ReFraktured Color

For those who have read my other posts on the subject, it will be unsurprising that I continue to be fascinated by the use of typefaces to preserve, promote, and communicate about linguistic or cultural conventions. In particular, I’m interested in the various ways in which the deployment of Fraktur typefaces has served social, political, and philosophical purposes relating to the continuity of cultural identity — I think it’s safe to say that the occurrence of the Antiqua-Fraktur Dispute alongside the blooming of romantic nationalism in 19th C. Europe is plainly not an accident.

While I think it is relatively easy to pick out the politics of Fraktur over time (and many have done so), today what interests me is a more mundane example of the conventions for using Fraktur vs. “Latin” typefaces in the years before the great dispute, particularly as compared to one of my two later samples,  W. H. Carruth’s preservation and presentation of Martin Luther’s work for students of German language and culture in the United States.

The example that interests me here is a relatively rare 18th C. text, Johann Ferdinand Ritter von Schönfeld’s 1794 printing of the Wiener Farbenkabinet.  There are, as I understand it, four extant copies of this book in collections in the United States (Yale, Princeton, the Smithsonian…) and a few other copies in European collections. You can explore the Smithsonian’s copy here, and if you’re feeling daring and helpful and you’ve got an eye for Fraktur, you can contribute to their ongoing project of transcribing its contents. It’s an amazing book in its own right — a comprehensive, multi-volume resource for the fabrication and use of dyes and pigments, including (to quote the Smithsonian transcription project’s description) “2,592 hand-colored natural dye specimens, along with details on how to apply them to silk, cotton, wool, leather, wood, bone, paper, and many other materials.”

For my purpose in this post, however, what turns out to be most interesting about the book is the entirely unremarkable, matter-of-fact way in which its typefaces are used to represent a print style convention the carries ideological weight later on: German in Fraktur, Latin in a Latin type/Antiqua. For example, consider this bit from p. 124:

Screenshot of one paragraph from the Wiener Farbenkabinet (1794), p. 124

Note the switch in typefaces — the bulk of the text is in Fraktur, but the Latin names for a North American species of Goldenrod are printed in a Latin type. This is just one of many examples of Latin terminology or plant species names set in a different typeface from the rest of the text.

As it’s done in the Wiener Farbenkabinet, typeface switching from Fraktur to Antiqua at first appears to work much the same as it does when Hebrew or Greek or Russian or Arabic (etc.) terms are printed in their indigenous scripts in texts otherwise entirely in English or another conventionally Roman-lettered language. This is a specific style choice on the part of a publisher — the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, offers its own conventions for representing “foreign”* names, terms, titles, and abbreviations, and other publication manuals provide similar guidelines. The printer has to decide how and whether to signify that a term is (or is not) translated — or, put in a way relevant to the discussion here, whether a term is to be Romanized or not, and if it is, whether or not to use some other indicator (such as italics) to mark the term as other.

One obvious advantage to setting a term usually printed in kanji or in Cyrillic (for example) in a Latin typeface using some system for the consistent assignment of Roman letters to a typographically translated or transliterated term is that it becomes phonetically (and to some degree conceptually) available to readers to whom the language in question would otherwise be inscrutable. The disadvantage, from the point of view of someone particularly interested in preserving meaning and/or something like “authenticity” by avoiding a misleading representation of the language, is that a term simply adapted (Romanized, translated, its origins unmarked) may not be a term correctly understood. Romanization and/or resetting in a Latin typeface as translation is potentially problematic, especially if (as in the case of Fraktur) the process itself is ideologically, culturally, and politically fraught. I leave consideration of the legacy of colonialism and cultural appropriation relative to the practice of Romanization as an exercise for the reader.

For a dedicated preserver of language and culture like W. H. Carruth, typeface choice in the context of a diplomatic reprint of Luther’s works was vitally important. Yet Carruth’s mission wasn’t just preservation, it was education — his book was specifically created to be a resource for English-speaking students of German language and culture. The shifts from Antiqua to Fraktur and back again (and from English-language introductory and explanatory material to Luther’s words in German) are meant to serve both goals. Carruth’s collection of Luther’s works becomes, in effect, a kind of textual and typographic museum exhibit, in which typeface marks the boundaries of the display by distinguishing the artifacts curated from the mechanisms of curation.

This is not the case, however, with a practical manual like the Wiener Farbenkabinet, which is aimed squarely at an audience including naturalists, educators, painters, and a wide variety of craftspeople. What’s being preserved here (if anything) is not language. It’s a set of practices — in craft, science, and art — in which there already exists a broadly familiar use of common Latin-language terms and names. This occurs in an 18th C. European context in which the language of scholarship and higher education is still Latin (even if the Bible is available in German). In the selection pictured above, the author has provided both the German name for the plant (canadischen Goldruthe, using the pre-Duden spelling from the original text) and two related Latin names for it (the broader Virga Aurea and the more specific species name, s. solidago Canadensis), in what appears to me to be a disambiguating move rather than an attempt to preserve a concept from risky translation or transliteration. Keeping to the convention that Latin is printed in an Antiqua typeface while German is printed in Fraktur, in this case, signifies something simply commonplace. It may also have the effect of lending a kind of scientific or intellectual shine to a practical craft text, designed to make it as attractive and useful to experimental chemists or naturalists as it would be to dye-makers practicing their craft. There doesn’t appear to be a cultural axe to grind in the type choices used in the Wiener Farbenkabinet — the publisher just does what the typographical conventions of the period require.

That it does not explicitly have a cultural axe to grind (as in the case of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s reprinting of her brother’s work) and is not designed specifically for linguistic or cultural preservation (as in Carruth) does not, however, mean that the Wiener Farbenkabinet‘s language and typeface choices carry no cultural weight. It is only in the context of common and unremarkable conventional usage like what we see in this manual that moves like Förster-Nietzsche’s or Carruth’s operate as ideological and educational tools. The fight about culture, identity, and language embodied in the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute is a battle joined at the historical border between familiar, commonplace practice (shown in things like practical manuals for broad audiences) and the realm of the new in a world that travel, industry, and technology have shrunk and changed.



* Obviously, if we’re looking at the Chicago Manual of Style, we’re looking at conventions for printed text in English that may or may not apply well to other European languages. “Foreign,” in this case, is a word that appears to cover pretty much anything not English, with special subcategories for languages not primarily represented in Roman letters using Latin typefaces. In Japanese, the relevant analogue is probably the use of katakana to represent non-Japanese words phonetically. Other languages and type systems have their own accommodations for “foreign” words, typically meant to do the work of making those words pronounceable as well as readable to local speakers/readers.



About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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