In the state of Washington, type designer Juliet Shen has been working with a Native American tribe, called Tulalip, to create a font for the Lushootseed language. At the time, the Lushootseed was near extinction. Only five tribal elders were known to be fluent in the language. This was largely because the U.S. government launched an ill-guided program in 1912 to “assimilate” indigenous people into American society by sending their children away to boarding schools where they were forced to adopt European ways. Under threat of punishment, the children were forbidden to speak their own native language. Since Lushootseed had no written tradition, the history of the culture had all but vanished by the 1960s.
It wasn’t until Thom Hess, a University of Washington linguistics graduate student, started recording the stories told by elders in 1967 that an effort was made to devise a written language for Lushootseed. His field work led him to a Tulalip woman named Vi Hilbert, who embraced his interest in preserving the stories of the indigenous people who lived around Washington’s Puget Sound. Using a variation of the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system of symbols used to record every sound the human voice can make, Hess taught Hilbert to phonetically write out the Lushootseed words. Together, the two produced two Lushootseed dictionaries and worked tirelessly to write down cultural lore told by the elders.
Still, until now no real font was available in Lushootseed. Instead, a typeface, loosely based on Times Roman, was improvised and cobbled together. “They were typesetting in Lushootseed, but it wasn’t attractive,” Shen recalls. “The text looked like chemistry formulas and like it was written backwards.”
In December 2008, the Tulalip tribal leaders commissioned Shen to design a complete font solely for Lushootseed. They requested that the font be Unicode compliant, with all proprietary rights assigned exclusively to the Tulalip tribe. Shen recalls, “At the first meeting, one of the oldest of the language teachers said, ‘This is a graceful language, but it doesn’t look that way.’ The sound of the language speaks of the physical environment that the tribe has inhabited – like water washing ashore, wind moving through the trees. My internal design brief was to get rid of an ‘adapted’ look and make it appear as if it has always been.”
Although Shen didn’t have to learn the language, she says she did have to understand the structure and how words were put together. For example, the modified question mark, or glottal stop, indicates the open space between the vocal cords. The raised comma “glottalizes” the letter it is over. The “w” changes the sound of the letter before it, and no letter “O” exists in the Lushootseed alphabet. Also, because the Lushootseed alphabet has more than 26 letters, spaces on a keyboard normally used for capital letters had to be allocated to other characters.
Shen took her design inspiration from the beautiful wood carvings for which the native people of the Pacific Northwest are known. In designing a face, Shen says, “you have to decide how your curved strokes join your straight strokes. I tried to imagine that it was carved out of wood and made that kind of joint. The intersection of the stroke was routed like you were creating in wood.” Once the font was completed, the Tulalip asked Shen for help in establishing a letterpress shop to give their youth a hands-on experience with the language. “The tribal elders hope that by working directly with letterforms and printing presses, they can create a crossroad of literacy, literature, technology and art,” Shen explains.
The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, agreed to craft each letter from wood. Hamilton, which began producing wood type in 1880, has been dedicated to preserving, studying and producing wood type and now owns more than 1.5 million pieces in its museum. Hamilton has proven the ideal collaborator for the Lushootseed language project. Like the Tulalip tribe, Hamilton appreciates the value and importance of preserving an historic artform and imbuing it with the warmth of elders seeking to pass an endangered language from one generation to the next.