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From what I can tell, the long s (ſ) is obsolete. According to Wikipedia (that well known fount of infallibility), it fell out of use in the U.S. and U.K. in the early 1800's[1] and it mainly survives in modern usage either in other forms (such as the integral symbol ), fraktur script (including a few logotypes) and historical reproductions[2].

If that is the case, why do so many modern typefaces include the character?

The following, for example, are roughly a ¼ of the "ſ"s available in the fonts I happen to have active at this minute (not installed, actually activated—à la font manager).

enter image description here

So what's the deal here? And more importantly, is there any point in me including one in any typeface I design (assuming it isn't a Fraktur script or historical reproduction)?

  • The only way I've seen it being used before is to indicate the Shilling. Which is the only reason why I could imagine you'd want to include it but even then I doubt shilling is talked about much. Then again, why would you not include it? Is it really that much work to 'complete' a character set? – Summer Oct 12 '16 at 8:53
  • I had no idea this even existed but it is a nice authentic touch, as you mentioned, for an historic typeface. I guess there would be no call for it in todays world so can see little need for it's inclusion. However, the @ character was apparently disregarded and then came back into prominence... – Bagseye Oct 12 '16 at 8:58
  • @JaneDoe1337 but what character set are you talking about? – Cai Oct 12 '16 at 9:32
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    @JaneDoe1337 yes but my point is, what is "complete"? There is no real concept of a single "complete" character set. The most recent version of Unicode has something like 120,000+ characters, obviously most of those aren't going to be in any single typeface. So there needs to be a decision made on what set of characters to include, based on what languages you want to support etc. Hence this question. – Cai Oct 12 '16 at 9:59
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    It would be a shame if this Q&A didn't at some point refer to Andrew West's awesome pair of articles on the "long s": "The Long and the Short of the Letter S" on its origins and development, and "The Rules for Long S", which is a little scary. – Dɑvïd Oct 13 '16 at 7:41
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Being under the illusion that I am somewhat of an expert on the long s¹, I mostly agree with your assessment. The only slight addition I would like to make are texts talking about historical texts. On German Language SE, several answers (such as this one) would look rather ugly if the long s weren’t supported by the font used for the site.

If that is the case, why do so many modern typefaces include the character?

Making an educated guess here: Because it is part of the Latin Extended-A Unicode block.

This block contains mostly characters that are used by some European language using a Latin-based alphabet². Therefore covering this block has become in important selling point for fonts, and many font websites will give your font some sort of badge if you do this. Of course, this criterion is somewhat silly and it is usually much more relevant that your font supports, e.g., ș and ț for Romanian or ə for Azeri.

There is a handful of other such characters that are only widely supported for a similar reason:

  • ʼn is also part of Latin Extended-A and used by Afrikaans, but its use is strongly deprecated by Unicode,
  • ¦ is part of Latin-1 Supplement, but not even Wikipedia can tell me what it’s good for nowadays³.
  • While ¬ (logical negation) from Latin-1 Supplement is used in logics and mathematics, I have often seen it in fonts with hardly any support for mathematical symbols (e.g., lacking a proper minus sign).
  • ¤ from Latin-1 Supplement is a general currency symbol which I have never seen in use, probably thanks to Unicode.
  • ƒ from Mac OS Roman was used as a currency symbol for the Dutch guilder but since the advent of the Euro, it is only used by currencies used by a few hundred thousand people. It is also used for phonetics and the Ewe language, but these need many more special characters that are usually not supported by the fonts in question.

¹ I worked on a fraktur font for several years, compiled a set of long-s rules for the German language, and researched into long-s usage in other languages. You can be sure that I notice a long s when I see it.
² In fact, with Basic Latin, Latin-1 Supplement, and Latin Extended-A, the most prominent uncovered languages are Romanian and Welsh.
³ Which is probably accurate and not Wikipedia’s fault.

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    Spot on. Makes a lot of sense.. especially being used in reference to historical texts (and in this question for example). I've always wondered about ¦ too, which I always include. – Cai Oct 12 '16 at 9:41
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    And I agree relying on specific blocks is a bit silly (and as a Welsh speaker I'm surprised to learn Welsh isn't covered by Latin, Latin-1 Sup and Latin Ext-A). – Cai Oct 12 '16 at 9:43
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    @joojaa I've got both | and ¦, having a standard UK layout, with which I just used to type them. – OrangeDog Oct 12 '16 at 12:32
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    @Nathaniel: Wouldn’t that rather be a regular italic f or a mathematical symbol 𝑓 (U+1D453)? (Even if not, I would not consider this to be a sufficiently relevant application to invalidate this example.) – Wrzlprmft Oct 12 '16 at 13:38
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    @Joshua: What do you mean by “coverage it gets in stuff originating in Europe”? Having seen quite a lot of typography from all over Europe, I strongly doubt that it is used as punctuation. – Wrzlprmft Oct 12 '16 at 17:45
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You closed your question with this: "So what's the deal here? And more importantly, is there any point in me including one in any typeface I design (assuming it isn't a Fraktur script or historical reproduction)?"

Yes there is a point. Because you have only told us, what it will not be, not what you intend it for. Typefaces are like vehicles. You would be surprised where people are taking their cars. Four wheel drive? Parked outside the opera house! Sports car with no ground clearance? Deep on the beach... So make no assumptions about your users.

Need an example?: ¦ is part of Latin-1 Supplement and Wikipedia is clueless. But I am using this as markup in a certain program (which does not handle tags) to be later processed into non-breaking spaces for rendering before printing. The beauty of this one is actually that I am quite positive that it will never be part of any text-content - and still I find it in most fonts.

In one comment you have phrased your question in a more helpful way: "what is "complete"?". You are making a typeface and you want it complete. Why not select as many Unicode blocks as you can muster courage/patience/creativity for, while thinking of your target audience. I am a user who is often frustrated when selecting a certain typeface and later missing just one or two characters for an "exotic need" (I do check my usual suspects for our languages, but in journalism things sometime come up unexpectedly.).

You better just pick a few blocks and complete those, than having holes in your typeface, which are not obvious in the online distribution-sites, because they either list typefaces by language-support or by ranges. Some allow filtering by characters but that is a hassle for customers.

Also, if your typeface turns into a succes, you can later add to it. Or afford an assistant, if you are selling it...

Also consider, that once you offer your work online, you will be "competing" with thousands of other typefaces. And the "number of characters" is always an indirect measure of quality. Why? Because design of typefaces is attractive to artistic people but is also gruesomely much work and needs patience and stamina. So when I see an offer with 40% more characters, I know that the creator has got more patience and stamina than the one next door. And I conclude that the spacing and the meta-data will also be "more nicely worked and fine-tuned".

Sorry if this sounds discouraging, I am mainly writing from the perspective of a user or "customer" and we "want it all". Personally I have never used a long s as far as I remember, but in old German texts I have come accross many, so you never know...

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