Hariphunchai News, Adventures and Challenges for 2011

Now that 2011 is now well under way, we would like to take a short “time out” from glyph design to report some exciting news, as well as discuss the typographical adventures and challenges that we face.

Google Web Fonts logo

Google is supporting the Hariphunchai Project

First I am pleased to report that Google, as part of their commitment to improve worldwide coverage of fonts, is supporting the Hariphunchai Tai Tham font development effort and will include Hariphunchai in the Google Font Directory once our font is ready. Thanks, Google!

Adventures and Challenges

Now let's discuss some of the adventures and challenges that we face. The pace of work on the Hariphunchai Tai Tham font has intensified significantly, and I am very happy to report that we are making excellent progress.

Progress of course rarely occurs without problems and challenges. This project has more than its fair share of interesting and unique challenges to keep us on our toes. In order to understand some of the challenges that we face, it may be helpful for readers to first learn a bit more about the history and fundamental characteristics of the Tai Tham script.

A Brief History of the Tai Tham Script

The Tai Tham script has been used for many centuries throughout the northern regions of Southeast Asia. The script derives from the Pallava script which is itself descended from the ancient Brāhmī script of the Indian subcontinent.

The Pallava script arose during the Pallava dynasty in Southern India from the 3rd to 5th centuries C.E. Initially used to write Sankrit and Pali, it later became popular for writing stone and monumental inscriptions in numerous languages throughout much of Southeast Asia.

The famous Myazedi Inscription, inscribed in the Pallava script in 1113 C.E. in the Bagan region of Myanmar (Burma), is an excellent example. This stone stele tells the story of Prince Yazakumar and King Kyansittha in a different language –Pali, Mon, Burmese, and Pyu– on each of the four faces. A detail of the Mon face is shown below.

Myazedi Mon inscription in Pallava script
Mon language inscription in Pallava script on the Myazedi stele at Bagan, Myanmar, 1113 C.E.

The Pallava script, like the Brahmi script, is an abugida. Each consonant has an inherint vowel sound “a” associated with it. Vowels occur in both independent and dependent forms. The dependent vowel forms are widely used to modify a consonant's inherint vowel “a” to something else like an “u” or an “i” sound, so that a consonant like “ka” can be used to write syllables like “ku” or “ki”.

Dependent vowel symbols surround base consonants. These vowel symbols may occur before, on top, after, or under a base consonant. For example, the circles that occur sporadically above the primary lines of text in the Mon inscription above are the symbols for the short vowel "i". In contrast, the signs for short and long vowel "u" would appear below base consonants.

Dipthongs are written by combining two dependent vowel symbols which surround a base consonant. For example, the dipthong "au" is written by prefixing a consonant with one sign and postfixing with another sign:

Pallava dependent vowel example
Surrounding dependent vowel signs modify the inherint vowel "a" of a Pallava consonant.

In addition to having dependent vowel signs surrounding consonants, the Pallava script also allows consecutive consonants and consonant clusters to be stacked vertically.

The Pallava script was exported to Thailand with the Mon Dvaravati kingdoms that occupied central Thailand from the 6th through 12th centuries.

Ancient chronicles record that a hermit named Vāsuthēp established the city of Hariphunchai (present-day Lamphun) around 750 C.E. in northern Thailand. Vāsuthēp is said to have invited Princess Jāmathēvī (พระนางจามเทวี), daughter of the king of Lavō (ละโว้) in central Thailand, to come north to rule Hariphunchai. Jāmathēvī brought with her around 10,000 monks, philosopher-sages and artisans who established Hariphunchai as a center of civilized arts and culture. The oldest examples of Tai Tham script in Thailand have been found at Hariphunchai.

The Pallava inscriptions that have survived the ravages of time are, not surprisingly, carved in stone where we see that the letterforms comprise both rectilinear and curvilinear elements.

But of course not all writing was done on stone. Although modern paper technology did not exist, a method of writing with a sharp needle on trimmed palm leaves has existed for centuries in South and Southeast Asia.

It is likely that the technology of writing on palm leaves came to Thailand from Sri Lanka. The Buddhist Tripitaka Canon was written in Pali on palm leaves during the 5th Buddhist Council beginning in the year 433 of the Buddhist Era (B.E.), and it is recorded that Buddhist monks from the Lanna region of Northern Thailand travelled to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism beginning with the reign of Queen Jāmathēvī.

When writing with a needle on palm leaves, it is more convenient to draw curvilinear forms instead of rectilinear forms. Notice that many of the scripts of South India and Southeast Asia are dominated by circular forms. Once we understand how a needle-tipped instrument was used to inscribe palm leaves, it is not difficult to imagine the natural evolutionary development of the Old Mon, Tai Tham, and Burmese scripts from the monumental Pallava script.

Example Tai Tham written on palm leaf.
As is typical of scripts originally written on palm leaves, The Tai Tham script is dominated by circular letter forms

In 1292 C.E., King Mangrai the Great (พญามังราย) succeeded in defeating King Yiba of Hariphunchai. This marked the end of the Mon Kingdom of Hariphunchai, and the ascendancy of the Tai Lanna Kingdom (อาณาจักรล้านนา) of Northern Thailand. Since then, the Tai Tham script which developed from the old Pallava script has continued to be used all the way up to the modern period.

Important Characteristics of the Tai Tham Script

The Tai Tham script directly inherited several important features from the Pallava script. One important feature is that vowel signs may surround a base consonant by appearing before, on top, after, or below a base consonant.

Vowel positioning in Tai Tham
Vowel signs may occur before, after, on top, or below a base consonant in Tai Tham. The long vowels e, i, u, and a are shown surrounding the base consonant, ka.

Dipthongs and tripthongs composed of two or more such surrounding vowel signs also occur in Tai Tham. For example, kau is written in Tai Tham using the prefixed vowel sign e and the postfixed vowel sign a surrounding the consonant ka shown above. Compare the above Tai Tham figure to the previous Pallava figure, and you can see the structural similarities: only the shapes of the letters have changed.

In addition, consonants and consonant clusters can be stacked vertically. When stacked vertically below a base consonant, some consonants change shape, while others appear as slightly smaller versions without changing shape.

Stacked consonants
Consonants are frequently stacked below base consonants in Tai Tham, as shown here for the words nirvana and dharma. In the examples shown here, the subjoined consonants are shaped differently from the base consonant forms. In other cases, the subjoined consonants are simply smaller versions of the base consonants.

The unique arrangement of signs and consonants adds a lot of complexity to Tai Tham. These features make it very difficult to design Tai Tham fonts. Numerous glyph spacing and kerning issues can appear, especially when multiple symbols surround a base consonant simultaneously.

There has clearly been a resurgence of interest in Tai Tham in recent years. But finding adequate fonts remains a problem. Lacking fonts for Tai Tham, a number of books printed in Thailand have simply incorporated hand-written Tai Tham passages rather than attempt typesetting. Other books have used non-Unicode digital fonts, but these fonts often exhibit poor legibility for certain combinations of symbols that occur in practice, as shown below.

Poor legibility
Existing non-Unicode fonts for Tai Tham often exhibit poor legibility and crowding of certain combinations of symbols. The images on the left are excerpts from two different books published in Thailand. The images on the right suggest better alternatives for the circled words that we are working to incorporate into the Hariphunchai font.

Glyph crowding, as shown above, is not really a problem when Tai Tham is written by hand, because the scribe can dynamically adjust the spacing and size of all letters and symbols as he writes to achieve legibility and a pleasing result.

Until very recently, Tai Tham remained a script used almost exclusively to write manuscripts by hand. As a result, there is almost no typographic tradition that modern type designers can turn to when attempting to design fonts for Tai Tham. This situation is much different than with scripts such as Latin, which has a very rich tradition and history of typographic design.

As Tai Tham typography is not yet fully developed in countries like Thailand and Laos, it is especially important to turn to manuscript sources for insight and inspiration to guide font design. While this is a fruitful approach, one needs to pay attention to other classes of problems that accompany hand-written manuscripts.

First, it is not enough to only examine a few manuscripts. A single manuscript is often the work of a single scribe or, at most, two or three scribes or “hands” who completed the manuscript. Each scribe has his own idiosyncracies and style. If we pay too close attention to the idiosyncratic variations of single hands, we may lose sight of the commonalities that are present among all hands.

For a project such as Hariphunchai, what we really want to find are the commonalities that are shared by all scribes. We want to capture those common features of shape, styling, structure, and spacing into a modern font that all readers of Tai Tham will immediately recognize as being very clean and legible.

But this is easier said than done. Prior to the modern era, cultural communication and transmission on a regional scale occurred much less rapidly than it does now. Regional isolation fostered the development of regional variations in the Tai Tham script, as shown in the example below.

Regional variation
Regional variation in the shape of subjoined na is evident in manuscripts from Xishuangbanna (Yunnan Province, China), Keng Tung (Shan State, Myanmar) and Chiangmai (Thailand).

Our job is to synthesize this vast amount of information into a pleasing and legible digital font. We have our work cut out for us!