When describing the lost letters in previous blogs, words like ascender or descender, bar or stroke, baseline, and swash have all been thrown around without really explaining what they mean – though, innately, I’m sure some or most of you knew. This week, I intend to take a deeper look into the study that defines types, fonts, typeface, and stylisms. It’s typography, and a thing that illustrators, website designers, and some linguists will likely be interested in (apologies if you’re not), so let us look at the typographical anatomy of graphemes, and dissect the letter itself…
First, let’s start off with the line we tend to use when writing in Romance orthographies; that line beneath each line of our notes that is always delineated on lined paper. This line is known as the baseline. The distance between the baseline and the top of a capital letter is known as the cap-height, whilst the distance from a lowercase letter and its top is the x-height. The top boundary lines for a majuscule (the term for uppercase/capital graphemes) from the baseline is known as the cap-line, whilst the top boundary line for a minuscule (lowercase graphemes) is the x-line and is usually just below the cap-line. There are two more named, horizontal axes which are the outermost boundaries of type. The topmost boundary is known as the ascender line whilst the bottommost is called the descender line – no graphemes or glyphs in general writing exceed these boundaries.
So, that’s a lot of lines going in one direction, but we do have a lot of height levels regarding the segments of English type. Vertically, we only have one real term, and it is known as axis and defines whether or not font is italicised depending on the angle at which the axis is skewed (0° skew means straight, unitalicized font). The ascender is the part of the grapheme that exceeds the x-line and stops at the ascender line. Equally, and oppositely, the descender is the part of the grapheme the cuts through the baseline and extends towards the descender line.
Descenders can either be plain lines striking downwards as in <p>, or instead, they can be slightly hooked – this is known as a swash (specifically a tail when appearing in a minuscule). Swashes can be included on majuscules in what is known as swashed text (which is not necessarily italic but can be) and here are some IPA graphemes containing swashed descenders and/or ascenders: <ʈ ɖ ɽ ɭ ɗ ɧ ɦ Ŋ ŋ ɲ ɳ>. In terminals (letter-ends)of grapheme bases, plain descenders, and majuscules of many fonts [Times New Roman], there is a small, almost unnoticeable flaring of both sides of the terminal, and this is known as a serif, which often crops up in titles of fonts.
Now, let’s look at letters and graphemes that are hard to cut out, e.g. they have holes in them. The technical word for a letter that has a hole within but is completely rounded with no elements of straightness would be called a loop. The letter <o> is a loop, and the letter <e> can comprise a loop depending on the handwriting or font, whilst the Carolingian ‘g’ minuscule has two loops – one in the descender and one in the base. The hole itself, regardless of straightness or curviness, is known as a counter. Limbs are extenders from the base and can either be ascending, descending, or, if they remain above the baseline and below the cap line, higher limbs of this type are arms, <f t>, and lower limbs of this kind, <h n>, are legs. If two limbs, <m n c>, come together to almost close into a loop, the space nearly enclosed is also known as a counter. Where a loop is adjoined to a straight base or instead not fully looped, it is called a bowl as in <p d c>.
There are only a couple more terms left. An ear is where a stylistic, terminal flick as in <g> is added. A shoulder is where the top, curved part of a letter combines two limbs such as in <m n>, and a neck is where a lower, curved part of a letter adjoins two limbs as in <g u>. A bar is a stroke that cuts across the base limb of the letter as in <t f>. A tittle is a dotted element separate of the base of the letter; it can be either a cap-line tittle, <i j>, or a baseline tittle, <. ! ?>, and sometimes both a baseline and x-line tittle, <:>.
Yes, there’s a lovely little diagram featuring most of the terminologies for anatomical typography, but if I had put that first, you likely would not have got all of the detail of these little graphematic organs. Now you know the parts of the letters you have been using since you began writing and can do all sorts with that information such as… Well, unless you’re an linguist of orthography or a designer-illustrator, probably not much, but oh well, you may be able to use it next time when analysing your own handwriting.
That’s what’s next time, seeing how a writer can use their own handwriting as a font…
-DP, Linguistics student