Watching letters

Aleksandra Samuļenkova

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There is only one diacritical mark in my name: a small comma accent dangling below the letter “ļ”. Today, the significance of this diacritical mark for me, a person bearing a Russian name, is disproportionate to this marks' modest size. At the brink of 2024, this tiny accent below the Latvian letter “ļ” in my name has turned into some sort of a typographic insignia, indicating my background, state affiliation, and presumed value system.

Diacritical marks can hold a deeper significance than their mere function, not only for individuals like me, but for large social groups. Sometimes—for entire nations.

Those who have dealt with diacritically rich orthographies, are likely to know that diacritics can be quite a nuisance. Simply put, these marks stick out and tend to clash with other glyphs. If diacritics do not cause such issues, it is probable they are not sufficiently noticeable, thereby affecting the readability.

In the era of mechanical typesetting, diacritical marks often meant additional expenses for the printer. These fine and finicky elements would wear out faster than the rest of the metal letter, unless, of course, they simply broke off first.

Up to this day, accents often require a looser space between lines of text, affecting design decisions when working with certain Latin-based languages.

Diacritical marks in letterpress printing.

Despite the typographic challenges posed by diacritics, their implementation allowed numerous nations to uncompromisingly render their native languages in writing for the first time in their existence. Diacritical marks have become an integral components of the Latin-based phonemic orthographies.

At the turn of the twentieth century, various parts of Europe experienced an unmatched awakening of national consciousness that resulted in the formation of several new states after World War I. This process unfolded in a consistently similar manner for different European nations. Among the fundamental political and socio-cultural transformations, the orthographic reforms were also carried out.

During that time, written Latvian has undergone two significant modifications: the adoption of Roman types in place of Blackletter, and the abolition of the old, German-based orthography in favor of a new, phonemic orthography.1

The advantages of the phonemic orthography where one sound = one grapheme.

Contemporary, phonemic Latvian orthography: Žņaudzējčūska

Old, German-based Latvian orthography: Schnaudzehjtschuhska

The German-Based orthography was introduced to the Latvian language by German missionaries in the sixteenth century. In the subsequent centuries, the Baltic Germans, the land-owning and ruling elite of the region, were the sole authority responsible for the development and systematization of the written Latvian.

G. F. Stender, Neue Vollständige Lettische Grammatik, 1761.

‘Because the Latvians do not have their own writing system, one uses the Latin

letters for writing something in Latvian, but the German letters for anything printed.

And for just this reason we, Germans, have defined the Latvian orthography exactly based on the pronunciation of the Latvians.’

Alas, the German spelling adapted for the Latvian language was a bulky construction. Too many Latvian phonemes had to be represented by clusters of 2, 3 or even 4 letters, and a virgule—a stroke through a letter—was employed to differentiate some of them. Even then, certain characteristics of the spoken Latvian language were ignored in writing.

The eccentrically intense use of virgules in the German-based Latvian orthography.   

When the major socio-political shifts of the 19th century enabled Latvians to have greater agency in their nation's fate, the young Latvian intelligentsia decisively took control over the Latvian language matters from the well-meaning, but zeitgeist-deaf Baltic German upper class.

The education was no longer equal to Germanization for a Latvian. At the turn of the century, the reluctance of the Baltic Germans to relinquish Latvian cultural matters on the one hand, coupled with the agressive Russification policies of the Russian Empire on the other, prompted the Latvians to seek an escape from any form of cultural patronage.

This idea affected every area of the nation's life, including typography. In addition to the aforementioned shortcomings of the German-based orthography for the Latvian language, it has also become a ubiquitous reminder of the Latvians' subordinate position in the recent past. Furthermore, the Blackletter type itself began to be regarded as a symbol of the cultural dominance extended by the Baltic German elite. By the beginning of the twentieth century, not only the Latvian language itself, but also the way it was graphically depicted, became a crucial factor in the new national identity.

The Latvian's orthographic and typographic consciousness was inspired by another European nation struggling for autonomy. The Czechs, who have long been champions of phonemic orthography, have made a significant contribution to the contemporary appearance of the written Baltic languages.

The fifteenth century treatise De orthographia bohemica, which is attributed to Jan Hus, a key figure of the Bohemian Reformation, can be regarded as a manifesto in favour of phonemic orthography and use of the accented letters instead of bulky digraphs and trigraphs for the Czech language. This document marks the beginning of the diacritical enrichment of the European languages, a process that was subsequently sustained by the Protestant Reformation. This movement necessitated the translation of religious literature into vernacular languages, thereby necessitating the development of a suitable means of rendering those languages in written form.

De orthographia bohemica introduced, among other things, a diacritical mark called caron: ˇ, also widely known by its Czech name haček. This particular accent has since permeated not only various Slavic languages, but also Latvian and Lithuanian. The implementation of caron into the Baltic languages must have been accomplished due to the involvement of Josef Zubatý, another exceptional Czech figure. Zubatý, a multifaceted linguist, etymologist, and ardent advocate for the Czech literary language, possessed a keen interest in both Latvian and Lithuanian. In fact, he learned both languages, and for many years maintained correspondence with Kārlis Mīlenbahs, one of the founders of Latvian linguistics and lexicography.

Like several other European nations, Latvians began to exert influence over their written language in the mid-nineteenth century. This process culminated on January 25, 1908, when the Scientific Committee of the Riga Latvian Society established the Orthographic Commission with the objective of preparing the orthographic reform of the Latvian language. The general public became involved in the debates through the press, and showed considerable enthusiasm for the issue.

A pivotal article by the Orthographic Commission appeared on the front page of the Latwija newspaper on June 21, 1908. The article introduced the reform in question, which included both the transition to the Roman type and changes in orthography that implied the employment of the diacritical marks. The readers were invited to participate in a questionnaire regarding their orthographic preferences.

Latwija, Nr. 142, 1908

At that time, the Latwija newspaper was still printed in blackletter type, but this article has been typeset in Roman letters, and employed the new orthography with the diacritics. Irony of the circumstance was that some letters with diacritics were not available at the printing house or were not in sufficient quantities for the full article. Thus, the circumflex (ˆ)  was used instead of the macron (¯), the accent shaped as a horizontal stroke above the letter, indicating the vowel's length. In some words, the cedilla (¸) below the letter was used instead of the caron (ˇ) above it. The last paragraph of the article explained these compelled substitutions to the readers.

As much as I would want to call this article in the 142nd issue of Latwija a happy end to the Latvian orthographic journey, the article itself would contradict me. A metal font was a heavy, yet fragile material object with high production and logistical costs. The printers were often hesitant or unable to invest in replacing the blackletter types with Roman fonts. New letters featuring diacritics, which were not employed in other languages at that time, such as macron, had to be produced. Despite the introduction of the new orthography into Latvian schools in 1909, the Latvian printed materials were not aligned either orthographically or typographically. The spelling, style of the letters, as well as the shape and placement of the diacritical marks varied significantly, depending on the availability of the letters in the printer's collection or designer's imagination.

The variety of ways in which Latvian could be represented in print during the early 20th century necessitated that the primers incorporate several most common variations, including blackletter, Roman type with the new orthography, as well as Roman type with the pre-reform orthography.

Bilžu ābece rātniem bērniem. Rīga. Dzintars, 1921. (Picture primer for obedient children)

The hardships of the First World War were not conducive to the further typographic advancements of the Latvian language. However, there is a theory that the blackletter fonts, which were still prevalent at the time, were required to be cast into ammunition during the war. It is possible that this helped spread Roman types in the following years.

Nonetheless, even after Latvia declared its independence in 1918 and the Prime Minister signed the orthography decree in 1922, a certain degree of orthographic and typographic disorder persisted for several decades.

Covers featuring various interpretations of the same diacritical mark beneath a letter.

The virgule, a remnant of German-based orthography, lingered in Latvian printed matter for quite a while.

In Memory of the First President of Latvia: Jānis Čakste, 1928

The successor of the virgule, a diacritical mark below the letters Ģ, Ķ, Ļ, Ņ, Ŗ has been causing confusion until recent times. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, printed matters in Latvian feature both a cedillaconnected to the base letter and a disconnected comma accent. The two options may appear on the same page.

Vālodzīte. Bilžu ābece, 192?

The connected cedilla can be found in the Soviet catalogues.

LPSR Ministru Padomes Preses komitija Centrālā cinkogrāfija.

Burtu katalogs, 1971

Despite the fact that the detached comma accent has been a preferred shape of this accent in Latvia for the past few decades, the cedilla has been adopted in the official name of the Unicode characters representing these Latvian letters, causing confusion among novice type designers.

Having emerged as a typographic response to significant historical events, Latvian diacritics have become a ubiquitous component of everyday life.

Being directly related to the old and complex phenomenon of reading, typography is deservedly regarded as a discipline that is evolving at an unhurried pace.

“We read best what we read most” states the well-known quote by Zuzana Licko, an eminent Slovak-American type designer, co-founder of Emigre type foundry. Licko argues that the lettershapes we read most easily are those that we have read a lot of times before. In other words, the reading comfort depends largely on the reader's habit, and in a lesser degree on the objective virtues of the typeface employed.

Licko's quote is occasionally flipped over by type designers who don't quite agree with her perspective: “We read most what we read best”. To put it differently: given any choice, we gravitate towards reading lettershapes that are comfortable to read, and therefore we read them more often.

I consider both concepts to be a typographic chicken-and-egg. Yet, I believe there is another construct possible: “We read best and most what we are motivated to read”. Large groups of people may be willing to drastically change their reading habits in relatively short time, provided that they are sufficiently motivated by matters beyond the reading itself.

Notes [1]

  1. A phonemic orthography is an orthography (system for writing a language) in which the graphemes (written symbols) correspond to the language's phonemes (the smallest units of speech).