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U&lc Online Issue: 26.1.1

The Printed Bengali Character and its Evolution


Review by John Hudson


While employed in the Department of Typographic Research and Development at Linotype-Paul (UK) in the late 1970s, Fiona Ross was charged with the task of implementing digital photocomposition of the Bengali script on the new Linotron 202 typesetter.

Linotype support for Bengali had stalled at the last of the hot-metal machines, and had not been implemented on first-generation photosetting equipment. Ross and her colleagues were also acutely conscious of the fact that the Linotype hot-metal Bengali types had been of inferior quality, and that any future development in this area should properly include the development of new Bengali fonts. Ross’s research into the history and evolution of Bengali types, which began with the aim of avoiding previous mistakes and identifying authentic and aesthetically pleasing models for the new Bengali fonts, later became the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Now, Ross has done an admirable job of turning this technical and scholarly research into a highly readable and authoritative book.

One of the very few criticisms that can be made of this book is that it presupposes a basic familiarity with Indian writing systems, which many general readers may not possess. This may lead some to presume that it is solely a specialist book, which would be unfortunate, as Ross has not only written a fascinating and lucid history but has much to say of direct relevance to today’s typographic practitioners and text software developers.

The Bengali writing system, like other scripts categorised as Indic (which also includes Southeast Asian scripts such as Thai and Lao), is descended from the ancient Brahmi script. Indic scripts are sometimes referred to as alphasyllabic since, although they are alphabetic with distinct signs for consonants and vowels, the basic element of Indic writing is the syllable.

The basic forms of the Bengali “alphasyllabary”

Each consonant sign in the Bengali alphabet carries an inherent short a vowel sound, so the consonant k is actually pronounced as the syllable ka, and this is the sound represented by the consonant unless otherwise modified. In order to write other k syllables, for instance ki, ko, or ku, it is necessary to attach a vowel sign to the basic consonant (each vowel exists in two forms, an independent vowel sign and an attaching sign). Vowel signs in Indic scripts can attach above, below, to the left or to the right of a consonant, depending on the script and the individual vowel. In some scripts, such as Burmese, a vowel might even be represented by a double sign, which attaches to both the left and right of the modified consonant. Often, the vowel sign simply attaches to the otherwise unmodified consonant sign, but as in the Bengali example shown below the new syllable can sometimes be represented by a distinct ligature form. When a consonant is required to end a syllable, as in the second k in kuk, the inherent vowel sound has to be “killed,” and this is done by attaching another kind of sign to the basic consonant form.

Bengali, left, and Burmese, right, consonant and
vowel combinations

The most complex aspect of writing Bengali or another Indic script is probably the shaping of consonant conjuncts. These occur when two or more consonants form a sequence, as in the kch sequence in kukchu. It is normal, in the writing of many Indian languages, for such sequences to form conjunct ligatures that often depart radically from the shape of the original letters. It is this aspect of Indic scripts that has posed the greatest challenge to typography, and Ross’s book follows the attempts by type founders, both European and Indian, to solve the problem of how to translate the complex Bengali writing tradition into a workable technology for setting type.

A Bengali three-consonant conjunct

Ross begins her history with a detailed account of the first successful fonts of metal Bengali type cast by Charles Wilkins, for the British administration in Bengal, in the 1770s. Individual chapters in the first half of the book discuss the development of further types by missionary presses in India, commercial foundries in Europe, and indigenous printing and publishing ventures in Calcutta and other centers of Bengali literature. Fiona Ross brings to this account an admirable historical clarity and a type designer’s critical eye for the achievements and failures of the individual types. It is a pleasure to find a writer on type paying such close attention to the question of what makes an individual typeface work or not work. A small criticism of the book must be that the quality of the reproductions is uneven, and it is not always possible to tell whether a particular font suffered from poor design, poor printing, or poor reproduction. Fortunately, Ross’s critical analysis is lucid enough to largely compensate for this graphic deficiency.

The second half of the book details the development of Bengali type and typesetting systems for industrialized composition in the 20th century. The text is particularly valuable in explaining the workings of the Monotype and Linotype machines that dominated the typesetting industry for much of the past hundred years. Ross’s descriptions of the different generations of these machines are among the clearest and most illuminating yet written, and these parts of the books should be of interest to anyone who wonders how type was set before the advent of “desktop publishing.” It is particularly interesting to see these machines being considered from the perspective of non-Latin typesetting, and instructive to see how the presumptions of Western engineers were challenged by the requirements of the complex Indian scripts.

The book concludes, appropriately, with the work which Fiona Ross and her colleagues at Linotype carried out in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Seen against the historical background so carefully drawn in the earlier parts of the book, the achievement of the Linotype team remains very impressive today. The new Bengali fonts designed by British type designer Tim Holloway, working closely with Ross, set a new standard for quality in non-Latin type, while the breakthrough which Ross made in the development of phonetic keyboards and conjunct composing software revolutionized the typesetting of Indic scripts. It is clear from Ross’s account that this must have been an exciting and satisfying time, but the days of proprietory photocomposition systems like the Linotron were already numbered. Another revolution was about to begin with the advent of Macintosh typesetting, and, as Ross states in the epilogue to her text, “the printed Bengali character has yet to benefit from the latest technology of DeskTop publishing.”

In their latest operating-system releases, Microsoft and Apple are committing themselves to worldwide multilingual text support, through the Unicode encoding standard. In this book, Fiona Ross has demonstrated how previous Western technology has succeeded in its support of South Asian scripts through a “positive correlation of technological, linguistic and artistic skills,” but also how often it has failed through the lack of this correlation, and through cultural ignorance and insensitivity. A writing system is a remarkable cultural legacy that can – and should – be resistant to corruption and diminishment through attempts to ‘simplify’ or ‘reform’ it to fit technology. The product managers at Microsoft and Apple, and indeed anyone who has an interest in the future of typography in a multilingual, Internet-connected world, would do well to read this book. The path we are walking is not entirely a new one, and there is much to be learned from the successes and failures of those who have walked this way before.

John Hudson is a principle of Tiro Typeworks in Vancouver