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  • 03.22.17

Preserving One Of Europe’s Oldest Languages Through Type

It’s the first time some Welsh letters have appeared in a digital typeface.

The native language of Wales is one of the oldest languages in Europe, dating from the 6th century when it emerged from a related Celtic language.

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Today, Welsh is fluently spoken by about 300,000 people. But certain letters of the 28-character Welsh alphabet have never been available as part of a contemporary digital typeface.

Image: Smörgåsbord

Now, the Wales-based design and branding agency Smörgåsbord has created the first digital typeface that includes these letters, as part of a rebrand of all the consumer-facing entities of the Welsh government.

Called digraphs, these marks are actually each a combination of two letters in a single character that denotes a particular sound. Digraphs aren’t particular to Welsh–languages like Swedish, Tibetan, and Portuguese also use digraphs–but Welsh uses them in combinations like “dd,” “ch,” and “ll.” For instance, the town Llandaf may have seven letters in English, but it has only six in Welsh. The digraph “dd” makes the sound of “the,” without the “e,” but has never gotten its own symbol within a digital typeface.

The typeface, called Cymru Wales Sans, is meant to emphasize the nation’s linguistic heritage while providing a way for the Welsh government to differentiate itself.

These ancient symbols have endured into the modern age, and Smörgåsbord’s design process sought to balance their tradition with contemporary concerns over legibility. While the typeface is meant to be used in graphics and campaigns aimed at the outside world–which meant being sensitive to people who aren’t used to its extra characters–it was also designed to be true to Wales.

“The main challenge was to ensure that the digraphs did not affect the flow and readability of the words and sentences,” says Dylan Griffith, the creative director and founder of Smörgåsbord. “I think that the digraphs in time will actually aid and enhance readability as they flow beautifully into each other. The fluidity of the ‘dd’ and the ‘ch’ are indeed informed by the form of cursive script–picture how a scribe’s quill would naturally link such characters.”

Image: Smörgåsbord

While Griffith says that the firm has been inundated with requests from businesses who want to use the font, it is currently only being used by the Welsh government.

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On the English-dominated internet, not all languages are created equal. Smaller languages like Welsh often don’t have the resources for something that seems as integral as a typeface. As I’ve reported, even languages with millions of speakers may not have basic digital tools like spell-checkers or word processors. But Cymru Wales Sans is a reminder that design is one way to support indigenous language and identity.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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