alphabet lettering lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework stone Typographic ephemera

Alphabet – when it’s needed

I have never carved an alphabet from A-Z. The pandemic and lockdown made me re-assess many things, including this omission. I have used this exercise to inform some short instructional videos for those starting out, and for those who have been following [also here] here’s the completed piece. It is far from ‘perfect’ but life is not about ‘perfection’ – it is about doing. [By the way, the slate was split from a single fragment, hence the mirror-like quality – look at base pattern.]

An alphabet in slate
60cm x c15cm – recycled slate from the UK


Elements of Lettering

Guide to Letter carving: two

The letter Q is discussed in this video, so sit comfortably and listen out for my tips in this ‘guide to lettercarving’.

Letter Q

Here’s the video. You’ll notice I am carving upside down – this is not recommended for beginners!

alphabet History of Lettering

The Letter K

The early Romans didn’t much like the letter K. Letter K_0003According to Tommy Thompson, writing in 1942 (The ABC of our Alphabet), Letter K thompsonthe letter was disliked ‘from a standpoint of design’, so they, he writes ‘substituted C for the voiceless K’.

He may be right but when it comes to the alphabet there is one writer I turn to: David Diringer and his The Alphabet, A key to the History of Mankind (Hutchinson, 3rd edition, 1968). Letter K_0002

Now Diringer has this to say of K: ‘…the Greek alphabet had two other signs for the k-sound, the K and the Q, and we find in the South Etruscan alphabet the sign C used (as a k) only before e and i, the K used before a, and the Q only before u (Etruscan has, as we have seen, no o). The Latin alphabet adopted all the three letters with their phonetic values, but in time it dropped the K (which, however, continued to be used as the initial of well-known or official words, such as Kalendae or Kaeso) and used C for the sounds of both g and k, the letter Q being retained for the k when followed by a u.’ (The Alphabet, 1968, vol 1, p.419).

I trust that is helpful – and I’d appreciate any comments.Letter K

KmartAs for the modern K, well, there are many variations and most of  them horrible. Particularly when in the Egyptian style!

My preference is for the style where the upright does not quite connect with the <

If you liked this you might like a diversion on R here.

Letter K_0001

lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework

Clifford Harper, anarchy and An Alphabet

On Clifford Harper see here for information. This ‘chapbook’ was published in 1990 in the UK. (Any idea what S is for?)




Source: personal collection.


History of Lettering lettering

Stonemasons marks and Adrian Frutiger

Being a former stonemason I was pleased to come across this set of illustrations in Frutiger’s masterpiece Signs and Symbols, a book I recommend unreservedly to anyone with an interest in the alphabet/scripts/lettering. (My edition is the 1989 single volume, published by Studio Editions, ISBN 1-85170-401-9.)

These marks are from Strasbourg Cathedral and date from a period between 1200 and 1700, with the top row being the earliest. Frutiger (who designed Univers) observes ‘the origin and development of stonemasons’ signs are closely associated with the social circumstances of the Middle Ages’.

Once masons were being paid, rather than working for the greater glory of God, they needed to mark the stone they had dressed to ensure payment.

[Click on image to enlarge.]

alphabet History of Lettering lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework Thoughts on lettering

The Alphabet and U

A few days ago I posted on The Trouble with U. The reason – that I had always thought U was a usurper in the Latin alphabet, a bastard ally of V, and consequently there was a problem among designers on how to treat the letter. It is a pretty undistinguished character after all. There’s not a lot one can do with it. Does it take a leg or should it be like the outlet of a toilet?

Anyhow, this got me to renew friends with a fabulous book (actually two hefty volumes) written by David Diringer, called, without a shade of modesty: The Alphabet, A Key to the History of Mankind. This masterpiece was published by Hutchinson, firstly in April 1948. I have the third edition (‘completely revised, in two volumes’) of 1968.

The volumes are arranged thus: volume one, text; volume two, illustrations.

That 1948 was significant should not go unnoticed. The second world war ended, this would have been one of the first major titles on the subject off the press. And the optimistic sentiment of the age shows in the foreword by Sir Ellis Minns (a former Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge): “If it is speech that marks man off from the beast, and the great discoveries of the use of tools, the use of fire, taming animals, tilling the ground, working metals are long strides in his progress, the invention of writing and its improvement into a practical system may fairly be taken as the step leading directly to full civilisation”.

In his introduction Diringer notes (and this will be worthy of following-up): “On June 8, 1959, the present author founded in Cambridge (England) the Alphabet Museum and Seminar – now partly transferred to Tel Aviv – a main object being to collect and assemble all the material relating to the history of writing”. What happened to that?

He also refers to a branch of learning devoted to the history of the alphabet then gaining ground in the US and called, unhappily he thought, ‘alphabetology’.

Anyhow, all that is preface to the origin of U.

Diringer notes that the alphabet we are familiar with derives from Etruscan: “The importance of the Etruscans…cannot be overestimated,” he writes. “The Etruscans, an ancient people of uncertain origin and ethnic and linguistic affinities who were called by the Romans Etrusci (hence the name Etruscans) or, more commonly, Tusci (hence the modern name of Tuscany), and by the Greeks Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi (hence the name Tyrrhenian Sea), were the leading power in Italy in the first half of the first millenium BC; an Etruscan dynasty reigned in Rome from the last decades of the seventh century to the end of the sixth century BC.”

[As an aside, when I was a student of archaeology at Cambridge in the 1980s I spent two long, hot summers in the Umbrian town of Gubbio, helping excavate an Etruscan site. I remember us finding the skeleton of a small child/baby; as well as tiny, bronze votive offerings, always a human-like figure with an enlarged phallus.]

By about 400BC, Diringer continues, the ‘classical’ Etruscan alphabet had evolved, with 20 letters, being four vowels, A, E, I, U, and 16 consonants, being G, V, Z,H,TH,L, M,N, P, SAN, R, S, T, PH, KH, F). This evolution was from an eighth century BC alphabet formed of 26 letters, which had been reduced to 23 by the fifth century.

When the Romans got going they adopted 21 of the Etruscans 26 (from the eighth century), rejecting, among others, U. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, notes Diringer, that U, together with W and J were added.  (Y and Z were added after the conquest of Greece in the first century BC.)

There, in the proverbial, nutshell you have it. But I haven’t yet done with U….