Serifed Schwa

Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,128
edited April 2021 in Font Technology

Being derived directly from minuscule /e, the sans serif Schwas, upper and lower case, almost design themselves, but the serifed versions are problematic. Lacking much in the way of precedent, I’ve explored a variety of strategies, which I’d like to share for discussion. I’d be interested in hearing from any native Azeri speaker or people familiar with reading that or other languages which use the character—and in seeing how other type drawers have designed it.

(The type specimens feature the name of Azerbaijan’s president, in caps and U&lc.)

1. Scaled and rotated minuscule /e.  Font: Pratt Display, a newspaper face.
The capital /Ə looks perfect in the U&lc name, echoing the /e, but in all caps does it not perhaps looks a little out of place, as if it has strayed from a unicase font? This is the nature of the beast: should one accommodate the majuscule or the minuscule style for the cap /Ə, or try to compromise?

2. Divergent majuscule and minuscule style.  Font: Goodchild, a book ‘Jenson’.
The capital /Ə has a serif, like a flipped /C, and its crossbar aligns with that of /E etc. The lower case /ə is a rotated /e, but it doesn’t look quite right when its large open counter is compared with that of /a, which presumably has the correct ductus; perhaps I should have tweaked it a bit. Is the different angle of cap/lc crossbars a bit much, or cool? 

3. Divergent majuscule and minuscule style.  Font: Bodoni Egyptian.
The same tack as 2, but the quite different ductus of /a and /ə makes for a better effect, and the horizontal crossbar of /e and /ə is not as disruptive as Goodchild’s Venetian /e and /ə.

4. Cap style applied to both cases.  Font: Scotch Modern text cut.
(The opposite strategy to 1.) I determined that the lower case form looked too odd as a cap, so although based on a rotated /C, I added a serif. Then I made the lower case echo this, which is consistent with /S to /s; but in retrospect, I wonder.

5. Divergent majuscule and minuscule style.  Font: Richler, a book face.
Here the similar ‘superelipse’ form of /Ə and /ə serves to harmonize the schwas, despite /Ə having a centred crossbar, and a serif, unlike /ə. However, for the same reason, /a and /ə may be too similar in body text.

6. Divergent majuscule and minuscule style.  Font: Buslingthorpe, a tiny-x’d transitional.
The difference in angle of stress between the cases makes radically different treatments of the schwas appropriate. This should apply to more normally proportioned transitional styles. The transitional style of Latin typeface seems well suited to Azerbaijani.

7. Fanciful.  Font: Fontesque.

With the exception of #1, I’ve adapted the upper case /Ə to cap style rather than upsizing the /ə. It’s not necessarily the best method, but it’s what I’ve gravitated towards up to now.



  • Minuscule: a rotated e will do in most cases, eventually shifting the bar a little (when the e is garamondish with high bar). After rotating, the right and the left side need their weights getting balanced. A serif? Maybe; in doubt: no. Perhaps that serif is better reserved for the small capital?

    Majuscle: on top definitely a terminal (serif) with reference to C, G, S. The bar by all means aligned with E, H. Since the prominent horizontal makes it look very broad, the glyph needs a bit of tweaking towards ‘narrower’.

    In fancy faces the leeway for variation is bigger of course, as always. The capital Schwa under 7. is lovely.

    I just stumbled over this one:

  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,396
    Really good thread!
    I find that however you finish it off, starting from a scaled up l/c schwa nearly always makes a cap that looks too wide. (Still unsure whether that’s because my brain can’t unsee it’s lowercase-e-ness and thus judges the whole thing too big.)
    It does seem to me that more squarish curves on the right side of the glyph serves the cap well and the lowercase poorly (because of the /a disambiguation issue). I’d pondered the terminals issue before but not the tension of the curves. 
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,396
    Looking at other similar-but-not-identical letters between cases (I imagine Ss or Ww would be good candidates) should be helpful for discerning the approprriate "caseness" of a given style.
  • Recently I was wondering about the italic form of schwa.

    By quick check of a few typefaces at hand seems that—for lowercase—those that are "oblique" keep the bar horizontal, while those who have "true" italics make the curl. The same treatment that e gets. However, if the later, lowercase schwa looks even more like the italic double storey a.

    On the other side, for caps seems there is no consensus, and that true italics sometimes keep the horizontal as well.

    What people here think about this?
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,128
    Yes Igor, similarity between /ə and /a in body text is an important Schwa issue, especially in two-storey /a italics. That Recursive tactic is clever!

    On the other hand, Western readers of Futura etc. manage OK with its similarity between /a and /o, so, absent opinion from native Azeri typographers and readers, we’re rather working in the dark.

    But perhaps disambiguation is more important for Azeri readers, as they have had to contend with both Cyrillic and Latin scripts, not to mention Arabic, so they may need all the help they can get in deciphering typography.
  • Adam JagoszAdam Jagosz Posts: 688
    edited April 2021
    I remember seeing some almost-Azeri (Turkish perhaps) designer's post on IG stating that the schwa should have a serif (@Andreas Stötzner which would rather imply an “in doubt: yes”—but perhaps more so for Azeri usage than phonetics?) and that the bar should not ride too low (i.e. rotated Garamond /e is a no-go).
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,128
    There is one other character structurally similar to /Ə: uni042D, the Cyrillic ‘Backwards E’, /Э.
  • Tural AlisoyTural Alisoy Posts: 30
    edited March 2022
    I have mentioned here.

    In addition, I want to mention that most type designers turn the lowercase letter “e” by 180 degrees to make it “ə”. This is not the right way to do it. It looks different both in terms of aesthetics and looking different than the other letters of the font. It doesn't look neat. This is especially observed for serif fonts. For example, in the font examples above, the letters “Əə” of font 4 appear more successful. In others, the capital “Ə” letters look better. However, the lowercase “ə” letters are made by reversing the letter “e”. When preparing Schwa, the terminal part is adjusted for both uppercase and lowercase letters using the letters Cc, Ss, G and a. The arm part of the capital letter “Ə” is sometimes adjusted per H E or depending on personal taste.

    For your information , we, the Azerbaijanis, use only the Latin alphabet since 1991. If you need additional help, please let me know.
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,374
    edited March 2022
    @Tural Alisoy
    Is the following true? If you're using the ə at 01DD (Latin Extended B ) you also need to include it at 0259 (IPA Extensions). Azerbaijani text usually uses the 0259 encoding.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,940
    @""Ray Larabie"
    U+01DD and U+0259 have different case mappings. U+0259 maps to the uppercase Ə U+018F , which is why it is used for Azeri. U+01DD is an African character which maps to the uppercase Ǝ U+018E.
  • Igor FreibergerIgor Freiberger Posts: 248
    edited March 2022
    This is how I draw the Schwa/schwa. Some fonts, especially from ParaType, use the schwa as the rotated e (uni01DD). I'm not sure if this is feasible. In this sample, I use this approach (schwa design for the rotated e) as an experiment since the e arm seems a bit too long in uni01DD.

  • @Tural Alisoy
    Is the following true? If you're using the ə at 01DD (Latin Extended B ) you also need to include it at 0259 (IPA Extensions). Azerbaijani text usually uses the 0259 encoding.
    We use encoding U-018F and u-0259. We do not use encoding 01DD. 
  • Tural AlisoyTural Alisoy Posts: 30
    edited March 2022
    @Igor Freiberger I think, the midline of the true "ə" shown in comparison should be raised a little higher. 
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,128
    Thanks for your valuable comments, Tural!
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