�e Ethiopic Writing System A Typographic Approach
Jérémie Hornus Dissertation submi�ed in partial fullﬁlment of the Master of Art in Typeface Design �e University of Reading, September ����
2. 1. Generalities
2. 2. Nomenclature
2. 2. 1. Alterations
2. 2. 2. Morphology
2. 3. Numerals
2. 4. Punctuation
3. Script and Languages
3. 1. Ge’ez, the Foundation
3. 2. Extensions
3. 3. Languages
4. Development Overview
4. 1. Manuscripts (��th to ��th century)
4. 2. Printing Types
4. 3. Contemporary Typefaces
5. Design Decisions
5. 1. General Characteristics
5. 2. Speciﬁc Features
5. 3. Learning from the Past
1. Introduction �e origin of type-design is handwriting, le�ers have a wri�en logic that originally rules any typographic drawing. In the case of the Ethiopic script, the very handwri�en aspect of the current available text typefaces underlines the need for an understanding of the inherent wri�en logic of the script. �is dissertation is meant to be broad and informative, and is addressed to designers and typographers willing to gain a typographic view on the Ethiopic script. It aims to deﬁne a be�er understanding of the script and to sketch some guidelines for typeface design. �e Ethiopic writing system, or Ge’ez script, is not only testimony to more than eighteen centuries of East African history, culture and literacy, but the current and common way of written communication in Ethiopia. �e script has around �� million potential users in Ethiopia (unicef, ����), to which has to be added native speakers and readers across the world. �e origins of the script are the object of passionate arguments between scholars but, for sure, the area of current Ethiopia was, before the beginning of the Christian era, the place of cultural and commercial relationships between Greece, Egypt, the African continent, Arabia, and probably India as well. Up to now, very li�le has been wri�en about the particular question of Ethiopic typography, the topic being partly evoked in separate works of various nature. Moreover, no signiﬁcant innovative text typeface has been created since the mid-nineteenth century whilst, technology and society have been evolving to a great extent. �is may be explained by the lack of accessible knowledge and information. �e particular nature of the Ethiopic script makes of it a considerable ﬁeld awaiting –and probably requiring– exploration. �is dissertation shall provide with practical and theoretical approaches of nature and history of the script, fundamental for the design of Ethiopic typeface. �e ﬁrst part of this dissertation concerns deﬁnitions and sets a nomenclature scheme. �e second part brings an overview of the historical development, on manuscripts and printed forms. Finally, in light of contemporary use and historical examples previously detailed few guidelines are sketched for the design of Ethiopic text typeface.
Figure 1. Vocalised Ethiopic script. Stone inscription of Aksum, 1st - 4th century AD. Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, 1913
2. Deﬁnitions 2. 1. Generalities �e foundation of the current Ethiopic writing system is the ancient Ge’ez that has been wri�en since the fourth century AD. Ge’ez is also an ancient language which is not spoken anymore¹. �e script has been adopted by various languages such as Amharic, the ofﬁcial language of Ethiopia. �e Ge’ez tongue, or its prototype, was at the beginning of the Christian era, wri�en² with the consonantal Sabean script³. �e earliest discovered inscriptions are either wri�en from right to left or in the “boustrophedon” manner⁴. Two major changes occurred at around the fourth century AD. First, the consonantal system was altered to express vowel sounds [ﬁg. �]. Second, the writing direction became exclusively left-to-right (Cohen, ����, pp. ���-���). Such origins may explain the ambiguous aspect of the script –to Latin readers’ eyes– that does not hint at writing direction. Over its development, the script has included new languages by the way of new characters and le�er-forms based on existing ones. Recently, the adoption of other previously unwri�en languages required the extension of the syllabary; this peculiarity of the Ethiopic makes an “open system” of it that may keep on expanding. �e basic set of le�er-forms of the Ethiopic script can be simpliﬁed to twenty six basic shapes [ﬁg. �] that are rooted in the consonantal Sabean script. Fourteen of the twenty six basic characters have symmetrical appearance, and stroke sequences often carries this double sided “boustrophedon” origin. 1. Text in ancient Gı’ız, Fount of Antoine d’Abbadie. (Imprimerie Impériale, 1859). Actual size. 2. For more detail on the relation between Sabean and Ethiopic, see Cohen, M. (2005) pp.330-333. Figure 2. The 26 basic letters (1st order) of the Ge’ez script (Imprimerie Impériale, 1859). Actual size.
3. Example of Sabean script (Orxford University Press, 1959).“Himyaritic” fount cut by T.A. Smith in 1940. Note the presence of mirored glyphs to write in the boustrophedon manner. Actual size. 4. Also called “ploughwise” manner, to mean that the ﬁrst right-to-left line is followed by a left-to-right one, the third being right-to-left, and so forth (Pankhurst, 1998, p. 24). In this style of writing, letter-forms and stroke sequences are horizontally mirrored according to the writing direction.
Wri�en from left to right, le�er-forms are never joined, and no equivalent to Latin “minuscule” exists; the nature of the Ethiopic can be paralleled to the Latin capitals, visually top and bo�om aligned, with no proper ascender or descender. �ree of the twenty six le�er-forms are “ﬂoating”, one is standing on the base-line only. Because of its calligraphic tradition, weight distribution generally features horizontal stress. Typographic models of the script are mostly monumental, reﬂecting a slow and interrupted calligraphic style. Although diﬀerent palaeographic forms are found over eras and places, this monumental appearance always remains and is also a feature of text typefaces. �e twenty six basic le�er-forms are then developed in seven “vocalized variations” (called “orders” in this dissertation) that forms the total of one hundred and eighty two (���) characters –see section �, “Script and Languages”. �e system can be described as a syllabary, but in fact the sixth order –called Sadis– may have mere consonantal property. �
Figure 3. Abstracted skeleton of the 26 basic letterforms (1st order).
> to stroke
> to loop
> to lengthen > > to shorten
> to bend
> to stretch
> to crick
> to cap
> to shoe
Figure 4. Illustration of nine alterations possibly applied on the basic letterforms (ﬁgure 2) to represent vocalization, consonantal differentiation, and “diphthongs”.
2. 2. Nomenclature In order to enable a consistent discourse throughout this dissertation, this section deﬁnes a bunch of keywords that will be used to describe the script. Deﬁnitions are divided in two distinct categories. �e ﬁrst one uses verbs, and regards the naming of physical alterations –or actions– enabling the development of the system. �e second uses nouns, and merely concerns the naming of morphological features. �is distinction, and particularly the use of an active nomenclature for “alterations” facilitate the conception of what involves the “extension” of the system which has to be undertaken in its abstracted conception, separately of any typographic model. Figure � shows the abstracted skeleton of the �� basic shapes of the ﬁrst order
2. 2. 1. Alterations �e vocalisation [table �. p. ��] of the system –formation of “syllabic” le�er-shapes– is made by the use of physical alterations applied to the �� basic le�er-forms. �ose active alterations are also used to obtain additional consonantal bases for the Amharic language [table �. p. ��] and their vocalized forms. Moreover, a reﬁnement that already existed in the ancient Ge’ez consists in the use of characters representing labio-velar sounds [table �. p. ��] on the basis of existing le�er-shapes (Cohen, ����, pp. ���-���). All terms described in ﬁgure � are related to stroke-sequences alterations –and additions– of the twenty six basic le�er-forms mentioned above. �ose terms do not concern shape description but deﬁne possible actions upon the shapes. �ey are based on terms found in literature on the script¹ and personal design experience; the aim not being to propose a universal standard but to provide a convenient tool for use throughout this dissertation. Nine possible alterations may be applied either individually or combined, according to the particular graphic requirement of a situation (for instance, the combinations “stroking-looping” or “lengthening-shoeing” may occur). By the use of such alterations, the seven basic vocalized forms representation becomes possible [table �, p.��]. �e formation of additional consonantal bases and “diphthongs-vocalised consonants” are also covered by those nine alterations².
2. 2. 2. Morphology 1. See Tsigie, A., et Als (1999) and Yacob, D. (2005)
Purpose of the Alterations Vocalization Additional Consonant Bases “Diphthong-vocalised Consonants”
2. The system uses alterations to enable its extension on three levels: vocalization of the basic characters, creation of additional consonants, and formation of “phonetical ligatures”.
A major problem related to the deﬁnition of a graphic nomenclature is the tight connection that links keywords and the described model. �erefore, the choice of this model, is prevalent to the question of nomenclature. Moreover, the very handwri�en aspect of all Ethiopic text typefaces implies a morphological nomenclature focused on calligraphic tradition. �e model chosen for this purpose is based on the widespread Abbadie’s canon that has been ruling the conception of Ethiopic text typeface design since its introduction in ����. �ere is, however, no convention to be found relative �
Pa-height: Deﬁnes top and bottom lines; comparable to the Latin x-height.
Leaf: Initial or terminal extension highlighting the presence of a “bar” or a “branch”.
Branch: Short horizontal stroke linking the body of the letter and a “leaf” of a “ring”.
Stem: Vertical upright stroke joining top and bottom lines (“Pa-height”).
Bar: Horizontal stroke crossing the letterform from side to side.
Diagonal: Left to right or right to left slanted stroke directed from top to bottom.
Bowl: Form deﬁned by a closed counter being integrant part of the basic letter.
Arm: Vertical stroke, free on its upper part and linked on its lower part.
Leg: Vertical stroke, free on its lower part and linked on its upper part.
Ring: Circular extention linked to a bar or a stem. May be directly attached to an “arm” or a “leg”, or linked by a “branch”.
Neck: Short vertical stroke joined to the upper part of the body.
Break: Discontinued part of a stem.
Figure 5. Morphological nomenclature scheme
Figure 7. Punctuation marks.
to Ethiopic nomenclature, the deﬁnitions of ﬁgure � are based upon frequently found terms, broadly recognized concepts (such as “arm” and “leg”), and terms borrowed from Latin typography nomenclature. Similarly to section �.�.�., the aim being to provide a consistent vocabulary to use throughout this dissertation.
2. 3. Numerals �e use of Ethiopic numerals [ﬁg. �], appeared together with the others Ge’ez le�er-forms, around the fourth century AD (Cohen, ����, p. ���). �ey are important witnesses to Ethiopian culture, even if contemporary publications often substitute them with the common Arabic numerals.
Figure 6. Ethiopic numerals. Note the ‘ten-thousand’ numeral which is a ligature of two ‘hundred’ numerals.
�e Ethiopic numerals are acknowledged to be partly borrowed from the Greek and partly from the Sabean alphabets; ﬁgures “one”, “two”, and “three”, for instance, can be deduced from the Greek “alpha”, “beta”, and “gamma” –for more detail see Bekerie (����, p. ��). According to Cohen (p. ���), the use of upper and lower lines started in the seventeenth century; probably in a le�erpress context, to avoid confusion with actual le�ers when type-setting.
2. 4. Punctuation
1. Example of “Ethiopicised” punctuation; weight distribution, in- and out-strokes of “question” and “exclamation” marks are matching the Ethiopic. Fiona Ross’ drawing (1982)
�e main punctuation mark found in manuscripts is a word separator made of two superposed dots. �is device is, however, replaced by a simple blank space in modern typography. A general trend is the increasingly frequent use of Latin punctuation marks (especially exclamation, question, and quotation marks), which has been creating new design issues of harmonisation¹. Such punctuation marks [ﬁg. �] are generally visually aligned between top and base lines. Being made out of the same tool, weight of dots matches the one of stems, similarly for horizontal strokes that share characteristics of “bars” and “branches” of the script (see morphological nomenclature). �e old-fashioned Ethiopic “word space” may be found standing for the Latin semi-colon or comma. In addition, the three superposed dots is referred as a “comma” in ancient writing, but may be used as a “question mark” for the writing of contemporary Tigrigna language.
Table 1. The 182 basic Gı’ız characters. Transliterated names are based on Abbadie’s (1859) and Insberg’s (1841) displays of the Ethiopic alphabet. Latin transliteration scheme of this dissertation is shown on the sides.
3. Script and Languages 3. 1. Ge’ez, the Foundation
1. The alterations of the seven orders can be summed up brieﬂy: 1st order: Basic shape 2nd order: Middle right stroking 3rd order: Bottom-right stroking 4th order: SouthWest/NorthEast stress (Bottom-left unbalanced aspect) 5th order: Bottom-right looping 6th order: Left-sided alteration 7th order: NorthWest/SouthEast stress (Bottom-right unbalanced aspect)
From the forth century onwards, Ethiopic as a script was, exclusively dedicated to the writing of a the Ge’ez, a tongue that was gradually dying and being replaced by derived spoken languages such as Tigrigna and Amharic. �ose were not –or extremely rarely– wri�en before the nineteenth century. Over fourteen centuries, there remained the unusual situation of a script retained to write an unknown language while societies, traditions and education were built on an oral world. �e script though, survived centuries and continued to represent the nation until its adoption by actually living languages. As mentioned earlier, the word “Ge’ez” is used to refer both to the ancient tongue and the basic form of the script consisting of ��� characters (��×�). All le�er-forms [table �] are based on alterations¹ to the �� basic forms of the ﬁrst order (also called Ge’ez). �ose alterations follow an unsystematic but logical pa�ern that can be described by the use of the above mentioned nomenclature. �e ﬁrst order is the original state of le�er-shapes. �e second order features a simple “stroking” on the middle of the right part of the le�er-form (e.g. ﬁrst form ሀ “hȧ” becomes ሁ “hu”, similarly መ “mȧ” becomes ሙ “mu”, and ተ “tȧ” becomes ቱ “tu”). �is extension is composed of a “branch” supporting a “leaf”. When the middle of the le�er is already busy, the basic shape itself is modiﬁed to provide a “middle part” on which the “stroking” can be done (e.g. ደ “dȧ” lengthens a right “leg” on which the “stroking” is applied ዱ “du”). Such ﬂexibility is a key of the Ethiopic script, and is observed throughout the system. �e third order is a bo�om right “stroking”, for instance, ቢ “bị”. Similarly to the second order, this may require a preliminary alteration to the basic shape (e.g. ሀ “hȧ” becomes ሂ “hị” by shortening its left “arm” and lengthening its right to provide a “leg” on the bo�om of which the “stroking” is done). �e forth order generally results in a bo�om-left unbalanced shape; it is often obtained by shortening a left “leg” (ላ “la”, ባ “ba”), or by “stretching” the bo�om of a stem to the left (ቃ “qa”, ታ “ta”), sometimes the top of a stem is “stretched” to the right (ነ “nȧ” becomes ና “na”). Many exceptions occur in this fourth order, thus stroke sequence alterations have to be considered individually. �e ﬁfth order is marked by a “looping” of the bo�om-right part of the le�er-form (ሄ “hė”, ሌ “lė”, ቴ “tė”, ሜ “mė”). Note that the previous principle of combined alterations occurs often here as well (e.g. ወ “wȧ” becomes ዌ “wė”). �e sixth order is a left-sided alteration, generally a “cricking” to the ﬁrst stroke such as for ሀ “hȧ” that becomes ህ “hı”. �is can also be –more prosaically– described as a “strong wind from the East” aﬀecting the le�er-form that can be illustrated by the shapes of ሥ “sı”, ብ “bı”, or ዝ “zı”. �e seventh and last order is often the opposite of the forth one. A bo�om-right unbalanced shape must be prevalent. �is may ��
Table 2. Twenty additional Gı’ız characters.
Table 3. Additional characters required for Amharic.
be done by the “looping” the top right part, such as in ሆ “ho” ኖ “no”, or by a shortening a right “leg” (symmetric of the forth form), such as in ሶ “so” (4th form being ሳ “sa”). Similarly, exceptions are frequent in this order and cannot always be logically deduced.
3. 2. Extensions In addition to these ��� characters, the representation of what can be called “diphthong-vocalised consonant” or “phonetic ligatures” is also an integral part of the Ge’ez script. �ey are found in early manuscripts and types, used to shorten the writing of the combination “strong consonant” + ”w” + “vowel”. For instance, the sound “kuȧ” is primarily wri�en ኩወ (“ku-wȧ”) but may be shortened by the use of a single “diphthong” character, ኰ (“kuȧ”). Such diphthong-vocalised consonants concern only four consonants developed over ﬁve orders [table �]. �is model has been extended to support other consonantal bases (e.g. “lua” may be wri�en ሏ instead of ሉዋ). Four of these are based on the ﬁrst order le�er-form –original state– to which is applied, a middle-right “stroking looping” (�st order), a middle-right “stroking stem-cricking” (�rd order), a “shoeing” (�th order), and a “stroking leaf-cricking” (�th order). �e �th is based exceptionally on its original �th order form, which is bottom-left “stroked”. �e adoption by the script of the various languages of Ethiopia created the need for new characters to stand for previously unwri�en sounds. Paradoxically, those languages often remove, in speech, consonantal distinctions that were previously deﬁned by the Ge’ez orthography¹; for instance the consonant sounds አ and ዐ are not pronounced; ሀ, ሐ, and ኀ are confused to one unique consonant “h”; similarly for ሠ and ሰ “s”, and for ጸ and ፀ “z”. Practically, those characters remain in modern writing and their etymology determines the languages orthography. In the view of simpliﬁcation, modern dictionaries² often merge them in a single “phonetic” entry –eventually generating more confusion.
3. 3. Languages
1. For details see Cohen, 2005, pp.241-242.
2. First entry of Amharic-French, 1881 (top), and Amharic-Italian, 1953 (bottom) dictionnaries.
If the Ge’ez language –the only to be originally wri�en rather than spoken– was the tongue of the Church and scholars, the writing of common languages such as Amharic, required the creation of seven additional consonantal signs. �is was mainly achieved by “capping” existing le�er-forms. �is “cap” can be morphologically described as two “leafs” linked by a “bar” joined to the body with a “neck”. �e le�er-forms ሸ, ቸ, ኘ, ኸ, ጀ, are thus built upon ሰ, ተ, ነ, ከ, and ደ. Two exceptions in the formation of those additional le�er-forms are ዠ and ጨ, made out of ዘ and ጠ. Eventually, in the early days of printed Amharic, those additional forms were not well deﬁned and diﬀerent interpretations occurred (see for instance, the ጨ –C’aịt– of Ludolf’s type used in ���� –section �.�). �ose seven new bases also develop along the seven orders, generating forty nine additional characters [table �]. According to Yacob ��
1. This new character (right) is based on the Bet (left) which is soften by the mean of an top stroking. It is also used in modern writing of Tigrigna language.
(����) three additional series of characters were introduced in the mid-seventeenth century for the transliteration of Italian –they might have been locally used only later, with the Italian invasion of ����. One in particular¹ survived and is even used in the writing of Northern languages such as Tigrigna; it stands for the sound “v”. Other characters have been created recently to include the sounds of previously unwri�en –or unprinted– languages. �ey are also graphically constructed of existing le�er-forms to which are applied alterations and additions.
Figure 8. “Monumental” style, early fourteenth century. Prominence of trapezoidal and triangular shapes. (Uhlig, S. Introduction to Ethiopic Paleography) Size 200%
Figure 9. Inscription dated of fourth century. (Deutsche Aksum Expedition 1913, Berlin).
4. Development Overview 4. 1. Manuscripts (��th to ��th century) For a long period of time, the writing of Ethiopic remained the guarded domain of the Church, or more precisely, of churches and their individual representatives. Moreover, the only language authorised to be wri�en was, for a long time, the ancient Ge’ez that very few understood, and that no-one spoke. �erefore, the knowledge of handwriting was exclusively that of speciﬁcally educated scribes, which were often priests as well (Pankhurst, ����). Calligraphy –and, more simply, handwriting– skills were thus restricted to a very small number of specialists until the end of the nineteenth century. Such a context explains why the script did not adopt as many styles as, for instance the Latin script that was used for various purposes and was spreading over Europe. However, palaeographic studies of Ethiopic, though mainly used for dating manuscripts identiﬁes periods and their variations in style. �e palaeographer, Siegbert Uhlig (����) distinguishes four periods describing the transition from an uneven style to standardised book scripts; the ﬁrst period being “archaic and monumental” (before ����), the second “transitional” (����-����), the third “round script” (����-����), and the last “compressed and slender” (��������). From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, two calligraphic styles “Gwelh” (large and slow) and “Raqiq” (small and fast) developed. �ey reﬂect a standardisation of the script by administrations, and an increase in common correspondence and literature. Only a few manuscripts of the “monumental” period –before the mid-fourteenth century– remain, and their dating is uncertain. Because of climatic conditions and the fragile materials they were made of, such manuscripts did not last long and were traditionally replicated over the years. �e main characteristic of this period is a wide and angular script [ﬁg. �], bodies of le�ers are often triangular or trapezoid, and various axes coexist creating an uneven pa�ern. Often wri�en with a thin pen, the style of writing generally depends more upon the scribe’s style than of any standard. Nevertheless, this script mainly copies the epigraphic inscriptions [ﬁg. �], both in stroke sequences and in shaping, as if the scribe was not writing on parchment but scratching on stone. �e generally low contrast modulation is due to the small size of the le�ers (in comparison with the tool) and the softness of the pen.
�e “square script” of the transitional period (����-����), already hints towards standardization [ﬁg. ��]; proportions of letters are more even and often ﬁ�ing an imaginary square. Generally bolder, the script combines characteristics of the monumental period (such as triangular shapes) with round and angular shapes. �e contrast between thick and thin is increased, and variations in tool positioning are used to strengthen strategic part; the angle of the pen varies.
Figure 10. “Square” style of the ﬁfteenth century. Proportions of letters generally ﬁt an imaginary square. (Uhlig, S. Introduction to Ethiopic Paleography) Size 200%
�e “round script” of the mid-ﬁfteenth century is under the inﬂuence of an emerging aesthetic [ﬁg. ��], sliding away from the slow and interrupted monumental hand. Wri�en faster, the axis tend to slant and le�ers are wider, the “looping” of the ﬁfth form is often unﬁnished, angular and triangular shapes transform into more rounded forms. �e ductus of the le�er መ (Mai) in particular, changes radically¹ to become two separated “bowls”. Similarly, the unjoint top of the ለ (Lawi) becomes a distinct feature emerging during this period.
Figure 11. “Round” style of the sixteenth century. Written faster letters are more rounded and wider. (Uhlig, S. Introduction to Ethiopic Paleography) Size 200% 1. Major transformation of the stroke sequences of letter Mai and Lawi.
From the mid-sixteenth century up to the mid-seventeenth, an increase in standardisation is found through a frequent “compressed slender” style [ﬁg. ��]. Le�ers are still generally rounded. �e “Pa-height” is visibly guiding the height and alignment of le�er-forms. Stroke contrast increases, and weight distribution is vertically stressed consistently, where previously it was slightly oblique and often featured various axes.
Figure 12. “Compressed slender” script style of the seventeenth century. Standardisation of the script retaining the inﬂuence of the round script. (Uhlig, S. Introduction to Ethiopic Paleography) Size 200%
Two major hands then developed simultaneously from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. �e oﬃcial “Gwelh” script –or “script of the kings– and a more cursory hand called “Raqiq”. �e administrative “Gwelh” [ﬁg. ��] is a slow and interrupted writing. Executed carefully, it features a totally vertical axis with extremely high contrast. �e general appearance is less rounded. Proportions are under the inﬂuence of the “compressed and slender” style, but standardised and well deﬁned though varied; “leafs” and “vocalisation marks” are modelled, clearly identiﬁable. �is style, always executed in large sizes, was considered as a model of legibility.
Figure 13. “Gwelh” style of the eighteenth century. Formal and administrative hand, executed slowly and at large sizes. Proportions of letter are well deﬁned and consistent. (Uhlig, S. Introduction to Ethiopic Paleography) Size 200%
For the requirements of extensive book production, another style, the “Raqiq” [ﬁg. ��], developed simultaneously. Of smaller size and quickly executed, the proportions of the script become slightly wider. Lines of text, considered as a whole, appear more uniform, the repartition of black and white shapes is harmonious; it is an continuous reading style. Contrary to the Gwelh style, stems of the Raqiq feature curves and moderate weight variations, in and out strokes are visible. Similarly to the “round” style of the mid-ﬁfteen century, “rings” of vocalisation are sometimes left open in this hasty writing, but the forms are controlled while retaining diversity.
Figure 14. “Raqiq” style of the seventeenth century. Standardised book script hastier than the Gwelh. Note the ﬁgures having the same height as the letters, the framing lines being added after are outside the “Pa-Height”. (Uhlig, S. Introduction to Ethiopic Paleography) Size 200%
4. 2. Printing Types For a long time the Ethiopic script suﬀered from various naming confusions.Ethiopia being one of the rare Christian countries outside of Europe was surely the source of numerous legends during the Middle Ages. Ethiopians were wrongly named “Indians”, and the script also was referred as “Chaldaic”. �is surrounding misinformation reﬂects the context in which the earliest printing types were made. An anecdotal representation of the script appeared at the turn of the ﬁfteenth century, on a wood-block [ﬁg. ��] cut by Eerhaert Van Rewijck, printed in Mainz in ����. �is ﬁrst printed “Ethiopic alphabet” is reproduced in an account of travels in the Holy Land by the Dutchman, Bernhardus Von Breidenbach (��������). �is plate, compared with manuscripts of the same period, illustrates how far from an actual understanding of the script the artist was. Although nicely cut, the le�er-shapes are, not only totally freely interpreted, but also re-ordered in “alphabetic” order (“a”, “le’, “phe”, “beth”, etc.) which hides any hint of the “syllabic” property of the script. However, in spite of their unusual “gothic” shaping, most of those are identiﬁable, though considered as individual drawings rather than as a proper typeface; the purpose being to display the so-called “Indian” le�ers, not to print an actual text.
Figure 15. “Indian Alphabet”, Ethiopic letter-forms cut by Eerhaert Van Rewijck (Mainz, 1486). Actual size.
Ethiopia –more precisely the Aksumite Empire– had, almost simultaneously with the Roman Empire, embraced Christianity in the fourth century. Links probably existed between Christian countries of Europe and Ethiopia but they became looser with the decline of Aksum in the ninth century followed by an increase of contacts with neighbour countries, such as those of the Arabian peninsula, in the Middle Ages. Ethiopia’s troubled period that started in the early sixteenth century –armed struggle with Muslims, in addition to internal conﬂicts– was the scene of a�empted of alliance with European Christian countries; Portugal in particular, Catholic rival of the Muslim O�oman Empire, both aﬃrming their extending power by se�ling around the Red Sea (Pankhurst, ����). �us was ��
Figure 16. Syllabary (top) and numerals (left) of Potkens’ type, in “Psalterium in Quatior Linguis” (Cologne, 1518). Actual size
the international context in which the ﬁrst Ethiopic movable type was made and used, in Rome, the year ����. Non-Latin type, such as Greek and Hebrew had been cut earlier and the literacy of those was already spreading amongst European scholars. Knowledge of Ethiopic, however, was restricted to the very small sphere of Christian religious purposes. Until the end of the nineteenth century, printed books were merely made in Europe for biblical works in Ge’ez tongue. �e ﬁrst recorded type featuring extended characters for Amharic appeared only in ���� –cut for the renowned Ethiopianist Job Ludolf. In ����, Rome had a house –Santo Stefano dei Mori– to host Ethiopian priest guests. �e ﬁrst Ethiopic type [ﬁg. �� and ��] was made there, ordered by Johannes Potkens, a German priest attracted by this “Christian” tongue he had discovered (Wijnman, ����). He succeeded in publishing “the Psalm of David together with the Song of Salomon” with the type made for him. Later in ���� Potkens published, in the city of Cologne, a polyglot Psalm of David in Hebrew, Greek, Chaldaic, and Latin –the incorrectly named “Chaldaic” being his Ethiopic type. It can be assumed that this design may have been employed as a model, both in Northern and Southern Europe, for later types.
Figure 17. Sample text of Potkens’ type. The inﬂuence of the manuscript “monumental” period is visible. Presence of triangular shapes, and typical stroke sequence of the letter Mai. In “Psalterium in Quatior Linguis” (Cologne, 1518). Size 200%
Figure 18. Syllabary of Tesfa Sion’s type. Note that a type-setting mistake inverted 4th and 6th lines from the 2nd to the 7th order. In “Testamentum Nuvum cum epistola pauli…” (Rome, 1548). Actual size.
Figure 19. Diphthong-vocalised consonants of Tesfa Sion’s type (Rome, 1548). Actual size.
1. The combination of geometric shapes and hasty letter-forms of Potkens’ type.
�is ﬁrst a�empt might have been under the inﬂuence of the Latin Gothic Textura style that was still of importance in these times; the broken and angular structure of the በ (Beth) is the most representative. However, various entities coexists reminding of the “square script” of the transitional period of the previous century; triangular shapes are mixed with rounded ones, the መ (Maị) has characteristic joining triangular “bowls” of this period. �e overall inconsistency¹ of the type, is nevertheless signiﬁcant enough to be mentioned; cursory glyphs are ambiguously siding against extremely static ones, from which the Latin capitals P, H, and T that stand for Ethiopic glyphs. It is interesting to notice that numerals have no upper and lower framing lines. �ree decades later, in ����, a new type [ﬁg. ��] made and printed in the house in Rome, appeared in “Novum Testamentum Æthiopicum”. It was directed by Tesfa Sion (or Petrus Æthiops), the Ethiopian archpriest of Santo Stefano (Wijnman, ����). �is printed type [ﬁg. ��] can be interpreted as an a�empt to correct the imperfection of Potkens’ type. �e colour is more even, smoother to the eye, and all glyphs share common cursory particularities that are close to the upcomming “round hand”. Where the type of ���� can be considered as being already outdated when released, the one of Tesfa Sion ﬁ�ed and even preceded the development of handwriting. Moreover, no trace of “Latinisation” can be found, and the type features additional “diphthong-vocalised consonant” that are of rare accuracy and clarity in Ethiopic typography history. �e type even included the extended “diphthong-vocalised consonant [ﬁg. ��].
Figure 20. Sample Text of Tesfa Sion’s type. The text colour is more even, letter-forms share a common logic. In “Testamentum Nuvum cum epistola pauli…” (Rome, 1548). Size 200%
Figure 21. Printed types of Hondius –before trimming. By a selective triming different letters are obtained out of a single matrice. (Type-faces specimen from the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, 1593). Size: 200%
Figure 22. Examples of trimming of letters Mai and Ain. From one sort, various vocalised variations are obtained. Extracted from text in “Opus de Emendatione…” (Lungdoni Batavorum, 1598). Size 400%
Figure 23. Wongly trimmed letter Ain which does not correspond to any existing variation. Extracted from text in “Opus de Emendatione…” (Lungdoni Batavorum, 1598). Size 800%
1. Detail of some features of Tesfe Sion’s type. The direct inﬂuence of the tool is noticeable. Size: 400%
1. Example of excessive standardisation; the Wawi is here simpliﬁed to a circle. This sort can be trimmed to produce 4 of the 7 vocalised forms of the letter Wawi.(Typefaces specimen from the Museum PlantinMoretus, Antwerp, 1593). Size: 800%
Contrarily to Potkens, Tesfa Sion injected the ﬂuidity of broad pen handwriting into the design; in and out strokes are visible, and curves and tensions are gracefully applied to stems. �e shaping of the “leafs” even follows the behaviour of the tool; their placement diﬀers whether beginning or ending “bars” and “branches”. Such reﬁnements¹ may only have been performed under the eyes of an experienced scribe. �e creation of this type paralleled the oﬃcial standardisation that started to occur amongst scribes in Ethiopia in the mid-sixteenth century. �e type was not broadly used, but was probably used as model –such as the one of Potkens– for later design. However, such a coherent achievement was rarely challenged by those later interpretations. In addition to the common ignorance of the script, another obstacle in the development of Ethiopic typography was the intransigent plethora of sorts and matrices, multiplying the production costs and time. An interesting a�empt [ﬁg. ��] to improve manufacturing was the type cut in Leiden (����) by Jocondus Hondius, for the works of Professor Josephus Scaligeri (Wijnman, ����). From a single matrix, a composite type including several “vowel marks” was produced and additional marks were then trimmed [ﬁg. ��] to obtain the wished “syllable”. �us, �� matrices only were required [ﬁg. ��] for the production of the ��� Ge’ez (Vervliet, ����). �e main defect of this method was the strong distortion the script had to undergo. Even though this type is not, properly speaking “Latinised” –in the sense of direct borrowing of Latin le�er-forms–, the script was simpliﬁed through the geometrical¹ shapes (circle, triangle, square) dear to Latin typography. Moreover, the observation of printed texts reveals trimming mistakes [ﬁg. ��] due to the complexity of the process which required knowledgeable operators. �e trimmed sorts were thus often distorted and the line alignment lost, generating a clumsy texture. Reminiscences of Potkens’ type are visible through particular le�er-forms. �is type could even be considered as an a�empt of productivity improvement over its ancestor. A comparable approach was undertaken in the ����s for the Linotype machines.
Figure 24. Sample text of Hondius’ type. First attempt to reduce the number of matrices to handle. In “Opus de Emendatione…” (Lungdoni Batavorum, 1598). Size: 200%
Figure 25. Character set of the Oxford “Ethiopic Great Primer” bought in 1686. A side note mentions the lack of numerals in this type, but some are placed below the “diphthongs”, though without upper and bottom lines. (Oxford University Press, 1959) Actual size.
Figure 26. Detail of Watson’s type 1654. Letterforms are approximative and inconsistent, the type is made of various borrowings. (Specimen of printing types by Fry and Steel, printed by T. Rickaby, 1795).
Before the nineteenth century, very few Ethiopians were living in Europe, the house in Rome mentioned earlier was probably, since the sixteenth century and for a long period of time, the only place where readers of the script may have been found. �is lack of available feedback from readers can partly explain the multiplication of unsuccessful designs in Europe over the centuries. Models of Potkens and Tesfa Sion kept on being used as the basis for works of the seventeenth century. �ose earliest Ethiopic types, not really understood as a writing system, were partly copied, sometimes mixed together or altered by new interpretations. �e multiplication of such Ethiopic founts over European foundries generated an era of confusion. �e “Ethiopic Great Primer” [ﬁg. �� and ��] that reached the University of Oxford in ����, was actually cut at Leiden in ���� for Nissel and Pertraeus and printed by the Elseviers (Morison, ����), and indeed a more or less successful copy of the ���� Tesfa Sion’s type –probably also borrowing elements of Hondius’ work such as the perfectly circular “Mai” ወ.
Figure 27. Ge’ez text set with the Oxford “Ethiopic Great Primer” bought in 1686. Various inﬂuences are gathered generating inconsistencies. (The Fell Types, 1930). Actual size.
�e same year of ���� a new Ethiopic type was cut [ﬁg. ��] for Dr. Brian Walton at the Polyglot foundry, in London (Norrish, ����). �is particularly inelegant type shares identical defects with Potkens’ type; cursory and static shapes are blended. �e uneven colour thus produced is increased by hazardous weights cohabitation. A fact raised by the observation of this work is the extreme precautions taken by the punch-cu�er not to interpret the script; it shows, indeed, not more than a coarse copy of the skeleton of existing types, highlighting the surrounding lack of Ethiopic knowledge. �e opposite approach was undertaken in ���� for the needs of the famous German Ethiopianist Job Ludolf. According to Norrish (����) the type was cut by Johan Adolph Schmit. Ludolf had visited Ethiopians priest in Rome and learnt to read and write Ge’ez and Amharic (Pankhurst, ����) when he published “Historia Æthiopica” with the type freshly made by Schmit. �is type [ﬁg. �� and �� overleaf] can be described as the ﬁrst actual typographic interpretation of the script. Supported by a preliminary knowledge of writing, he brought up this new design with the conﬁdence of an expert. Ludolf –or Schmit– seems to have deliberately decided not to blindly copy existing Ethiopic type, but to consciously take ��
Figure 28. Character set of Ludolf’s type (1681). First type to include the extended Amharic characters. The “diphthongs” are designed with care to prevent confusion.
Figure 29. Detail of Amharic-Latin glossary by Ludolf (1681)
design decisions based on an understanding of the script.�e type is the ﬁrst to include the �� extended Amharic characters [ﬁg. ��] and Ludolf must have known, by his learning of the language, how to obtain them out of existing Ge’ez le�er-forms. �is understanding of the system is also visible in the manner the “Diphthongs” are executed¹; they also bear witness to a desire for legibility, though “kui” and “kue” for instance, show an overdone diﬀerentiation. In the early history of Ethiopic typography, Ludolf’s type is the unique a�empt of “modernisation” of the script. �e ﬁrst to interpret handwriting and to distinguish it from printing. However, this was done within a deeply European rooted view which raised the issue of the constraints that had to rule design decisions. In this creative a�empt, the decision were not taken consistently; le�er-forms are either assimilated to Latin capitals (le�ers Bet and Zai), in their monumental and static behaviour, or understood as “lower cases” retaining ﬂuidity of handwriting (le�er Mai). As a consequence, the overall design can be qualiﬁed as “Latinised”; it was particularly addressed to scholars, mainly Europeans interested in the language, but not to Ethiopians, and was never used in that sense.
Figure 30. Sample text of Ludolf type 1681. The ﬁrst typographic interpretation attempt. The standardisation through design decision is extreme and not applied thoroughly.
1. Especially the “shoeing” of exemplar clarity and ﬁdelity to the written logic, made by a simple bottom stroking (here “gua” and “kua”)
2. C’ait Amharic letter. This shaping was not followed in latter designs.
An other problem was the misreading of some of the basic alterations; apart from the Amharic le�er “C’ait” –that may logically have had this shape because it was for the ﬁrst time introduced in type– the cases of “Mai” and “Af” series still show a “blind” borrowing of unassimilated models [ﬁg. ��]. �is misreading yielded to shapes standing out from the rest of the system; the initial stroke sequence is not respected, and results in a morphological approximation of the intended shape.
Figure 31. From left to right: Tesfa Sion type (1548), “Great Primer” (1654), and Ludolf type (1681). Comparison showing how the misreading of the stroke sequences yielded to uncontrolled interpretations.
Figure 32. Watts’s type matrices (Type Museum London).
Figure 33. Character set of Watts’ type. (English-Amharic dictionary 1841). Improvement of Ludolf’s type. Actual Size.
It is only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the works of the British traveller Henry Salt, that printed books reached Ethiopia. He distributed works from the press of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Northern Ethiopia (Pankhurst, ����). In ����, for the ﬁrst time Ethiopian readers saw printed Ethiopic in their country. Since, started the design of a new type based on their feedback. In the light of actual readers comments, Ludolf’s design was modiﬁed by the British le�er-founder Fry for the printer Richard Wa�s [ﬁg. ��, ��, and ��]. At ﬁrst only a few problematic le�er-shapes were re-designed (“lawi”, “mai”, and “Af” in particular), and this hybrid type appeared in ���� in “Evangelica Sancta” in Amharic.
Figure 34. Hybrid between Ludolf and Watts types (1824). The colour is inconsistent but manuscript stroke sequences are better respected in the new glyphs –some are circled on the image. Size 200%
�e new sorts bore a be�er understanding of the inherent logic of the Ethiopic script (stroke sequences, proportions…) while well integrated within the existing design. However, this resulted in curious, unbalanced combination. It was later improved by a total substitution of Ludolf’s design with the newly made Wa�’s which was used for a long period by the British and Foreign Bible Society. �e inﬂuence of the German design is still strong in the new type, but for the ﬁrst time since the work of Tesfa Sion (����), a coherent Ethiopic design was achieved [ﬁg. ��].
Figure 35. Watts’ type of 1820s, The standardisation of forms is well achieved and enables homogenous, though rigid, texture. (Gospel in Many Tongues, 1903). A standardised and consistent typographic interpretation of the script. Size 200%
Figure 36. Character set of Abbadie’s type (1859) featuring extended “diphtong-vocalised consonant” and Amharic characters. Actual size.
Ethiopian scribes were involved in this project and aided its realisation. However, purely typographic problems remained such as the “capping” of Amharic characters which were not optimal and stuck with the body. Although very “monumental” and angular, this type also bore the inﬂuence of the “Gwelh” style in its rigid verticality and high contrast. Lines of text are homogenous, but the general appearance may have been too far from contemporary manuscripts to make a success of this type; some le�er-forms never existed in manuscripts and others, triangles and squares, were obsolete. �e consistency of this type was achieved by an excessive systematisation. Twenty ﬁve years later, Antoine d’Abbadie published the ﬁrst book featuring the new type he was commissioned to supervise at the Imprimerie Impériale. Abbadie, previously travelled to Ethiopia and also knew most of the earlier types, over which he had an accurate eye (Abbadie, ����). He was in contact with Ethiopian calligraphers whose manuscripts were used as models for the type. Signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced by the Gwelh style, the type also features the particular modulations of the Raqiq hand which is executed faster. Instead of applying the successful but somehow extreme standardisation of Wa�’s type, Abbadie made each le�er-form different [ﬁg. ��], even those sharing a similar basis. �e aim was to carry over the warmth of manuscripts [ﬁg. ��] by saving irregularities of manuscript models while providing consistency through a precise control of weight distribution and shaping. �e cu�ing was extremely ﬁne, thick vertical strokes diving into sharp horizontals, each in and out stroke being cautiously modelled. �is implied the need for advanced printing conditions which were not always sufﬁcient and thin joinings often disappeared in print. Numerous speciﬁcities of this type were later frozen into an unavoidable model. For instance, the “ring” of the le�er “Hoi” ﬁfth form (Sadis), was made open¹ in the bigger sizes and remained so in the visual model thus established –even though the same ring is not open in the small size. �e success of this type can be explained by the exactness of the reproduction and the high quality crafting.
1. The “ring” of the letter Hoi Sadis is closed in this small size of the type, contrary to the larger size of ﬁg. 38 where more playfulness was generally brought.
Figure 37. Text composed with the original Abbadie’s Ethiopic. Irregularity of manuscript is preserved, no other standardisation than stroke weights has been done. Note the open “ring” featured in this size. Size 300%
Abbadie’s type (top) and Berhanena Selam type (bottom). The copy is obvious though the letter Hoi Hamis of the latter has the open ring taken from a bigger size of Abbadie’s design.
Figure 38. Berhanena Selam Printing Press type in the 1940’s. A copy of Abbadie’s design. (Size 40% –size in relation to the A4 page shown on the right)
Figure 39. Character set of the “Ethiopic Long Primer” bought in 1891 from the German printer Drugulin. (Oxford University Press, 1959) Actual size.
1. Probably because of the highly contrasted modulation of the stoke, a visible “bar” can only be obtained with heavy “leafs” at the extremes. A totally new feature appearing with Abbadie’s type is the protuberant right leaf of the “shoeing” giving the impression of an additional “leg”.
Willing to maintain the design as close as possible to the “most beautiful” calligraphic le�er-forms, design decisions consisted mainly in pinpointing and reproducing those; the missing ones were the source of compromise and uncertainty. In the preface of his “Catalogue raisonné des manuscrits éthiopiens” (����), where the type was printed for the ﬁrst time, Abbadie also details uncertainties in the design of some rarely used le�ers such as the “diphthong-vocalised consonants” –because they were “not well wri�en” in the manuscripts he had¹. He also mentions the question of whether particular “rings” should be open or closed, revealing to what extent this type correlated with the manuscript it was based upon. Abbadie’s type was the ﬁrst to be used in Ethiopia when it was brought with a printing press to the port of Massawa by Italian christian missionaries in ����. Rapidly, though mainly for external religious or political purposes, printing presses ﬂourished in the country and various Ethiopian languages began to be published. �e type of Abbadie, which had been realised in seven sizes, and carefully designed to please the contemporary tastes in Ethiopia, has been continuously copied since its creation. �e “Berhanena Selam” printing press founded in the ����s (Pankhurst, ����) –which became the government press– also had a similar type [ﬁg. ��]. In addition, the broad literacy and education program started almost at this time; a majority of people must have had learned reading and writing in the Abbadie’s printed type context. Meanwhile, the British and Foreign Bible Society continued producing books in Britain and shipping them through travelling missionaries. A publication of ���� (�e Gospel in Many Tongues printed in London) displays three diﬀerent Ethiopic printed types: the one of Wa�s, the “Ethiopic Great Primer”, and a so-called “Ethiopic Long Primer” [ﬁg. ��] which was acquired by the Oxford University² in ���� from the German printer W. Drugulin, in Leipzig. Interestingly, the “Long Primer” was then tuned to support Amharic and other languages of Ethiopia [ﬁg. ��]. Such custom, copies and alterations of existing designs, was not unusual in the history of Ethiopic typography; it even became an increasing habit.
Figure 40. Text using the “Ethiopic Long Primer” to which the “caps” required for Amharic have been stuck. The tuning creates letter-forms that stand out of the “Pa-height”. (Gospel in Many Tongues, 1903). Size 300%
2. Sorts of the “Ethiopic Long Primer” currently stored at the Oxford University Press.
Figure 41. Part of the character set of the Linotype Amharic (1956) using matrices combination. Size 75%
Figure 42. Detail of “vowel marks”. Their relative vertical position on the “Pa-height” and the alignment scheme is shown by the lines. Size 400%
4. 3. Contemporary Typefaces �e twentieth century started on the solid basis set by Abbadie who, literally, deﬁned a new start for Ethiopic typography. �is design, however, was particular, its elegance due to an extreme contrast and graceful weight modulations, and the balanced variety of shapes gave this “calligraphic” feeling to the text. Nevertheless, it has been so broadly used at the right time and at the right place that la�er creations would then have to bear the weight of this milestone in Ethiopic text typeface which quickly became the standard. �e catalogue of the recently established Stempel foundry contained three Ethiopic types, all of them existing designs¹: the “Ethiopic Long Primer” belonging originally to the printer Drugulin [ﬁg. ��] which was since ���� controlled by Stempel (Linotype, ����), a copy of one size of the Abbadie’s Ethiopic², and a copy of Ludolf’s type. Since the early twentieth century, the Stempel foundry was tightly linked to the Linotype company and acquiring an increasing number of type-foundries.
Figure 43. Sample text of the “10 Punkt Äthiopische 1 No. 33510b.” in the Stempel Catalogue (1930s). Size 300%
1. Comparison between the Oxford (1891) version of the “Ethiopic Long Primer” (top) and the Stempel (1930s) version (bottom)
At the time of the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia in ����, the Government Printing Oﬃce in Addis Ababa was under Italian control. �e society Linotype Italiana was already planning to order the making of Amharic founts. At the beginning of the second World War, in ����, the Italian branch still established in Ethiopia requested to Linotype the realisation of Amharic founts. �e project actually started after the war, in ���� with a simpliﬁcation scheme³ of the script meant to enable a quick composition on the machines. �is was achieved by scaling down the number of required matrices through combining “vocalisation marks” [ﬁg. ��]. �e result was unfamiliar and distorted le�er-forms, combining elements had to present a straight upright stem in order to make the joining of the vowel marks possible¹. Even though the simpliﬁcation scheme was not pushed as far as the one of Hondius in ����, the Ethiopic had to ﬁt the constraints [ﬁg. �� and ��] of the Linotype machine.
2. Comparison between the Imprimerie Impériale (1859) Abbadie’s Ethiopic (top) and the version displayed in the Stempel catalogue of 1930s (bottom).
3. The simpliﬁcation required to reduce the initial number of matrices because of the limited numbers of channels in the magazine of the Linotype machine. Juxtaposition of two matrices (base + vowel mark) was then used to form a single character.
Figure 44. Linotype Ethiopic using the combining “vocalisation-mark” system. From Linotype Matrix N° 25 1956. Note the vertical aspect of the text due to the upright stems required for “vowel marks” attachment. Size 200%
Figure 45. Character set of the Monotype “Amharic 599”. Size 75%
Figure 46. Comparison between the original design of Abbadie (1859) –top– and Monotype “Amharic 599” (1950s) –bottom–. Size 300%
Figure 47. Character set of the Monotype “Amharic 624”. This slanted type has been broadly used as equivalent of Latin italic. Size 75%
Figure 48. Detail of the Monotype “Amharic 624”. Size 300%
1. Ethiopicised punctuation of the Monotype Amharic 599. Meant to match the style of the Ethiopic, exlamation and punctuation marks were rounded and their weight harmonised with the Ethiopic. However, their shaping does not really follow the broad nib pen style of the Abbadie’s Ethiopic.
�e Linotype’s design of ���� was supervised by Walter Tracy in the la�er stages of its creation. It shows reminiscence of the calligraphic inﬂuence brought by Abbadie, but simpliﬁed into a rigid standardisation making le�er-forms more upright and identical. �e type was not successful because it altered too far the original; some le�ers were not linked with their wri�en logic and the use of combining “vowel marks” generated unexpected gaps in text lines. In ����, the rival Monotype was in contact with the Artistic Printing Press –then “the most important ﬁrm in the country”– and ready to produce founts for their machine; the competition pushed Linotype, which ﬁnished and announced the fount in ����. Almost simultaneously, Monotype released two Ethiopic types, one of them was a mere copy of the Abbadie [ﬁg. ��], named “Amharic ���” [ﬁg. �� and ��] to which was, for the ﬁrst time, added “Ethiopicised” Latin punctuation¹. �e other, a genuine design featuring a constant slope that has been broadly used as the equivalent of a Latin italic [ﬁg. ��, ��, and ��]. �e Monotype’s combination of upright and slanted types had great success, and survived the technological shifts. �e “italic” was, however not really designed to match the design of Abbadie and displays a rigid and somehow inconsistent system. Since the mid-twentieth century, it appeared that no other choice than the model established by Abbadie was possible to use as text typeface.
Figure 49. Sample text of the Monotype “Amharic 599”. Size 200%
Figure 50. Sample text of the Monotype “Amharic 624”. Size 200%
5. Design Decisions �e previous overview of the development of manuscript and typographic forms of the Ethiopic script shows to what extent the state of modern Ethiopic lies on the “tabula rasa” set by the work of Abbadie. It is thus, a fundamental typeface that has to be considered, not as the model, but as a successful translation of handwriting to type-design. �e main purpose of this type was mainly to preserve the aspect of manuscript, but it also included uncertain decisions. Readers habits today probably revolve around this model that has proven its eﬃciency over more than one hundred and ﬁfty years of use. �is however, has to be balanced by the fact that very few alternatives were proposed. Moreover, many copies of the original suﬀered from poor quality or bad integration to the constraints of new technologies and supports. It would be impossible to consider each le�er individually to sketch some guidelines about the design of Ethiopic typeface. �is section a�empts to underline important typographic issues through the use of the historical examples previously cited, their inﬂuence on the script. As mentioned above, the widespread Abbadie’s model can hardly be avoided in contemporary design context. However, it is not only an assumption to state that this model has been too often blindly followed –or copied– without assimilation of the abstracted idea of the writing system, yielding to misreading of stroke sequences and lack of innovation. �e main diﬃculty is that typography is, in its ﬁrst stage, about standardisation of handwriting though a coherent system of le�ershapes, and that the Ethiopic script oﬀers a complexity and a ﬂexibility that hardly bear simpliﬁcation imposed by standardisation. With a unique typographic model so close to calligraphy –Abbadie’s design– the Ethiopic script is not far from being at the stage that Latin typography was in the times of the ﬁrst roman –more accurately, semi-gothic– type of Pannatz and Sweynheym in ����. It has had, however, a variety of display styles over the twentieth century, but none of them seems to have played any inﬂuence on text typefaces.
5. 1. General Characteristics
Figure 51. The position of the broad pen is horizontal or slightly slanted (10° maximum) in traditional calligraphic Gwelh of Raqiq styles.
Figure 52. Example of twisting of the tool to maintain constant stroke width over a curve.
Figure 53. Sharp stroke initiating the formation of most letters in the traditional Gwelh style.
Figure 54. Illustration of slow and interrupted script.
Calligraphic tradition In the traditional manner of the Gwelh and Raqiq styles, scribes generally held the broad pen in a way the nib almost horizontal or slightly slanted leftward [ﬁg. ��]. �e aesthetic requirement being to maintain “strength” to the stroke, “weak” parts that may be generated by the nib of the broad pen –thins– are avoided by twisting the tool in curves [ﬁg. ��]; the vertical factor in prominent in the movement of the tool. Le�er-forms are made of interrupted strokes [ﬁg. ��], executed from top to bo�om and initiated with a sharp vertical –or slightly sloped– stroke (Uhlig, ����). �is manner of beginning and ending the stroke can base various approaches to their typographical adaptation. In and out stroke are important to preserve because of the calligraphic tradition still very inﬂuent in Ethiopic type; they contribute to the vertical alignment. �e joinings of individual strokes is often steep and thin. Even “bowls” (see morphologic nomenclature) can be considered as joined bent stems because of their vertical prominence; the stem being actually curved only very close to the joining. �is calligraphic tradition has not to be undermine since it is also what the contemporary typographic model is [ﬁg. ��]. However, this does not mean there is no alternative; approaches between traditional scriptures and mere standardisation may be found. Other calligraphic styles have been developed in the mid-twentieth century (Yegezu Bishrat, ����) suiting more the display level –headlines, etc.– but providing with interesting stylistic standardisations of the writing system. �e traditional interrupted writing process taken as a base for type design could also be challenged by a more contemporary way of writing – with tip or ball pen. �e typographic shaping of bottom joinings, for instance, frequently features a modulation that is meant to reﬂect an accident of broad nib pen [ﬁg. ��]. �is shaping has been repeated incessantly without more solid reason than the model imposed more that a century ago. Numerous alternatives could be brought whilst respecting the integrity of the script and the current inﬂuence of the existing model.
Figure 55. Detail of the letter Wawi of Abbadie’s type. The bowls are made of straight strokes curved at their extremes only. (detail of ﬁg. 37)
Figure 56. An accident of slow and interrupted broad pen writing that remains in the contemporary typographic model (typeface Nyala)
Figure 57. The alignment of “ﬂoating letters” has to hint at the framing lines deﬁned by the the Pa-height (example here with the Abbadie’s type). The ﬂoating property must not be lost and stretching to the Paheight the proportions of those letters is to avoid. (detail of ﬁg. 36)
Figure 58. The “capped” letters should not disturb the general Pa-height alignment. The example of Abbadie’s type, here, reveal the problematic cases of “ vertically deep” letters, such as Jent (right border) which can hardly be “scaled” down because of its initial vertical space consumption. The design of Ethiopic typeface must take such cases into account in early development. (detail of ﬁg. 36)
Horizontal Alignment �e alignment of the Ethiopic consists primarily in two imaginary top and bo�om lines deﬁned by the “Pa-heigh”. Le�ers are not fundamentally standing on a baseline, they have to be visually aligned on the “Pa-height”. Since the system is mainly composed of vertical strokes –few horizontal bars–, the use of dominant vertical stress favours this optical alignment. �e three “ﬂoating” le�ers Mai, Saut, and Wawi have to be positioned slightly above the mathematical middle of the “Pa-height”. �e height of the Ti’ait must be above this middle line [ﬁg. ��]. When “lengthening” alterations are applied to those le�er-forms, their consequently reach the Paheight. �is case may also require a slight horizontal scaling down of the main body to ensure a noticeable leg to develop. All other le�ers must be visually top and bo�om aligned. �e possible variety of forms at the levels of the Pa-heigh –top and bo�om– may require numerous optical corrections on the vertical level. �e “capping” of Amharic le�ers, for instance, must not over exceed the Pa-height [ﬁg. ��] an acceptable balance has to be found, especially for the problematic le�er Jent which has thus to be vertically compressed. �e vocalisation of the system by the use of alterations also deﬁne alignment zones. Additional “necks” generally have to stand above the Pa-height to maintain optical alignment and avoid excessive vertical compression. Leafs that are formed at the level of the bo�om line, and especially the “shoeing” generate additional external alignment zone. Internally, vertical space has to be preserved for the formation of the top and bo�om “looping”, a zone must also be deﬁned for the placement of “cricking” that must appear consistent enough to create to the reader’s eye an “expectation zone”. Similarly “shortening” shall be aligned throughout the design. A general guideline relevant to alignment zones would be condensed in the mo�o “to similar alteration, similar positioning”. �at has, however to be handle with much care to maintain the integrity of the script and not to over-standardise it.
Weight and Contrast Since the impact of Abbadie’s type, it is generally assumed that Ethiopic has to be extremely bold, with high vertical stress, and “dancing” or unbalanced le�er-forms. It is true that reading habits are probably based on this model, however, almost no sustainable alternative has been produced since that time. In addition, many problems of this model occur in both printing and coarse resolution of screen. For instance, thin horizontals often disappear breaking the le�er-form, heavy weight is extremely space consuming and impose a bigger text size. Contemporary handwriting, is done through usual ball or tip pen; le�ers are then composed of monolinear strokes while retaining legibility. To what extend this model could be typographically translated would require detailed studies that are not undertaken in this dissertation.
Figure 60. Letters can be grouped according to their dominant characteristic; top and bottom open counter, closed counter, stem based, and diagonal based. The diagonal can behave straight, bent, or curved. No acceptable consistent digital typeface exists, the model of this ďŹ gure
�e standardised “compressed and slender” (see section �.�.) calligraphic style of the mid-sixteenth may also be a suitable model of relatively thin script on which to base the design of a text typeface. �e recent Microsoft Nyala typeface, for instance, is closer to this modelthan to the Abbadie’s type in terms of relative stem weight [ﬁg. ��]. Earlier manuscript forms, however, are probably not standardised enough to be used as model and they may be too far from contemporary readers habits.
Figure 59. relative stems weight for equalised Pa-height of manuscript of the sixteenth century “compressed and slender” style (left), Abbadie’s model (middle), and Nyala (Right) . Alternatives to heavy weights for Ethiopic typefaces may be considered in the light of ancient calligraphic models. (details of ﬁg. 12 and 37)
Shape Dominant Characteristics Consistency over a type design can be guided by identifying major characteristics of le�er-forms which allows a systematisation of the script through harmonisation and diﬀerentiation. �e twenty six basic le�er-forms (�st order) can be divided in four groups deﬁned by dominant characteristics [ﬁg. ��]. �is grouping is meant to illustrate the limited variety of shapes. �e design inside of each group should be consistent, and the four groups have to belong to a common entity. Spacing Spacing of the basic twenty six le�ers presents only few problematic cases; they are similar to those found in Latin capitals spacing consisting in problematic le�er-forms having side white space prominence. �e vocalisation of the system, however, raises numerous unfortunate combinations. �e stroking for instance, often creates an important increase of width and eventually of excess of surrounding white space. Similarly, contiguous stems often occur whist juxtaposed open counters create gap [ﬁg. ��]. �e word-shapes of the Ethiopic script relies to a great extent on this particular distribution of white spaces. �ere is li�le to do for improvement, and this also seems to be a characteristic of the reading process.
Figure 61. Example of typical combination creating important variation of white space distribution; hindering continuous texture but important in word-shape recognition. (from top to bottom: Washra Bold, Abyssinica SIL, and Ethiopia Jiret)
5. 2. Speciﬁc Features �is section focuses of the design of some particular features the author judges problematic or prevalent questions of Ethiopic typeface design. Other particular themes could have been mentioned but those below are considered of prime interest.
1. Example of two sorts of leaf, centred on the banch, or hanging on it.
Design of “Leaf” �e leaf is essentially a short concave modelled stem. Traditional calligraphy –the Gwelh style in particular– may distinguishes various kind of leafs whether they are developing downwards only or centred on their branch¹. �is distinction is discussable in the text-typeface context, it has no inﬂuence in the reading process and such reﬁnements are lost at text size printing. In contemporary common handwriting, the “leaf” is inexistent; the “stroking” action by itself is suﬃcient for readability [ﬁg. ��].
Figure 62. Sample of contemporary comman handwritting. The stroking action does not need of leaf to be visible.
However, leafs are essential in the typographic model to identify the presence of thin bars. �e leaf indicates clearly beginnings and endings of bars and makes the stroking action noticeable, important for legibility of text. However, a monolinear design could envisage logically not to feature them. In order to ensure a good identiﬁcation thinner bars (in relation to the stem width) must be balanced with thicker leafs, similarly, thick and visible bars may bear less apparent leafs [ﬁg. ��.].
Figure. 63. The leaf prominence depends on the strenght of the vertical stress. High contrast generate relatively thin bars and thus prominent leafs are required to make the “stroking” visible. On the contrary, the leaf may not be necessary in the case of low contrast with relatively thick bars.
1. Traditional way of making the loop in two movements of the broad pen. Slow and interrupted process
2. Eventually, the same action executed quickly may yield to open ring.
Design of “Ring” �e looping action that generates “rings” is a fundamental alteration enabling vocalisation. �e ring has to be large enough in relation to the le�er-shape not to be confused with a leaf. It also need to have a wide enough counter in order to avoid ink-ﬁlling at small sizes. It is made with the same tool as all other strokes; it has to have the same optical width as the stem. In traditional calligraphy, it requires an interruption of the stroke for an other downward stroke from above¹. �is fastidious process eventually generated inconsistency in handwriting where coexisted open² and closed rings. �e type of Abbadie, for instance, froze the Sadis form of Hoi with an open ring, and this has been remaining in the contemporary abstracted idea of the script with no other reason than the reading habit. Ideally, all rings should be closed, but occasionally open rings might bring more diversity and stimulate reading. In contemporary handwriting [ﬁg. ��], the ring is made of a continuous stroke that loop backward³. �is dynamic may well be translated typographically.
Figure 64. Rings of a contemporary ball-pen common handwriting.
3. Modern tools, such as tip of ball pen, allow a simpliﬁcation of the looping process, which can be executed in one stroke.
Design of “Diagonals” �e straight line is not very well accepted in Ethiopic text typeface. Even upright stems have to be slightly modulated and feature in and out-strokes. �ey were often abusively slanted to imitate the hasty script. �e Ethiopic “diagonal” (see nomenclature) is not a slanted stem but covers a rather wide panel of stroke behaviour in the Ethiopic script. Always directed from top to bo�om, often from right to left, a few are executed rightward. �e stroke of the diagonal can have three diﬀerent dynamics; straight, bent or diverted [ﬁg. ��]. Diagonals are found in nine of the twenty six basic le�er-forms. �ey are also appearing in vocalisation alterations; the actions of lengthening, bending and stretching may generate diagonals.
Figure 65. The three basic diagonal behavior. Upright diagonal (top) is a straight slanted stroke which has to retain the same weight as the stem. The bent diagonal (middle) hints of a curve vertically stressed. The diverted diagonal (bottom) is made of three steps of a continuous stroke, generally a sequence upright-slantedupright of which transitions are more or less steep. (Figure based on Nyala typeface)
5. 3. Learning from the Past �e history of Ethiopic type design has brought various sorts of unsuccessful a�empts. �eir mistakes can inform us on the tracks to avoid, and bring questions about the current graphic state of the script. As it has been detailed above, there is very few typefaces that can be taken for model apart from Abbadie’s design. �e alternative would be to start over from manuscripts, which yield to more possibilities but also more diﬃculties. For such a consideration, the accumulated errors of the past may consequently help answering questions of design decisions. �e mixing of various manuscript styles with contemporary interpretations often hampered the achievement of consistent type design. �e example of Watson’s type (����) is one of the most obvious because it accumulates a blend of anachronistic le�er-forms in a design focused mainly on shape appearance rather than on stroke sequences¹. Except for the types of Tesfa Sion –and its faithful copy “Ethiopic Long Primer”– and Abbadie, almost all historical type designs reviewed in this dissertation featured such inconsistencies. Stretching the ﬂoating le�er-forms [ﬁg. ��] to the Pa-height was also occasionally a�empted. Even if the overall optical alignment on the Pa-height seems to improve legibility of texts, the ﬂoating le�ers must keep their original characteristics, important in the distinction of word-shapes. Moreover, this stretching was often accompanied by lost of the original stroke-sequences through geometrical shapes. 1. Unacceptable hazardous mixing of styles and shapings. (detail of ﬁg. 26)
Figure 66. Example of Wawi (right) stretched to the Pa-height (Watt’s type from ﬁg. xx). The Monotye Amharic 624 (right) also stretched the letter Mai, athough not excessively. (from ﬁg. xx)
2. Mirrored letters of the Ludolf’s design. This extreme sytemisation is to avoid primarily. (detail of ﬁg. 28)
Systemisation of the script may contribute to consistency, but it has to be done with care. �e Ludolf’s type for instance, made the use of ﬂipped le�er-forms² denaturing the script. �e Wa�’s design, though rather successful, had a poor le�er-form diﬀerentiation because of its strict consistency. �e design of Linotype in ����, because of its technical constraints, also brought an overdone systematisation³ that hampered both legibility and consistency.
3.Standardisation of the letters of the Lua series of Linotype’s design of 1956. If the basic aspect is not wrong, the rigidiﬁed ﬁnal leg does not follow the expected writing logic when “vowel marks” are attached. (detail of ﬁg. 41)
Figure 67. Comparison between the way the “shoeing” is represented in Tesfa Sion’s type (1548), Abbadie’s (1859), and Nyala (2004). The borrowing of Abbadie’s solution is common to most typeface that were designed since the end of the 19th century. The real legitimacy of this design feature is contestable in contemporary designs.
1. Same logic, different design decision. Where the Abbadie’s design is rather consistent, Nyala shows a strong variation in the way the “shoeing” is made.
As mentioned earlier, the inﬂuential design of Abbadie was also particular in the way stroke contrast and vertical stress were brought to their extreme. �is generated the need of speciﬁcdesign decision, from whoch the particular formation of the “shoeing”. �eoretically consisting of a bo�om stroking, it became a combination stroking-lengthening, the last leaf becoming a leg. �is new feature was then replicated in the la�er designs [ﬁg. ��]. Nevertheless, additional “shod” le�ers, which were not featured in the design of Abbadie, are often made with the original logic –simple bo�om stroking in contemporary typefaces. �ose le�ers are, however sharing a same logic –both phonetically and graphically– their design should then be consistent throughout a typeface¹. Another peculiarity of Abbadie’s type was the irregular height of the le�er Hoi series [ﬁg. ��]. To the Author’s knowledge, there is no fundamental reason for this to be preserved. It was a distinctive and coherent feature of this design, but nothing seems support the need of its application to other typeface design; it has, however, been constantly repeated, as a rule, in later designs. �e list of blindly copied features from Abbadie’s design peculiarities could be developped even further over numerous examples. However, this demonstrate again how dominant this typeface is in the contemporary design context. It would be interesting to deﬁne precisely to what extent the alterations of the stroke sequences brought by Abbadie are of importance in the contemporary reading habit; one could argue that they bring more confusion than consistency.
Figure 69. The Hoi series of Abbadie’s design. Variations of size and shape was made for the speciﬁc purpose of retaining the “warmth and charm” of manuscripts the letter-shapes were taken from. Since, those peculiar proportions have been constantly applied to later designs. There is no fundamental reason to follow this model.
A diﬀerent inﬂuence was probably the upright “Linotype Amharic” of ����. Contemporary upright Ethiopic typefaces [ﬁg. ��] may be found in use for short texts or sub-heads. Providing text with a “modern” appearance, this style however, does not seem to be appropriate for immersive reading.
Figure 70. Example of contemporary upright typeface from a booklet. Actual size.
6. Conclusion A description of the Ethiopic writing system has been sketched at the beginning of this dissertation, this deﬁnition of a nomenclature scheme allowed a descriptive overview of the development of the script. �e reciprocal inﬂuences of graphic and linguistic aspects of the script have been gathered in order to enable a possible approach separately from any typographic representation. A diachronic view on the visible form of the script was sketched over its manuscript and typographic development. Its synchronic state, the prominence of one model, has been underlined and detailed with the implications in contemporary Ethiopic typography. �e ﬁnal part, illustrated with examples a�empted to sketch some guidelines for undertaking the design of an Ethiopic typeface. �ose, however, have to be taken as possible design tracks, not as rules. Despite the contemporary predominance of the model frozen by Abbadie, this dissertation also demonstrated that relevant alternatives can be considered for Ethiopic text typeface design. Further research have to be undertaken in order to be�er deﬁne major issues such as, a detailed study of current reading processes, and a precise deﬁnition of the boundaries to the linguistic extensions of the script itself in relation with the design of required additional characters. Because this dissertation concerns text typefaces, the variety of display styles was not detailed. Nevertheless, this might worth interest since reﬂecting cultural preferences and alternative stylistic standardisation. When adapting the script from manuscript to a type design, two principal diﬃculties occur. �e ﬁrst is the understanding of the wri�en logic script. In the Ethiopic script, the way the twenty six basic le�er-forms develop over vocalisation, additional consonants, and extended diphthong vocalisation, is a key for consistency of typeface design; the behaviour of the system has to be place ahead of any other design consideration. �e second issue is the need of standardisation that may go against the nature itself of the script. �e typographic forms of the Ethiopic script have been suﬀering of technical limitations and lack of understanding. �is dissertation a�empted to draw a ﬁrst piece of graphic explanation of the Ethiopic script, that may be used by designer to assist the consideration of contemporary typeface design. �e tradition and history of the script as well as its diversity and ﬂexibility may be the ground on which abundant typographic solutions could grow. �e work presented here would, hopefully, be of interest for the development and enrichment of the Ethiopic script.
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This dissertation provides the necessary background necessary to the design of Ethiopic typefaces, by defining the Ethiopic script in a typo...
Published on Jun 2, 2014
This dissertation provides the necessary background necessary to the design of Ethiopic typefaces, by defining the Ethiopic script in a typo...