During colonial times, European colonial powers in Africa made their languages (English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and more) the official languages in government, educational, cultural, and other state institutions in African countries. In post-colonial times, African countries aiming to maintain their native (non-colonial) languages face a major roadblock: not enough fonts with Pan-African support that provide all of the letters and diacritics (or accent) marks for the proper spelling of their languages.
Proper spelling isn’t just for school tests and national spelling competitions, it’s vital for communication and for language survival. Educational institutions and users need fonts that can show the orthography (proper spelling) for each language, so that students can learn how to write correctly. Otherwise, if pupils see the same word written in different ways, with different kinds of punctuation marks replacing diacritics, they may never learn the proper way to spell. Without standard spelling, students could confuse words that may look similar but have different meanings.
These are some examples of words in African languages with similar spellings and different meanings:
- fɔ (to say) and fo (to greet) in Bambara
- motó (head) and mɔ́tɔ (fire) in Lingala
- ọ̀tá (enemy) and ota (bullet) in Yoruba
Since there were only a few fonts with Pan-African language support, African publishers used non-Unicode fonts or their own custom encodings in printed materials such as textbooks and newspapers. This all changed when publishing moved online. Users reading online publications who didn't have a certain font encoding installed on their computer or device saw gibberish or boxes instead of the correct letters.
Birth of a font for African languages
“Google has a goal to improve the experience of Sub-Saharan African users. I contacted Denis Moyogo Jacquerye, about improving African font choices on Google Fonts,” explained Dave Crossland, Google Fonts Lead User Experience Programs and Operations Manager.
In May 2020, Google Fonts commissioned Jacquerye as a language consultant and Laura Meseguer as a type designer to expand the Questrial font (initially designed by Joe Prince) to include a newly defined "African Latin" glyph set. They chose Questrial because its geometric sans serif style is very commonly used and would likely be comfortable for readers.
Jacquerye had developed into an expert in African language fonts after confronting the limitations of available technology for African languages.
He was born to a Congolese mother and a Belgian father in Lubumbashi, Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the DRC), but he grew up in Belgium. There, he learned some Lingala from his mother, visiting Congolese family members, and on trips to the DRC. After moving to Montreal, Canada to study linguistics at McGill University, he became motivated to learn Lingala when he listened to Congolese music and socialized with his relatives from the DRC.
When he found only a few fonts to type Lingala words on a computer, Jacquerye created a digital keyboard for African languages using the Latin writing system for the DejaVu font project. He combined his programming and linguistics background with his knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) that shares many letters with African alphabets.
The Pan African Localisation Project funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre hired Jacquerye to modify several fonts (Droid Sans, Droid Serif, Droid Sans Mono, Liberation Sans, Liberation Serif, Liberation Mono, URW Gothic, URW Palladio, and two fonts derived from Magenta’s MgOpen typefaces) for the 90% of African languages that use the Latin writing system.
He searched for dictionaries, grammars, and other resources that showed a standardized alphabet for African languages. “By consulting the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) website and various libraries, I collected a lot of data about national alphabets that were published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and African educational and cultural ministries,” said Jacquerye.
Creating new letterforms
Questrial African Latin character set
Over a six-month period, Meseguer changed the overall letter spacing and created new characters that she had never seen before. As this work was done during the pandemic, the duo communicated through email and through video conferences. Meseguer was working from home in Barcelona, Spain and Jacquerye was in the United Kingdom. She sent Jacquerye her drafts of the new letterforms she designed and Jacquerye replied with comments on what to change.
These are some examples of the “before” and “after” letterforms showing Meseguer’s original designs and the modified ones.
- J Crossed-tail ʝ
This letter represents a palatal implosive consonant produced by closing the space between the middle of the tongue and the palate after a pause. It is represented by the ʄ IPA symbol.
The before image shows the wide uppercase and lowercase letterforms with oval-like loops. The after image shows more narrow uppercase and lowercase letters with rounder loops.
2. Ɲ (“n” sound) and Ŋ (“eng” sound)
The “eng” sound is similar to the “ng” in the English words "sing" or "singer". (The Ŋ, ƞ letter is also used in the Lakota language in the US. Some Lakota communities use Ƞ and ƞ instead in their orthography.)
Meseguer’s initial designs for the upper and lower case Ɲ, Ŋ, ɲ, and ƞ letterforms
After images for the uppercase and lowercase Ɲ, Ŋ, ɲ, and ƞ letterforms
- Ɲ, uppercase n with left hook and large-n form
- Ŋ, uppercase, with the African large-n form
- ɲ, lowercase of Ɲ, with left hook
- ƞ, lowercase of Ŋ with descender
3. Ʊ Upsilon-latin
The Ʊ usually represents one of the “oo” sounds, like in the English word "foot", represented in the IPA as [fʊt].
Jacquerye instructed Meseguer to connect the horizontal bars to the bowl for the uppercase and lowercase Latin upsilon letterforms
Although Meseguer had no experience with African Latin when she began on the Questrial project, she did have a background in designing letterforms in a writing system that was new to her. She created Qandus Latin, a multiscript Qandus typeface for the Arabic, Latin, and Tifinagh writing systems for the North African language of Amazigh.
“Part of the role of a type designer is to be somewhere between an actor and a psychologist … to understand how a native speaker needs to write the language by hand and then translate that handwriting style to a digital format.”
The availability of Questrial and other Pan-African Latin fonts on computers and devices makes content more accessible for people who may struggle with small sized text on printed materials. Low-vision readers can read text on a device or computer and zoom in and enjoy content without straining their eyes and getting headaches.
The task of bringing more African languages online is just beginning. Google Fonts is excited at how much is being accomplished through Questrial. The font is available on Google Fonts. You can also use the font in Google Docs and Google Slides by selecting “More” in the Fonts menu and then typing “Questrial” in the search bar. The font supports African Latin and has full coverage of Vietnamese, in addition to European languages.
Laura Meseguer is a freelance designer, educator, typographer, and type designer based in Barcelona, Spain. She specializes in typography projects from lettering for monograms and logotypes, to custom typefaces, and book design. She is co-founder of Type-Ø-Tones (her own type foundry), co-author of How to Create Typefaces. From sketch to screen, and an ATypI Board member. Meseguer teaches typography at Elisava, type design at her own school Tipo-g, runs workshops, and gives lectures all over the world.
Denis Moyogo Jacquerye is a font and language engineer, involved in font development for more than a decade. He is working on extending various open-source fonts to support African orthographies in the Latin script. Denis has a BSc in Computer Science and a minor in Linguistics from McGill University. He has experience in the language technology industry, open- source software, font engineering, and Unicode software support for African languages. He worked at Dalton Maag, an international type design studio. Denis currently lives in Luxembourg.
He designed the open license font family Molengo, has been the co-leader of the DejaVu font project, and participated in other private or open-source font projects.
He delivered a presentation about African fonts at ATypI 2008 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
African font and language resources:
Google’s Noto font has 16 scripts that serve 266 languages spoken in Africa. Some of these languages didn't originate in Africa, such as Gujarati.