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Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Apr 2 / Trevor Torres

Why Letters look the way they do

Why do letters look the way they do?

According to studies, letters and symbols were defined by the ability to be read, not the ability to be written.  The shapes used in writing systems, from the Greek alphabet to Chinese symbols, may have come to be based upon how human vision has evolved to see common structures and shapes in nature. Mark Changizi, a theoretical neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, says that letters and symbols have their particular shapes because “these are what we are good at seeing”.

This area of study has risen from observing how robots interpret and “see” letters and shapes.

After studying different shapes, it seen that there were common contours consistent between letters.

These studies are also linked to the idea of the brain having a separate area for interpreting and viewing letters and words.

Interesting subjects to think about.


Another interesting question regarding letterforms is the matter of why lowercase letters occasionally look different from their capital counterparts.

Based on the Latin alphabet, and in turn the Greek alphabet, both of which contained capital and lowercase letters, our alphabet follows suit.

“But the Greek alphabet only had 24 letters, and the Latin alphabet had just 21. Obviously, we’ve toyed with them since then. The letter R, for instance, is related to the Greek letter, Rho, which looks like our letter P. (P is not related to this letter, but to the letter Pi, which you may remember from high school geometry). Anyway, back to the slippery letter R. In the Latin alphabet, the R acquired its modern uppercase shape: R. The lowercase r, though, was still figuring itself out.

Those medieval scribes tried to write as quickly and efficiently as possible.  They developed a lowercase version of the letter r that looked a lot like its uppercase equivalent, pictured here. It was called the r rotunda. When writing, the scribes would place that letter next to letters like o, b and p that already had the left staff of the capital letter R, so the lowercase r, then, would look just like its uppercase letter.

Obviously, though, we don’t still use a lowercase r that looks like that. At this same time, another lowercase r was competing with the r rotunda. Greek letters were often written in what we’d call cursive, with the end of one letter going into the beginning of the next. From 100 to 300 A.D., Latin scribes began writing Latin in a Greek style. It was called New Roman Cursive. The New Roman Cursive version of the r is very similar to the lowercase r with which we are familiar. This r looks like part of the lower staff of the capital R and can be easily distinguished from other letters and – most importantly – written quickly.”