Ladislas Mandel,* student of Adrian Frutiger and co-founder of Atelier National de Création Typographique, puts forward an interesting argument that typography ‘encapsulate[s] … national spirit and culture’ (p. 3). His argument is probably not as blindly patriotic as it sounds, and he really makes the more digestible claim that historically, typography is linked in a subtle but powerful way to the languages of its designers. While it seems that type designers strive after beauty—whether they define beauty in simplicity, legibility or embellishment—culture shines through in the practical construction of the letters and the way they are to be used in a particular language.
Mandel is not just a sucker for Art Nouveau, or especially enamoured with Metropolitain (in six variations), the elaborate face of the Paris Metro designed by Hector Guimard. It is not that slick Swiss fonts are Ikea-bland to his French sensibilities, nor that he finds German gothics literally Grotesk. Mandel (p. 20) is making a claim that, though incorporating aesthetics, typography surpasses it:
A letterform, even one which is, apparently, a purely functional one, possesses a cultural dimension which some would call ‘aesthetic’ and which, when identified with a language, is a real function underlying all the others.
Two simple language-specific functions of letters that are constrained by typography are capital letters and accents. In French, and many other languages, accents are an integral part of spelling and pronunciation and must be clear and readable—and given ample space. Mandel laments the ‘anglicisation’ of many fonts ushered in by laser-driven imaging devices, most apparent in the taller x-height, so called for being the height of the lowercase ‘x’ (p. 3). Enlarging the guts of lowercase letters in this way is considered to improve legibility—in the English-speaking design world, that is—but is a stark anglicisation in that closes in on accents, crowding their space and crowding them out altogether.
Similarly, the French language is not capital-letter heavy. The word ‘French’ itself is simply français, no capital. Capitals, therefore, can be sweeping and grandiose, introducing paragraphs, or still quite marked in separating one sentence from another. German, however, suffers from this kind of embellishment. All German nouns are capitalised, which can reduce the readability of a text in breaking the natural flow of lowercase letters. Fonts best suited to the written German language, then, minimise the size difference between capital and lowercase letters, increasing the x-height and introducing less flamboyant capitals (p. 19). This is not to say that French capitals are purely decorative, for they give meaning at a glance, dividing one thought from another. In both instances, the capitals are functional: their respective languages simply make different demands of them, or employ them for different grammatical functions.
Font choice, then, can be a thoroughly cultural decision. It sounds like an axiom of Tautology Club to say that typography and language are inextricably linked, but this becomes a far more profound claim when one begins to think of typography in terms of different languages.
* Ladislas Mandel. 1993. Developing an awareness of typographic letterforms. Electronic Publishing Vol. 6(1): 3–22.