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I was once told that creating a typeface is similar to opening a can of worms: it is something that I shouldn't try unless I am an expert typographer. Despite these heedings, I knew I wanted to create a typeface.

Though I am a type nerd through and through, I am not quite a typographer. Perceived limitations aside, I decided to create a typeface in my native language, Sinhalese. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I remember noticing that the newspapers and books only had one style of typeface. Sans-serif or serif fonts were not used. The type was plain and consistent - which is fine - but I wanted to bring a level of inspiration and sophistication to the way Sinhalese is written.

There is a multitude of typeface styles for Western written languages, but it’s rare to see different styles for Eastern languages. I wanted my type style to have a modern and elegant look, while being incredibly easy to read. I looked to characteristics of one of my favorite type styles, Didot, for insight. Didot represents a new modern era of typeface, with its unique style of very thick and thin contrast in the strokes. Another favorite is Bodoni, which was inspired by Didot.


Background

Sri Lanka is a tiny island on the Indian Ocean located 32 km from India. The majority of Sri Lankans speak Sinhalese, the native language. Sri Lanka was originally known as Ceylon, and this tiny island was at different times ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

Before all these foreign rulers, early writings known as Brahmi script - written during the third century B.C. - were found in the caves of Mihintale. The Brahmi script was widely used during the spread of Buddhism in the second century B.C., during the reign of Arhant Mahinda (son of Emperor Ashoka in India). The scripts seen in caves were considered records of the donations given to Buddhist monks by lay people. [1]

As Buddhism spread across the country, so did the writings. By the eighth century C.E., the writings became more developed and began to take on a shape similar to the present language. It was heavily influenced by Pallava Grantha (used in South India), well as the materials available to write on during that period. When the languages were written on stone, the shape of the letters was very angular with sharp edges. When palm leaves replaced stone as a writing surface, the shape of the letters took on a more circular form, because angular shapes damaged the leaf.1 Writings on palm leaves became widely popular, and books were transcribed on them. Buddhist manuscripts were copied and distributed among temples.

The Dutch East India Company captured the maritime colony of Ceylon from the Portuguese in 1656. During that time, the Dutch clergymen wanted to copy religious documents using palm leaves in the traditional methods of the island. After they realized this system was not working, a printing press was established in 1736 in the Fort of Colombo. The Dutch printed plakkaten, which were religious, educational and non-educational books in Sinhala and Dutch, between 1737 and 1796, until the British took over.4 The Sinhalese characters were wood cut by Gabriel Schade. [1]


Didot Characteristics

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Firmin Didot designed the Didot typeface in Paris in 1793, and this type was used during the French Revolution. Firmin Didot’s stylized font had sharp contrasts between thick and thin strokes, and was soon was characterized as modern or Didone. “The typeface cut by the Didot family in France was even more abstract and severe than those of Baskerville, with slab-like, unbracketed serifs and a stark contrast from thick to thin.” [3]

Didot’s thick and thin strokes - which evoke elegance and power - inspired my typeface style. The thick and thin contrast of my typeface accentuates the circular curves of the Sinhalese letters.


Designing a Sinhalese Typeface

The Sinhala alphabet has 54 letters overall. However, basic Sinhala has 38 letters, including 12 vowels and 26 consonants, which are read from left to right. [2] These 38 letters are the most commonly used letters for speaking and writing. The rest of the letters were used during the old times and are considered to be part of Sinhalese literature.

While conducting research prior to creating my typeface, I discovered that some of the rules to design a Roman alphabet also apply to designing a Sinhalese type. For example, there is an x-height, ascender, and descender, but there isn’t a cap height. There is no such thing as lowercase and uppercase letters in the Sinhalese alphabet, which demonstrates a marked divergence from Romance languages.

Each distinct letter shape can be put into one of three categories: medial, ascending, and descending letters.

Ascending letters: The letters that are on the middle of the line and move upward are called ascending letters.

Medial letters: The letters written in the middle of the lines are medial letters.

Descending letters: The letters that are on the middle of the line and move downward to the bottom are descending letters.


Process

As I was creating a set of letters, I noticed how similar the letters within the categories above looked. If I could create one letter from each category, I would be able to duplicate that process with a new letter in the category.

To achieve the look I sought, I engaged in a trial and error process with each letter to create a Sinhalese typeface influenced by Didot. It was only after I had designed a series of letters that I realized how closely my letters resemble the unique characteristics of Didot.


Sketches


Created Letters

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1. Dias, Gihan, Harsha Wijayawardhana, Ruvan Weerasinghe, Rohini Paranavithana, Dineesha Ediriweera, G. Balachandran, Winnie Hettigoda, Sinnathambi Shanmugarajah, and Chamara Dissanayake. Guide to Creating Sinhala and Tamil Unicode Fonts.

2. Chandralal, Dileep. Sinhala. 2010

3. Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type (2nd Edition). 2010

4. Coningham R.A.E, Allchin F.R, Batt C.M, and Lucy D. Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi Script. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6: 73-97. 1996. http://www.academia.edu/5221628/Passage_to_India_Anuradhapura_and_the_Early_Use_of_the_Brahmi_Script