Typotheque develops typefaces to support the digital preservation of Indigenous languages

In close collaboration with Indigenous language keepers, Typotheque seeks to correct Unicode errors preventing Indigenous languages being written digitally.

1 September 2022

Type foundry Typotheque has just launched a project that aims to make it possible for Indigenous communities in Canada that use Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics (a family of writing systems) to write digitally without facing missing characters. The proposals will correct missing code points present in the Unicode Standard (the standard system that encodes writing systems for digital use), meaning that communities that use Syllabics will be able to write digitally without encountering ‘not defined’ character boxes, illegible or inaccurate characters. After rigorous research and collaboration with Nattilik and Dakelh (Carrier) communities in Canada, Typotheque has also designed three new Syllabics typefaces: Lava, November and October.

“When the Unicode Standard does not contain characters (code points for particular characters) in a given language’s orthography, it is not possible for that community to accurately use their language on digital text platforms,” says Kevin King, the type designer and researcher who led the North American Syllabics project. This means that communities can not participate “easily in sharing email”, and it also puts restrictions on who can use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. With users often forced to switch to a “majority language such as English”, Kevin explains that it “puts that minority language at risk of digital extinction".

With usage by younger generations vital to a language’s survival, enabling ways for users to actively engage with their language on a daily basis was central to the work.


Typotheque: North American Syllabics (Copyright © Typotheque, 2022)

Typotheque has successfully submitted two proposals to Unicode, the first to add missing code points and the second to correct the representative glyphs for the Carrier Syllabics in Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics code charts. Kevin explains that, in the case of the Dakelh (Carrier) community, “their Syllabics characters were completely encoded in Unicode in 1999, however, the representations of those characters were erroneous” – meaning they contained illegible and inaccurate characters. “Additionally, the texts that they would exchange with these typeface tools were not something that they identified with as ‘their’ writing system.”

Lava, one of Typotheque’s newly developed typefaces, offers a Syllabics typeface with stroke contrast, suitable for editorial environments and even available in a cursive version: “a rare feat for the Syllabic," the Typotheque site states (more information on the development of fonts for secondary use in Canadian Syllabics can be found here.) Meanwhile, November “is a rational, utilitarian typeface” for street wayfinding and information systems”, Kevin states. Completing the set is October, a geometric signage font with a “soft corner terminal and friendly character”. It is suitable for complex signage and information display, “as well as for packaging and branding projects”. You can read more about Lava, October and November at the Typotheque site.


Typotheque: North American Syllabics (Copyright © Typotheque, 2022)

While working on the project, Kevin says the foundry sought to engage with local Indigenous communities across Canada that use Syllabics “in order to understand any technical issues they were experiencing, and also to identify their locally preferred typographic Syllabics forms and behaviours”. Collaborating with language keepers in the Nattilik and Dakelh (Carrier) community – “along with many other Indigenous language keepers in other communities that use Syllabics," says Kevin – the foundry ensured that the resulting tools “would overcome barriers that their community faced, and perform to their expectations of how their Syllabics should work and look”.

Speaking of foundry’s work in the future, Kevin explains: “We continue to work with the same and other Indigenous communities on their Syllabics typography in order to continue addressing typographic preferences and needs for local communities, as well as helping these communities navigate the upgrading of their digital language tools (fonts and keyboards) on everyday devices. We are also now working with these same communities and many others to address their Roman orthography needs [a writing system that uses letters from the Latin alphabet], and the Indigenous languages in Canada that use complex Roman orthographies.”

GalleryTypotheque: North American Syllabics (Copyright © Typotheque, 2022)

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Typotheque: North American Syllabics (Copyright © Typotheque, 2022)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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