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When we speak about characters we assume two things: the image that we see and the symbolic information that relates to this image. The specific form (shape) of a character is called a glyph: Same character with different glyphs:

Character A in various presentations, from streight upright to floweresk

A glyph is the minimal unit of font information. Each glyph can be defined in two ways: information about the character the glyph represents and specific information about the glyph. For example, we can define the character “H” as “two vertical strokes with one horizontal stroke that connects them at half their height.” All possible shapes of the character H can be defined this way. To get a glyph definition, we would add the following words (for the Times typeface): “The vertical strokes are wider than the horizontal strokes and each of them is finished by thin rounded serifs.”

Meaning of glyphs

The same image may have many meanings. For example the character “H” means one letter in the English language and a very different letter in the Russian language (very close to an English “N”) or in the Greek language (Eta).

Features of glyphs

Although the Chinese have invented moving letters long before Gutenberg not much is known about form variations for non-latin scripts. For latin scripts (and derivatives such as cyrillic) letterforms got many features. The names of the different parts of a character have a long and well documented history. There are manuscripts going back to the 15th century. The most used terms are listed in the image and table hereafter.Features (ears, stems etc.) of glyphs demonstrated on various characters. The features are in different colour to identify them

Description of feature indicate English indicate German indicate French
horizontal stroke that is free on one end



part of the lowercase letters b, d, f, h, k, l and t that extends above the x-hight Ascender Oberlänge  
horizontal stroke in the letters A, H, e, t and similar letters Bar    
curved stroke which makes an enclosed space with a character Bowl    
fully or partially enclosed space within a character Counter Punze  
part of the letters g, j, p, q, y and sometimes J, that extends below the baseline Descender Unterlänge  
small stroke projecting from the top of the lowercase g Ear    
a thin stroke usually common to serif typestyles Hairline    
the stroke connecting the top and bottom of a lowercase g Link    
lower portion of lowercase g Loop Schlaufe  
a line crossing the main strokes of a character. There are many varieties Serif Serif  
descender of Q or short diagonal stroke of the R Tail    
the end of a stroke not terminated with a serif Terminal    
curved stroke of the h, m and n Shoulder    
main curved stroke of a lowercase or capital S Spine    
a small projection off a main stroke; found on many capital G's Spur    
straight vertical stroke, or main straight diagonal stroke in a letter which has no vertical strokes (x, X, z, Z) Stem Stamm  
direction of thickening in a curved stroke Stress    
straight or curved line Stroke    
fancy flourisch replacing a terminal or serif Swash    
relation between thin and thick strokes (pole or equatoral position in round glyphs) Contrast    

Interpretation of glyphs

In hot-metal times the term glyph was not yet used. A letter was the physical representation of a character: a block of metal with the cut out mirrored image of the letter shape.

With the advent of electronic printing, the variety of shapes for a chacrater proliferated – because it became much easyer to create and modify shapes. The glyph is described as an outline from which various process-dependent forms can be derived. For most printing processed the outline is transformed into a bit-map ➔ rendering, rasterising.

Special glyphs

At least in the western typographic world special forms have developed:

indicate English indicate German indicate French
Illustration of a fleuron, a docorative element in the form of a flower
Image of a grammalogue, that is a special symbol, such as the ampersand or the at-sign
Grammalogue (Literally, a letter word; a word represented by a logogram): et, at Logogramm  
Image of ligatures fi and etImages of the diphthongs AE and ae


Mediaval figures. These are not all of same size. For example, the 3, 5 and 7 reach below the base line Oldstyle figures, medieval figures Mediävalziffern  

[To top/bottom of page] Sources

ITC publication u&lc (upper and lowercase) around 1990.

[To top/bottom of page] Further links


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