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The Alphabet

That alphabet. It’s been around a long time, and I, for one, have some complaints. Don’t you think it’s time for a redesign? I mean, the thing’s not exactly “fresh” anymore, is it?

This looks like two different people designed these letterforms and they weren’t talking to each other. Both the upper and lower case are quite wonderful, but as a pair? What were they thinking? The capital A has a good iconic structure: three strokes and you’re done. I like the way they lean together to form that stable triangular shape, which is reinforced by the crossbar. It’s very strong.

The lowercase a has beautiful curves, and allows for a lot of variation within the shape. It’s feminine, and extremely sexy, but sometimes the bowl causes problems … it has so little space to fit into: half the x-height! This is inconsistent with the other letters in the aphabet and seems a bit out of place. As for that other “a”, no comment.

This is a very nice pair; whoever did this was really thinking about the relationship between the two. I like the way the capital B can have some variation in the proportions from top to bottom. Obviously designed by a man, the ball and stick of the lowercase b is simple and, appropriately, half of the cap B. Talk about male and female! The buxom, pregnant cap together with the excitable lowercase.

Too obviously a pair! This is just lazy design, imho. A curve, and a smaller curve. What’s with that? Put some effort into it!

Another one from the scrapyard of design. The lowercase d is just a ripoff of the b, and it really bothers me the way the cap D is flipped vertically. It’s like someone wanted to emulate the Bb but just didn’t get it.

These may look like they don’t belong together, but I think they’re actually pretty good. The cap E has such good structure and balance, and in a way the lower case e has that same structure, only rounded. One is based on a rectangle, the other on a circle. The eye of the lowercase e has some of the same problems as the a, though, due to that half-x-height thing. Would the cap E look better with another vertical line down the right? I think maybe it would. Something to think about.

The lowercase f is one of my favourites of all the letterforms. I love the hook of the ascender, and the crossbar gives it that little extra oomph. I’m never sure where to put the crossbar though … I guess it can move up and down? Not sure. But the cap F, although obviously related to the lower case f, is too close to the E. If the E had an extra stroke, then the F would stand out more. But still, it seems clumsy and top heavy. I can see what they were trying to do, with the angular version of the lower case, but I just don’t think it’s working.

Two really great letterforms that just don’t go together! Perhaps designed by the same people who did the Aa? Despite my problems with the C, I think the shape is expanded on in an inventive way in the G. I really love the lowercase g with its curved descender, although the typographic form is a baroque excess of unusual hooks and parts. Incredibly difficult to draw or remember what exactly goes where. I just wish these two were a more harmonious pair.

Like the A, the capital H is really strong. It has the same three parts as the A, and is clearly the work of the same designer. I like the balance of the open spaces top and bottom. The lowercase h, however, isn’t doing anything for me. It looks weak, and sortof half-finished. I imagine it being the desperate result of a long night without ideas. It’s the “I just gotta make this deadline” solution.

Puhleez! The capital I without the crossbars top and bottom is either the laziest piece of design in history, or an elegant stroke of modernism. With the crossbars it’s just clunky, boring and awkward. The lowercase i is kind of cute with that little dot, I suppose, but I’m not really buying it. This one should have never made it out of the comp stage.

I honestly think that a different designer saw the i, and improved on it with the lowercase j. Where the i is boring and slightly weird, the addition of a swooping, curved descender turns it into a thing of beauty. The dot is now somehow emphatic rather than silly. This one nailed it. The capital J was probably done afterward, borrowing the hook from the lowercase. But the top is problematic: without the crossbar it looks unbalanced; with it, it looks clunky. This is a design problem worthy of more thought.

Someone had some fun with this one, and I like the results. An excellent pair, both the upper- and lower case have character and—dare i say it?—attitude! Very unique and balanced without resorting to curves. A really excellent design.

What.the fuck.is that? Surely no worse letterforms exist than these two duds—I mean c’mon … two lines and a line? Who designed this, some old fart completely worn out and bereft of ideas? The design rationale must’ve been one helluva snow job. The capital L has that gaping, awkward open space, and the lower case … it’s a line! and it looks like a cap I or a 1 fer god’s sake. How did this get passed?! I’m glad I don’t have any of these in my name.

Speaking of my name, check these out. now those are 2 sweet letterforms. Is it any wonder that a line of “m”s denotes “yummy”? Mmmmm. The cap is unique and strong; balanced, and open in a way that doesn’t interfere with other letterforms. The lower case echoes the sturdiness of the cap, with all feet firmly on the ground, but with those 2 nice curves. I’m so glad my name begins with M!

Well, it’s half the m, and only half as nice. I do like the asymetric diagonal though—it causes problems when you’re learning to write, but it grows on you. The lower-case n is far less interesting. It looks lonely, missing its other half.

I don’t know about this. At least they’re not just straight lines, but they are … just circles. There is beauty and perfection in a circle, but they’re so self-enclosed. I think they need something else … like maybe a tail or something (see Q).

The lowercase p is really nice, especially when you let the descender get really long, but this whole ball and stick thing … c’mon guys, get over it! Given a choice, I prefer the p to the b, but the b did it first. That cap P, though, is just totally not working! It’s so top heavy it looks like it’s going to fall over! This whole letterform needs rethinking.

That’s all the O needed, was a little something, and here it is in the capital Q. One of my all-time favourite letterforms, the Q takes the beauty and simplicity of a circle and builds on it. Too bad this letter is so seldom used; the form is wasted on it. The lowercase q, though … I’m not fooled by that extra bit at the bottom of the descender—this is another ball-and-stick! The last one I hope! This is no match for its elegant capital.

This is another pair where the cap and lowercase have nothing in common and must surely have been designed by separate people. The cap is by a genius; the lowercase by a nincompoop. The capital R takes the best from the B and the K and successfuly merges them together. When the leg is not solidly, firmly on the baseline, it is allowed to swoop below the baseline and become a tail—a form I particularly love. The lowercase r, on the other hand is weak, imbalanced, stubby and awkward. I simply detest it!

This was a great idea that lacks somehow in execution … or rather, it’s just really difficult to maintain a good standard. With a maximum potential for elegance, both the upper and lower case are hard to reproduce as anything other than clumsy and unbalanced by anyone other than trained experts. Try it, make me a good S … it’s hard! In the right hands, it’s a sophisticated character, but horribly open to abuse.

After what I said about the L, you might expect me to come down hard on the T, but where the L lacks balance, the T has it in spades. With its two arms, I find it welcoming and protective. Then move the arms down and shorten them and you’ve got a nice pair, there! The lower case t without a hook is a little Christian for my liking, though I respect its simplicity. The hook gives it an interesting character, and I like it, though it removes it a bit far from the cap.

I have nothing good to say about this lazy piece of rocking shit. Both of them. Probably designed by whoever did the C.

My verdict is out on this. On the one hand, it’s unstable, balancing on that point. Like an upside-down A without the benefit of the crossbar. The shrunken lowercase version gets my obvious scorn. And yet … and yet, there’s something about this that I like. It’s just nice: a nice form. Maybe I’m partial to triangles.

And whatever it is I like about the V translates twofold to the W. Where the V teeters, the W stands solid. The W has the symmetry and pleasing balance of the M, without being a directly inverted version of same. I like it when the strokes cross in the middle too. Too bad more though wasn’t put into the lower case.

Did Paul Rand design this? Is it not perfect? Do you know why illiterates sign their name with an X? Because it’s perfect, that’s why. Two strokes which give the illusion of four. xxxxx, you know i love you.

This is, quite possibly, the best pair in the alphabet. Each, on its own is good … the uppercase based, obviously, on a tree; the lower case a rooted bush, with that most elegant of all descenders. But look at them together! Are they not made for each other? This is design that thinks and understands relationships: I guess it to be the later work of the designer of the Bb and the Mm.

And last, but certainly not least, the Z, with a final flourish, a sword slash (I know!), a signature of completion. The Z has exhuberance and balance … alas, with the lower case z, the alphabet goes out with a bang and a whimper.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Aug.02.2005 BY marian bantjes
Cameron’s comment is:

i followed a link from marian's site to find speak up for the first time, probably about 6 months ago. i've been reading it daily ever since, but this post reminds me of why marian has always been my favourite speak up author.

On Aug.02.2005 at 03:39 AM
Joshua’s comment is:

Don't be so crual with the Ff, they're juste old Bb who made too much love

On Aug.02.2005 at 03:46 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

I love you Marian!


I have to point out this lower-case L:

It is obviously a fix, but I doubt the powers that be would have ever gone for a complete redesign. The little curve is elegant, adds lightness, does away with confusion. I think it deserves the same popularity in N America that it has here in Europe.

On Aug.02.2005 at 04:00 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:



On Aug.02.2005 at 08:11 AM
todd’s comment is:

Marian...you're just plain brilliant. Have always loved your articles and your very take on the world around us. Don't suppose we can your take on numerals, punctuation and ligatures next?


On Aug.02.2005 at 08:16 AM
Allison’s comment is:

what a great read at 8:40 in the morning. I have never heard anyone call for a redesign of the alphabet. Not only is it a great idea, but the writing was brilliant and hilarious!

There is nothing I love more than typography and a discussion of the alphabet hits the spot. Thank you.

Can we talk about ampersands?

On Aug.02.2005 at 08:42 AM
r agrayspace’s comment is:

This was effin hilarious. Good on ya.

On Aug.02.2005 at 08:54 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

A lovely tribute / critique...

Marin, my qualm has always been with the lowercase p and q. They look so similar, I get them confused quite often. Claude Garamond had proposed making them more similar, but that would be just insane.

On Aug.02.2005 at 09:18 AM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

primo indeed Marian, but what about some of the other symbols like $ or % or ?

On Aug.02.2005 at 10:14 AM
Doug Bartow’s comment is:

If you're unhappy with the 'English' character set, you could always learn Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, etc...it's a big world out there ;)

On Aug.02.2005 at 11:02 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Hey, thanks all ... I'm glad you're enjoying this. I was anticipating the possibility of someone saying "Marian has too much time on her hands," but lo! requests for more. Alas, I do not have too much time on my hands (quite the reverse), so I'm afraid my critique will have to stop at the 26 letterforms.

Jeff, that little hook on the bottom of the "l" is a definite improvement ... but not enough to save it.

you could always learn Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese,

Some other lifetime ... although from an outsider's perspective I have to say that the arabic script is the most beautiful thing on earth.

On Aug.02.2005 at 11:41 AM
Kelly Munson’s comment is:

So, based on this critique, what combination of letters would be the most aesthetically pleasing? Personally, I've always liked "murmur." Thoughts?

On Aug.02.2005 at 12:18 PM
Doug Bartow’s comment is:

although from an outsider's perspective I have to say that the arabic script is the most beautiful thing on earth.

I agree. I wonder if that makes an Arabic typographer's job slightly easier (generally). From a pure aesthetic point of view, I'd much rather start with Arabic than ascii Courier to typeset.

On Aug.02.2005 at 12:34 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

what combination of letters would be the most aesthetically pleasing?

HAQIQAH is kind of interesting if you're into H's, A's, Q's and I's.

On Aug.02.2005 at 12:42 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Hopefully you'll attack dingbats in Part II... I think we'd all get a kick outta it.

On Aug.02.2005 at 12:51 PM
Jim’s comment is:

what combination of letters would be the most aesthetically pleasing?

Obvious egocentric implications aside, I think the word "myself" is a rather pleasing arrangement which seems to fit with the views of this critique. A good balance of descenders, ascenders, and letters with neither. And it's aurally pleasant as well.

On Aug.02.2005 at 01:33 PM
Josh’s comment is:

learn calligraphy and you’ll change your mind

On Aug.02.2005 at 01:46 PM
Rob’s comment is:

For one, I'm glad to know that the first letter of my name, the capital R, meets Marian's standards. And even more importantly, what a great way to start the day, taking a second look at something we have all just taken for granted since we learned to write. Great job Marian!!

On Aug.02.2005 at 04:53 PM
seffis’s comment is:

Only three years and change before I can have my beloved favorite back. Oh W, how I miss you.

On Aug.02.2005 at 05:51 PM
Tom B’s comment is:


This looks like two different people designed these letterforms

Actually, if you look at ancient manuscripts you'll see that there's a smooth evolution from the upper case A to the lower case roman and italic forms.

'A' comes originally from the Semitic letter 'aleph', meaning 'ox'. The letter was the other way up - forming a nice pictograph of the head on an ox with horns.

It was later turned onto its side, and finally turned upside-down when it made it's way into the Greek alphabet.

Later still, when the Miniscule style was developed by Greek scribes, the 'A' was adapted to be quicker to write. the left of the cross-bar moved down to join the left foot of the letter. The resulting triangle was further refined to form a single curve. The right diagonal stroke was later straightened by Roman scribes, and the top was curled around.

The italic lower case form (which has developed into the modern Gothic a) is an enlargement of the main bowl to join the curved top.

I've been fostering the idea for some time to create an animation showing the evolution of letterforms from ancient Semitic, through Greek and Roman, to modern Gothic forms.

On Aug.02.2005 at 07:01 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

've been fostering the idea for some time to create an animation showing the evolution of letterforms from ancient Semitic, through Greek and Roman, to modern Gothic forms.

If you do, please let me know ... awesome.

On Aug.02.2005 at 07:28 PM
Shahla’s comment is:

Do you have any comments for the flipped number three that’s sometimes used for Uppercase E?

On Aug.02.2005 at 09:09 PM
mazzei’s comment is:

after a hellish day of listening to B and S...i'm glad I have 2 z's in my last name! really cool! numbers? 1-10 next I hope.

On Aug.02.2005 at 10:21 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

... if I hadn't set my soda asside while reading this, there would've been soda all over the keyboard. Nice, Amusing. Kudos and acolades to the author for brightening my night.

On Aug.03.2005 at 02:35 AM
k. a. mccord’s comment is:

glad to see my initials passed the test...

the a is a strange phenomenom

and we really need to straighten out the I (cap i) l (lc L) 1(one) issue...i prefer lc i's and uc L's but not all the extra business on my 1's...

oh ampersands...my personal x



On Aug.03.2005 at 03:54 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Marian, I'm curious. You've written more than once about how you don't think you are good at critiquing and also, if I remember correctly, about what a waste of time it often is.

Did this post have something to do with that? Perhaps an exercise in self-improvment or a statement about the futility of it all?

On Aug.03.2005 at 04:18 AM
Amber Nussbaum’s comment is:

Love this. LOVE IT! I so agree with you on the ball and stick thing. Lowercase q, worst letterform ever! I always hated writing it when I was learning to print as a kid. The cursive version wasn't much better. So disappointing. :)

On Aug.03.2005 at 11:55 AM
Hyun Auh’s comment is:

Great critique,

The ' i ' deserves more credit! It is very 'innovative' because of the dot. It has the iconic look of a person as well as a light on a persons head when someone gets a 'idea'. I feel like the ' j ' is a ripoff, a well executed ripoff at least.

Is it a coincidence that ' m ' and ' b ' got rave reviews?

On Aug.03.2005 at 12:10 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Did this post have something to do with that? Perhaps an exercise in self-improvment or a statement about the futility of it all?

Well, Jeff, to be honest, I started this post as a dig at much of the critique we read here and elsewhere. All of my comments are strongly reminiscent of the commentary we regularly lob at e.g. logotypes. But I really got into it, and I really enjoyed looking at those letterforms from such a fundamental view. I stand by my critiques ... but only so far as I can be pushed over.

On Aug.03.2005 at 12:29 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

Dear Marian,

Whatever prompted you to write this, it is hilarious! Thanks for putting a big wide smile on my face this afternoon!



On Aug.03.2005 at 03:55 PM
monra’s comment is:

sorry, I'm from Spain

What's your comment on the ´┐Ż ?

On Aug.03.2005 at 04:39 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

The only thing sweeter than a tilda is a cedilla. But don't get me started on the acute and the grave (which way? what?), the hacek (or "hat") or the umlaut (you call that an accent?)

yeah, yeah, i know; plenty more where those came from.

On Aug.03.2005 at 04:46 PM
Mike’s comment is:

Reminds me of a funny incident from my early childhood. Visiting my grandparents, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Having just watched an excellent Sesame Street animated segment showcasing a certain letter, I proudly exclaimed "the lowercase n!" My family was at once in hysterics and horror over my bizarre goal, and tried to get a reasonable answer out of me to no avail. I was frustrated because everyone always told me "you can be whatever you set your mind to." Oh well, probably the first step on the road to being a designer...

On Aug.03.2005 at 05:13 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:


Took me a while to get to reading this. Thanks.

I have been appreciating the letter "R" (cap version) as of late. What a wonderful set of attributes: curves, 45 and 90 degree angles, 3 strokes that look like 5 (to me anyway - don't ask me to explain, it's my intuition at work, which is why I don't let my intuition pay the bills) but work like 1.

And yes, that lower case "r" always proves troublesome. It looks like a "v" when I write it... basically "n" with low self confidence, but I'd have low self esteem too if I had to compare myself to Big "R". Poor thing!

On Aug.03.2005 at 05:53 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I have a particularly strong dislike for the handwritten forms of I and J when they are written with 'crossbars'.

These aren't part of the letterforms, they never have been; they're just ugly bloated mutations of the serifs used in Roman type.

We don't feel the need to write other letters with huge lines across the terminals, so why with I and J?

The same mutation is often applied to the numeral '1' - although I can forgive this slightly, since it's done to distinguish a numeral from a letter.

On Aug.03.2005 at 06:50 PM
marian’s comment is:

to all the children of the world: think big! Wish to be an m or a Q!

On Aug.03.2005 at 07:13 PM
cerstar’s comment is:

Never posted here before, but this one got me excited. Loved this piece Marian!

Tom B: I've been fostering the idea for some time to create an animation showing the evolution of letterforms from ancient Semitic, through Greek and Roman, to modern Gothic forms.

Reminds me of a school project: design a book based on Bringhurst's Elements, and the categories/periods he catalogs. One girl in my class made an elaborate flip book. With lots of work ahead, I helped her out by teaching her "blending" to morph the forms of different faces to add pages to make the flip feature truly work. It turned out beautifully, and would make animation a snap. Best of luck with that, I'd love to see it go live!

On Aug.03.2005 at 08:29 PM
Alexandre Roche’s comment is:

Yeah, that's it man. You're right and the rest of the world is wrong.

On Aug.04.2005 at 11:12 AM
beltzner’s comment is:

You should really read An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill. He raises many of the same issues, as well as goes over how the modern letterforms were derived by a combination of handwriting and letter-making in press.

On Aug.04.2005 at 12:53 PM
nothalo’s comment is:

Dear Marian Bantje,

In response to the critique that letter B was "Obviously b was designed by a man."

Marian: "Obviously b was designed by a man."

Nothalo: Of course it was Marian, it's a component of the alphabet, not a delicious turkey dinner!

a paraphrase of a wise man named Peter.

On Aug.04.2005 at 02:08 PM
Margaret’s comment is:

I'm pleased that my name (in all caps, anyway) meets with your approval.

On Aug.04.2005 at 02:14 PM
Larry’s comment is:

Wow, my whole life I have struggled with writing my name in a way that doesn't look moronic, and you've pinpointed just why! That incredibly awkward L, and two weak, puny r's (don't get me started on the cursives)... though life was much improved when I outgrew the grade-school a and started using the typographic. My only solace is finishing with the tail of the y with its many fun possibilities.

(I've also been quite taken with the Garamond italic ampersand ever since McSweeney's recommended it.)

On Aug.04.2005 at 03:07 PM
Brandon Erik Bertelsen’s comment is:

This is awesome.

On Aug.04.2005 at 03:47 PM
Norma’s comment is:

Would you like to loan some letters from the Cyrillic azbuka (alphabet) to replace the less sofisticated Latin ones?

On Aug.04.2005 at 04:11 PM
marian’s comment is:

Would you like to loan some letters from the Cyrillic azbuka (alphabet) to replace the less sofisticated Latin ones?

yes please, what are you offering?

NB to all:

For the first time ever I have deleted one comment from this thread. Not because it was disagreeing, or even disagreeable, but because it was purile and trollish.

On Aug.04.2005 at 04:24 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Hrant Papazian has advocated alphabet reform for functional more than aesthetic reasons. You can read PDFs about it in English and check out the illustrations or read in Spanish.

On Aug.04.2005 at 07:00 PM
Danila’s comment is:

yes please, what are you offering?

Well, we have unique and original letters for all tastes.

Personally I am partial to Ёё. Not sure if it can replace any of the regular letters - it's too original, too unusual. The Дд (D) can replace the horrible latin Dd. The Жж is quite good, may be it can replace Ii or Jj. The Лл (L) is quite elegant, it certainly can replace the horrible Ll. Фф is perfect when you want to make a strong statement, to show that you mean it. May be Pp can be replaced with it.

The Шш (sh) are quite strong as well. May be it would be a good replacement for the Ss, don't you think?

The Ъъ and Ыы are very original and have a special character (are special characters?). Why not replace Uu with Ыы and Vv with Ъъ?

There are some more great letters remaining unused. Probably the best on is the Юю - it is certainly an acquired preference, but once you appreciate its originality it can stand for itself in any position in the alphabet.

I think that using these wonderful letters from the Russian azbuka, designed (do you know that Cyrillic alphabet was designed by Kirill and Mefodij - two very educated monks, enlighteners and overall great guys) with soul and attention to detail, then refined over time by specialists (in order to make it better, get rid of outdated junk such as Ѭ, Ѩ and Ѣ and add some neat new letters from time to time), we can improve the outdated Latin alphabet.

On Aug.04.2005 at 07:23 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Fun thread.

But beyond lettterforms, I've always wondered about the efficiency of the latin alphabet. Is it minimal? Is it consistently structured? Is it easily decipherable, meaning is it intuitive, or must it be learned? Is it aesthetically pleasing? And lastly, is it phonetically accurate and instinctive?

Kanji and Asian characters are little narrative pictograms. Some characters infuse strokes with phonetics. Words can be written in equivalent space, since characters are all relatively the same sizes, but what they represent may vary in complexity of word forms if they were written in their translated latin alphabet.

Arabic, as mentioned, is incredibly graceful and lyrical in form and pronunciation — making the latin alphabet seem crude in comparison.

As Marian did, pretend as if you're seeing the alphabet for the first time. It's rhythmic, but not exactly graceful, is it?

On Aug.04.2005 at 07:36 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.


Gunnar, thanks.

Anybody interested in the functional dimension of alphabet reform (that's what this is about) might be interested in reading the full version of that essay (the one Gunnar linked to is a 1/4-length version) in Graphic Design & Reading, which contains a bunch of other writings too. It's a technical topic, but I've tried to make it as accessible as possible.


Marian, great stuff. It's very important to look at the foundation of whatever one makes. Most type designers for example make fonts all their lives while taking the Latin alphabet for granted. Big mistake.

The Latin alphabet, like anything else, is imperfect. This is a rare realization, but of course you're not the first person to see that (Hi Allison); neither was I of course; Bradbury Thompson, Cassandre, a bunch of people have tried to improve it in the past. That said, there are different ways to do this, and it is possible to have original ideas - in fact there's a universe of room! The important thing is to overcome the stale precedent of handwriting evolution (yes, I've taken a calligraphy class, thank you very much), and certainly any moot associations with livestock and such.

Your approach I would characterize as... existential? Wonderfully insightful, if hard to apply. It's cool how you're pretending the alphabet was consciously designed, and critiquing it! My own approach has been to try to skew the alphabet towards forms more conducive to their main purpose: being read.

BTW, you should try to get your hands on a book by Alfred Kallir called "Sign and Design". It explains his theory -in an astoundingly believable way- of how the Latin alphabet is "psychosexual". The "A" for example is a man with an erection - or at least a prominent member.

The best letter? The "g" of course. It's a luscious forest. The worst? That wannabe stick, the "el". The "m" though, sorry, it's an impostor: for an "r" plus an "n" - causes all kinds of confusion.

Arabic: yes, it is so human, so Glorious. I love it too. It makes Latin look like it was meant only to set posters, not books. But Tibetan... Tibetan is supernatural. On the other hand, if we're talking power and grace, there is only one: Korean Hangul. It makes other writing systems look like village idiots.


On Aug.04.2005 at 09:00 PM
Jerry Bakewell’s comment is:

You did well to focus on the aeshetics and steer clear of phonetic analysis - let's not forget that the alphabet was designed for Latin, not our amazing mongrel language.

Interesting that "R" is a popular letter. I particularly like its Cyrillic antithesis, the Russian anti-R, Я. It sounds like "ya", and also means "I", "io", "ich", etc. It is the first letter of Яблоко, which means "Apple", yet it is the last letter of the Russian alphabet, which consequently runs from "A" to "Я". How cool is that?

A while back I mused on the idea of a new letter to represent the sound "BG". What do you think?

On Aug.05.2005 at 07:45 AM
Philipp Keller’s comment is:

This is hilarious! The best parts are the comments about which designer did which letter..

On Aug.05.2005 at 08:05 AM
http://www.geoeffect.com’s comment is:

I agree this post is funny!

On Aug.05.2005 at 12:56 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

There are too many roman-alphabet haters posting here.

I'd like to state that I love the roman alphabet.

Sure, it has its faults, but that's what gives it such charm. Its ours and we should cherish it.

Seeing agressive Cyrillic characters, dandy Arabic characters and cryptic Asian characters strut their way into the typographic arena made me feel all protective of my little roman letters.

We don't need any melodramatic squiggles, dots or accents - just good old, down-to-earth lines and circles.

Hooray for the roman alphabet!

On Aug.05.2005 at 02:58 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

This is a typical reaction.

I remember when I gave my alphabet reform talk at ATypI-Boston, some people were frothing and gesticulating, and when it came to the Q&A part, they of course were incoherent. One of them exclaimed "It's like you're saying my wife had a big nose!" To which I should have replied "I'm sorry, I didn't know she was your wife." This is not a cocktail party.

But anyway, I for one certainly don't HATE the Latin alphabet, not even close - and I don't see anybody else here hating it. In fact, I feel that the UC exhibits a sublime balance of straights and rounds, with no equal in any other writing system (that I've seen). But the lc is markedly dysfunctional. In any case, it's just a tool - it might even better not to love it or hate it. Just use it, but also improve it. It's not a god.

If you're afraid of dissent, it means you're hiding something. There is such a thing as an unhealthy degree of attachment. I don't have to hate my own alphabet (Armenian - which I like very much) to realize that it's too uniform in the "x-height" region. But the extenders are an Eldorado of readability, which makes it great for immersive reading. Different writing systems are better at different things - and none of them are perfect.


On Aug.05.2005 at 03:24 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

Um... I was being flippant.

I'm certainly not frothing and gesticulating.

I don't like the sound of 'alphabet reform' though, it sounds like something from 1984. Alphabets evolve naturally by being written, read, re-written and re-read by millions of people - not by some grand scheme imposed upon them by a genius designer.

And just because you love something, doesn't mean you think it's perfect. If my wife had a big nose, I'd still love her.

Hooray for big noses

On Aug.05.2005 at 06:56 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Except the best writing system out there, Korean Hangul, was in fact consciously designed, in the 15th century. Anybody serious about visible language should study it, closely.

And why leave something so important to circumstance? Also, why keep imposing the characteristics of a writing tool that never had any relevance to the point of visible language (being read), and is no longer even practiced anyway? There is so much to fix, both the in physical and psychological realms, the mind boggles...

Loving a big nose does not make it smaller.


On Aug.05.2005 at 10:53 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

hhp, why is the korean hangul writing system the best?

On Aug.05.2005 at 11:01 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

There are books that explain it well, but here's something quick:


(Skip the initial techy stuff.)

Basically, Hangul combines the advantages of an alphabet (compositional clarity/simplicity/versatility) and a syllabary (intuitive correspondence with spoken language, and compactness). It also enjoys some less obvious advantages, including: associating grammatical functions with the visual density of the signs (thus providing another layer of information); a relationship between the shape of the syllable components (alphabetic letters) and the actual physical positions of the tongue, lips, etc. (thus helping deaf people learn to speak, if only hypothetically); and a superb match to human perceptual parameters (namely the distribution of acuity across the retina). It's really quite amazing. No other writing system combines ease of learning, phoneme/symbol matching, and immersive reading remotely as well. Because it was designed.


On Aug.06.2005 at 12:10 AM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

thanks for the ppt coles notes. what books are you referencing that explain it well? i don't doubt your time reading, but i question your fluency about 15th century experience as were not living in those days anymore.

On Aug.06.2005 at 01:24 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

So your querry was merely a gambit? I'm sorry you lost.

You're right, I wasn't there. But since the invention of writing people have sort of taken notes about what went on around them, and some people manage to read those notes. The history and development of Hangul is very well documented. If you really are interested in learning (as opposed to flinging clubs from a trench) I would recommend: "The Korean alphabet: its history and structure" (Young-Key Kim-Renaud, ed.)

I'm sorry that Hangul makes Latin look like the Pamela Anderson. Don't shoot the messenger.


On Aug.06.2005 at 12:58 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Oh! Oh! I can't resist! ...

If the Latin alphabet is Pamela Anderson (beautiful to some, clumsy to others, imbalanced in certain places), who is Hangul?

On Aug.06.2005 at 02:15 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

actually my query was a just that, a query. i'm sorry you read it otherwise. the book does actually look interesting, i'll check it out.

On Aug.06.2005 at 03:18 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Marian: Angelina Jolie? No, something with glasses maybe, and "smaller". Oriental preferred of course. I know! The chic from Crouching Tiger? Hmmm, this is hard. Hey, could it be a guy? Oh, what about Michael from the La Famme Nikita series?

Michael, you seemed defensive.

I'm sorry if I misread you.


On Aug.06.2005 at 07:16 PM
Maya Drozdz’s comment is:

Those of you who love letters should check out the travelling group exhibit Alphabet. 60 alphabets by 47 designers and artists, well-known and unknown. Pretty cool stuff.

On Aug.07.2005 at 10:33 AM
Mary Ann Crane’s comment is:

W should be written UU since it it pronounced "double-yoo".

Or, We should quit saying it that way and pronounce it "double-vee".

On Aug.07.2005 at 12:57 PM
justthisguyyouknow’s comment is:

The alphabet piece.

I'm afraid you've made my head explode with joy, wonderment and confusion at taking such a basic premise and reexamining it.

thank you.

On Aug.07.2005 at 01:04 PM
krnie’s comment is:

This was excellent. If you ever have the time, could you tackle the cursive alphabet? Design flaws galore... strange, convoluted loops and flourishes, Upper Case letters that are no more than overgrown lowercase letters, or worse, that end at the top so it's impossible to connect them to the rest of the word, a backwards 3 (as previously mentioned), and a 2 as well (someone had a real numbers fascination). The lowercase r looks like a broken tooth and creeps me out every time I see it. Lordy, what a mess!

On Aug.07.2005 at 10:47 PM
plamen’s comment is:

Danila, good idea, but Kiril and Metodij designed the glagolic alphabet, whereas Kliment Ohridski designed the cyrillic one and named it after his teacher Kiril.


Maybe some more ideas to refresh the aulde Latin stuff :)

On Aug.08.2005 at 04:55 PM
Larry Mondel’s comment is:

A redesign of the alphabet is a brilliant idea. Worse than the English alphabet though, are verbally unimaginative pottymouth parody writers.

"What.the fuck.is that? ...Who designed this, some old fart completely worn out and bereft of ideas?"

Caca poo poo!

On Aug.09.2005 at 01:20 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Ah, well, it's not the first time I've been called Marian Potty-mouth Bantjes.

On Aug.09.2005 at 03:38 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

well that is just one of the things we love most about you, mb.

On Aug.09.2005 at 06:11 PM
Tan’s comment is:

There's an art to potty-mouth writing that takes practice and honesty. Expletives denotes passion, elicits a visceral reaction, and exclaims a point. Sometimes "Fuck!" is the only thing that fits and will suffice.

Personally, I don't trust people who never swear. Proper language etiquette shows a propensity for spuriousness. (look it up.)

Now Marian has been known to craft profanity and use taboo terms that have made me blush like a little girl. And that ain't easy. But that's what makes me love and trust that little foul-mouthed wench more than anything else.

On Aug.09.2005 at 06:52 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Oooh, I love it when you call me a little foul-mouthed wench! Yow!

On Aug.09.2005 at 07:05 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

I have found that certain nominally less offensive terms that are rarely used are often much more powerful than something like "fuck". But maybe Marian is just too nice to use those.


On Aug.09.2005 at 07:45 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Zounds! You scabrous mongrel ... what biliuos adjectives do you suggest for all the daily putrescences I encounter, yawning across my path like creeping slime-flux mould?

On Aug.09.2005 at 08:06 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Hey, it doesn't work if you use like 50 of them together... and/or if you're donning an eye-patch.


On Aug.10.2005 at 01:22 AM
:: jozjozjoz ::’s comment is:

Thank you for this most excellent critique.

On Aug.11.2005 at 01:34 PM
Giselle’s comment is:

When's the cursive version of this coming out?

On Aug.11.2005 at 07:43 PM
Giselle’s comment is:

When's the cursive version of this coming out?

On Aug.11.2005 at 07:43 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

thanks to those who have requested more ... a cry of "encore!" is a pleasant thing, but as we all know, the "II," "III," "IV" of successful feature is almost never as good as the original. I consider it a bit like telling a joke twice: funny the first time, very unfunny the 2nd. So, no, I am not hard at work on the ampersands, the numerals or the cursives, and never will be. I'll just let you drift off into your own fertile imaginations on those.

On Aug.12.2005 at 10:14 AM
Rebecca’s comment is:

This was a good read, thanks for the funny!

On Aug.12.2005 at 01:35 PM
George M’s comment is:

After reading Tom B's first comment i had to skip the rest of you lovely folk, so whoops if someone already suggested something like this.

Wonder if its possible to make a typeface scripted like beowulf that the first time you say type uppercase 'A' it looks as its Semitic predecessor did then each time you type that character, it slowly evolves so by the end of your writing it will appear as its modern gothic incarnation. If you get me. hmm...

On Aug.13.2005 at 06:12 PM
Armin’s comment is:

In case anyone is interested in the funny ways of the Blog Clusterlink´┐Ż (Thanks Mark!), Marian's alphabet critique has been making the rounds. (A couple of quick examples: Google, Technorati). It's funny what people react to and, ultimately, deem blogworthy.

On Aug.16.2005 at 08:35 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

Cool. Alphabet reform is ALWAYS a hot topic.

Because it's surprising, offensive, hopeful.


On Aug.16.2005 at 02:37 PM
Qaz’s comment is:

A nice article, I liked it :)

At last, it was I haven't seen discussed in a long time!

On Aug.30.2005 at 06:54 PM
Mike’s comment is:

Maybe you should take a look at the history of the alphabet! You'll discover that upper and lower case alphabets indeed have different roots which makes your critique useless.

On Dec.24.2005 at 07:12 AM
Mike’s comment is:

My critique on our alphabet is that lowercase-L and uppercase-I can be confused. And even more annoying: some letters can be confused with numbers (O with zero and l or I with one). The reason for the latter is of course also the independent history of the latin alphabet and the arab digits.

On Dec.24.2005 at 07:18 AM
James John Malcolm (AkaXakA)’s comment is:

what combination of letters would be the most aesthetically pleasing?

In vein of the other comments: AkaXakA.

I was pleased to see that all my letters got good reviews!

On Jul.11.2006 at 06:49 PM
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On Nov.10.2007 at 01:20 PM
Sandra-tr’s comment is:

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On Nov.10.2007 at 01:20 PM
mw’s comment is:

Thanks to my Mom for the M, my Dad for the W, and to both for the lack of a middle name, the only thing sweeter than M or W is both together, my own personal ambigram, MW. John Langdon would be proud.

Marian, you're a genius, and I absolutely worship your work. I love the piece you did for Wired: The Church of the Non-Believers - that was my first exposure to your style. I'm blown away by the sugar drawings for Sagmeister. However, your Influence Map is my favorite. How can I possibly get a print to frame and hang in my studio? I have an urge to do something similar, but I would never know where to begin. One thing I know for sure is that your name would end up inside it somewhere.

Anyway, I was very thrilled to find this entertaining essay. Your work proves your deep knowledge of typography, and this naive critique of letterforms is brilliantly tongue-in-cheek.

I wish you would have been a speaker at HOW this year, but I'm tuned in to where else I might see you speak, since you seem to have such wit, style, and good-natured ease.

Keep up the great work!


On Feb.02.2008 at 03:39 PM
ioesfhhsid’s comment is:

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On Apr.28.2008 at 04:26 AM