Why do the shapes of lower case letters vary more than upper case?
January 6, 2012 11:21 AM   Subscribe

Why is there more variation in the shapes of lower case letters than in upper case? Both a and g have distinctly different forms, but also f, q, and t show some variation. While in upper case only G and the tail on Q ever vary much. Yes, I know there are myriad different fonts out there. I have even made fonts myself. But the essential shape of the letters seems to vary more in lower case than in upper. Why is that?
posted by squaregear to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm assuming you're talking about computer fonts rather than handwriting, correct? Because in handwriting, I'd argue that there really isn't that much more variation in lower case. As I'm thinking of handwriting (and I'm now really wondering if this translates into handwriting-style fonts as well), I can visualize multiple forms of upper case A, F, S, T, W, X and Z, as well as the G and Q that you mention.

I was trained in standard Palmer method in 1970s/80s Catholic school (and it must have stuck to some degree because I have actually had strangers ask me if I went to Catholic school when they see my handwriting) and I know I've changed some of my own capital letters based on what I've seen and liked in other folks' handwriting styles. I think the capital forms vary a good deal from what I've seen in the method my daughters were taught (I know they did D'Nealian for printing but I'm not sure what they used for cursive).
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:48 AM on January 6, 2012

Not necessarily only on a computer, but yes, printed letters as opposed to handwritten ones.
posted by squaregear at 12:10 PM on January 6, 2012

I would hazard a guess that it's partyl the fact that lower-case letters have more curves, as well as ascenders and descenders; these allow proportions to be varied much more than is possible with upper-case letters which, with minor exceptions, tend to be more angular and uniform in height. Secondly, captials, at least in Roman alphabets, were used pretty much exclusively in classical times, and perhaps as a result became 'set in stone' in terms of their shapes, expecially given the reverence given to that that period by scholars over the subsequent thousand years.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:14 PM on January 6, 2012

partyl = partly (sorry)
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:14 PM on January 6, 2012

And captials = capitals
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:15 PM on January 6, 2012

According to Omniglot, "The lowercase letters developed from cursive versions of the uppercase letters." Which would explain a lot, in terms of both:
a) The lowercase letters arriving much later than the uppercase, and therefore being the products of a different time
b) The cursive derivation explaining why they're more variable
posted by McCoy Pauley at 12:17 PM on January 6, 2012

McCoy Pauley is right, but that's only part of the story.

Letterforms have a lot to do with the medium that was first used to create them. Cuneiform, for example, was the way it was because incising characters into damp clay is hard, and you need to keep the shapes easy and straight if you want to get anywhere. The original medium for modern Chinese characters was brush on paper, and there are echoes of that in the little tails (similar to serifs) that appear on the right sides of horizontal strokes, or the bottoms of vertical strokes.

The letterforms of the capital letters we use today were first used on cut stone. They were meant to look monumental, and were not intended for long runs of text. There was a form of Roman cursive, but it's not clear to me to what extent this influenced the appearance of minuscules, which didn't happen for centuries later. In any case, you can see there were risers and descenders, even in the old Roman cursive.

The original medium for our modern minuscules was pen on paper, and they reflect that. You can see the evolution of the letterforms in the chart halfway down this page.
posted by adamrice at 12:41 PM on January 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

A lot of the "upper case" characters were kind of set in stone by the Romans (pun intended; see Trajan's column) but the lower case letters came along much later and were subject to more variation from more cultures all over Europe. In other words, what McCoy Pauley and adamrice said but with the petri dish of different languages and cultures thrown in also.

And lower case was invented because everyone was tired of the Romans shouting all the time. ;)
posted by Mcable at 12:51 PM on January 6, 2012

Capitals are bigger and it's much quicker to figure out what letter it is.
Since lower case letters are... well.. smaller, you need more details to figure out which letter it is.

Challenge: try having an eye exam with both upper and lower case letters of the same size, and see if this is true.
posted by midnightmoonlight at 8:20 PM on January 6, 2012

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