How Typography Can Preserve Endangered Languages

Tara Storozynsky
March 19, 2020
1 min read

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Technology has transformed communication, but its widespread use may be pushing us toward a more homogenous global culture. It’s estimated every two weeks, yet another of the world’s languages becomes part of history. If we want to keep endangered languages alive, we need to support them. But how can we do that?

We recently came across a project that one of our Suitcase Fusion users was working on with the typeface Fedra Sans Inuktitut.

Inuktitut is one of the primary Inuit languages of Canada. In the 19th century, the missionary James Evans created syllabics, a written character that represents a syllable, to provide a written language architecture for certain Native American languages — including Cree, Ojibwe, and eventually Inuktitut.

Over the decades, Inuktitut native speakers embraced the syllabics, but as globalization and Canada’s primary colonial tongues (French and English) have become more conventional, there’s been in a sharp decline in spoken and written Inuktitut.

The Avataq Cultural Council commissioned the type foundry Typotheque — which specializes in fonts for different languages — to digitize the written Inuktitut language and create a font that could be downloaded and used in everyday life.

I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Bil’ak of Typotheque about the Fedra Sans Inuktitut project and some of the foundry’s unique goals.

TS: Before we dive into Typotheque’s work and the Inuktitut Fedra Sans project, could you tell me a little bit about what got you into typography?

PB: I’ve always been interested in texts from different perspectives, and how typography has the ability to give a voice to languages. It’s not only capturing the words as they’re written, but also the subtle emotions of language.

When we’re just talking, there is a lot of extra information in that conversation — my accent, background noise, everything that cannot be committed to paper. This is where type and typography can step in and provide extra information. I’m interested in this emotional, personal aspect of typography.

Another thing is that I live in a small country [Netherlands], where we speak various languages. If I travel an hour in any direction, I have to speak another language. I am constantly confronted with different languages and different cultures, and I’m interested in preserving that cultural diversity.

I’ve spent the last 15-20 years working very openly with many different cultures. I started a company in India working with Indic languages. We have a separate company that develops Arabic fonts. We’ve worked with most living languages that are out there! It’s a joy to learn how they work. There is a lot more work to be done in multilingual typography than in Latin type — where are hundreds of thousands of fonts available already.

TS: What type of creative applications and software do you use to make type?

PB: I teach typeface design at the Royal Academy, and I always try to show my students the impact of the tools they’re using. I start with stone carving, so they appreciate how the action of carving affects how you get the shapes that you want. Then, we move on to calligraphy and see how different pens and brushes influence your work. Eventually, we move to tools in the digital realm.

We use this process to teach students that the tools they use have an effect on their work and its possibilities. With digitals tools, you have a greater scope than with traditional methods, but you start to approach projects from the perspective of what certain software can do, and often you don’t allow yourself to go outside that box.

Once you realize the limitations, and you have some crazy idea that cannot be accomplished with the usual software, you have to ask yourself, “OK, what do I need to make it happen?” For this reason, we’ve made many of our own tools.

When we started working with Arabic, there were no readymade software applications that would allow you to make Arabic fonts on a Mac. Arabic is not written right from left. The baseline often shifts. And you cannot employ kerning because kerning principles are based on Roman typography measurements. This meant that less Arabic fonts were being produced — and we had to employ a lot of our own tools to create them.

Luckily, 10 years later, there are tools that will allow designers to work with most languages. We use almost all of them. On my computer, I have everything — historic versions of FontLab, Glyphs, a tool called RoboFont (which was created by one of my students). I like using RoboFont because it doesn’t make any decisions about what’s right or wrong — it’s agnostic.

TS: You mentioned some of the challenges of working with different alphabets. In 2015, you worked on the Inuktitut project with the Avataq Cultural Institute. How does a project like this come into being?

PB: We try to take on a project like this every year. We usually research and look for something ourselves, but this project just sort of came to us.

The Institute had been using some of our Latin fonts and became aware that we supported other languages and alphabets. They chose a font collection called Fedra Sans, which already supports many different languages. They reached out and asked if I could imagine creating a Canadian syllabic script.

We always want to take on a new language or script that we haven’t worked with before, so this was a perfect opportunity. It was the first time that we had worked with syllabics.

TS: What were some of the specific challenges you faced with this typeface?

PB: The first challenge of any project is determining what exactly we need to draw. With Inuktitut, there is no standardized character set —no starting point, no template, no standardized alphabet.

It’s an indigenous script that is used by multiple languages in Canada, similar to how Latin script is used for multiple languages. We had to find the most efficient way to deal with these characters to make them more flexible for different languages’ needs. We realized that by adding a few more characters to what we already had, we could make the typeface much more useful to more people.

You’ll find that in different languages; there are very different ideas about what letters should look like, and this was true for the different peoples using Inuktitut in Canada. We wanted to ensure that the typeface lived up to the cultural expectations of everyone who would potentially use it.

Another thing that came up was ensuring that the type was compatible in multiscript settings. Inuktitut and Latin look similar in height, but the Inuktitut shapes are very loose, and the text is almost airy. One small challenge was ensuring the word space would be a little wider in Inuktitut. Even the nothingness — the space between words — has to be modified sometimes. You have to respect that different writing scripts simply behave differently. In the end, we needed to ensure that when the type was written next to the same text in English or French, all three appeared equal.

Of course, when you take on a script like this, you have to really adapt how you think about writing. What you consider logical or normal is only based on agreements between readers and writers. For someone coming in from the outside, those subtle nuances will take a lot longer to understand.

TS: I would imagine this project took a long time, since no one on your team is a native speaker. How many Typotheque team members worked on this and how long did it take from start to finish?

PB: We worked on this project off and on for about eight months. It’s not unusual for 10 people to work on a project, but for Fedra Sans Iniktitut, I did most of the work myself. At the end, I had some assistance from my coworker Nikola with the kerning.

Other scripts that we’ve worked with have often required completely going back to the drawing board, but Inuktitut is different. It’s a fairly new script with a relatively short history. You don’t necessarily have to dive as deep for the answers.

At the same time, because it’s uncharted territory, it’s a lot of responsibility. What you do will lay the groundwork and inform what other people do next.

TS: Digitizing a written language like this can have a huge impact on how it is used, especially by younger generations. Would you share your thoughts on the effects this can have?

PB: There are many reasons that languages are dying out, including digital extinction. Many of these languages are simply not supported. You can’t “ask Siri” in Canadian aboriginal languages — it just won’t support it. Technology can force you to switch from your native language to another language.

Of the languages that are still spoken today, over half of them are at risk of extinction by the end of the century. At the same time, the human population is expected to nearly double in that time. There will be more people, but less languages, less cultural diversity, more uniformity.

If you create the infrastructure, hopefully you can create better conditions for these languages to survive. We’re working with marginalized or ignored cultures in the hopes of helping create an infrastructure — one that will allow them to create educational and publishing tools, to strengthen their cultures.

We often open source our work. We feel that’s the best way to provide support, since these cultures are often not financially privileged. It’s a joy to see our work implemented and used in ways we had not expected.

TS: You mentioned earlier that you and your team try to take on a project like this every year. Can you tell us a little bit about some of these different projects?

PB: Since the Inuktitut project, we’ve realized that it’s often not sufficient to create one, singular typeface. It doesn’t always have the impact we hoped for. Since then, when we’ve tackled similar projects, we take a different approach and aim to create a whole library of fonts for different purposes. Fonts for very small sizes, different situations, fonts that a publisher could really work with comprehensively.

Our work with Hebrew took seven years. We worked on a secondary script — I won’t use the word “italic” since this is a feature of Latin fonts — but we worked to create a secondary script that could add emphasis to a block of text. We organized events in Israel, produced a booklet, and made a bunch of fonts available.

Now, we’re working with Armenian typefaces which are made for just one country, one language, one script. We’ve created 20 different typefaces, researched historical resources, and at the end, we are hoping to publish essays about our processes and the history. Our goal is to publish work that is really unprecedented.
We’ve come pretty far, but the work is not complete yet.

To keep up with Typotheque’s work, check out their blog.