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Portland Type Designer Finds ‘Particularly Meaningful’ Project With Cherokee Font

Fred Bever
Maine Public
Mark Jamra shows off an eye chart set in Phoreus, a Cherokee typeface he designed.

Most of us take fonts for granted, as used for typefaces such as Times New Roman, Calibri Light or Arial Bold. But they can be pretty revolutionary: Hundreds of years ago the design of standardized fonts paved the way for the proliferation of printed material and, much more recently, eased the exchange of emails, text messages and the whole world of digital reading.

There are thousands of Latin-script fonts in real-world and online use for western languages, and thousands more for other major language groups, such as the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet or Asian ideograms. But what if your native tongue has a comparatively short history of even being written down, never mind standardized for print or online text? Languages such as Cherokee, or Africa’s N’Ko?

Well, thanks to the passion of a Portland font designer, there’s an app for that, and it can be an important tool for social change.

Roy Boney Jr. says the Cherokee tribes have a problem: as their elders die off, fewer and fewer young members are learning to read and write in their native tongue, and it’s an endangered language. Even he is still working on it, and he’s the manager of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s language programs.

“I am learning to speak Cherokee and I am also learning to read and write the syllabary. Take care,” Boney says in Cherokee, and then English.

That syllabary, or set of writing characters, was invented for Cherokee by a tribe member named Sequoyah, 200 years ago. It has some 86 unique characters, each representing the sound of a particular Cherokee syllable. Some look similar to the Latin alphabet Western languages rely on. But others are unique — loops and squiggles and little matrices unusual to the Western eye.

Until recently, there have been few fonts available for printing texts in Cherokee or, more importantly these days, for texting and tweeting in the language. With Cherokee immersion schools established recently in Oklahoma and North Carolina, some tribe members were on the lookout for new fonts that would better represent the way they write their language.

Enter Mark Jamra, a master type designer and professor at the Maine College of Art who works out of a modest studio in downtown Portland.

A sample of Phoreus, the typeface Mark Jamra designed for the Cherokee language.

“I was really looking for something that was particularly meaningful to do,” he says.

Jamra says he’d grown weary with simply adding to the world’s vast collection of Latin-script fonts. Even the Slavs’ Cyrillic script, or Asia’s Japanese and Chinese ideograms, have been widely explored by the typeface set. But Cherokee offered a new challenge.

“The learning that I went through, the amounts of things that I learned, that I had never known before, was just so gratifying. And then to know that you’re designing something that’s not one of tens of thousands of fonts, but something that can have a tangible impact upon a language community,” he says.

The first Cherokee font was cut by workers at a Boston foundry, back when type was set in hot molds. And a version of that is available to use in Apple, Google and Microsoft devices. But it’s unwieldy, Boney says, and sometimes just plain inaccurate. Boney says Jamra’s design, called Phoreus, provides a more flowing, elegant and accurate version of the syllabary.

Mark Jamra and Neil Patel's N'ko calculator app.

It’s unornamented, he says, and closer to the way Cherokees write the language themselves.

“It’s similar to handwriting so it has a bit of a flow to it. It’s got a nice curved design in it and it’s very pleasant to look at.”

The Phoreus font is finding its way into Cherokee culture, through computer interfaces, texting apps and a couple of children’s books, Boney says. And in North Carolina it’s used in eye charts, helping Cherokee-speaking elders when they get an eye exam.

An eye chart set in Phoreus, Mark Jamra's Cherokee typeface.

The effort’s success has inspired Jamra and his studio partner Neil Patel to look to other underserved languages — in Africa.

“We’re developing a massive type system. It’s kind of an insane project, but it’s also something really that’s going to break new ground,” Jamra says.

Jamra and Patel are developing new, digital-friendly fonts for six different African writing systems, some of which have been written for centuries, but one for only decades. They say many African tongues have been overlooked by the digital world so far.

They think their new fonts will become important social tools, helping to increase literacy, preserve cultural identity and, not least, facilitate online commerce.

And it’s a big niche: Compared with the 10,000 or fewer Cherokee speakers they’ve served with the Phoreus font, the new project has the potential to serve African language speakers who number more than 150 million.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.