Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The long (S) and short of it

Not every reader of this blog already knows the history of typography, so I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss a curious fact that many readers must have noticed about printing in the 18th century.

Basically, what is the deal with the fs (effs) in place of s?

The short answer is that it isn't an f at all, but a "long s." Happily, there is a good discussion of the issue on Wikipedia. Short answer:
The long, medial or descending f (s) is a form of the minuscule letter s that was formerly used when the s occurred within or at the beginning of the word, for example finfulnefs ("sinfulness"). The modern letterform was called the terminal or short s.
Incidentally, the long s was never identical with an f in any of the fonts in use. It is just that in modern fonts the long s doesn't exist, so here I am using an f to represent it.

How was it used? The short answer is: never at the end of the words, always in the middle and sometimes at the beginning. Thus, you will find examples like this: sufpicious and fufcipious but never fufpiciouf.

A question that might immediately spring to mind is, isn't that stupid? I mean, the letter form looks so much like an f! The answer is basically, yes, it was a little silly and potentially confusin--and eventually the practice was stopped. But the truth is that many letters resemble one another. Take u and v or h and n or q and g (well, in some fonts anyway!) or o and 0 or some forms of i and l and on it goes. Truth is, these are all easily confused (or confufed) with one another. Or take Hebrew, which is also full of letters that resemble each other. Examples: ר/ ד, ב/כ, ו/ז, ע/צ ,ג/נ are all confusing for someone just learning Hebrew, no different than ح/خ are when learning Arabic.

So f/f is just another quirky example, long since corrected. In fact, one of the interesting things I think will be apparent in this blog is that one can see the evolution of the long s from the beginning to the end of the 18th century. Pay attention to the dates of the examples I post and this will be apparent.

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