For the first time in its history the Cherokee Nation has more than one font to express its native language in written form, thanks to design help from Gary Munch, an award-winning letterpress designer who teaches at University of Bridgeport Shintaro Akatsu School of Design.
Munch’s contributions, unveiled recently and now being put to use in Cherokee schools, are the key to preserving their native language, say tribe elders.
“Native languages across the world are disappearing and Cherokee is at risk of being lost, even with all the successful programs we have had. ” says Joseph Erb, of language technology and education services at the Cherokee Nation. “How do you excite your community about your language again? Beautiful fonts are one of the answers. As we continue to grow our language back in the youth, they demand quality technology from our language. Fonts are a very key part of that.”
Until Munch unveiled his designs, the Cherokee only had one font in which to properly express their language in writing, and it had been designed in the 1820s. Other fonts for Cherokee had been “designed by people who did not speak or write Cherokee and had characters that were not correct,” Erb says. “Think about a world with only one font.”
Without the Garamonds, Times New Romans, and Bodonis that color the printed world of English and other romance languages, things look pretty dull. Crisp and modern—or curlicued and rooted in tradition—fonts’ structure and appearance send strong subliminal messages about text, content, and image. Show one of Coca-Cola’s cursive C’s or the dromedary-like arches of the McDonald’s golden M to consumers in the farthest reaches of the world, and odds are, they’ll instantly match the fonts to company brands.
With that in mind, Erb attended a design conference called Typecon 2011, searching for help. It was there he met Munch from the University of Bridgeport.
The original Cherokee font, says Munch, “had formalized letters had similarly shaped but differently sounded letters in Latin, Greek or Cyrillic, with a very high contrast of weight on strokes and very thin on horizontals. This was fashionable the early nineteenth century, but the Nation wanted a selection of typefaces that were different, expressive, even fun—just as anyone else who uses typefaces looks for just the right one for a variety of messages.”
Munch produced three new options: Chancery Modern ProCherokee, a sleek sans serif semi-cursive font; a multipurpose “workhorse” design that he dubbed Neogrotesk Cherokee; and finally, the so-called Munch Chancery Cherokee, a calligraphic font that resembles handwriting, and, says Erb, “is beautiful to look at.” In fact, the Nation is using Munch Chancery at its Cherokee Immersion School and by some of the translation staff.
“It would be very difficult to describe how nice fonts of different kinds are in a language that has so few,” Erb concludes. “Gary did amazing work. He may not have the ability to read and write our language, but he has very good instincts and ability to work with suggestions to create something new and exciting. He heard our plea for a better written word and used his talents to make our written world better. That is something special.”
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