sample template of the birth certificate, and when I looked closely, I saw that it used Times New Roman.

‘Can we try something? Just a test, nothing binding,’ I say.

I receive a hesitant approval.

‘Try using this incorrect L-caron and print the birth certificate. I think it will look fine when you print it.’

‘No it won’t,’ the clerks say, ‘it will be just the same.’

‘Please, just try it.’

I am taking a risk, counting on the fact that if the print is really made in Times New Roman, it is highly unlikely that the L-caron is incorrect in that font as well. The clerks enter the name. The ancient printer whines and clacks, then stops. Dramatic silence. I feel like I am performing the ultimate magic trick. The printer ejects the paper and five clerks huddle around it, scrutinizing it carefully. I can hardly breathe. The clerks shake their heads.

‘This is really strange. It looks different.’

ArialUnicode vs TimesNewRoman

The printed version has the correct L-caron. The municipal computers display in Arial Unicode, but they print in Times New Roman, and the birth certificate looks just fine. I feel the thrill of victory and the clerks start to realize that the problem is indeed in the font. Ten minutes later I am holding the correctly spelled certificate in my hands, holding it as tightly as I hold Elisa when she cries.

Tiny details in typography seem to make sense again.

  • bilak square 900

    Peter Biľak works in the field of editorial, graphic, and type design. In 1999 he started Typotheque type foundry, in 2000, together with Stuart Bailey he co-founded art & design journal Dot Dot Dot, in 2012 he started Works That Work, a magazine of unexpected creativity, in 2015 together with Andrej Krátky he co-founded, a font rental platform. He collaborates with the choreographer Lukas Timulak on creation of modern dance performances, and together they started, a foundation for interdisciplinary artistic collaborations. Peter is teaching at the Type & Media, postgraduate course at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague. Member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).