Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
February 22nd, 2012


Tittles and flourishes

(Oh, typographers and their silly terminology.)

One of the crazier projects I’ve begun recently has been to transcribe a 500-page trilingual dictionary from the 17th century for Wikisource, the wiki document archive affiliated with Wikipedia. The dictionary in question, Alexandre de Rhodes’s Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, defined what would come to be known as the Vietnamese alphabet.

In one of the first attempts to apply a European alphabet to an Asian, tonal language, de Rhodes had to innovate somewhat. For the Annamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary, he derived two additional letters and invented three completely original diacritical marks. He also mixed and matched from at least a few European languages in what his contemporaries must have considered cutting-edge phonetics. Yet, in the midst of the Renaissance, typographical flourishes – and typos – also abound in de Rhodes’ works, which were published by the Propaganda Fide, the missionary organ of the Catholic Church in Rome.

The result is a mix of traditional details and prescient quirks. De Rhodes’ novel, 17th-century alphabet continues to the present day largely intact. But some of the letters and diacritics he invented have gone extinct or now represent different sounds. The rich display of ligatures and swashes, then common in printed text, appear only tongue-in-cheek or erroneously today. In particular, de Rhodes’ type designer sometimes kept the tittle on his accented “i”, depending on the diacritical mark.

As in most historical literature, these typographical details are easily lost when the text gets digitized. So to help preserve these anomalies, I adapted an existing, well-regarded medievalist typeface, Peter S. Baker’s Junicode, for archaic Vietnamese texts like de Rhodes’. I beefed up support for modern Vietnamese; trimmed the font down to just the characters in Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Latin; and added de Rhodes’ novel characters. The result is probably the first font to support the letter being proposed for inclusion in the Unicode standard as “B with flourish”. It looks as though someone meant to write a “b” but midway through started drawing an “@” instead.

The font is named Đắc Lộ, the traditional rendering of de Rhodes’ name in Vietnamese. Even if you can’t read Vietnamese, the font’s download page is worth a look. Intent on replicating the old-world book feel, I stuck to typography, rather than imagery, to make the case for a rich but sturdy typeface. There are no images. Đắc Lộ is embedded as a Web font, and (in Firefox and Camino) you can barely discern a completely textual table of glyphs on the back side of the page, thanks to some shameless CSS trickery.

With typography out of the way, it’s time to continue transcribing the dictionary. I’ve gotten to the Bs so far.

Thanks to Peter S. Baker for giving his font a generous license. My efforts in this space are trivial compared to his.