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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

When's a Decorative Font More Than Decorative? 

While in Baltimore Saturday, I picked up a new book that looks really interesting: Searching for Lost City: On the Trail of America's Native Languages by Elizabeth Seay. It is in the same "language travel" genre as Helena Drysdale's Mother Tongues: Travels Through Tribal Europe and Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. I'll probably blog about it once I get a chance to read it, but based upon some flipping through and glancing at passages, it looks really interesting.

However, the one thing that doesn't quite irk me, but I'm not sure I like it either, is a question of book design. The language that sparks Seay's travels into Native American languages is Cherokee (specifically Overhill/Upper dialect), and the designers decided to set the title of the book in English, but using characters from the Cherokee syllabary that look kinda similar to the English characters -- ᎦᏋᎯᏒᏣᏂᎥᏂᏳ ᎸᏅᏒ ᏝᎾᎦᎿ ᏟᏐᎱᎩ (using Unicode; Code2000 and Aboriginal Serif Unicode support the Cherokee character range) or g7h9E/v/= km9 ^ng- CD!f (using the Cherokee font). The same trick is used for her name -- ᏋᏞᏐᏃᎪᏰᎬᎿᎻ ᎦᏋᎯᎩ (Unicode) or 7VDZqBz-N g7hf (Cherokee).

Although it can fairly easily be parsed as the English title, using Cherokee characters seems to slightly complicate things for a little stylistic effect. First off, for anyone who reads Cherokee (admittedly not a majority of the people who might encounter the book), it is going to look like nonsense: ga-quv-hi-sv-tsa-ni-v-tsa-yu lv-nv-sv tla-na-ga-hna tli-so-hu-gi for the title and quv-tle-so-no-go-ye-gv-hna-mi ga-quv-hi-gi for Seay's name. Second, the designers had to modify some of the characters to match what they wanted it to look like in "English." For example, Ꮈ (lv) is flipped on its axis to look more like an f, and Ꮒ (tsa) has its ascender squished in one instance to make it look more like a lowercase n. (In my rendering of the title above, I did not try to replicate either of these changes.) Also, the designers went out of their way to use "odder looking" characters: Ꭿ (hi) instead of Ꭺ (go), Ꮁ (hu) and Ꮏ (hna) instead of Ꭲ (i), Ᏻ (yu) instead of Ꮐ (nah) and so forth.

I've seen this done with Cyrillic characters on record albums, some book jackets (for example, GURPS Russia), magazine articles and other places, and I can't say it bothers me, but it also doesn't sit 100% right with me.

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