Different forms of ⟨a⟩ based on position in word?

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Alex Bicksler's picture
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Joined: 18 Apr 2017 - 2:21pm
Different forms of ⟨a⟩ based on position in word?
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Do y'all know if this is a common phenomenon?

The attached image of a small section from a 1407 Belgian Latin Bible (I found this on Wikimedia) shows two quite distinct glyphs for ⟨a⟩, seemingly based on position in the word, akin to how ⟨s⟩ is word-final and ⟨ſ⟩ elsewhere.

Specifically, it seems that there is one form (which I've highlighted in red), very similar to an ordinary double-story ⟨a⟩, that seems to appear mostly at word-initially. The other form (highlighted in blue) looks like a script ⟨ɑ⟩ with a bar in the middle, and appears elsewhere.

I say "mostly" because in this small sample there are two instances (which I've double-highlighted) where the initial form comes non-initially: the partially-visible ⟨a⟩ on the first line, and the last one on the fifth line. The latter comes after one of those contracting dots, so I wonder if that's relevant.

Has anybody noticed examples of these variants used in relatively consistent contexts, like this? And can anybody explain the exceptions to the apparent rule? I'd love to see more examples (and I'd especially love to see more of this particular manuscript).

Typography.Guru's picture
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Joined: 8 May 2003 - 2:39pm
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I would say it’s a way to stress the picket fence effect of this type of writing. It’s a purely visual change, not an orthographical one. The writer does the same thing with the r.
You have a regular r at the end of words, but a narrow so-called “round r” within words.
The a exception is explainable through the preceding letter. The e doesn’t end with a stroke on the right side and even creates a gap there. So the writer fills in this space with the regular a this time, whereas in all other cases he can continue the picket fence look of the preceding letters with the unusual a shape or he can even connect the letters as in the d+a case.

John D Petty's picture
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Joined: 4 Mar 2012 - 9:17am
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I think TypoGuru is spot on. Medieval scribes frequently used many kinds of ligatures and diphthongs, some 'standard' but others sometimes quite 'individual'. In this instance the scribe is using the vertical of the preceding letter and combining it with the a.