Ye Olde English katakana

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Via HiLobrow (8/10/2014), Ben Zimmer came across this virtuoso display of Gothic katakana on feitclub's Tumblr:

I must confess that I have a hard time reading off this beautiful, ornate font, which is so different from the spare, simple, Japanese katakana. From Wikipedia, here's a chart of the latter for comparison:

Gojūon – Katakana characters with nucleus
a i u e o

I've seen the English alphabet written to look like Devanagari, like Chinese characters, and other scripts, but this Gothic katakana is one of the most amazing lettering tours de force I've even encountered.  Yet what do all of these script metamorphoses tell us about the nature of writing?  Do scripts look the way they do because of esthetic preferences?  Or because of something intrinsic about the course of their development, including the surfaces on which they are written and the instruments with which they are traced on those surfaces?  One thing is certain:  the multiplicity of different scripts and their diverse appearances are wondrous to behold.


  1. NSBK said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 11:34 pm

    I wonder if a hiragana counterpart to this exists. On the one hand, hiragana may be more readable in this style due to it already being a more "cursive" script (to my eyes at least). On the other hand, if you're going for Japanese writing that is supposed to evoke foreignness, the obvious choice is katakana.

  2. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 2:50 am

    The type designer Adrian Frutiger wrote a book called Der Mensch und seine Zeichen (which seems to be Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning in English) in which he explores the graphic effects of the elements of symbols and letters. According to him, there are some universal effects of strokes at different angle and also of the situations in which the shape of the white space between strokes becomes as important or more so than the strokes themselves. Something that fascinates me is that some of the most modern sans-serif typesfaces, such as Univers, only look so clean and regular because objectively, they are tweaked, e.g. the sides of of a U appear parallel to us precisely because they aren't.

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 5:31 am

    The optical illusion Ben Hemmens describes (entasis) was observed by Vitruvius in the first century BCE in his analysis of the Parthenon (already a few hundred years old when he wrote about it) and has been well understood by architects and designers, including type designers, ever since.

    In my opinion, alphabets written to look like something they are not are commercial affectations best suited to restaurant marquees (where they often serve as warnings about the quality of the offerings inside).

    "The surfaces on which they are written and the instruments with which they are traced" is the crux of the development of written forms and, later, typefaces. The cut reed in clay, the chisel in stone, the dressed quill on parchment and later on paper, the fountain pen, the ballpoint pen, and the first Macintosh computer all left their legacies. Along the way, there were affectations of one sort or another that were discarded in favor of simpler, more open forms that aided legibility. But just because a kid with a computer can devise an anachronistic alphabet is no reason we should celebrate it as an accomplishment.

  4. mark changizi said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 5:42 am

    You might appreciate this paper on how letter shapes "look like nature."



  5. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    Thanks Mark, I must have a good read of that when I have time!

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, I now know that there is a katakana font (or perhaps I should say that there are katakana fonts) in Japan referred to as "Gothic katakana" that are not nearly as ornate as the one featured in this post. You can do a Google search (also a Google Images search) on ゴシックカタカナ or Gothic katakana and you will get a large number of hits. The problem is that, although there certainly is something called ゴシックカタカナ / Gothic katakana in Japanese typography, it's hard for someone who is uninitiated to tell from a web search exactly what it's supposed to look like because there are so many seemingly extraneous things that get lumped under this designation.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 10:44 am

    This post has elicited some extremely thoughtful and suggestive comments about the nature of written symbols. I am grateful to all who have joined the discussion.

    I have never seen anything quite like the paper mentioned in the fourth comment, where the shapes and construction of the symbols of different writing systems (and even scribbles and art) are looked at in such mathematical, cognitive, and computer science terms. I'm really looking forward to receiving feedback on this article from people who are equipped to assess it.

  8. akito said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    The Gothic "W" line actually has ワ ヰ ヱ ヲ ン and doesn't match the Gojuuonzu. Since there is no "wu" kana distinct from "u", it makes room for ン to be tucked into.

    In Japanese typography, ゴチ, ゴチック, and ゴシック all mean (roughly) "sans serif" and not really "Gothic".

  9. George Lane said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    I'd be interested to hear what type of "feeling" the typeface conveys to a native speaker/reader of Japanese. Would text written in it seem have a more "Western" flair than a standard Japanese typeface?

  10. Faith said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 11:48 am

    On the cover of a recent book on Yiddish translation, half a dozen Yiddish/Hebrew letters are used for English ones, surprisingly effectively.

  11. leoboiko said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

    @Victor: To add to what akito said, J."Gothic" = Zh. hēitǐ ~= Eng. sans-serif (or, well, Fr.…). The word "gothic" was used in English in the 19~20c to denote what we now call "sans-serif", and the Japanese got it from there.

    Amusingly, Zh. hēitǐ seems to be a calque of "blackletter", which is a word for the other kind of Gothic (the ornate, Dracula's Diary kind). Wikipedia says it was likely a mistranslation of the wrong "gothic".

    It contrasts with Zh. sòngtǐ or míngtǐ = J. minchō ~= Eng. serif. In this case J. is using the Sinitic morpheme (minchō = 明朝).

  12. leoboiko said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    > You might appreciate this paper on how letter shapes "look like nature."

    Neurologist Dehaene reaches a similar conclusion through a different path in his Reading in the Brain. He says that the human visual system has a few builtin shapes used for edge detection in nature, and that writing systems worldwide evolved to be easily computable by that system (thus, writing systems avoid distinctions based on shades of color or gradations of angle and size, preferring monochrome line drawings whose identity is based on intersections and relative position etc.– pretty much the kind of thing our brain process when identifying the lines of a cube as a cube). Many of the brain's visual primitives look remarkably like letters – Ts and Os and Fs and +s, line shapes which recur worldwide.

    In an intuitive way it's kinda self-evident – people avoid characters that are hard to tell apart – but I really enjoyed the way he exposes the gory details of neurons and our visual system.

  13. leoboiko said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    (I meant to say “line shapes which recur in the writing systems of the world”, though of course they recur in the world itself too…)

  14. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    After some poking around, I think I found the source of the Gothic katakana font: Digital Works Upside K. It was shared by a forum commenter on The Japanese Page back in 2009.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

    Comment by phreadom, the person who shared this Gothic font on The Japanese Page: "I just found a font that is absolutely crippling my brain… I've never seen anything else that had this effect."

    That's about how I felt when I first beheld this font.

  16. Laura Miller said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

    Haven't you seen Taishō era fonts? or gyaru moji? Or maru moji?

  17. Matt Anderson said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

    As far as identifying kanji and kana, I don't have any trouble with Taishō-era printing or maru moji (though I find the former but not the latter especially aesthetically pleasing), and I think of gyaru moji more as a kind of code that I'm unfamiliar with than as a font. On the other hand, I find this "Gothic" font completely brain crippling, as phreadom suggested, and almost entirely illegible. I read Chinese far better than I read Japanese—I wonder if this has anything to do with the perceived difficulty of these writing styles?

  18. yt said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 1:50 am

    Gothic katakana really confused me. But I can only recognize Japanese, not really read it.

    Then l came across this: It's the alphabet, numbers, and symbols in "Chinese" characters. I had to compare the font layout with a regular one (such as to even make out what was being represented.

    Since I can read Chinese, the font makes me really dizzy. Some of the "characters" are inverted or mirrored. Others are the radical the way it would be written as part of a character, not alone. Why is 下 with the vertical stroke sticking out F, and not just a normal 下 ? Maybe this would make more sense to someone who doesn't recognize Chinese?

  19. Akito said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 5:28 am


    If this the character in question: 卞 (biàn). It has nothing to do with 下.

  20. Tim said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 3:34 am

    I live in Dalian, China, and just saw something like this, but in reverse, using English letters as the basis to make some– pretty terrible- hanzi. I guess it must work though. I have a picture, but not sure how to submit..

  21. yt said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 9:43 pm


    Thanks. I couldn't tell if that was a 點. It just makes my brain hurt.

  22. Akito said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 12:54 am

    > I'd be interested to hear what type of "feeling" the typeface
    > conveys to a native speaker/reader of Japanese.

    I cannot offer much insight here as I've never seen this font actually used, except that it looks extremely archaic. A milder, less decorative (and so easier to read) "display" font may be seen at the link below for the new NHK Sherlock Holmes series adapted by Koki Mitani.

  23. codeman38 said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

    A similar font is also used for the title of the manga series Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji)– in kanji, no less! Wikipedia's article on the series includes an image of one of the original Japanese covers.

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