Making Hebrew fonts better
17 ביוני, 2013

The Hebrew alphabet is one that took me time to love and appreciate. Even though it does not fit Modern Hebrew well at all, it is beautiful to look at.

I like typography, and I like mine to be precise. This is why typesetting Hebrew is frustrating to me: there is no font which is perfect; every one of them, even the professional ones, is problematic in some aspect.

Being an optimist, I hope to change this situation. In this PDF file (here's the source) you will find the same text in six fonts, some of them free (such as Alef), some not (such as Rutz), and some are in between (such as SBL Hebrew):

I use the first four fonts regularly; the two versions of David act as a ‘control group’.

Now, as you can see, none of the fonts passes all of the tests. Let's see:

  • All fonts support basic nikud reasonably well, except PragmataPro, for which Fabrizio is kind enough to make a new version with nikud. It's in development. I ignore PragmataPro when discussing nikud.
  • All fonts support géreš and geršájim, but in Rutz they look exactly like quotation marks (merxaot) — they should be differentiated graphically.
  • All fonts but Rutz support the opening/lower (old-fashioned) quotation mark glyph (see the end of this page in the website of the Academy of the Hebrew Language (in Hebrew)), but:
    • in Rutz it is the same as the closing/higher one (which is the same as geršájim…). An equivalent problem occurs in Rutz with secondary quotation marks (‚’) and géreš (׳): they look all the same.
    • in Alef it is located approximately on the same level of the letters; it should be lower.
  • Something in the configuration of PragmataPro causes the order of the punctuation glyphs to be wrong. For my own purposes this does not matter much (I use it in Vim, in which all looks fine).
  • Sin (שׂ) with Xolam looks fine only in SBL Hebrew, Rutz and Taamey David Culmus. In Alef the two dots are congruent, and in David Culmus (not Taamey David Culmus) they are not in the same height.
  • in Alef even a regular sin (שׂ) looks wrong: it looks as if it is a šin xaluma (שֹ). The dot of sin (שׂ) should be moved a little bit to the right (say, above the left branch of the letter).
  • Taamey David Culmus has no HORIZONTAL ELLIPSIS (U+2026, …) glyph.
  • The location of the dageš in Alef is weird (פגע לו בול בפוני…).
  • All but Rutz differentiate vav xaluma (וֹ) and vav with xolam xaser (וֺ), but in Alef the difference is so slight it is almost unnoticeable.

    In SBL Hebrew the dot of vav xaluma (וֹ) is a little bit too far to the right; although this can make the distinction easier, it makes vav xaluma, which is by far more common than vav with xolam xaser (וֺ), look funny (compare with the other fonts, which locate the dot in a more balanced manner).

  • In all but Alef and PragmataPro there isn't a significant (or any) space between adjacent quotation marks.

  • The shape of the quotation marks in SBL Hebrew is inharmonious with regards to the appearance of the Hebrew letters in the font. Specifically, their shape is differs too much from the shape of the géreš/geršájim.
  • All but SBL Hebrew kern makaf in an inaesthetic way. Combinations with Makaf should be kerned according to the higher part of the letters (compare with x-height; in Hebrew all letters but lámed (ל) are vertically aligned to the same height). This may seem insignificant, but it really hurts one's eyes to see a makaf which is not located exactly in the middle, but in an offset.

    This is irrelevant to PragmataPro, because it's monospace.

  • Minor problem: none but the Biblical fonts (SBL Hebrew and Taamey David Culmus) handle ‘יְרוּשָׁלִַם’ correctly. As this kind of nikud is not used in Modern Hebrew at all, this is understandable.

Dear font designers, please make good use of these observations. They are meant not to be nitpickish, but to help you make a better world by making better, more precise and more harmonious fonts. I truly appreciate the marvelous work you've done so far; please make your fonts perfect. Thank you very much! ☺

(The thumbnail of this post shows the letter Alef (א) in SBL Hebrew.)