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Biblical Hebrew: the Finest Placement Ever

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Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm
Biblical Hebrew: the Finest Placement Ever

Biblical Hebrew has always posed a special challenge to typesetters. First, I am unaware of another language category that is as complex as Biblical Hebrew (perhaps, certain kinds of Arabic, with complicated ligatures, floating accents, and other marks).

Biblical Hebrew features special Hebrew typeface designs conducive to Biblical Hebrew vowel and cantorial marks, accent and stress marks, and symbols for certain grammar rules. So, in effect that's a Hebrew character with up to five floating glyphs positioned carefully above, within, and below the Hebrew character.

If that wasn't complex enough, the design of certain Hebrew characters are very narrow. This makes positioning the various diacritic glyphs very limiting, in order that they all appear together correctly, without bumping into one another.

This is further complicated when the Hebrew character which follows a narrow Hebrew character is either a daled or reish, Hebrew characters which are designed so as to have a vertical bar on the extreme right hand side. This means that the configuration of diacritic glyphs under the narrow Hebrew character, and diacritic glyphs under the specially designed Hebrew character daled or reish which follow it, must be carefully spaced apart, so that the reader does not confuse the pronunciation of the two Hebrew characters.

In the days of metal type, this was rarely accomplished successfully, and in the first generations of computer generated film type, this also could not be perfected. However, with the advent of the advanced features of diacritic placement, OpenType appears to offer the finest placement for Biblical Hebrew ever.

Since Biblical Hebrew is only used in certain texts, namely in the Jewish Bible, very sophisticated look-up tables can be created, directing the font to substitute specially created ligature-like glyphs to avoid bumping glyphs and to enable distinction between diacritic configurations. Futhermore, certain straight-forward grammatical rules can also be defined and included in advanced OpenType Biblical Hebrew fonts, so that Unicode data that did not include special glyphs indicating these grammatical rules could appear and be printed with these special glyphs, with the user having to insert them manually.

Write "go.hebrew@gmail.com" for more details.

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

Hebrew typography got an encouraging boost in the arm with the advent of Adobe InDesign ME Creative Suite, known as "CS" (Adobe is up to CS3 already) and MicroSoft/Adobe OpenType font format. Now, the sky is the limit for excellent Hebrew Typography.

OpenType replaces all the strengths and advantages of Adobe PostScript and Apple/MicroSoft TrueType, plus adds many new and powerful aspects never realized before in typesetting.

This is because OpenType features powerful contextual analysis and replacement routines, making it a step above the flat two-dimensional typeface software of the past.

Just like mathematical vector-based outline typeface was light years ahead of the now defunct bitmap font technology (so much so that Adobe won a landmark ruling in US Federal Court to legally protect its PostScript fonts, which the US Copyright Office refused to apply to bitmap font technology, which was considered as "merely typeface data describing letter forms"),

so, too, OpenType typeface software technology is a quantum leap ahead compared to the limited Adobe PostScript and Apple/MicroSoft TrueType typeface software technology.

(I recall that I had a lengthy correspondence with the head of the US Copyright Office, spanning two years, from 1989 until 1991, regarding whether my applications to the Library of Congress' US Copyright Office in Washington, D.C., for various sets of Adobe PostScript fonts were acceptable or not. The US Copyright Office wanted me to add a disclaimer to my applications, because without such a disclaimer, this would set a major precedence and imply typeface software was in deed subject to US Copyright, if it was in the outline software format.

I refused to add the disclaimers, and argued that a typeface software program was similar to telling a story. Two people can tell the same story, but one person can choose slightly different words, with different intonations. Similarly, two typeface software programs can describe or render the same typeface design, but one program can contain differently placed bezier or vector control points. Hence, these two typeface software programs are not the same, and are subject to US Copyright laws, just as books containing words are "intellectual expressions", and subject to US Copyright laws.)

Until know, a Hebrew typeface contained Hebrew character glyphs, dagesh points, nikud vowel symbols, taamim cantorial marks, meteg accent marks, and other diacritic elements to indicated certain grammatical rules. OpenType paved the way to remove the skilled craftsmanship from the joint efforts of the operating system, the application program, and the knowledgeable Hebrew typesetter to the very font itself. From now on, a well-crafted OpenType Biblical Hebrew font would contain all this skilled craftsmanship, and be the result of the talented type designer.

In deed, this is a gigantic breakthrough in Hebrew typography.