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115: Font Futures: Indigenous Syllabic Type Revitalization with Kevin King

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

I love and admire the work produced by the folks at The Weekly Typographic podcast. Their weekly emails are one of the few emails I actually look forward to receiving. It’s jam-packed full of valuable, curated resources about what’s happening in the type world. One of the recent articles they directed me to was called: North American Syllabics fonts developed in collaboration with Indigenous communities, a collaborative project between Netherlands-based type design company, Typotheque, and Canadian type designer, Kevin King, who is our guest today. This project is all about “launching a series of Unified Canadian Syllabics fonts that support Indigenous language revitalisation and preservation efforts in North America, changing the standards of future Syllabics fonts”. There is an excellent 16 minute video all about this project that I recommend checking out.

Nate Evangelista is helping me co-host, having worked with me to research, develop questions and participate in the conversation with Kevin King. Nate, kindly re-introduce yourself to everyone listening. :)

What’s up everybody? I’m Nate, the guy who went from studying bones, tissues and muscles to studying counters, terminals and bowls. I’m a Graphic Layout Artist at TC Transcontinental and a proud GCM alumnus. I have had the utmost pleasure of being in Diana’s Advanced Typography class in my final semester and experienced the unexpected joy of creating an original typeface from scratch. Not to mention, I was able to learn so much about the world of typography that many may not really know--specifically gaps that exist in type for other Non-Latin alphabets, Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics being one of them. What struck me most while doing my research was learning about the lengthy process type designers like Kevin King go through to get characters approved by the Unicode Technical Committee. It undoubtedly gave me a newfound appreciation and admiration for him and his efforts in Indigenous language revitalization and preservation.

To provide some context, Syllabic writing systems have characters that represent syllables. There are base characters with four orientation possibilities that represent different ways to inflect the vowel of the syllable. It’s a writing system that has great local variability among communities. The big gap that Kevin King is working to bridge is that many of the glyphs in Canadian Indigenous writing systems are not recognized by Unicode, the universal character representation standard for digital text. This means that picking up a smartphone or a computer and typing an email or a text message or doing any kind of work that we take for granted when we use our Latin alphabet, is simply not possible. This creates a barrier to use and it’s one of the reasons that minority Indigenous languages are (literally) lost in translation, because of this lack of digitization. Kevin has written extensively about his work with Syllabic typography guidelines and here are the links to learn more.

What many may not know about Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics that came as surprise for King himself as well, is that there is no original written orthographies as the founder of this writing system, James Evans initially created punches that were used to cast, typeset and print hymn books for the Cree peoples of Northern Manitoba. What is actually most interesting is the ongoing debate of whether or not Evans did in fact bring Syllabics to the Cree people. While many believe he did and credit him for bringing “near universal literacy” to the Indigenous population in Canada, some believe that this may have simply been a narrative perpetuated by Western missionaries and colonialists. Winona Wheeler, associate professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Treaty 5 territory, spoke about the Calling Badger narrative--a sacred story well-known among the Cree about how “syllabics were gifted to the people and the purposes it was given for.”

While there is no conclusive evidence on where exactly the origin of Syllabics comes from, reconciliation and efforts to celebrate Indigenous traditions have become more prevalent and we thank people like Kevin King who have dedicated their careers to collaborating with the Canadian Indigenous communities and working towards revitalizing and preserving their writing systems. Part of his work involves submitting several proposals to the Unicode Technical Committee. The Unicode Standard provides a unique number for every character, no matter what platform, device, application or language. It has been adopted by all modern software providers and now allows data to be transported through many different platforms, devices and applications without corruption. Support of Unicode forms the foundation for the representation of languages and symbols in all major operating systems, search engines, browsers, laptops, and smart phones—plus the Internet and World Wide Web.

Notable Links:

Unicode proposals:

Press about the project:

CBC BC Radio interview: Daybreak North with Carolina de Ryk - March 23, 2022: Daybreak North March 23 - full episode

About Our Guest:

Kevin King is a typeface designer, typographer, calligrapher, and type researcher based in Canada. After working at Toronto’s Coach House Press and Canada Type, he completed his Master’s degree in Typeface Design with distinction at the University of Reading in 2018. His work focuses on font support and research for minority languages, working directly with Indigenous communities in North America to support their language revitalization and preservation efforts. Through his work collaborating with Typotheque, he has contributed to reforming the text standardisation for the Unified Canadian Syllabics in the Unicode Standard through character additions and representative glyph revisions. In conjunction with his type design work, he maintains a calligraphy practice, teaching workshops and lecturing on both subjects in Canada and Europe.

Music: La Marena by Circus Marcus, licensed with permission from the Independent Music Licensing Collective -

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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