Of Mice and Keyboards

Name that Font!
Font Substitution and Font Naming

three rats calling five fonts by name

Font Substitution

Look at this line. You don’t need to know what it says. (It doesn’t mean anything rude. Honest. It’s just the opening of the Iliad.)

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

Within each word, do all letters look about the same? If not, do the “odd” letters look like a completely different font, or do they look like some form of garbage?

I used Greek because the letters alpha α through omega ω are part of many ordinary fonts, even if you never knew they were there. And, unless you’ve got a truly ancient computer, at least one font will include the full range of polytonic Greek—the letters with the accents. But it probably isn’t the font you use as your default.

To display the fancier Greek characters, your browser has to deploy Font Substitution. Some browsers recognize Greek and put it all in the same font; some do it only if the text is wrapped in something that says <lang = "el">; some look at the more obscure font settings from your browser preferences; some just do what they feel like.

That’s why one or two letters in each word might not match. They’re the ones your browser had to pull out of a different font. In fact, if you use Opera, you may see yet another pattern. Instead of deploying Font Substitution on a letter-by-letter basis, it stays with the new font to the end of the word.

If some letters don’t display at all, it means Font Substitution is not happening. If so, you may need to think seriously about using a different browser. They are all free, and your current browser will not block you from downloading a different one.

Font Naming

Now look at these two lines. Do they look roughly the same?

ᐅᕙᖓ ᑐᑭᓯᙱᑦᑐᖓ ᐀ ᑐᑭᓯᑎᓪᓗᒍ

ᐅᕙᖓ ᑐᑭᓯᙱᑦᑐᖓ ᐀ ᑐᑭᓯᑎᓪᓗᒍ

If they both look like garbage—or boxes or question marks—take another look at your computer. Ask someone else to check too. Either you thought you had a syllabic font installed and you really don’t, or it’s installed in the wrong place. Some browsers are more forgiving than others. If you have Javascript enabled, you might try this simple test.

Fonts that are made for non-Latin characters such as Inuktitut syllabics will always include the basic Latin letters, numbers and punctu­ation. But the Latin letters tend to be a clunky-looking and oversized sans-serif like this. It is very unlikely that anyone would use them as their browser default. So the browser has to get the characters from somewhere else.

The first line of text is supposed to be in Euphemia, with Pigiarniq and several other fonts as a backup. If your browser honors the “font naming” instruction, it will look for the Euphemia font first. If it can’t find it, it will go on through the rest of the list.

The second line does not say anything about fonts. The choice is left up to the browser.

If only the first line displays, it means that your computer has one of the named fonts, but the browser does not do Font Substitution. It can only use a font if it has been specifically told to do so.

If both lines display, but the overall line length is different, that’s font substitution at work. In the first line, everything including the spaces is in Euphemia. In the second line, the spaces are in your browser’s default font, which is narrower overall. The text only changes to a UCAS font for the letters.

And, finally: If everything in the first line displays properly except the inuksuk character [inuksuk] in the middle, it means one of two things. You’ll know which one it is. Either you don’t have Pigiarniq or Uqammaq—no other fonts contain this character—or font substi­tution isn’t happening.

A Common Mistake

A lot of web sites will specify a font, such as Pigiarniq or Euphemia, every single time the text goes into syllabics. You do not need to do this. In the days of legacy fonts, you had to spell out <font face = "ProSyl"> or similar because it was the only way to make the text show up as intended. With Unicode, this is not necessary. It’s just like insisting on Arial or Helvetica when the page will show up perfectly well in the user’s own preferred font. This page would look prettier in Palatino, but I’m not going to shove it down your throat.

Are you worried about the users whose browsers don’t do font substitution? There are situations where you have to annoy or incon­venience the majority in order to provide an essential service to a minority. Web page design is not one of those situations.

There is one important exception, though. If many of your readers are stuck with antiquated browsers—I won’t name names, but you know which one I mean—you may need to include a Condi­tional Comment. Only one browser family recognizes this form of notation. Conveniently, it happens to be the only browser that ever needs the extra help.

Trivia: What the Names Mean

AiPaiNunavik / AiPaiNutaaq: You don’t need me to tell you where Nunavik is. A ᓄᑖᖅ nutaaq is anything new—like, say, the Unicode version of a legacy font. The “AiPai” part is interesting. Officially it refers to the character set: ᐁ ᐯ and so on as alternatives to ᐊᐃ and ᐸᐃ. No other legacy font had this series of characters, though the Unicode fonts all do; they represent the “e” sound in those languages that have it. But the characters also illustrate the distinctive “look” of AiPaiNunavik and AiPaiNutaaq—narrower and more vertical than most UCAS fonts.

AUJAQ: You know that one too. ᐊᐅᔭᖅ is “summer”. Or, I guess, SUMMER. But since much of the font is now functionally unusable, ᐅᑭᐅᖅ (ukiuq) may have been more appropriate.

Ballymun: Your guess is as good as mine. The name is obviously Irish—among other things, it’s a well-known part of Dublin—but so far I haven’t found the connection.

Euphemia: You don’t meet a lot of Euphemias these days, but it’s an attested human name. The source is Greek and means something like “talking nicely”. You may recognize the same elements in the word “euphemism”. Maybe the font designers thought the Inuktitut language sounded pretty. Or maybe it was meant as an hommage to ᐅᖃᒻᒪᖅ (uqammaq), below. Since the fonts were designed by the same people—Tiro Typeworks, who also gave us Pigiarniq—this seems a safe guess.

Naamajut—or naammajut, or namakput, or dialectal variants to taste—means something like “enough”. Seems a pretty lukewarm name for your font, but there you are. On the one hand you’ve got the verb root ᓈᒪᒃ (naamak-) meaning “adequate” or “good enough”. On the other hand is simple ᓈ (naa-), meaning “complete” or “finished”. Do some further business with the -ma- affix and you’re all set. I can’t delve into this too deeply, or linguistic contamination will set in and I will start thinking it involves नमक् (namak) and therefore means “salty”. Oh, and don’t ask me why it’s plural. Maybe there are enough key assignments to keep everyone happy.

Nunacom(U) appears to mean “I don’t have a lot of imagination when it comes to font names, so we’ll just take ᓄᓇ (nuna) and stick on a -com to make it sound computer-like”. The same goes for Prosyl.

Pigiarniq: “beginning”. The verb root is ᐱᒋᐊᖅ pigiaq-, made by attaching the affix -giaq- “begin or start (to do something)” to the Universal Monosyllable pi. Add a further affix ᓂᖅ -niq and you’ve got an abstract noun. The verb can also mean “attack”, but that’s not a very nice way to approach your language.

Tunngavik: A base or foundation. But it sounds cozier if you unpack it. Then you get a time or place (ᕕᒃ -vik) where you sit down and make yourself at home (ᑐᖓ tunga- or ᑐᙵ tunnga-).

Uqammaq breaks down to ᐅᖃᖅ uqaq- with affix ᒻᒪᖅ -mmaq—better known as ᒃᑲᖅ -kkaq—“someone who speaks well”. The word only occurs in descriptions of missionary Edmund Peck. People who are familiar with his Grammar may want to add “for a given definition of ‘well’”. But the font’s designers evidently thought highly of him; they’ve got a whole page about Uqammaq—and I don’t mean the font.


If you have a font-related question and can’t find an answer, drop me an e-mail. I may or may not know, but it can’t hurt to ask. Conversely, let me know if you have infor­mation that you think belongs in this group of pages.