from Just My Type by Simon Garfield

What is it about the news that makes the use the use of black letter/ Old English/ Gothic type such a favorite for news-paper titles? No doubt once upon a time there was an element of reaching for an authoritative image when the earliest newspapers first proliferated, but nowadays it’s probably no more than a nod to tradition. Typo Face gives a number of international examples.

ABC for book collectors tells us that there were three forms of the “Gothic” typeface which was initially developed in imitation of northern European manuscript bookhands. The first, textura, pointed type, was used in the earliest printings of Gutenberg’s Bible, early liturgical printing, and the first printing of the King James Bible. It was called black letter in England. The second variety, rotunda, was more common in Italy and Spain. The third version, bastarda, an imitation of earlier versions, was used for example by Caxton, and survived longest, becoming the basis for German Fraktur which survived into the post-WWII period in Germany, and can still occasionally be encountered despite contamination by its enthusiastic use by the Nazis. When I first learned German, we were taught to read Fraktur: I guess that a decade after the end of the war a large proportion of German texts were still thus printed.

Fraktur and other “Gothic” fonts have no italic form. In order to indicate emphasis where in regular typesetting you would use italic, German typesetters evolved  the practice of indicating emphasis by letterspacing. I have seen this letterspacing emphasis carried over into German texts set in roman (non-Fraktur) types. They may have taken over this trick from setting in Greek, where emphasis is similarly signaled.

This illustration showing the three types, plus a fourth, Schwabacher, comes from Retinart and shows the evolution described above.

Gothic can still refer to these Germanic typefaces, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it became the term for sans-serif types. The reasons for this are not altogether obvious but it seems to have had something to do with the fact that early sans-serif designs were seen as a glance back to handwritten forms from the manuscript tradition. Nowadays the term is still to be found in the names of some typefaces where the name Grotesque/Grotesk also lives as a quasi-synonym. Wikipedia‘s article on Sans-serif gives a (possibly post hoc ergo propter hoc) explanation for the use of the terms. It all proved too much even for an enthusiast like me!







See also Serif.