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Latin alphabet proportions

Elaboración: Marcela Romero
  Artículo en proceso de traducción

Roman culture not only consolidated the Latin alphabet but also formally developed the signs. We will analyze some of the fundamental factors in these characters’ technology and morphology, without considering the serif and the stroke, so as to focus on its skeleton: the structure.

Technology and the letter

De todas las manifestaciones escritas de los romanos, la que alcanzó Of all the Romans’ written manifestations, the one with the greatest formal development was that of tombstones. It clearly shows a formal and aesthetic search, a clear design intention in each letter and in the typographic alphabet as a whole. The material, stone, had also been used by the Egyptians and the Greeks for the clearest versions of the respective writings.

The signs carved in stone are one of the first examples of typographic design. The way these symbols were built (flat brush and chisel) influenced the shape of each sign and of the alphabet. Function and technology work together to create characteristics which make up the system.

Tombstone writing

the beginning they were mono linear. By the end of the Vth century B.C. Greek capitals became geometrically perfect, with great beauty. Occasionally they were altered by the artist, though they always maintained symmetry. Later on Roman influence made them be drawn with a slight difference in width and terminated with a little serif.

Roman writing took Greek writing but modified the stroke. Roman capitals were painted with a flat brush before they were carved, thus their stroke is gradual. They made optical adjustments in the signs and in the block, which together with the accurate proportion in strokes made these writings beautiful. Also due to the drawing and carving technique the serif or termination appeared, giving the letter support and stability. The gradual stroke and the serif are specific characteristics of Roman typography.

Basic structure

First we will analyze classic capitals on the basis of the width (or thickness) of the characters and we will then make up groups with characters that share other morphologic characteristics, such as loops, diagonal strokes or crossbars, etc.

El ancho de los caracteres

In order to visualize more clearly the classic structures and the relations supported by each letter, we will analyze them within sets defined according to the width and height of a round letter (the «O» which, in the case of the Romans, enters within a square) and of a narrow letter (the «E» which in this case is half the width of the «O»). Inside these containers we mark the diagonal strokes and intersections with the circle, to take as references the width and other morphologic characteristics which will help us with the analysis.

Módulos y letras redondas
Para las romanas clásicas la forma contenedora cuadrada deriva de la proporción de la «O». El segundo contenedor está formado por dos cuadrados con lado igual a la mitad del anterior.
Proporciones de la “O” y la “E” clásicas
Proporciones de la “O” y la “E” clásicas.

Round Letters: C, D, G, O, Q. They structurally derive from a circle and, as the rest of the Roman structures, they present optical corrections. In this case, upper and lower curves go slightly beyond the baseline. The «O» and the «Q» are as wide as tall, the «C», the «G» and the «D» are slightly narrower than taller.

Wide Letters: M, W. They go beyond the width of the module, that is, they are wider than the «O», and are the widest in the alphabet.

Letras anchas

Rectangular Letters: H, U, N, T, A, V, Z. The width of these signs is approximately that of the rectangle defined by the intersection of the circle with the diagonals of the square. As these letters share only the width, further on we will analyze them by making up groups with more characteristics in common.

Letras rectangulares

Narrow Letters 1: B, E, L, F, P, R, S. Their width is approximately half their height.

Letras angostas

Narrow Letters 2: I, J, K, Y. They are also narrow, but do not share the width with the ones above nor with each other. The «I» is the narrowest, followed by the «J»; the «Y» and the «K» are slightly wider than the narrow module.

Letras angostas

Morphological relationships

A, V, W, M: they are related by a central apex, built with a similar angle. The end of the apex goes beyond, by optical correction, the height line or the baseline, depending on the letter. The width of the «A» and of the «V» is 3/4 their height. The crossbar in the «A» is located below the geometric center to give it more stability and to compensate for its counter forms.

Parentesco morfológico: diagonales y eje de simetría vertical

The «M» and the «W» are the widest letters in the alphabet. The «M» is as wide (or slightly wider) as tall while the W is slightly wider.

O, Q, C, D, G: are the ones that derive from the circle. The «O» and the «Q» are visualized as circles, the tail of the Q, in this case, is long and curved, but may vary in shape and size. The width of the «C», the «G» and the «D» is approximately 7/8 their height.

The «G» presents a short ascender arm, which does not go beyond the geometric center, and which terminates in an «elbow», towards the interior of the letter. This element is not always present.

The «D» is contained by horizontal strokes above and below, which give it great support. Also, these letters have similar width.

La «D» está contenida arriba y abajo por trazos horizontales, que le otorgan buen apoyo. Estas letras tienen además un ancho similar.

Parentesco: letras redondas

E, F, L: their width is approximately half their height. In the «E» and the «F» the central stroke is located above the geometric center. They are built by vertical and horizontal strokes.

Parentesco: angostas con horizontales y verticales

B, P, R: have «loops» in their structure.

The «B» has two, the upper one smaller than the lower one. The upper part has a width equivalent to half its height, the lower part is slightly wider.

The «P» and the «R» have a common structure, with a width which is almost half their width. The «P», in this case, has no link between the loop and the stem. This characteristic is not present in every typeface family.

The tail of the «R» grants the letter support, the total width is 3/4 its height.

Parentesco: angostas con bucles

X, Y, K: the encounter of the strokes is held in a medium point.

In the «X» and the «K» this takes place in the optic center, slightly above the geometric one.

The «K» has two diagonal strokes, an ascender and a descender, both with similar angles. The upper diagonal stroke reaches a width which is 2/3 the height, while the lower one is 3/4 the height.

The arms of the «Y» come together below the geometric center, allowing the interior counter form to be wider. The angle is similar to that of the «X».

Parentesco: diagonales con contraforma superior e inferior

H, I, J, T: the «I» works as constructive model of the other three letters.

The «J» extends, in this case, with a soft curve below the baseline, 1/3 its height. It shares the characteristic of going below the baseline only with the «Q».

The «H» is solid and stable. The crossbar is located above the geometric center, so that the lower counterform may support the upper one. Its width is approximately ¾ its height.

The «T» has the stem as the symmetry axis of the crossbar. Its width is similar to that of the «H».

Parentesco: asta vertical

S: it is a complex letter. It is formed by a curve and counter-curve with a narrow development. The lower curve derives from a circle which is larger than the upper one, to support it and give it greater back up. It is unstable. Its width is approximately half its height. It shares the type of curves with the rest of the circular signs.

N: it is quite wide, occupying ¾ its height. The diagonal stroke divides the internal counterforms in spaces which are approximately the same, as are the angles. The vortices go beyond the height and the baseline due to optical correction.

U: it is also unstable as it leans on a curve which goes slightly beyond the baseline. Its width is approximately ¾ its height.

Z: It is solid and stable as the supporting arm is a bit longer than the upper arm, with a vortex that goes slightly beyond the case.

Sin grupo de parentesco

Comparing proportions with recently designed alphabets

In different typographic designs, structures undergo changes that make each family a distinctive one, but basic characteristics are maintained, to make them recognizable. Deeper structural changes affect the width of signs, the height of capitals, of the x, and of ascenders and descenders.

As regards style, though this is not our main concern today, changes are produced in the stroke (uniform or with different relations between wide ones and thin ones) and in the terminals (serif if present, and cuts in the strokes, in the sans-serif ones). In the Latin alphabet, to take it as example —Trajan, Carol Twombly, 1989— we had taken the «O» to build the container, which based on its width and height was a square. In other cases it will be a rectangle, if the «O» is higher than wider.

If we analyze the signs in this other example —Rosario, H. Gatti, 2004—, there are many coincidences with the analyses performed for the Trajans.

If we take Rosario, and we repeat the procedure of looking for the O container, we will see that it is a vertical rectangle (width/height proportion: 3/4).

When dividing in groups based on differences in width we see that, in general, differences are slighter and the narrow ones are wider. That is to say, there are subtle differences in width and they have to do with the same criteria as those in classic ones. There are two letters where the width is different: the Z, narrower and the S, much wider than its Latin correspondent. The most important difference is that there is less variation in width.

M and W: Are wide, wider than the «O»

O and Q: have almost the same width.

C, D and G: are slightly narrower than the «O» or the «Q», as in the Traja

Letra “O” de proporciones contemporáneas

Grupo de las anchas y las redondas

H, U, N, T, A, V and Z: narrower than the round ones (1/5 less) and the «Z» is still a bit narrower.

B, P, R; E, F, L; K, X, Y; S, N, U, Z; H, I, J, T: are narrow, though with differences between each other. «I» is the narrowest one, K» and «X» the widest, just as in Trajans.

Grupos de anchos

We may conclude that first, analysis has to be performed on each family, because apart from the general, there are differences, and second, though these may not be noticeable, we can recognize relationships in the criteria that determine widths.

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