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This question might be on the edge of what is allowed, since it might be quite difficult to answer this with facts and reason. If this crosses the boundaries please let me know. The reason I decided to ask this question anyway, is because I feel that we could have a discussion that is based around clarifying the boundaries of each definition. I think this is a topic that most of us understand intuitively, but I struggled when I tried to put it into words.

Question

What I am trying to understand is where the boundaries lie between what is considered an alphabetic character (or any other (phonetic) character for that matter) and its typeface. I find each of these individually already hard to define, but will give it a go regardless. I think a typeface is the shared design between a set of characters. The alphabet is a standardised set of symbols to express a certain sound. Where I think things cause friction is in how standardised these symbols are. For instance if you look at writing cursive, the way the letter 'f', 'r' or 'a' is written is quite different than in the font of this website.

The obvious thing to say would be that everything that is shared between the fonts is what would be considered part of the alphabet, and the rest part of the typeface. But I feel that this is more like a rule of thumb that works in most cases, but not all. As I am not a graphic designer I feel that there is surely a better explanation out there. So that is why I am reaching out to you.

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  • Writing is a culture that have evolved over thousands of years, not an invention as such. Traditionally the shape and style of letters have been directly linked to the tools used to write them. Later the shapes have been stylized in numerous ways. Your definition "everything that is shared between the fonts is what would be considered part of the alphabet" isn't all wrong. What are those cases where you don't think this "rule of thumb" works?
    – Wolff
    Aug 12 at 21:13
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There's no such limit or boundary as to what constitutes a font/typeface. These distinctions you are trying to make don't actually exist. Note that this applies to English usage which might not be the same with other languages.

Generally, in everyday language these terms are often used interchangeably to refer to the particular style of text. In essence, they can be used as synonyms. However in technical language, these terms have quite specific meanings, and it's not really intuitive unfortunately.

  • A typeface is a collection of one or more fonts. You could think of a typeface as the general style/design. One typeface can include several fonts (different variants), or even just one font. Typefaces can also form part of larger type families.
  • A font is a collection of glyphs (not just letters/characters). Fonts can exist in different variants, such as normal, bold, italic, condensed, etc.
  • Glyphs include everything within the font, i.e. all the punctuation marks, symbols, numerals, alphabets such as Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek, Chinese/Japanese characters, adjads such as Hebrew, Arabic, or Indic scripts, or any other writing system.
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  • All true. But it seems the OP seeks to differentiate "font/typeface" from "alphabet". The "look" from the "principle" of how to draw the characters. I'm not sure if they seek a linguistic or more technical answer.
    – Wolff
    Aug 12 at 21:02
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    Yeah, I suspect there may be some language confusion here - possibly a "lost in translation" moment. That's why I mentioned English usage.
    – Billy Kerr
    Aug 12 at 21:06
  • @Wolff - just thinking, it's possible the confusion might be over the use of the word "alphabet" which in English is a collection of letters (the complete list of phonetic characters). In some languages, individual letters are sometimes referred to as an "alphabet" or a similar word. This is never done in English. In this particular instance the English word "alphabet" could be considered a false friend in some other languages.
    – Billy Kerr
    Aug 12 at 21:42
  • Might be, I haven't considered that. Let's see what the OP says. If this isn't just about general interest for type, my guess would be that this could be related to machine learning/OCR?
    – Wolff
    Aug 12 at 21:57
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Not very clear what you're asking but here's some facts:

  • an alphabet is indeed linked to a spoken language, be that roman, arabic, viking and so on. more so alphabets existed long before typefaces/fonts were invented as a tool to optimize the distribution of written pieces
  • a font or typeface does not always depict an actual alphabet, as we're all aware there are fonts for traffic signs, fruits and pieces of lego

I think the boundary lies in the way a specific alphabet or sign system is being used. If you write something by hand on paper or draw your name in the sand with a stick, that's definitely not a typeface. But still very much language being used.

However, a typeface comes into play when somebody deliberately takes time to assemble a collection of letters or signs into a group with a specific style or rule applied. As you've said, standardizing a set of signs (or letters sorted alphabetically) for repeated and consistent reproduction.

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