The story of the letter f

Handwriting / The story of the letter f

A change of direction: what happened?

Enterprising scribes of the fifteenth century tried to improve a perfectly good writing movement. It caused much confusion.

Separate functions

For centuries there were two different kinds of letters. One was a formal book hand. It was written carefully by scribes, meant for repeated reading and intended to last. The other was the documentary hand, which often served the purpose of creating proof of title and authority, but was also used for correspondence and short-lived notes. It was written fast by notaries and clerks, usually with joined characters.

Computers have changed the way text is handled. The first novel written on a word processor was published in 1970, Len Deighton’s ‘Bomber’. But less than fifty years ago the old division was still clear and self-evident. Documents were created by typists. Typesetters turned manuscripts into printed matter.

How the letter F was made in ancient Rome

A capital such as this was meant for repeated reading and written with care. After the stem had been made, the pen was lifted, the upper bar written and, after a second pen lift, the lower bar.

Same letter, same movement. Very different shape

A document (merchant’s records, a court judgment, a will) only merited occasional reading, and clerks took shortcuts.

After writing the stem, the pen moved without a lift to the top of the letter. The bar had been replaced by a loop. From there it moved down to make the horizontal bar and move on to the next letter.

Actual example, ca 552 CE

This method of writing the letter f lasted for at least 1200 years. The text reads ‘EFFECT’. Papyrus document, Paris, Bibl nat lat 8842.

The easy way

In the seventh century BCE the earliest form of the Latin alphabet was static, and owed much to basic geometric shapes. It was was adapted from a variant of Greek letters that in turn came from the the consonants-only Phoenician character set. Creating those letterforms was easy. Writing them at length was not.

The early Roman cursive were an effort to make capital letters quickly. In the late Roman cursive the lettershapes were modified to accommodate the pen and the hand. Expansion of business demanded administrative, legal and commercial records and notifications. New conditions of literacy and affluence needed more and quicker writing. The change was fascinating.

New and improved?

No doubt some renaissance scribes thought the new letterform looked better and they may well have been right. Unfortunately he new version had the same movement pattern as the letter ſ (long s) on the right.

Problem and a solution

Shifting the pen nib from the descender to the crossbar caused much confusion. Two letters, the f and the long s were written with the same movement. The left-turn descender failed, despite attractive variations by secretaries and writing masters. These are Edward Cocker‘s fancy solutions of 1668. In the end, the simple mutation on the right carried the day.

Twilight of a tradition

Martin Billingsley taught writing to Charles I and favoured the traditional, left-turning letter f in his copybook of 1618.

Victoria and Albert Museum, L3061-1960.

Royal decision

King Charles I preferred the easy way of getting to the exit stroke of the letter f and turned his descender to the right.

The arrow points at his way of writing the letter t, made with exactly the same movement as his letter f.

Victoria and Albert Museum, Forster Ms 100.

Twist and turn

Take the centuries-old movement of the letter f. Turn it upside down. Then flip it back to front. Looks familiar?

The renaissance humanists caused much confusion when they tampered with the way of writing the letter f. But little changed. There aren’t many ways to get back to a crossbar of a straight character.

Seventeen centuries back in time

The print script of the early twentieth century returns us to static, geometric lettershapes. The benefits of shortcuts and clerical convenience are gone. Children are advised to learn typing.

Of course there is no accounting for taste. But in a handwriting model from the school system of Oakland, California, the letter x is surely among the ugliest of its kind.