Exploring Burmese

Last week Nance Cunningham joined us in the Department to talk about the Burmese script. Nance works as a lexicographer, working on English-Burmese dictionaries, so is familiar with the difficulties of Burmese fonts. She stayed a couple of nights, which meant she could give me quite a comprehensive understanding of the Burmese letters and how they should work together.

Burmese, like other Brahmic scripts such as Thai, is an abugida or alphabetic syllabary, which means each syllable begins with one of 33 ‘initial’ consonants. Each consonant has an inherent vowel sound, which may be modified by adding diacritic vowel marks above, below or around the initial consonant. In addition to the vowel marks, an initial consonant can also be marked with one (or more) of four ‘medial’ consonant signs, which are written below, beside or wrapping around the initial consonant. As if that isn’t complicated enough, a Burmese font needs to compose, decompose, position and kern all these marks in a consistent order.

A virama can be added to any syllable to modify the vowel sound or create a dead syllable (similar to the mai thanthakhat or karan in Thai).

The ‘a’ vowel sign needs special handling, as it takes the same form as some of the other letters. So when these letters take the ‘a’ vowel, it is a taller variant form to avoid confusion. A further level of complexity arises when this tall version of the ‘a’ vowel needs to use the virama sign, as they both use the ascender space. In this case, the tall ‘a’ sign is replaced with a double-headed form. This will be handled in the font by straightforward OpenType glyph substititions.

Consonants may also appear stacked one below the other, in a kind of ligature, and are accessed by pressing a special kind of shift key (u+1039) which sends the next keyed character below the baseline under the previous glyph. Fortunately this only occurs at the join between two syllables, so vowels are not involved and do not require repositioning.

As well as instructing me how the writing system works, Nance brought along a bunch of Burmese books and magazines, some dating back to the 1950s. These have become a key point of reference in the research for my own typeface, as they show different styles of Burmese letterforms, but at the same time illustrate what needs to be consistent to maintain readability.

From travelling in Burma several times, I had noticed around me that Burmese letters often took horizontal stress patterns, with the heavy parts of the letters along the baseline and x-height. I had also noticed a few cases where this had been reversed, to give a more familiar look for those of us accustomed to the Latin script. However, when I remarked about this to Nance, she contextualised my observation: in fact I had been mostly looking at vernacular signage, intended to draw attention and therefore on the whole using display faces. A quick look at her books and magazines showed me that the only way prose is written in Burmese is with monolinear forms, using the ‘spaghetti-like’ strokes of Helvetica.

For my dictionary type project, I’m going to need a family of Latin and Burmese fonts, so I was keen to explore the conventional ways Burmese typography indicates hierarchy: do they use bold and italic in the same way as Latin? Funnily enough, one striking thing we found was that headings and emphasised passages have been chiefly set in smaller type sizes, with bolder forms and increased tracking between the letters. As for italics, we did find them, but very scarcely, and never used in passages of roman text for emphasis. Instead, italics seemed to be used only in their own right where a different typographic style was required. In places where italic might be chosen in Latin typography, it turns out condensed is a valid choice.

Nance’s books showed that Burmese has adopted speech marks and parentheses (though the speech marks are often not designed to fit harmoniously with Burmese — perhaps there’s room to explore French-style guillemets? — and parentheses are generally oversized to accommodate the large extender zones). A full-stop (period) is not used in Burmese, as there is a traditional ‘stick’ section sign. However, the ellipsis is occasionally used, but the dots take the form of little circles to fit in nicely with Burmese shapes.

Finally I wanted to explore how possible it might be to move away from monolinear strokes and introduce some chirographic styles into my type family. I looked at Burmese cartoons and advertisements, and found a few examples of pen-formed strokes with angled contrast. So far I haven’t reached any conclusions about whether this might be worth pursuing for my dictionary face, so more research will be needed.

With thanks to Nance Cunningham.

Photos of Burmese typography over on Flickr.