hen I give workshops using Elizabethan texts and the like, people often ask why 'Shakefpeare' wrote "If Muficke bee the Foode of Love, plaie on ..."

He didn't of course; 'Shakespeare' ('Shaksper', 'Shakeshaft' etc.) did indeed write 'Musicke', but the shape of the letter 's' has changed quite a bit over time.

In the early Middle Ages, the 's' was long, like the 'd' or 'l':

From the later Middle Ages onwards there were two commonly used forms, a long 's' in the middle of a word or at the beginning, and a short one at the end:

('cisum super aspergis')

The long 's' could also used in ligatures such as 'ss' ('double-s'), 'sp' and 'st':

('littera ligatura/legatura', a joined-up letter [as a legato style in music is when the notes are joined up])

'ct' was a third ligature commonly used:


('manifesto, essendo/eßendo')

('dictum est.')
- though you can also see the short 's' in a ligature too,
and the long and short 's' together but not joined:




The 'ss' and 'sz' survived into our own times in German printing, and people sometimes think of it as a specifically German style, but originally it was used equally in all languages, both handwritten, engraved and printed from type; though it wasn't always used [left]:

It's still one of the standard key-strokes on a computer, ß, usually under the name 'germandbls' (= 'German double-s') and produced by typing alt+S, although many people see it as a Greek letter 'beta' and software developers often use it to mean that.

There's usually no problem in distinguishing between a long 's' and an 'f' in handwritten sources:

('sed profitebor')


but the confusion arises in printed texts because when it came to casting type for printing, the uncial form was taken as a model, the long 's' made with a serif in the middle on the left, like half the bar across the 'f':

I can imagine that the long 's' was physically made from a modified form of the fount used for the 'f', maybe someone can tell me if that's what actually happened.

Even with printed texts there's normally no real problem to tell the two apart, once you know that there are two forms, similar but distinct:

But I have seen maybe one case in a thousand where the printer actually used an 's' type where the word demanded an 'f' (can’t find an example now, naturally!).

It might be worth mentioning here that 'i' and 'j' were originally two different forms of the same letter, the second form just written long at the end of a sentence or group, so that a lower-case Roman number '2' was often written and printed as 'ij', '13' as 'xiij', '54' as 'diiij'. I suppose sometime between about 1600 and 1800 they acquired separate names and sounds in the various languages - if someone tells me any of the details I'll put them here.

There's a similar overlap with 'u', 'v' and 'w', though it's really a different situation, and has to do with with history of different spoken languages; for instance, from at least the time of Quintilianus (c. 35-95 AD) there has debate about whether Apollo gave the lyre of Greek mythology to 'Orpheus' or 'Orfevs' (today's spelling and pronunciation in Scandinavia). But even if it's clear that they are pronounced differently in English, for instance, the shapes the earlier printers used to represent them were sometimes consistently switched around ('bvt euen ... '), and sometimes the printer didn't feel the need to be consistent ('bvt even', 'but euen').

UU uu VV vv - (examples to follow)

'W' is called 'double-u' in English, 'double-v' on the continent, though you can find both forms in both cultural areas.

It wasn't used in European classical Latin, though a dictionary of mediaeval English Latin throws up such delights as 'wapentakum'

(not to mention 'lutestringus', a lute string, and 'cattus ignis', the fireside cat)

K is a bit special: it wasn't used in Latin, but was taken over from Greek in such key words as 'kalends', calendar, so it's virtually always there in alphabet samples. Interesting that in the English version of John de BeauChesne's handwriting book (London 1602), the text sample which continues after the decorated letter 'K' isn't a word that begins with a 'k', but ... Elizabeth ...

Was it perhaps adapted from a text about her father or brother which started with 'King'? - seems a bit far-fetched ...

click for a closer view

(from the Song of Solomon: 'Behold, thou art fair, my love' etc.)

The various accents come from classical Greek and Latin usage, but the umlauts ('altered sounds') in German and Scandinavian were originally the Latin diphthongs, like 'æ' and 'œ', later printed with the second vowel placed small on top of the first letter. This form was still to be seen in the main text of an 1857 Swedish Bible, though the font used for the sub-headings (line 2) uses the two dots:

The Swedish 'å' (pr. as in UK 'raw'/'course'/'naughty') seems to have been written like that from the beginning (16thC. at least), as an 'a' with a letter 'o' on top, though nowadays it's described as a circle.

The tilde (from Latin 'titulus') in Spanish, as in niña, (girl) started off as a double-n, as in 'ninna', then the second 'n' was sometimes left out and shown by the abbreviation, standard in the Latin-based world, of a little line above the first 'n', more or less curly depending on the writing style, which then become accepted in both writing and printing and given its own name, eñe.

The net result is that there are plenty of alphabet samples from earlier times which are complete in 23 letters:

while others give various combinations of long and short 'i' ('j'), perhaps a 'w' or 'uu' and perhaps a rounded 'u' as well as the pointed 'v'

(from John De BeauChesne, London 1602)

If you'd like to read more, one very nice basic presentation with lots of lovely graphics is Allan Haley's History of the development of the roman alphabet, available from Monotype under various headings and at various addresses on the internet:

fonts.com article series

Letters A and B in PDF-form: www.fontwise.com

www.searchfreefonts.com has links to a lovely selection of articles on these topics, among others:

Accents and Accented Characters - Legibility - Ligatures - Font Smoothing - Typography Language - Unicode - OpenType

You can read about some 60 topics, some the same as those above, some different, at Monotype's web-site or in the magazine Upper & Lower Case from ITCFonts.com:

Discretionary Hyphens - Email Etiquette - Type On A Curve - Titling - Ligatures - Type and Color - Spacing and Kerning - Anatomy of a Character - Initials

Adam Twardoch combines depth of knowledge with a very accessible style and the beautiful and inspiring examples in his articles and slides from his presentations:

Typographic perfection with OpenType? - PhotoFonts - Type Design in FontLab applications - That annoying noise around letters: Latin diacritics - Reality Bytes: fonts for Central Europe

At the other end of the communicative and aesthetic scale, I find Thomas W. Phinney's contribution, A Brief History of Type, surprising formal, but if you're the kind of person who can take in information from text without pictures, you can learn about:

Type Technology - The Four Revolutions: Gutenberg, Industrial Revolution, Photocomposition, Digital - Type Forms Through the Centuries - Definitions - Different Letterforms - Decorative & Display Type - Sources

Otherwise, of course, you can find everything that's every been written about type at Luc Devroye's site at McGill University: but be ready for long pages in which the only structure is alphabetical order, and so many links that no-one can check that they're all still working:

Typefaces by language - Freeware/shareware fonts - Learning and reading
about typography - History - Software - Handwriting - Specialized fonts - Type scenes by country