Thorn and eth

Type design / Thorn and eth

Trouble in a cold place

Icelanders are no conformists. They have their own alphabetical order and their own keyboard arrangement. They have two letters pretty much to themselves, the thorn and the eth. (Our neighbours and friends, the Faeroese, also use the eth.)

These two letters have been a lot of trouble. Type manufacturers often copied each other’s mistakes. Some of them were awful.

The thorn

The sound of the thorn is the same as the th in thing, an unvoiced fricative. It is the only letter of the Latin alphabet adopted from runes. Making it is largely assembly work.

The eth

The sound of the eth is the same as the th in that, a voiced fricative, and an inter-dental at that. Here is a method of making the capital eth, the lower case eth, and a few points about troublespots.

The place of the letter thorn in the alphabetical order has been excellently set out in a report by Michael Everson and Baldur Sigurðsson.

Simple assembly

The lower case thorn is easy. Start with the letter p, and add an ascender.

Easy aggregation

The cap thorn can usually be made from the letters I and P. (Don’t stick the bowl of the letter P on an I. The right baseline serif of a cap thorn should be as long as it is on the letter P.)


Scripts have their own rules. The example on the left shows the letter I with a bowl attached. This is not how a cap thorn should be made.

The letter in the middle shows a proper cap thorn. It should begin with a flourish of the kind that the letters CEG and L commonly have. Use the smallest, from the letter E: the bowl doesn’t leave much room. It shouldn’t rise higher than the lowest part of the flourish. (This one is borrowed from the letter B, and stretched.)

The cap thorn should have a descender. If a loop is too much trouble, the upstroke can be a part of the stem, as it is in the letter on the right.

Familiy resemblance

Making a cap eth isn’t difficult. The crossbar should be the same weight or a bit thicker than it is on the letter H. How high it sits on the stem depends on the shape of the bowl. Put it in the centre of the white counterspace.

Cap crossbar

The left side of the crossbar usually sticks out about as much as the serifs. In a sans-serif typeface, it shouldn’t touch a letter O standing next to it.

The right side of the crossbar mustn’t be too short. In the letter on the left, it is. The middle letter has a crossbar of conventional length. In the letter to the right, it’s a bit too long.

Very bold type

If the the counter of a very fat letter is too small to accommodate a crossbar, you can leave it out altogether.

Lower case ingredients

The lower case eth isn’t easy. Let’s begin with the letter o, and add a curve to its right side. A parenthesis or the numeral 9, upside down, may help. They aren’t always worth much, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

Ascender slant

We need a good, tense curve all the way from the top to the baseline. The ascender can taper to a point; slicing it is better still. Too much slant to the left is a common mistake. In these variations, the middle is a safe choice.

Crossbar slant

Fitting together the ascender and the crossbar is probably the most difficult part of the design. The four areas of white space around them need not be even, but they must be in balance. The crossbar should either be at right angles to the ascender or slightly off towards the horizontal. I prefer the letter in the middle.

Crossbar height

The crossbar belongs midway up the ascender. Too low is often better than too high. I prefer the version in the middle.

Crossbar length

Both sides of the crossbar are usually the same length. This has many exceptions, however, that look all right. If you make it too short, it looks silly. If it’s too long, it interferes with the texture of the page. And I prefer the version in the middle.


Heavy display faces with great x-height have problems of their own. Many haven’t got room enough for a crossed ascender. You can gain a bit by using a smaller bowl. (You can save a bit more, in a real pinch, by doing without a crossbar on the left.)

Swastica crossbar

Keep the crossbar straight. It looks bad when it’s curved and even worse bent at right angles. This illustration is from the Unicode Standard version 1.0, volume 1. Later editions show a better example.

No way out

A lower case eth shouldn’t be connected to the letter that follows. In script designs, an exit stroke is out of place.

Step by step

In the typeface Park Avenue, the letter eth, left, used to look bizarre. Fortunately, it has been changed.

The current version, second from the left, still leaves room for improvement. Moving the crossbar down, as in the second letter from right, would help. And a well-shaped ascender, right, would make a decent letter.

Needs work, that eth

The example on the left shows what can befall the letter eth when misunderstanding and imagination combine forces. It used to be a part of the typeface Brush Script. The middle letter is its current version, with an exit stroke and a bad ascender curve. As the letter on the right shows, it can be mended.