Posted by Chris Muema on

In Part 1, we looked at the effort it takes artists to decorate fonts in different languages.  We compared European (Latin) characters to Chinese, Hindi, Gujarati and Arabic characters.  We found, with examples, that at first-blush, single-character Latin fonts have fewer brushstrokes than Middle-Eastern or Asian characters.  However, we found that Latin characters generally carry no meaning if not assembled to form words, thus making more brush-strokes.  Of course, logically, we can deduce that more brush-strokes makes for increased effort by the artist to decorate fonts.


The problem is, there are very few such straight-forward conversions (glyph-for-glyph) of Latin character glyphs into other language writing.  We unpack this problem ahead by decoding the term, “ideographic,” that was introduced in the Unicode world characters standard.  


Without getting too technical and academic, let’s look at some of the history of fonts in information technology.  The volume of fonts in use internationally was changed by two consecutive standards: Unicode 3.0 of February 2000 and 3.1. of March 2001.  Those were radical changes.  Unicode 3.0 would more-than-double the 20,902 international characters with the addition of 27,484 “ideographic” characters.  A year later, in March 2001, Unicode 3.1 would, again, more-than-double Unicode 3.0 from the year before!  Unicode 3.1 would add 44,946 “ideographic” characters.  The two dramatic increases are attributed to a euphemism, likely a political correctness term, of “ideographic”; which is code for Chinese/Chinese-influence. 


Ideographic is a compound or conjoin word, “Ideo + Graphic,” which suggests a combination of “ideology” and “Visual Image.”  In reverse-engineering the term “ideographic” it is clear that Unicode 3.0/3.1 distinguishes Chinese characters as ideological.  That is fundamentally different from Latin letters, such as the letter B or G or T, that have no more added meaning beyond representing vocal sound or a visual icon . . .  With Latin letters, meaning is ascribed when the glyph is placed in context, such as in a word.  The exception would be characters for mathematics, science, economics and technology (STEM).  Now we can contrast that with Chinese characters where many of their glyphs are nuanced by ideology.


Between the 1993 Unicode 1.x of 20,902 characters and the 2001 Unicode 3.1, more than 70,000 Chinese characters would be added to the ISO 10464 standard.  In that same time period, only 3,238 other language characters would be added. 


Clearly, meaning is not lost when decorating Latin-based characters . . .  Because the practice of decorating Latin characters is the culture and it dates back more than 1,400 years.  This practice appears centuries before some major world religions came to be.  Most notably, the custodians of Latin writing were Catholic monks, for example, the “Rule of Saint Benedict” (480 AD to 547AD).


Besides consideration for culture, a more practical consideration taunts artists who would like to decorate the Chinese character set in particular.  We already demonstrated language writings from a “number of ink-strokes” comparison.  Despite advances in technology, FONT MAKING IS STILL VERY MUCH A MANUAL ACTIVITY. 


As for the more than 70,000 Chinese characters, a single re-styling or decorating would require a battalion of 500 disciplined soldiers for such an undertaking.  And it may well be more plausible than possible, quite literally, that an army generates the styling of Chinese characters. 


Imagine for example, creating 1,000 different styles of the Chinese glyph-set.  A re-styling of the Chinese character-set would have to consider more than 70Million characters (70,000 ideographs x 1,000 styles) . . .  That is no longer a task for one battalion of 500 highly disciplined soldiers . . .  That is work for an army!  Re-styling Chinese characters, though desirable, is most certainly a very expensive work of art!


Until the day that machines can “think” like an artist, or have emotional ability, or even practice religion . . .  The art of font making remains very much akin to full-contact sport. 


Part 3 will unpack the impact of Unicode 3.0/3.1 in visual detail.

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