A post from Shady Characters

№ ⸮ ‽ ℔ ⁊ ⸿  — or, a cavalcade of characters

At the heart of Shady Characters’ recent redesign are the text and display typefaces of Satyr and Faunus, both designed by Sindre Bremnes of Norway’s Monokrom type studio. Shady Characters, of course, is all about unusual marks of punctuation, and I was glad to see that both typefaces came complete with a handy selection of special characters. Even so, there were a few marks missing: the interrobang for one; the numero symbol I use in many post titles for another. As I chatted to Frode Helland of Monokrom about the minutiae of web fonts, though, he suggested that he and Sindre might be able to add some new characters to help Shady Characters live up to its name.

Yes, Frode! A thousand times yes.

After years of writing about how difficult it is to promote lesser-known marks of punctuation without type designers’ backing, this was the first time I’d ever heard a type designer actively encourage the addition of new marks to their typefaces. A couple of weeks ago, then, Frode sent over revised versions of the font files with the following glorious new additions.

Custom symbols from Monokrom's Satyr typeface, as designed by Sindre Bremnes.
Roman and italic custom symbols from Monokrom’s Satyr typeface, as designed by Sindre Bremnes. The marks here have been rendered at 48 points in size and enlarged from there. From left to right, with roman above and italic below, the new marks are: numero, percontation mark, interrobang, barred “lb”, Tironian et, capitulum and ironiteken.

From left to right, the new marks are as follows:

numero sign (№)
The numero sign is a simple contraction of the Latin word numero to mean “number”. Needless to say, it is not a common mark except among typographic completists (your correspondent included) who like to set text as neatly as possible.
reversed question mark (⸮)
The reversed question mark was used for a short time during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as a rhetorical or ironic question mark, when it was called the “percontation mark”.
interrobang (‽)
We hardly need introduce the interrobang, do we‽ The interrobang is perhaps the quintessential modern shady character, invented in 1962 to punctuate surprised or rhetorical questions. It’s one of the few truly novel modern punctuation marks to have carved out a spot in Unicode, the standard computer character set, and I think Martin Speckter, the interrobang’s inventor, would have been over the moon to see a new version up in lights. (I know his wife Penny will be too.)
L B bar symbol (℔)
The baldly-named l b bar symbol is rather an oddball. It represents the familiar “lb” abbreviation for “pounds in weight”, derived from the Roman term libra pondo, but it comes accessorised with a bar to indicate that the two characters form an indivisible whole, in the style of medieval scribal practice. Isaac Newton was a fan, as were many of his contemporaries, but today the ‘℔’ is a rare sight indeed.
Tironian et (⁊)
The Tironian et is another old sign, created in Roman times as a shorthand symbol for the word et, or “and”. But for an accident of history, this could have replaced the familiar ampersand (&); today, you’re likely to see it in Irish Gaelic and almost nowhere else.
capitulum (⸿)
The so-called capitulum is the prototypical form of the better-known pilcrow, or ‘¶’. The tailless form of the mark shown here is derived from the very earliest pilcrows, where the letter ‘C’ for capitulum, or “little head”, was used to introduce the “head” of a new section or argument.
ironieteken ()
Last but not least is the ironieteken, another very new mark. Like the interrobang and the percontation mark, the ironieteken signals an ironic tone of voice; unlike them, it punctuates statements rather than questions. It was created back in 2007 by Bas Jacobs of Underware,* a Dutch type design studio, and I am excessively happy to have been involved, however incidentally, in promoting it. It is, I think, one of the most elegant of all new marks of punctuation, and one that deserves to have a much wider audience.

Some of these marks will already be visible in existing posts here at Shady Characters; others will appear in future.

I was eager to learn more about Sindre’s approach to adding new marks to an existing typeface and so, when we chatted over the phone a couple of weeks back, I asked him about Satyr, interrobangs, and everything in between.

Unexpectedly, Sindre started off by explaining that Satyr was inspired by ancient Viking boatbuilding. Along Norway’s western coast, wooden boats are still patterned after the forms and traditions of old Viking vessels, and the shape they take is very much dependent on their material: much like the Bézier curves from which digital typefaces are made, wood bends, but only so far. (Sindre told me, in fact, that his first exposure to Bézier curves came when he drew up blueprints of boats like this, long before he took up type design.)

Separately, Sindre is both a musician and a member of a musical family: he plays the viol (a fretted relative of the cello) and other similar instruments, while his father is a luthier who makes baroque and renaissance instruments such as lutes and viols — all of which are conspicuous for their curved and recurved forms. All this led Sindre to approach Satyr as a challenge: to design a typeface without a straight line in sight. If you zoom in to these letters or take a look at the image above, you’ll see that he has done just that without compromising the legibility of the resulting letterforms.

I asked Sindre how he went about adding the new marks to a typeface that is now some years old, and whether any of them offered particular problems. His answer surprised me, which just goes to show how little I know about type design: the reversed question mark, he said, was by far the hardest. Can’t you flip the normal question mark, I asked him? No, he said, and with good reason.

The thing is, Sindre explained, Satyr is designed according to a system: it has an overarching philosophy, if that’s the right word, in that it eschews straight lines in favour of curves, and Sindre’s realisation of that idea means that it favours certain curves and forms over others. Moreover, its serifs and strokes are laid out by an imaginary writer wielding a broad-nibbed pen: the pen is held at a particular angle so that each letter’s lines flow from thick to thin and back again in a predictable way. And finally, at the most fundamental level, each letter or mark has to conform to the familiar shapes hammered out over the centuries by a ghostly army of scribes gone by, the originators of our alphabet and its attendant symbols. Each of Satyr’s letters and marks of punctuation has to live within this system and to adhere to it as best it can.

The sticking point with the reversed question mark is that it is 180 degrees out of phase with those existing marks and letters. Like us, our scribal ancestors wrote, by and large, from left to right with pens held in their right hands. There is an underlying directionality to all our writing and text, whether we notice it or nor. Unfortunately, ‘⸮’ just does not fit in with ‘?’, or indeed with the general left-to-right bias of our alphabetic symbols. For this reason, Sindre said, he had to design Satyr’s ‘⸮’ from scratch in order to work out how it should conform to all these design constraints.

In second place, Sindre said, was the interrobang. When Martin Speckter proposed a new symbol back in 1962, he asked his art director, Jack Lipton, to draw up a variety of suggested forms for the “interrobang” (you can see them here), and a number of Speckter’s colleagues within the advertising world contributed their own ideas too. What we might call the “classical” form of the interrobang, however, is the one seen below at bottom right in Richard Isbell’s Americana typeface of 1966.

Americana type specimen, taken from American Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, 1993
Specimen of Americana, by Richard Isbell, taken from American Typefaces of the Twentieth Century (1993), by Mac McGrew. An interrobang is visible at the bottom right. (Permission to reproduce image granted by Oak Knoll Press.)

The problem with Isbell’s interrobang is evident: it’s not easy to coerce a question and exclamation mark into sharing the same airspace without either clumsily overlaying them or forcing one to give way to the other. Isbell took the second path, as can be seen in the slightly stunted vertical stroke of his interrobang, but Sindre went a third way, letting both marks coexist peacefully alongside one another while still sharing a single terminal dot, thus: ‘‽’. It reminds me of Christian Schwartz’s tripartite interrobang, as drawn for his Amplitude typeface, which, for my money, is one of the best interpretations so far. The interrobang may not have found its Platonic form just yet, but Christian and Sindre are showing it the way.

I must thank both Frode Helland and Sindre Bremnes for their help in getting Shady Characters up and running with its new typefaces, and doubly so for the trouble they went to in designing and integrating the new characters we’ve seen above. If you’re interested in these characters in particular, Frode tells me that they will be making their way into the standard version of Satyr in the near future; alternatively, if you like the look of any of Monokrom’s other typefaces, I cannot recommend them highly enough.

So now, over to you: Which is your favourite character here? What others would you like to see in the futures? As ever, you can leave a comment here or, if you’d prefer, you can drop me a line via the Contact page. Fire away!

Bas was of great help to me when researching the various irony and sarcasm marks that have been created over the years. I should thank him again for all his help! ↩︎
Take a look at a representative sample of interrobangs designed since Speckter’s time and you’ll see what I mean. ↩︎

16 comments on “№ ⸮ ‽ ℔ ⁊ ⸿  — or, a cavalcade of characters

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Thomas — for me, ‘℔’ is so rare as to be essentially extinct. There are still numero symbols out there (by which I mean those formed by a single character, rather than a separate ‘N’ and a superscript ‘o’), but I’d argue that they aren’t part of the average writer’s toolbox any longer.

      Also, Google Books wouldn’t show me the snippet you linked to, but I found the same book at archive.org and pulled a full-page image out of it. What a great find! Thanks for sharing it.

  1. Comment posted by Alan Burkitt-Gray on

    The numero symbol is, I think, absolutely standard in Cyrillic alphabets.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Alan — so it seems! For what it’s worth, Wikipedia suggests that ‘№’ has been available on Russian keyboards since at least 1912, even though the Latin letter ‘N’ is not in the Cyrillic alphabet. In addition, the ‘#’ does not seem to appear — presumably the numero symbol performs the ordinal function in Russian that ‘#’ does in American English?

  2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    The numero sign is very important in Cyrillic, and especially in Russian. Russian did not use # until the modern period, and since it has no letter shaped like N, the № sequence needs to be treated as a single character. It’s typically found on Russian typewriter layouts at Shift+3, in place of # (US) or £ (UK).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — curious! Have any marks derived from non-Latin letters survived in common use in English, I wonder?

      Thanks for the comment.

    2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

      The Tironian et is in use in Ireland, though more when writing in Irish than in English.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — that’s true, although the Tironian et was invented as part of a shorthand system. I guess my question is this: are there any marks derived from non-Latin letters that we use today in languages that use the Latin alphabet?

    4. Comment posted by Kári Emil Helgason on

      Well – we use a great number of Greek letters in SI, µ for micro, for instance; and in mathematics and physics, of course. Does that count?

    5. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Very true! I’m slightly embarrassed that I didn’t think of that myself. Are there any similar marks that we use in everyday language, though?

  3. Comment posted by Bonnie on

    I remember now the “ironic” mark, which I read about before, but when I saw it again just now the name that leapt to mind was Shazam!

  4. Comment posted by Chris L on

    Will these characters make their way into both Satyr and Faunus?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Chris — my understanding is that all the characters will be added to Satyr and that the numero sign will be added to Faunus. (In the title of this post, all special characters except the numero come from Satyr.) That said, feel free to drop Frode a line at Monokrom to double-check!

  5. Comment posted by Dan Listermann on

    I am looking for a Fratur font with lots of ligatures. Any help?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dan — I’m not sure I can help, I’m afraid! I haven’t had the need to play around with many Fraktur fonts as yet. Perhaps a search at FontShop or fonts.com might point you in the right direction?

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