20 November 2011

From G to g: the need for speed

The ‘need for speed’ is one reason for the emergent minuscule letter g from its Trajan parent. The changes in letterforms evolve from a gradual reduction in the number of times the pen leaves the paper, and a tendency to incline the letters as they flow into one another.

Eric Gill’s evolution of the small letter g. Gill, 1931.

Bigelow calls the path of the mark-making tool, the ductus. In the majescule writing of the first century, the G ductus was largely invisible; that is, many more movements were made without the pen being in contact with paper. Contrast this with the ductus of a g written in fifteenth century chancery cursive. It has been economised to such an extent, that a high proportion of the movements of the pen are mark-making.

Illustration redrawn with modifications from Bigelow and Day, 1982

The minuscule hand was not only the result of an economising of pen-movements. It was the result of the influence cursive hands had on formal hands, and vice-versa. At any one time, in the evolution of writing, there is a wide range of styles in existence, varying from the most formal, careful calligraphy to quick notes. (Sometimes quickly scribbled forms accompany a formally written text on the same page of the manuscript). The quicker more cursive notes inevitably influenced the majuscule forms; in turn the scribbled letters re-made by the scribes’ broad nib became a formal hand in its own right,
Roman letter development began with a skeleton alphabet and then occurs on the one hand, a formal characterisation of this alphabet influenced and largely produced by the broad-nibbed pen, and, on the other hand, a less formal characterisation resulting from the scribbling of the educated public: this development, at first controlled by the tool and material – the stylus and wax tablets of the public – was mastered by them, the scribblers, and became an economic development, simplified strokes and linkings or loopings, saving both time and space. The craftsmen in their turn, borrowing the more economic skeleton forms characterised them afresh by means of the broad nib. Johnston, 1913.