What’s the Story with Double-Story Glyphs?

Ever wonder why lowercase glyphs for the letters g and a vary in appearance? The answer involves kings, scribes, religion, power, culture and literacy – but unfortunately, no dragons or sorcerers.

Grab some popcorn and settle into your seat because this story begins twelve hundred years ago.

Image of Charlemagne statue with a lowercase g floating over the Aachen palace.
Map of Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Charlemagne

Charlemagne Spread Culture and Literacy

Charlemagne, king of the Franks and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, is credited with launching a renaissance that united a declining Europe in the late 8th century. He used bibles, classical literature, and heroic songs and poems as teaching tools for spreading literacy, culture and Christianity across the Continent. But Charlemagne faced a large challenge in that there were several writing scripts and languages in the far-flung corners of the Empire. He chose to establish a Latin script standard that he could use to unify Europe.

The Rise of Carolingian Script

Charlemagne called on Benedictine monks in France to merge several regional calligraphic standards into a single handwriting script that everyone could learn to read and write. The monks developed a legible, round script based on Roman half uncial and insular scripts developed in Irish medieval monasteries. Their new script eventually became known as Carolingian Minuscule, named after Charlemagne’s Carolingian Dynasty. Embraced and refined by humanists during the Italian Renaissance, the script flourished and became the basis of modern-day Roman typefaces.

Lowercase Glyphs Added to Uncial

When you’re copying entire books manually, minimizing writing strokes is paramount. So the monks added lowercase (minuscule) glyphs to uncial’s uppercase (majuscule) glyphs to streamline their writing projects.

The Need for Writing Speed

Over time, the monks introduced the single-story g because they are simpler and faster to write. The single-story letter has an open tail loop while the double-story g used by printers employs a closed loop. Therefore, writing a single-story g requires one continuous stroke while a double-story version can require lifting your pen off the paper up to four times.

Full alphabet of uppercase and lowercase Carolingian Miniscule characters

The Letter a Joins the Movement

Six centuries after Charlemagne’s monks, Italian Niccolò de’ Niccoli found it too slow to write Humanist Minuscule, a popular script that had descended from Carolingian Minuscule. So Niccoli created Italic script that featured slanted text with few strokes per letter, and he joined the letters so he could write entire words in one continuous motion. The most noticeable change in Niccoli’s character set was to the lowercase a, which he modified from double-story to single-story, as it still appears in today’s cursive writing.

Gutenberg Set the Printing Standard

If the single-story a and g are so much easier to live with, why do their double-story cousins still dominate printed materials? Well, when Johannes Gutenberg started printing books in the mid 15th century, it required the same amount of time to typeset single- or double-story letters.

Therefore, Gutenberg wasn’t concerned with writing efficiencies and elected to use the more formal two-story letters of the days of Charlemagne in his books. His selection could have easily been influenced by Italian Renaissance humanists who found the double-story g more attractive. Gutenberg’s selection of double-story type continues to this day as the preferred standard for legibility in printed materials.

Text sample showing how single-story characters are visually similar while double-story characters are distinct.

The Tradeoff Between Legibility and Speed

Notice in this type sample how easily single-story characters can be confused with each other. It’s because of the similarity of the o versus the a, the a versus the d, and the g versus the q.

In the double-story sample, the letters have a unique appearance that makes the considerably easier for readers to recognize.

Roll Forward to the Present

The single-story versus double-story debate continues even today. The 1999 version of the Google logo was based on the Catull font largely because of the uniqueness of the double-story g. When the company updated its brand in 2015, it featured a single-story g.

Who noticed the change in the g? Perhaps not as many people as you think. Researchers at Johns Hopkins released a study entitled The Devil’s in the ‘g’-Tails, which found that most people are unaware that a great majority of books use fonts with the double-story g. In fact, most people are unable to draw the double-story g when asked.

Google logos are they have changed the early 2000s to the present

Whither Are We Bound?

We all relate to type in a very personal way. Some people perceive fonts with single-story glyphs as less formal and therefore inappropriate for some documents, though they can’t always tell you why they feel that way. And others don’t differentiate between single-story and double-story letters at all. So perhaps this story of stories is irrelevant.

Here’s a thought to leave you with…. As the world moves away from cursive writing and towards keyboarding, will the single-story g and a go the way of the dodo? Or will the single-story versions live on even as the use of cursive writing wanes in everyday life? The good news is that if the researchers at Johns Hopkins are right, we might not even notice. Ah, ignorance is bliss.