A Font Nerd’s Favorite Language to Format (Surprise, it’s not English!)

Written by Tim Kaney, Website, Design, and Marketing Specialist at The Geo Group Corporation.

English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Korean. These are just some of the most commonly formatted languages that a desktop publisher at a translation agency might encounter.  These languages are used in projects ranging from simple Word documents without graphics to high-end marketing and advertising pieces with full-color graphics. No matter what the application, there is only ONE language that makes me very happy when I see it—and it’s definitely not English!

Spanish, French, and German strike out immediately in my opinion, because just like English, the text has the unwanted tendency to break unevenly. Of course, you can go through your document and manually correct these line breaks, but you will need either a skilled reviewer or a very good reference sheet to make sure you are doing it properly because these languages each have different rules for this process. Even with help, you may still end up with undesirable results such as large gaps at the ends of lines or random hyphens appearing in the middle of sentences. It can be time consuming and costly to go back and correct the line breaks you have made after a reviewer indicates that they are wrong. Not my idea of fun.

Besides, from a typographic point of view, the character sets in Spanish, French, and German just aren’t very exciting and are too similar to the English character set—homely and unwieldy. They are very limited when it comes to inter-software flexibility as well, and they show up the best and are easiest to use when they are being typeset in a program such as InDesign, Illustrator, etc. They begin to suffer when they are being used in programs that are not true design tools, such as PowerPoint and Microsoft Word. Then throw a 20% length addition into the mix, since many of these languages will require either shrinking the fonts or adding pages to meet pagination requirements. This is a very time-consuming process and is likely to introduce formatting errors into a document.

That narrows it down to Chinese and Korean. As far as program flexibility goes, both Chinese and Korean seem to cause the least amount of trouble when used in any type of software, including PowerPoint and Word. The functionality of these languages is similar because they are both very metered, which means that the symbols used to make up each character set (including punctuation) have pre-determined and consistent spacing. When there is a need, both of these languages allow a formatter to break the lines in such a way that there are almost no ragged (uneven) lines of text. This is due in large part to the symbols, or groups of symbols, that are used to represent the words and concepts of Western languages. This means that you can place a line break in almost any place and it most likely won’t be breaking up a word, which helps keep blocks of text looking like a typographer’s dream: even spacing between characters and no ragged line breaks. The Korean wins out over Chinese for the simple fact that it uses spaces between the groups of symbols, which means that the text automatically lines up neatly and requires very little work to balance ragged lines of text. In Chinese text, no spaces are used to separate the characters from each other or from English words, so more time and effort are required to ensure that the lines are even and to avoid “hanging punctuation,” which essentially means that commas and periods appear at the beginning of lines of text, or on a line all by themselves.

When it comes to the written languages’ symbols themselves, I would also have to choose Korean over Chinese. The reason? While Chinese has a rich and elegant script with very beautiful lines and proportions, Korean has all that and more. As with most character sets, both Chinese and Korean have the ability to be typeset as both serif (think pointy or spiky like Times New Roman) and sans-serif (think flat or soft looking like Arial) fonts. When you look closely, the Chinese characters begin to lose their definition and can become unreadable when the font is reduced in size, when bold attributes are applied, or when the font is forced in the sans-serif direction. On the other hand, Korean seems to have been made for sans-serif applications. It supports font shrinking and bolding as well. Its characters also retain their legibility when typeset in a serif format, and in fact, even gain a sophisticated and modern look.

If you have the font nerd in you turned way up, you may notice other things as well. For instance, while both character sets are vast and equally intricate, you will see a stark difference in the lines, shapes, and line weights between the two. In this category, Korean wins again. Coming from an artistic point of view, I much prefer the bold ovals and comparatively heavy lines used in Korean. In some respects, Korean is less intricate and garnishes a “simple but effective” qualifier. The Chinese character set comes across as a “softer voice,” which may stem from its use of lighter line weights and less bold geometric shapes. Perhaps the intricacies contribute to the softer voice as well.

Join the discussion and tell us what your favorite written language is!

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