Fraktur Legibility (was Re: Response to Everson Phoenician)

From: Dean Snyder (
Date: Tue May 25 2004 - 10:23:46 CDT

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    Doug Ewell wrote at 8:28 AM on Monday, May 24, 2004:
    >Remember, I've already performed a similar experiment. Supposedly
    >Vietnamese wasn't legible in Fraktur. Well, I printed out some
    >Vietnamese in Fraktur (without diacritics, which made the Vietnamese
    >even harder to recognize), and my Vietnamese colleague who learned
    >English as a second language and does not know German recognized it
    >Look here with this Fraktur thing: There is a school of thought that
    >says Phoenician and Hebrew are different scripts that have "diverged" in
    >some sense. Obviously not everyone subscribes to this school of
    >thought; Dean Snyder is perhaps our most prominent example. That's
    >fine, OK? But there is NO school of thought that Fraktur and Antiqua
    >are different scripts that have "diverged" in any meaningful way.
    >Fraktur use of round-s and long-s was completely mirrored by Antigua use
    >at the time both styles were in heavy use, and the sharp-s ligature
    >continues to be used in Antiqua.
    >Fraktur is a stylistic variant of the Latin script, plain and simple,
    >and should not be used to try to prove one side or the other in this
    >dispute over Phoenician.

    Mark E. Shoulson wrote at 9:33 AM on Monday, May 24, 2004:
    >...But I dispute your claim. Even if the
    >German readers couldn't read the fraktur, I'll bet they could recognize
    >it as Latin letters, just in a font they can't completely make out. In
    >fact, just for laughs, I'll try an experiment out this evening: I'll
    >show my children (aged 6 and 8) some fraktur text and ask them what it
    >is. It's unlikely they'll ever have seen it before. Maybe I'll even
    >show it to them in German text, so it's even less likely for them to
    >Where's *your* evidence that Roman German readers wouldn't recognize
    >fraktur? You asked for mine, and I've given some.

    John Cowan wrote at 10:20 AM on Monday, May 24, 2004:
    >I see the words "The New York Times" in Fraktur (more or less) every day.
    >It's obviously a font variant of Latin.

    saqqara wrote at 4:35 PM on Monday, May 24, 2004:
    >I showed my 5 year old some Fraktur (lower case only) for the first time
    >today. He is only just getting to grips with reading simple English words.
    >And the verdict ...... 'funny and silly' but he could still read the words
    >back to me. Anecdotal perhaps but Dean, do you want me test the other 29 of
    >his class at school before we can be rid of this fallacious Fraktur analogy?

    There are tests and there are tests.

    Here's the methodology I used for my little Fraktur legibility test:

    1) I chose the bold Fraktur font used in the Unicode Standard, version 4,
    Mathematical Alphanumeric Symbols section.

    2) I used only capital letters, since they mirror more closely the
    legibility issues associated with Old Canaanite legibility.

    3) For the text I used a sentence, translated into English, from the
    Siloam inscription - the text used by Mark Shoulson in his Old Hebrew
    legibility test ;-)

    4) I purposely laid out the text in such a way that there were no clues
    as to its orientation other than the shapes of the glyphs themselves.
    [I've attached a low resolution image of the text I used.]

    5) I presented the test privately to seven people.

    6) Most of them were at least bi-lingual in English and German.

    7) I asked each person to try, without using any external aids, to
    identify the language of the text and any words they could make out.

    8) I took notes as they spoke to me.

    Only one person could read any significant amount of the text (and she
    had previously both written and read Fraktur). Every one who took the
    test turned the paper upside down to see which way the letters went. All
    of them could make out a few obvious words, like "the" and "on". And all
    of them, after some coaching, could make out more of the letters and
    words (precisely what I would predict for modern Hebrew readers if
    coached while looking at Palaeo-Hebrew texts.)

    Here are some details of the test responses:

    * My father-in-law: It looks like German Gothic, but I can't read it. -
    It looks like "louder on the" - What the heck is that? - No, I can't
    understand it. [He is a post World War II US immigrant from Yugoslavia,
    who reads and speaks German, Serbo-Croatian (Cyrillic & Latin), Italian,
    and English.]

    * My mother-in-law: Oh, that's Cyrillic. - I can't read this. - What kind
    of funny letters are these? - Is that German? - I can't recognize any of
    the letters. - I can't make out anything. [She is a post World War II US
    immigrant from Yugoslavia, who reads and speaks German, Serbo-Croatian
    (Latin), and English.]

    * My wife: Which way does it go? - "us the" - Is it Greek? - "of the" -
    "pound" - "right and left?" - Let me see if it looks like anything this
    way. (rotates upside down) - If I said anything it would be that it looks
    like English; the words I can read are English. [She is a registered
    nurse with a BS degree, and speaks and reads some German.]

    * Two of our boys, ages 13 and 11, said similar things: Which way does it
    go? - Looks like a funny English manuscript cause I can see "the" and
    "on" - Is it some kind of code or something? - This looks like a "t" and
    this looks like an "m".

    * My sister-in-law - The first two words are "in the". - That's a Gothic
    "A". - (After analyzing it for about 2 minutes) "As the laborers" -
    "piers?" - "towers?" [She had the most success, but she speaks and reads
    German and Estonian, has read Fraktur print, and even at one time could
    write Fraktur.]

    * A friend: There are words that almost look like English, if I could
    make out the letters. - "of the men" - "the design" - "for the" -
    Something, something. [A college-educated, claims manager for a very
    large life insurance company; reads no languages other than English.]

    * Me - I must say that, even though I composed the test, I had to work at
    reading it, kind of like switching from reading Jewish Hebrew to reading
    Palaeo-Hebrew ;-)

    I believe this supports my point that readers of Latin German who have
    never read Fraktur would not recognize it as just a simple font change,
    just as modern Hebrew readers who have never read Palaeo-Hebrew seem not
    recognize it as just a simple font change from Jewish Hebrew.

    And so the analogy on this point holds - if we encode Phoenician abstract
    letters, we should encode Fraktur abstract letters (and even more so
    given the potential for a much larger and living community of users for
    separately encoded Fraktur).


    Dean A. Snyder

    Assistant Research Scholar
    Manager, Digital Hammurabi Project
    Computer Science Department
    Whiting School of Engineering
    218C New Engineering Building
    3400 North Charles Street
    Johns Hopkins University
    Baltimore, Maryland, USA 21218

    office: 410 516-6850
    cell: 717 817-4897


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