Typophile post: history of the Greek [typographic] script

[Text reproduced from a reply on Typophile in August 2005, as was]

Thanks to Clodosinde for his/her post, which brought this to my attention again; topics can fall “below the fold” too fast. For the somnolently challenged, I commented on the very same thing during my recent www.typeradio.org interview, so I’ll try not to deviate too much from what I recall saying there. but this is one of those issues that on the MATD takes me a few hours with a cart-full of supporting visual material to explain sufficiently, so here I will have to be excused for shortcuts in my narrative and little in the way of justification.

If you want the short version, jump to the eighties bit, where the *** are.

Ok, here goes: the development of the Greek script (like the Latin, but with different sources) is divergent in the two cases. But although the script precedes the Latin it does not have direct links in any of its cases to inscriptional forms. Instead, the roots of both Greek cases are in manuscripts of the Alexandrine and early Byzantine era, when people were writing on softer materials. The capitals maintained — and, indeed amplified — the presentational and theatrical elements, being used mostly for titling and ecclesiastical documents (read: a conservative context) and their echoes survive to this day in specific pockets of scribal and typographical documents, as well as hagiography. The lower case has its root in secular documents: records, transactions, literary works, and the like: written fast, on cheaper materials. The sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 helped a flowering of Cretan letters; and the impressively timed second sack by the Ottomans in 1453 (geddit?) sent a small army of Greek scribes to the Italian peninsula. They hit the ground in the middle of the Renaissance interest in all things Classical Greek (and especially Aristotle; see below). They took with them the fast, joined secular script they used in volume into their new jobs as editors, proofreaders, typesetters, printers, and teachers (importantly of the offspring of the well-to-do literati, who would grow with this script for their Greek notes). Note that there was, as you would expect, a range of styles within the genre of this secular Byzantine script. The first printers tried out the different styles, but it was Aldus’ choice that edged out its competitors — not on stylistic grounds, since other styles were equally well accepted, but primarily due to his typographic choices (cheaper, small format books) and editorial policy (good progress towards the works of Aristotle, whose were deemed the ultimate texts for scholars to contemplate.

So far, so good. But throw in professionals that are simultaneously very conservative and mindful of what the competition does, and you get exceptional continuity in the typographic style. By the end of the eighteenth century we have seen a simplification of the forms and the development of a more typographical script, but nothing like the top-to-bottom re-jigging of the Latin script. At the end of the nineteenth century there are essentially two “old” styles, one upright (French) and one inclined (German) plus an inclined style less than a century old.

Then mechanical typesetting hits the horizon, and in the early years of the twentieth century Monotype single-handedly flips things on their head by fixing for Greek the upright=primary, inclined=secondary model, albeit not without exceptions (single-variant typefaces continue for many decades). Although there are now local foundries, their innovation tends to focus on display styles, and the parameters for text-setting are firmly set on the Monotype mould. This situation continues until after WW2 and the Greek Civil War (1944–49).

First signs of new ideas come in 1956–57 with Times New Roman Greek: this is a very strange beast, whose design echoes on one hand the rationalising tendencies of the International Style and on the other the primary/secondary style discussions Morison and van Krimpen were having. This distorted template set the tone for text typefaces for quite some time, breaking ranks with a 500-year history. Fast forward to the early seventies, when Linotype introduced a whole new raft of typefaces (most importantly Helvetica and Baskerville, but also Souvenir, CentSchoolbook, later Optima) for phototypesetting. Mike Parker recounted eloquently one aspect of this chapter during TypeCon, at the celebration for Matthew Carter. What he did not comment on was that at the time Greece was smack in the middle of a military dictatorship bent on distancing the country from the “Soviet menace”. The sound-bite “we belong to the West” was often repeated then, and it is within this context that the Linotype typefaces were developed: explicitly eschewing “traditional” elements, and going for a more “western” texture. This was a radical stylistic re-appraisal of the Greek typographic script, perhaps equivalent to the adoption of the sans serifs for running text in the Latin script. Even within this very particular agenda, Linotype did a pretty good job of producing these typefaces: they “just worked” especially for the documents the emerging middle classes would be producing: magazines, advertising, ephemera, and so on. Combined with a very long gap in any significant typeface development by any manufacturer these Linotype typefaces set the tone for the whole of the seventies and eighties. (I recall when I started working in 1986 that major service bureaux would get by simply with the basic Linotype set, relying for variety on the considerable range of compression/expansion of the forms their typesetting equipment would afford).


All this gives you a decent context for the eighties, which is much more complicated as a narrative by the switch to monotonic, the gradual change in equipment in small printers (small Heidelberg platens giving their place to A4 / A3 offest presses), the DTP thing which was essentially driven by new box-shifter companies with no design personnel, the implications of the ISO8857-9 encoding (and the related Win1253, and the really crappy MacOSGreek) for font piracy, the early nineties explosion in small bureaux, the complicated tertiary educational environment in design, and a few other things it normally takes me quite some time to go over. Fast forward to the mid/late nineties, when Adobe was working on Minion Pro, which — correctly, for its time — was pitched as a workhorse text family — what Times should have been, in a sense. Shortly after followed Myriad Pro and Warnock Pro (the latter a bit more adventurous than Minion in the Greek). These typefaces updated the Greek canon and provided some useful tools: a good polytonic, substantial character sets, wide families, and unicode encoding.

Since the mid nineties Greece is becoming increasingly more confident of its position and culture, with the zenith marked by the entry into the Eurozone (on cooked books, we now know) and the Olympics (don’t get me started). Less observed, but equally important, was the proud welcoming of the Byzantine heritage, signified by the major “Glory of Byzantium” exhibition in the Metropilitan a few years earlier. In short, the not-so-clearly defined Byzzantine character, which mixed influences, religions, languages, and traditions, was recognised as a full (and in my view the main) progenitor of the modern Greek society.

So, as Minion was reflective of the less confident nineties, needing to re-state the fairly old paradigms, Garamond Premiere Pro Super-Long Name Extra revisits the sixteenth century models for the Greek, and updates them for the current context, in a very twenty-first century interpretation. In many ways it would have been impossible for a major publisher to put out a typeface like this much earlier; but the time is ripe now, and similar approaches in less visible quarters echo this approach to re-interpreting Greek. So, if you want a kick-ass text typeface with all the bells and whistles, give it a go. I’ve used the main weights of the typeface a lot, but cannot show you anything because all I’ve got is beta fonts.

I should be writing more at this stage, but I got fed up. Please not more questions about Greek.)