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Most characters have a single shape or form - for instance the letter C always looks like a C. The end caps may be different, it may have serifs, the terminals may end at a different angle, but the basic form is the same. This is true for most letters. There are however some exceptions.

The lower case a and g for example, have single and double story variations:

enter image description here

The ampersand seems to have significantly many more variations. Some of which can be seen here:

enter image description here

In the case of the ampersand, I understand that these forms all evolved from an Et ligature. Et being Roman for and.

Why do some characters have these variations? Where do they come from? and why do only some retain these variant shapes and forms when most characters have a single fixed form?

  • Note that there are more variations to letters than you show (for example, a script 'a') and note that you are really showing only 3 variations of an ampersand (albeit rendered in different fonts and cases). That said, asking "where did the ampersand variations originate" is a valid question. – DA01 Mar 5 '16 at 3:11
  • In shorthand my ampersand looks kind of like a 4 rotated 180 around the x axis – Zach Saucier Mar 5 '16 at 4:38
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    Kaitlyn Ellison has a nice (if a bit short) overview of various ampersands' designs. – usr2564301 Mar 5 '16 at 17:50
6

Modern letter forms are the product of a combination of tradition, technical considerations, readability considerations, and interactions between handwriting and printed texts as well as between several flavours of the latin alphabet (roman type, blackletter and gaelic). Therefore I doubt that anybody can make more than educated guesses as to why certain variants survived while others didn’t. After all, there isn’t any committee that decides things like that only a single form of the letter d shall be used.

Anyway, here are my educated guesses:

As a general tendency, we experienced a strong homogenisation of letter forms in the last centuries. This was probably stimulated by the industrial revolution, globalisation, an increased alphabetisation and the related advent of printed type as a product for the masses. This probably ends with the digital revolution, which made it tremendously easier to use different typefaces and letter variants – however, only time can tell whether this is actually the case.

Now, why did certain variants survive?

  • I presume that two variants of a and g mainly survived, because the two-storey variants are not feasible in handwriting, while they have advantages in print: The two-storey a is easier to distinguish from the letter o; the two-storey g is narrower and also easier to distinguish due to its unique shape.

  • I presume that so many forms of the ampersand survived because the same processes that lead to a homogenisation of type also lead to a drastically diminished use of the ampersand: Instead of being a common shorthand for and, it was only used in titles, logos and similar and almost completely disappeared from regular text. Therefore considerations of space and readability were much less important, and æsthetics could prevail, favouring various and creative forms. Moreover, it’s in the nature of the ampersand that it is a standalone character that is not embedded in words, and thus coherence with other characters is much less of an issue. Thus the ampersand became the one character where type designers could let their creativity run wild, and it still is (with the exception of coding typefaces).

    Something comparable happened to capital letter Q, as it is rather rare and almost only occurs in the sequence Qu in most languages:

    enter image description here

5

The ampersand originates from the combination of the letters E and T. The latin word "et" means "and". With two letters, and the possibilities of upper and lower case, one can see there will be more permutations than with a single letter.

A lot of fonts hold on to traditional versions of the symbol, while other font designers base their ampersand on the E and T of the particular font. Some traditional versions of the ampersand, for example, are based on italic versions of the letters "e" and "t", even when used in conjunction with roman (non-italic) characters, making it look distinct.

I am not sure that there are more variations of ampersands than any other character. There seems to be one ampersand per font set. However, they may seem more distinct for many reasons, include those above.

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