Friday, November 07, 2008

Minute in G

On a very different note, what is it with the letter G?

Seriously. I've always been interested in typefaces, and it's fascinating to me that there are some serious differences from one font to another, and yet at the same time, there's a great deal of similarity overall in the way each individual letter is displayed across all typefaces. Think, for instance, about the vanilla simplicity of the letter O. Some fonts display an O with uniform thickness all the way around, while some show it slightly larger on the sides; some show it as an elliptical shape, while some are sort of a rounded-off rectangle. Despite these variations, pretty much every font shows an O as essentially a circle, for that is, at heart, what it is.

Similarly, other letters have an easy-to-define shape: The X is two diagonal lines crossing one another in the middle. The T is a vertical line with a horizontal crossbar that meets at the top in a capital and slightly above the center in lower-case form. The J is a vertical line with a tail at bottom curving left. Anyone care to define what a G looks like?

You might be tempted to say it's simple, as most people have who I have accosted with this most unusual subject on the odd occasion. (Ususally they look at me like I'm crazy and say, "Uh, it looks like a G; what do you mean?") If pressed, they draw a G, and it usually looks like this:Fair enough, it seems straightforward. If you had a good description of the lower-case O and J, you might use them and say it looks like an O stuck to a J, because it does. The real problem with the letter G is not that it's difficult to give an example of one in form, but that any example you give is likely to have little in common with other examples.

Case in point, most typefaces don't use that form of the letter G, they use something more like this: What is that thing? Where did it come from? Something that I also tend to think about when I happen to be thinking about letters and their shapes is that there is a sort of overall feel for the way letters look throughout the Latin alphabet. Someone who didn't know our alphabet looked at a collection of randomly-selected Latin letters with, say, a Hebrew letter thrown in, they'd probably be able to pick the odd one out. Conversely, some of the letters of the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets look like they could blend right in among Latin characters, like the Gamma (Γ), Lambda (Λ), Be (Б) or Ya (Я). If there is one letter that actually belongs in the Latin alphabet, but you might accidentally think it doesn't, it's got to be that lower-case-g-thing.

But that's just the beginning, because one might be tempted (as I had once been, being a long time obsessive over typography) to try and define two types of lower-case Gs. You might think, well, one's for serif typefaces, and the other's for sans-serif, right? If only it were so. Call the one that looks like an O stuck to a J a g-type-1 and the one that looks like a deformed pair of glasses a g-type-2. Now start looking at fonts and comparing Gs. My laptop has about 120 fonts on it, 35 sans-serif with type-1, 17 sans-serif with type-2, 3 serif with type-1 and 30 serif with type-2. (The rest are capitals-only or stylized special display fonts.) This implies that there's definitely a trend towards correlation of font type to lower-case G type, but it's far from a hard-and-fast rule.

Furthermore, the distinction between types is blurred and the characteristics of types are not often typical of all instances. The type-1 Gs have, as stated, a lower portion that resembles a J, but to what extent? The tail often curls up at the end, but not always. Sometimes it curls up so much that it loops back on itself!You'd think that the lower loop of a type-2 would always be closed, until you saw one that wasn't.While type-2 Gs exist in sans-serif fonts, that little serif-looking topnotch is always present, while the topnotch on a type-1 seems to be optional. With all these strange variants, eventually you come across lower-case Gs that don't easily lend themselves to classification.Now another funny thing about G is the fact that the capital G doesn't look much like the lower-case G, unlike some letters, but even the capital is difficult to pin down in form. If anything the only unifying theme I can think of for capital Gs is that they're like capital Cs with character. The differences between different sorts of upper-case Gs are more subtle than lower-case, but they exist.

Note that the Gs in the top row all have tails at the lower-right, the Gs in the center row have a corner at the lower-right, and the bottom-row Gs have no feature on the lower-right to distinguish them from a C, but all are recognizeable as Gs. The three columns also each have something in common, but I'll leave it to the astute observer who actually bothered to read this far to determine that for themselves.

I seriously can't get over this wacky letter, believe it or not.


brilliant said...

Ooh! I know the answer.

It's just like the Elvish test from Phonology I, except the difference doesn't stand for anything!

Brucker said...

Huh? I wasn't able to fit Phonology I into my schedule, whatcha talkin' 'bout? Is it something like the tiddle on a dalet(ד) distinguishing it from a resh(ר)? Some typefaces of Hebrew of course put a little flourish on the left side of those letters, but that bump is meaningless.

Is typography something considered a sub-discipline of linguistics?

marauder said...

I've always thought the treatment of lowercase G to be quite interesting.

My brother once got penalized over penmanship, for writing his lowercase letter g in the manner it appeared on moving type. (An interesting note to rattle your brain a little more: The lowercase G appears one way as you leave a comment, and another way after it has been left.) Steve tried pointing out to his teacher that he was writing it the same way it appeared in the textbooks, to no avail.

Brucker said...

You think that's odd? Go into your Blogger controls and start a new post. Type a lower-case g. Note that it's a type-2. Highlight it, and put it in italics. Ta-daa! Same typeface, now it's a type-1. This transformation happens in six of the typefaces on my computer, the two common names ones being Georgia and Bookman. For those running MS Office 2007, Calibri undergoes this transformation.

Brucker said...

Oh, and note once again, at least as far as I am aware, this transformation never happens in reverse.

marauder said...

So what it boils down to is this: G is the bastard child of typefaces, and J is the bastard child of pronunciation.

I mean, seriously: Look how many ways that letter gets pronounced. We hold the /dj/ sound to be standard, as in jump; but we also have the /zh/ pronunciation found in various loanwords from French, and J also makes a /h/ sound in Spanish and its loandwords to English. And if you consider some Eastern European language, I believe it gets pronounced like a consonantal /y/. In Esperanto, it o combines with vowels to change their sounds, like oj, /oi/; aj, /I/ like in the Spanish hay; ej, /A/ like in play; and uj, /oo-ee/.

It's as though orthographers, when faced with a sound that they can't find a good match for, just say "Eh, assign it to J."

marauder said...

And may I add that the fact that the two of us are going back and forth on this subject shows what a good thing for everyone that we live on opposite coasts. Can you imagine the destructive synergy that would result if we could get together and kvetch about typeface and pronunciation over drinks on a regular basis? Our wives and children would disown us, and they'd probably be right to do so.

And my word verification code is "tablespo." That's the first time I can remember Blogger giving me code that looks like it actually came from some place in the dictionary.

Brucker said...

>>>and J is the bastard child of pronunciation<<<

I think it's R, actually. I have yet to find two languages that pronounce R the same, although I admittedly only know half a dozen.

>>>Can you imagine the destructive synergy that would result if we could get together and kvetch about typeface and pronunciation over drinks on a regular basis?<<<

Ever notice that you become more fluent in foreign languages after the second beer? At least, this was my experience in college.

>>>And my word verification code is "tablespo." That's the first time I can remember Blogger giving me code that looks like it actually came from some place in the dictionary.<<<

I've been noticing that a lot lately actually. I had a chuckle yesterday when my verfication word was one charater short of a semi-obscene word. (Not a swear word, but the sort of word that, if my children saw it and said, "What does that spell, Daddy?" I'd simply blush and tell them to ask me in ten years.)

As an exercise for the reader (that's you) did you notice the other letter that has two forms that commonly change between italic and regular face? I don't rant on it, because it's not nearly so bizarre as G. Actually, I guess there are two others, but the last one is very subtle.

Brucker said...

Apparently, this was a brief phase Blogger went through in November. It could have been worse, though:

The internet wants me to be a super-fat shut-in, God hates kittens

marauder said...

I am astounded. Today's verification code is "specance."