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All commonly-used bicameral Latin-script typefaces use ascenders (portions of a glyph that rise above the typical upper-limit height for glyphs of the character type under consideration) and descenders (portions of a glyph that dive below the baseline that forms the normal lower limit for glyphs of the character type under consideration) on a selection of their lowercase letters (and sometimes on some of their numeric digits as well):1

ascending lowercase foxtrot

(Lowercase Latin F, showing an ascender; in this typeface, the normal upper limit for lowercase letters is level with the top of the F's crossbar.)


descending lowercase juliet

(Lowercase Latin J, showing a descender; the tail of the J swoops well below the baseline where most letters sit.)


up-'n'-down lowercase tango hotel

(Lowercase Latin thorn; this letter has both an ascender and a descender!)


waaah!  zulu too ordinary!

(For comparison, here's a lowercase Latin Z, with neither ascender nor descender.)


Ascenders and descenders are used because they make text vastly easier to read, by making different letters more visually distinct from one another (when your eyes are moving along a line of text, the ascenders and descenders sticking out above and below stand out); although (as @BillyKerr's answer points out) the ascenders and descenders did not originally come into being as reading aids (instead being artifacts of the descent of the lowercases from the cursive and semicursive scripts of the post-Roman era), the improvement in readability that they provide is so great that attempts to eliminate ascenders or descenders, such as Philip Rusher's 19th-century Banbury typefaces, have universally met with failure.2, 3

Yet, despite this major advantage of using ascenders and descenders, their use is almost completely confined to the lowercase letters (and sometimes the numbers). Of the capital Latin letters, only Q (with its tail), and sometimes J as well (with its bottom hook), are regularly equipped with descenders, and ascenders are completely absent.4, 5

the descent of capital quebec

(Capital Latin Q, with a descender - a rarity among its kind.)

This renders lowercase or sentence-case (which is almost-entirely lowercase) writing much more readable, especially in a hurry, than all-caps writing (which is why road signs, for instance, are usually in sentence case nowadays) - ironic, given that one of the main reasons for writing in all caps is to draw attention to important things that you want to be certain are understood!

It seems to me like it should be simple to solve this problem by putting ascenders and descenders on capital as well as lowercase letters, bringing the readability of the capitals up to par with that of their lowercase counterparts. The existence in the wild of successful typefaces with descenders on Q and J shows that it's perfectly possible to put a descender on a capital letter, and ascenders shouldn't be much (if any) harder. A number of possibilities immediately suggest themselves (the peak of an A poking up above its neighbors; the curved bulk of a C arcing above cap height and back down to the right; an F punching its tail through the baseline and down below, jacking up its upper bar past cap height, or both; a G swooping below the baseline and back up again on its way to the folded bit at its lower right; an I projecting its head and shoulders above the rest; K or R stretching their legs on below the baseline and beneath the letter following; an N poking its pointy bits through both the cap height and the baseline; the upper and lower bulges of capital S bulging past their former upper and lower limits; V sticking its pointy butt through the baseline; X taking a note from Greek chi and sinking its lower prongs into the ground; etc., etc., etc.).

So why are ascenders and descenders on capital letters essentially unheard of in common typefaces (with the exception of Q, and, less-commonly, J)?


Update

As suggested by @TKoL in the comments, I've put together a basic font to demonstrate what I've in mind (and gotten much more proficient with FontForge in the process, yay!); here's my first test of the font. My first impressions are that it does make all-caps words more readable (although the spacing between letters still needs tweaking), at the expense of (as expected) requiring slightly-greater line spacing to keep the lines of text from running together.


1: The illustrated glyphs are from Liberation Sans, examined using FontForge build 20201107.

2: This is not limited to the Latin script; one of the reasons (although far from the only one) that the Deseret alphabet was such an abysmal failure was its total lack of ascenders and descenders, which made all words look alike and made reading the script difficult and fatiguing.

3: In contrast, typefaces with reduced-height-but-still-distinct ascenders and descenders are quite successful; Liberation Sans is actually a perfect example of such a font. Note how a letter without ascenders or descenders, or the non-ascender-non-descender part of a letter that does have them, already comes up most of the way to the top of the line (especially when you consider that the normal height of the top of a capital letter, or even the [somewhat-higher] normal height of the top of an ascender on an ascending lowercase letter, is actually well below the upper horizontal line in the FontForge glyph editor); in an older-style typeface, the ascenders and descenders would go much further up and down, and the eye of, say, a lowercase B or P would take up only half, or even less, of the total line height, just as occurs in handwriting (and there to an even greater extent, with the eye of a handwritten lowercase D or P or Q or thorn or B easily shrinking to less than a third of the total line height, judging from my own handwriting, or at least what of it I can still read).

4: This, too, is a problem not limited to the Latin script. The Greek alphabet uses ascenders and descenders even more enthusiastically on its lowercase letters than does the Latin alphabet descended from it, with a greater proportion of its letters having at least one (to the point that the Greek script has a greater total number of ascending or descending lowercase letters than does the Latin, despite having fewer letters in total) and with a greater variety of forms seeing use, but the Greek capitals have not a single letter with either (even worse than the Latin script, which at least has Q and sometimes J). The Cyrillic alphabet is less affected (its lowercases have fewer ascenders and descenders among them to begin with - Cyrillic lowercase letters tend to be shaped much more like their capital forms than do Greek or Latin lowercases - and a handful of its capitals hang onto their descenders), but, even here, there are more ascenders and descenders among the lowercase letters than among the capitals.

5: Interestingly, letters that entered the Latin script after the Roman era seem more amenable to having descenders even as capitals (though still not ascenders): capital wynn, Ƿ, capital ezh, Ʒ, capital yogh, Ȝ, capital yr, Ʀ, capital gamma,6 Ɣ, and capital vend, Ꝩ, are all equipped with descenders in at least some typefaces,7 as is the Sami form of capital eng (although the more common African form, Ŋ, used by most fonts,8 is not).

6: Not a typo - gamma is actually used in the Latin alphabet by some African languages.

7: Leading one to wonder why thorn, which came from the same source as wynn at around the same time, lost its descender!

8: ...including Liberation Sans.

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    Well written question! And interesting subject. We don't really have one authority that can dictate how letters should look. It's more of an evolution over time like @joojaa suggests. Looking forward to seeing if someone can come up with an objective answer besides that. One thing that comes to mind is that if capital letters had ascenders and descenders, it would increase the needed leading or force letters to be more compressed vertically.
    – Wolff
    Dec 28, 2021 at 10:16
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    @Wolff Ascenders for sure. Descenders wouldn't have to go any lower than the descenders on the lower-case letters and so wouldn't go into the leading.
    – Lee C.
    Dec 28, 2021 at 18:48
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    I think seeing a full example of a sentence in all uppercase with some of your ideas for ascenders and descenders might help to see the advantage.
    – TKoL
    Dec 29, 2021 at 11:07
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    @Vikki At a quick glance (and keeping in mind that the text is very pixellated and quite small), I have to say that I find this harder to read than ‘normal’ all-caps text. It makes it look like there’s no baseline, the letters just swimming up and down. It essentially kind of makes me feel like I’m slightly dyslexic (which I’m not). Jan 4 at 10:01
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    Maybe it would be better to make a new question then, asking for feedback on the design and legibility aspects? Because currently it is a mix of many topics, mainly historical. Giving sample text and image examples would also help with more precise answers.
    – Mikhail V
    Jan 4 at 20:45

5 Answers 5

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I think the premise of this question is incorrect, i.e. that lower case letters with descenders/ascenders evolved to make reading easier.

Our modern lower case letters evolved from Latin half-uncial scripts used by scribes (monks) after the fall of the western Roman Empire, because they were faster to write with a pen, i.e. cursive handwriting, which allowed letters essentially to be written with fewer strokes. This is a natural development that has happened in other languages and scripts around the world, even those which don't have upper or lower case.

enter image description here

The ancient Romans also had a cursive handwritten script that looked nothing like the square capitals we see carved on Roman monuments. So the idea was already out there even in ancient times. They didn't actually use these as lower case letters as we do today however. That's a much later development.

enter image description here

Latin upper case letters are based on ancient Roman square capitals, which evolved from Etruscan, which evolved from Greek, which itself evolved from the Phoenician alphabet. So the real reason we have these in the forms we see today is essentially an accident of ancient history. Our capitals today are a direct descendent of these, essentially they are more or less the same forms. As @joojaa has already mentioned, humanist type designers are in a way responsible due to their admiration of the classical letter forms, which many have perceived to be perfectly proportioned or aesthetically pleasing.

enter image description here

The letter Q comes from the ancient Greek letter qoppa Ϙ, which isn't used in modern Greek today. The letter J didn't exist in ancient Rome. It's a later innovation, a modification of the letter I. The letters Yogh and Thorn had their origins in the Runic alphabet, not the Latin alphabet.

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    Yeah the letterforms are very affected by medium used, papyrus and paper prefer more flowing letters since it is easier to write on than say vellum. Part if the reason for middle ages is that we lost access to papyrus. Since vellum is hideously expensive (pun intended) and hard to write on, angular letters offcourse pare preferred for cutting in stone
    – joojaa
    Dec 28, 2021 at 13:06
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    @joojaa - It's also interesting to note some cursive scripts actually do have capitals with descenders and ascenders - for example - but again this is more about ease and speed/flow of handwriting than legibility per se.
    – Billy Kerr
    Dec 28, 2021 at 14:34
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    @Vikki Yeah, of course letter forms had to be distinctive enough to be readable, and these forms survived (like a kind of evolution or natural selection). Could Latin capitals have developed with descenders/ascenders? I dare say they could have if the conditions had been right. But they weren't, and they didn't, for various historical reasons.
    – Billy Kerr
    Dec 28, 2021 at 21:47
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    @Vikki - incidentally, it's an interesting exercise to have a look at manuscripts written in the 14th and early 15th centuries (just before the advent of printing around 1450), and then look at printed documents about 100 years later. Printing and the invention of moveable type changed everything. People had to start designing fonts. And these designers in time would look back to the Ancient Roman square capitals, and half-uncial scripts to create what we today recognize as upper and lower case. Much of this happened during the Renaissance, when Europe was rediscovering its classical past.
    – Billy Kerr
    Dec 28, 2021 at 22:00
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    @vikki - there's a fascinating article you might be interested in here, about the history of the first Roman fonts - it goes into far more detail than my answer.
    – Billy Kerr
    Dec 28, 2021 at 22:25
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Readability is always a trade-off between (untrained) pattern recognition and what readers are already used to. Any force in the direction of better readability has to overcome the friction of people having a considerable amount of training in reading existing typefaces. While (body) typefaces featuring descenders on capitals¹ might be slightly better for readability on the long run (i.e., when a new generation of readers were trained on them from birth), they have little chance to prevail on the short run because it is too unfamiliar.

Moreover, I would expect the benefit of capital descenders¹ on pattern recognition to be rather small: The main arena here is regular body text (i.e., without all-caps), where capitals already stand out on account of having a centre of mass near or above the mean line. The only thing that a capital descender¹ might help with is discerning different initial capital letters. Now, having descenders and even ascenders on capitals¹ may help reading all-caps, but then all-caps do not factor much into potential typeface trends (because they are rarely used, because of their bad readability, because of their lack of ascenders and descenders; yes that’s a chicken–egg problem).

As you may have noticed, I spoke little of capital ascenders. Those would additionally suffer from exceeding the height of regular text and thus distorting the usual (expected) line structure of text.

Mind that all of this primarily applies to typefaces for regular body text. For display, script, or similar typefaces, readability is not a primary concern as they are usually not used for large amounts of text and are much more difficult to read anyway. Therefore, such typefaces need to cater reader expectations to a much lesser extent than typefaces for body text, and you can find various deviations from typeface norms, including capitals with descenders¹ or even ascenders.

¹ other than Q and J

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    I like how this really answers the question about change
    – Mike M
    Dec 29, 2021 at 13:52
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Our current letterforms are heavily influenced by the humanist movement. This movement was heavily influenced by the roman and greek culture as their goal was to revive the society of the antiquity.

Uppercase letters are derived from ancient roman writing, while lower case letters are not, they are a later addition. The uppercase characters thus follow mostly the orthography of their ancestors which had a uniform height. Thus the standard capital letter does not have descenders or ascenders for the simple reason that the roman letters didnt have ascenders or descenders and humanists and earlier schollars copied them.

The humanists strengthened this connection to original letterforms to original forms undoing many years of evolution.

Yes the lowercase letters were added because of the readability and writability issues (mostly writability). The uppercase letter are retained as is, for historical reasons out of reverence to roman culture. Changing your capitals wont change the historical reasons. In fact it is slightly odd to retain or even have the capital letters at all. But we have and have found uses for them.

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    @Vikki well most other writing systems dont have a special capital case. Its purely a historical artefact. Theres no real reason to have both capital and noncapital letters. But sure just single handedly change how history has happened.
    – joojaa
    Dec 28, 2021 at 8:44
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    Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Cherokee, Georgian Khutsuri... and "no real reason", sure, let's just ignore the myriad semantic distinctions that rely on proper letter casing...
    – Vikki
    Dec 28, 2021 at 8:53
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    @Vikki they are on same historical lineage (not sure about coptic though), derived from same ideas. Sure its useful. But the reason our writing system is like it is is because they are conservative, it could be redesigned like for example cyrillic. But for some reason it has not been.
    – joojaa
    Dec 28, 2021 at 9:14
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    Coptic is derived from Greek, with heavy Egyptian input. Interesting you mention Cyrillic, given that it still has separate capital and lowercase forms even after several rounds of top-down redesign and reform...
    – Vikki
    Dec 28, 2021 at 9:26
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    @Vikki "no real reason" follows from the fact that there has been no central planner of the system. Evolved systems have a lot of features that dont make sense without the historical context. Also once a feature is added to a system it evolves by use so it becomes useful.
    – joojaa
    Dec 28, 2021 at 9:38
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Writing around the world was developed using totally different systems and people have made a wide range of writing systems work just fine. Capital letters are a concept other writing systems do not have.

Our upper-case formed as Roman square capitals based on Greek. The lower-case as handwriting during the dark ages. Our numerals are borrowed in from Arabic and themselves evolved to fit in with the rhythms of our alphabet.

Assuming the alphabet developed based on legibility considerations is the wrong way round. It evolved based on what people were familiar with and what was convenient.

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It would be more logical to question then, why there is so little font development with legibility improvement as the main criterion. Why? Who knows, it just does not happen, or happens very slowly. Too few people are interested enough in this, that is the main reason I think. Much less in improving the capitals, especially today.

The majority of modern fonts are either slight variations of existing readable ones, or otherwise are merely artistic expressions, or a tribute to some trend or surrounding. Technically, if one would take legibility and readability as the main development criterion, one would end up with some novel font, i.e. it would be something different from Latin, even if we take the letters only.

Regarding the classical Latin fonts, besides Q and J, there is a subtle descender by the R, occurs in some old prints. Something like this:

enter image description here

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  • That doesn't look like a descender to me so much as it does like an ink-spread artifact.
    – Vikki
    Dec 29, 2021 at 4:29
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    @Vikki depends on what you count as descender. Some 16-17th century fonts have some letter parts slightly extending below the baseline. See e.g. "Tierra Nueva" font on myfonts.com.
    – Mikhail V
    Dec 29, 2021 at 5:46
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    @Vikki or e.g. "Diaconia"
    – Mikhail V
    Dec 29, 2021 at 6:00
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    It makes sense for typography to be conservative. Because it allows us to read text of past. Since its likely that a person needs to be able to read a few generations of text it means the forms cannot develop too fast. But also we have no idea how to design better fonts. Most of the theories we have are based on guesswork and speculation. Its very hard to design a more readable font when you dont know what feature makes it more readable. On the otherhand it makes sense for people to read fast but then people make more mistakes in comprehension etc.
    – joojaa
    Dec 29, 2021 at 8:31
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    @joojaa This does not prohibit designing for personal usage or for smaller communities. And yes it is hard, should be someone's lifetime dedication, not just adding strokes here and there for sure.
    – Mikhail V
    Dec 30, 2021 at 0:13

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