Lost Letters

In today's Letterform, Émilie Rigaud of French type foundry A is for... introduces us to the fragile beauty of Hentai-gana, a range of soon-to-be obsolete characters from the Japanese writing system...

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Hentai-gana 変体仮名 

Two years ago, I started to research the history of Japanese fonts. Following this trail, I ended up settling down in Tōkyō a few months ago to indulge in contemplation of old Japanese characters.

The Japanese script is a complex one, as it combines thousands of sinograms, a first syllabic system called hiragana, and a second syllabic system called katakana (and also various latin letters or figures, otherwise Japanese typeface designers wouldn't be challenged enough, obviously).

In the 7th century, when the Japanese imported sinograms from China, the Japanese language had no written form and all necessary texts were written in Chinese. But after several decades, the Japanese started to use the sinograms for their sound, rather than for their meaning, to transcribe their own language. As they were written by hand, the sinograms naturally evolved towards more cursive shapes, a process that resulted in the formation of the hiraganas that are now essential to the Japanese writing system. A hiragana represents one sound, the same sound as the sinogram it originated from.

However, even if different sinograms shared the same sound, their 'cursification' lead to different hiraganas. So for one sound, Japanese ended up with several shapes, and for centuries, nobody cared. But in 1900, a script reform occurred, and Japanese officials decided to keep only one hiragana for each sound.

All the hiraganas that were set aside became outlaws, banished from the official writing system, and they are now called hentai-ganas (変体仮名), which is quite a derogatory name in my understanding, as the word hentai literally means 'that which differs from the norm'.

There are currently discussions about whether to include the hentai-ganas in Unicode or not. At the present time, they are not part of it, but this may cause problems in the future when transcribing a classical text: you can not keep the appearance of it, you have to write it with modern kanas and you may loose some of the intentions of the author. If she or he chose one kana rather than another, maybe it was for a good reason, even if merely aesthetic reason. (Modern occidental society may value 'function', but a choice that is led by something other than function can nonetheless be a meaningful choice.)

The example I have chosen to show here is not a hentai-gana from a digitised typeface, but a picture derived from a printed hentai-gana made of metal, intended for letterpress. This underlines the tension between the calligraphic origin of the kanas and the rigorous norm that typography has applied to their shapes—the contrast between the natural, flowing movements of a living hand and the constraints of technology. Signs had to fit small blocks of metal; they had to behave, and the extravagant ones were fired from the team. In a sense, typography is one of the reasons behind the extinction of the lively hentai-gana species.

But thanks to the digital era there is hope today, with signs being freed from their stiff blocks and gaining a new liberty on the flexible canvas of screens. In some cases, technology can mean freedom after all.



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